Decolonizing Class War

The following is a speech by Natalie Knight delivered at “Decolonization 101,” a panel organized by Streams of Justice on June 2, 2014. The panel took place at Grandview Baptist Church, Unceded Coast Salish Territories.

I want to acknowledge that we are on occupied and unceded Coast Salish territories which are Tsleil-Waututh, Musqueam, and Skxwú7mesh-ulh Úxwumixw lands.

On February 26th of this year, an Inuk woman named Loretta Saunders was found murdered and dumped on the side of the road in Salisbury, New Brunswick. Her death raised a national conversation about violence against Indigenous women. It is a deeply sad loss, and an acute effect of colonialism. And I also wonder about the reasons why Loretta received a more mainstream response than others or those that can’t even be reported, those deaths that are basically sanctioned by the police. Loretta was in university and maybe it was easier for Canada’s white-dominated society to recognize her and her violent absence. Maybe an Inuk woman who goes to university is more comprehensible than the over 1,000 missing and murdered Indigenous women who have been documented in the recent RCMP report, and the many Indigenous women still in certain shadows, including those missing and murdered below the colonial border.

In a series of online articles, Indigenous activists and writers expressed outrage, love, and wrote to contextualize Loretta Saunders within a much larger web of daily assault against Indigenous people, particularly Indigenous women, that goes unseen. Siku Allooloo wrote a piece called “From Outrage to Radical Love,” which starts by saying: “I’ve been in a building rage. I am outraged at the status quo, at the overwhelming rate of gender violence and murder suffered by Indigenous women and girls in this country. I am disgusted with the lived experience of that; of gender violence as a pervasive experience that the majority of Indigenous women and young girls face in various forms throughout our lifetimes.” [1]

Siku Allooloo goes on to argue for the power of love to bind Indigenous people together in the face of horrific violence. And we definitely need more love. But I want to linger on this “building rage” that she had because I feel it and I don’t actually want to transform that rage into anything other than a decolonized class war that finds its power in leadership by militant Indigenous and racialized women.

But looking for Indigenous and racialized women leadership is not ultimately about identity. It’s not about just centring some voices who don’t get heard and asking others to be quiet and listen. It’s not about making adjustments in representational democracy or ensuring that we have the right ratios of identities in our spaces, it’s not just about breaking the visible signs of white supremacy by assimilating some racialized people into spaces that haven’t actually changed. Decolonization is instead about breaking the entire system that creates and maintains identity categories that act to severely limit class solidarity. It is also about refusal, dissonance, and an unrelenting commitment to remaking myself, my relationships, and politics along lines that I can’t really predict and that won’t be recognized by whatever dominant social structures are around. For me this is the power of decolonization, and in the settler colonial state of Canada, it might be the only way to revitalize class politics that reflect our real lived lives and are relevant to a much larger international class war.

I think that the political impulse of decolonization means coming to understand that we have a shared enemy; but, needing to understand who and what that enemy is – and that it is a big part of many of us.

However, the word “decolonization” can stand in for all kinds of politics and interpretations. For me, decolonization is not about treaty processes and forms of self-management that strike a deal with the colonial and capitalist state. It’s not about emulating private property and heteropatriarchal government systems that cede the core of the dangerous difference and threat posed by Indigenous people to the state.

Decolonization is also not about rights; it’s not about civil rights for Indigenous people. Decolonization isn’t about civil rights because civil rights have only ever applied to intra-settler disputes and sometimes to settler resistance to state oppression. They leave out Indigenous people; they have always been defined against Indigenous people. Huanani-Kay Trask writes about this situation in Hawaii and says that it’s not so much “a struggle for civil rights, but a struggle against our planned disappearance.” [2] This isn’t an exaggeration. What connects the conditions of Indigenous people in Hawaii, in the U.S. mainland, and in Canada, are struggles over land. Dispossession of land means trying to disappear a whole people. I don’t think this can be said enough because this centrality of land seems to slide off the sophisticated rhetoric we can develop about class struggle, the working class, and the exploitation of wage labour.

Sometimes the argument is made that, because Indigenous people in Canada are such a minority, they can’t be centred in a class analysis; they are some kind of peculiar exception, not unlike that familiar peculiar institution of slavery and slaves that American capitalism and so-called democracy was built on. But a class analysis that is grounded in this place and on these lands must foreground the politics of land dispossession and appropriation. Colonial dispossession is the extremely violent system that holds up all other social positions.

And colonialism does affect us all. Realizing how this works is another part of decolonizing what we have internalized and enacted. There is a great book called Night-Vision: Illuminating War and Class on the Neo-Colonial Terrain that was published more than 20 years ago, in 1993. In it Butch Lee and Red Rover make the case that the primary working class is racialized women, children, the colonized, and temporary foreign workers. This is the productive class– even though the labour is usually unwaged or severely under-waged, is performed under various kinds of coercion, or is an altogether other kind of production of value that some still have a hard time recognizing – like the value that gets stolen when land is dispossessed, or the ability to provide care or love that gets stripped away through gender violence and rape and abuse.

Butch Lee and Red Rover remind us that colonialism is the defining way that capitalism came to most of the world. Anti-colonial struggle can also foreground gender violence because it goes hand in hand with the dispossession of Native land that was done through rape and violence. Anti-colonial struggles are in my opinion the strongest class struggles globally of the 20th century – and they continue today.

