My Statement on the Current Media Controversy

by Andrea Smith

To the academic and social justice organizing communities which I have been part of for many years, and to whom I am indebted:

I have always been, and will always be Cherokee.  I have consistently identified myself based on what I knew to be true.  My enrollment status does not impact my Cherokee identity or my continued commitment to organizing for justice for Native communities.

There have been innumerable false statements made about me in the media. But ultimately what is most concerning is that these social media attacks send a chilling message to all Native peoples who are not enrolled, or who are otherwise marginalized, that they should not publicly work for justice for Native peoples out of fear that they too may one day be attacked.  It is my hope that more Indigenous peoples will answer the call to work for social justice without fear of being subjected to violent identity-policing.  I also hope the field of Native studies might attend to disagreement and difference in a manner that respects the dignity of all persons rather than through abusive social media campaigns.

Out of respect for the dignity and privacy of my family, and out of concern for the damage that these attacks have had on my students, colleagues, and organizing communities, I will direct my energies back to the work of social justice.


Beyond the Pros and Cons of Trigger Warnings: Collectivizing Healing

Beyond the Pros and Cons of Trigger Warnings: Collectivizing Healing
Andrea Smith

When I used to work as an anti-violence crisis counselor full-time, a counselor in another agency confided in me that she was currently being battered by her partner. She did not want anyone to know, however, because she feared losing her job. “People won’t think I have my act together enough to be in this movement if they know what I am going through,” as she explained why she did not think she could tell anyone. She was part of an anti-violence movement that she did not feel would support her. She had to address this violence on her own.

I was part of a larger collective that organized human rights/legal training for Native boarding school survivors. Frequently, survivors would drive literally hundreds of miles to attend at considerable expense because they really wanted this information. But when they arrived at the training, flashbacks from their years of boarding school abuse literally prevented them from walking through the door. A healing movement for boarding school survivors was being created that did not actually create space for survivors.

I was teaching a class on gender/racial violence when I noticed that one student repeatedly look disengaged and distant during the class. I presumed they were not interested in the material until one day they confided that one of authors we had read had abused them. They had tried to keep this information to themselves because they wanted to be a “good” student, but they were finding it too difficult to stay engaged in the class. I had created a learning space on racial/gender violence where a survivor of violence could not participate.

There is a continuing debate about the politics and efficacy of trigger warnings within activist, social media and academic spaces. There are merits to the various arguments on all sides of this discussion. However, sometimes what is missed is the larger context from which trigger warnings emerged. In particular, this intervention emerged from the recognition by many of us in the anti-violence movement that we were building a movement that continued to structurally marginalize survivors by privatizing healing. We had built movements that were supposed to be led by bad-ass organizers who were “healed” and thus had their acts together. If we in fact did not have our act together, this was an indication that we had not healed sufficiently to be part of the movement. We built movements around an idealized image of who were supposed to be rather than the people we actually were. The result was that we created a gendered and capitalist split in how we organized. Healing was relegated to the “private” sphere and became unacknowledged labor that we had to do on our own with a therapist or a few friends. Once we were healed, then we were allowed to enter the public sphere of organizing. Of course, since we continued to have problems, we continued to destroy our own organizing efforts internally with no space to even talk about what was going on.

Indigenous organizer Heather Milton-Lightening once prophetically declared at an Indigenous Women’s Network gathering many years ago that our movements were shunning people who might have issues, such as substance abuse. She called on us all to embrace whoever wants to be part of our movements as they are rather than as who we think they should be. The challenge for us, she noted, is to build movement structures that take into account the reality of how personal and collective trauma has impacted all of us.

Thus, trigger warnings cannot be viewed in isolation. Rather, they are part of a larger complex of practices designed to de-privatize and collective healing. They came out of the recognition that we are not unaffected by the political and intellectual work that we do. These practices also recognized that the labor of healing has to be shared by all. Trigger warnings are one of many practices that insist that one does not have to be silent about one’s healing journey – that one’s healing can occupy public and collective spaces. And healing can only truly happen when we take collective responsibility for creating structures and practices that enable healing.

Of course, all organizing strategies and practices can be co-opted. As Dian Million so brilliantly details in Therapeutic Nations, the colonial state has attempted to co-opt indigenous healing movements by framing Indigenous nations as dysfunctional people requiring therapeutic healing provided by the state rather than as nations requiring decolonization. And yet, as she also details, the fact of this co-optation cannot make us lose sight of the interventions made by indigenous healing movements, particularly those made by indigenous feminists. In particular, these movements have demonstrated that historical trauma impacts us on the individual and collective level and that we cannot decolonize without centering the impact of trauma in our organizing. And as Million further argues, rather than privatize our traumas, how can we rearticulate trauma as a place from which to develop what she calls “felt theory”–a place from which to understand our social and political conditions?

Thus, in the case of trigger warnings in particular, it is certainly the case that this intervention can be and is misused. I have seen white students say they are “triggered” by having to hear about racism. The intervention of trigger warnings also often shifts from asserting a public space to organize around trauma to creating a safe space from it. But just as Christina Hanhardt shows us that there is no such thing as a “safe space,” Roxane Gay shows us that there are no such things as “safe words.” Trigger warnings as well as ANY organizing practice we develop will be co-opted in order individualize and domesticate its potential impact on movement-building. But this reality should not make us lose sight of our larger vision of building holistic movements for liberation.