However, there are deeply rooted contradictions between aims and interests of a colonized working class and an urban non-Indigenous working class. Class politics that advocate for reforms and for preventing the clawback of social democracy policies can sometimes get absorbed into state politics where colonization is still the invisible structure. Social democracy in Canada, or the bits that are left of it, might not be much more or less than socialized colonialism. The idea that reform for one segment of the working class can be made in Canada without negatively effecting some other part of the working class – if we take that to include colonized and invisibilized labourers, temporary foreign workers – has to be false. Reformist policies can’t be the horizon of justice, even if they occupy urgent and immediate concerns and are pursued very seriously.

We might have to ask some unpleasant questions, like, what good does socializing colonialism do, in terms of a long term politics of class struggle? For instance, does demanding a higher minimum wage here depend on continued or increased exploitation of some workers within the national borders of Canada and workers in other countries? Or, in the example of Seattle where the minimum wage was recently raised to $15/hour, more than double the U.S. national minimum wage – how does this apparent working class success account for, or be made possible by, the conditions of undocumented racialized workers and U.S. immigration policies that continue to harden colonial borders and work to create a USAmerican myth of a national working class?

These questions shouldn’t shut us down, and maybe they aren’t ones that can be neatly answered, but these contradictions within class struggle can’t really be ignored. If we can’t recognize colonial dispossession or the position of temporary foreign workers in Canada, or the connectedness between our economy and other national economies, I think it indicates that we are on the wrong side of a larger class war. Making these connections can help build stronger collective action against a shared enemy.

Part of why Indigenous cultural revitalization movements happening right now are so exciting and politically necessary is that they build capacity for collective action.They strengthen economies, forms of social organization, and languages that stand in radical difference to capitalism and colonialism. Writing from the context of the revolutionary nationalist movements in Cape Verde and Guinea-Bassau against the Portuguese colonizers, Amílcar Cabral writes about how successful national liberation struggles have always been preceded by cultural revitalization movements. They are indispensable to militant political struggles because they form the social relationships and responsibilities that have been intentionally broken by the colonial state. [3] They work against the cultural alienation that some colonized people experience from being adopted out of Indigenous communities, from going through genocidal processes like residential schools, or from even being assimilated into an intellectual class that tends to express a post-race or “multicultural” class solidarity, erasing the real structures of class struggle in a colonized place.

Cultural revitalization is deeply political for Indigenous people. It is also deeply personal. And I think it’s really important to do the politically vulnerable work of positioning ourselves in order to make the connection between our intimate lived lives and the politics that we act and speak. One of the things I deeply admire and have learned from Indigenous women is the strength in speaking about ourselves in relation to families and communities. Being Native can be an incredibly shameful thing to embody when you’re in the gaze of white people. I grew up south of the colonial border, in a few different places including California, Florida, and Washington state. I was “adopted out,” as we say, from community in northern California. My birth families are from Yurok and Navajo communities. Growing up I had been told from a young age that I was Native and that I was adopted. But I pass as white and looked enough like my white parents to even be able to pretend like I was their biological child if I was having a bad day and wanted to deflect certain questions.

I’m still working on shaking the effects of the absolutely racist silence I grew up in as an Indigenous girl playing white, with two black siblings whose blackness could not be hidden and who experienced racism daily. By the time I was a teenager, I had learned to never tell anyone I was Native because of the kinds of responses: from totally racist and violently sexist jokes about Indian women, to quick accusations that if I was Native with my light skin I must be one of those “Cherokees.” Reconnecting with my birth family and then moving to Coast Salish territories where there is a strong and beautiful Indigenous presence has been my own process of decolonization that forms the ground for any politics that I might have now or in the future.

I don’t think my process of unlearning the racist silence of whiteness is so entirely different from non-Indigenous and non-racialized peoples’ processes of decolonization. Every person who imagines themselves to be white is implicated as buying into a system of exploitation. Whiteness is a social position that affords a tremendous amount of privilege. Whiteness is not an identity; it is a power position that people get smoothly socialized into, one that produces individualism and non-action as well as unawareness to lines of real class solidarity. Realizing who makes up the real working class might be the first step in beginning to imagine yourself as something other than white, in your social position or positions that do align you with a larger working class. [4] This is the site where allegiances can be made between white settlers and Indigenous people.

But rather than find the point of solidarity with Indigenous people in this way, it’s much easier to support multicultural recognition and cultural appreciation of Indigenous art and practices. It might be possible to look at Canada’s support of cultural revitalization through state funding of the arts and through the Truth and Reconciliation process as a way of providing this depoliticized form of solidarity. Merely appreciating culture is much easier than remaking yourself and taking action, and is perhaps the biggest threat to a decolonized class solidarity.

Decolonization is about much more than identity and cultural appreciation – I think it has to be about recognizing the connections between different experiences of exploitation. When we recognize these connections they should be outrageous; they should inspire rage. And our complicated social positions around race, gender, sexuality, ability, status, and education can teach us how to move collectively with our rage and with agility. On this point, the often-quoted bell hooks writes that: “the point is not to think that contradictions undermine us, but to work with [our] contradictions in the hope of creating the space of radical opposition; that marginal space within an existing structure where we can continue to fight for freedom.” [5]

[1] Siku Allooloo, “From Outrage to Radical Love.”
[2] Huanani-Kay Trask, From a Native Daughter: Colonialism and Sovereignty in Hawai’i. Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press, 1999: 26.
[3] Amílcar Cabral, “National Liberation and Culture,” speech given in Syracuse, New York in 1970.
[4] For a provocative argument about settlers, whiteness, and the ‘real’ working class in the USA, check out J. Sakai’s Settlers: The Mythology of the White Proletariat. Morningstar Press, 1983. Audio interview with J. Sakai here:
[5] Interview with bell hooks about the book Night-Vision: Illuminating War & Class on the Neo-Colonial Terrain. Butch Lee and Red Rover. Hudson, NY: Vagabond Press, 1993.