In the end, the question is not really about the pros and cons of trigger words. The questions are around, what are the organizing practices and strategies for building movements that recognize that settler colonialism, capitalism, white supremacy and heteropatriarchy have not left us unscathed? How do we create spaces to experiment with different strategies, as well as spaces to openly assess and change these strategies as they inevitably become co-opted? How do we create movements that make us collectively accountable for healing from individual and collective trauma? How do we create critical intellectual spaces that recognize that intellectual work is not disembodied and without material effects? How do we collectively reduce harm in our intellectual and political spaces? And finally, how can we build healing movements for liberation that can include us as we actually are rather than as the peoples we are supposed to be?


Transformative Justice Strategies for Addressing Police/Vigilante/Hate/White Supremacist Violence

Los Angeles Incite!/LA COIL/Youth Justice Coalition/Dignity and Power Now/ People’s Education Movement/CURB


Working Document
February 7, 2014

NOTE: These ideas have been generated from the Transformative Justice and White Supremacist Violence workshop held in LA (January 20, 2014) along with the twitter conversation that has emerged from it.  These groups do not necessarily endorse any particular strategy.  We recognize that what works in one community may not work in another community, and that some of these strategies may not work in any community.  The purpose of this document is to provide ideas and to spark the development of additional strategies that may help us think of ways to address white supremacist/hate/police/vigilante violence without relying on the criminal legal system.  This document will continue to grow as new ideas emerge.

Background Information
Transformative Justice emerged out of critiques of the criminal legal system’s response to gender violence and child sexual abuse.  There has been a growing movement to abolish the prison industrial complex because of its brutality, violence, and inability to address social problems in just manner.  Anti-violence advocates, however, have often relied on the criminal system as the primary strategy for ending gender violence. As a result, legislators could easily get “feminist” support for repressive anti-crime bills by putting violence against women provisions on them.  In response, increasingly more anti-violence organizers have resisted this co-option of the anti-violence movement by calling for strategies that address gender violence without relying on state violence.   Constantly, organizations began to develop strategies for community accountability that did not rely on the legal system.

One alternative to the criminal legal system has been the model of “restorative justice.”  “Restorative justice” is an umbrella term that describes a wide range of programs which attempt to address crime from a restorative and reconciliatory rather than a punitive framework.  That is, as opposed to the U.S. criminal justice system that focuses solely on punishing the perpetrator and removing him (or her) from society through incarceration, restorative justice attempts to involve all parties (perpetrators, victims, and community members) in determining the appropriate response to a crime in an effort to restore the community to wholeness. These models seem to have much greater potential for dealing with crime effectively because if we want perpetrators of violence to live in society peaceably, it makes sense to develop justice models in which the community is involved in holding him/her accountable.  Under the current incarceration model, perpetrators are taken away from their community and are further hindered from developing ethical relationships within a community context. The problem, however, with these models in addressing sexual/domestic is that they work only when the community unites in holding perpetrators accountable.  However, in cases of sexual and domestic violence, the community often sides with the perpetrator rather than the victim.   Thus, if we are going to develop “community” based responses to violence, we cannot presume a romanticized notion of community that is not sexist, homophobic or otherwise oppressive. And we cannot even presume a community to begin with.

Hence the “transformative” justice model builds on restorative justice to hold that our goal is not to restore a community to a state that was structure by oppression but to create and transform communities so that are less oppressive.  In addition, whereas restorative justice models generally operate through the state through sentence diversion programs, etc – transformative justice models operate outside the legal system all together.

For more on transformative justice, see this summary from Generation Five.,d.cGU

See also this Community Accountability Toolkit from Creative Interventions:

Many communities have begun developing transformative justice practices.  However, probably because this movement developed out of the anti-violence movement, these practices have generally presumed that the perpetrator is someone in the community or someone for whom that group has a connection.  But what happens when violence is committed by the police? Or a vigilate? Or by someone committing a hate crime?  We tend to default to the criminal legal system for these cases. And yet, as the verdicts for Trayvon Martin, Kelly Thomas, Oscar Grant and countless others show, the criminal legal system completely fails to enact justice.  So what would it mean if we did not presume the criminal legal system would have the last word on justice for these acts of violence?  What could we do instead?  The LA Workshop on Transformative Justice and White Supremacist violence was organized to begin brainstorming on what we might try to do.

Concerns/Questions to Ponder/Issues

1) How do we build our TJ organizing efforts to mass scale?  There are many small TJ local organizing projects, but these are not sufficient to challenge the prison industrial complex. How do we coordinate them and grow them so that they can challenge the current system?

2) When the police or vigilantes perpetrate violence, we see them as wholly outside of our communities. But these perpetrators live somewhere. What if we stopped seeing these perpetrators and wholly outside and began developing connections with their communities.  Part of the logic of the prison industrial complex is to expel people from society. Sometimes our TJ practices have followed the same logics of the PIC – we have been context to expel people without addressing fact that perpetrators will go somewhere else and perpetrate violence.  So what if we stopped seeing some communities as that to which we have no concern or connection and began to build those connections so accountability would be easier to create?

3) Large numbers of people see nothing wrong with the prison industrial complex and do not see themselves as people who would ever be affected by police or hate violence?  How would we build a mass movement for transformative justice that would appeal to peoples who do not see this as of concern to them?

4) Many TJ practices for violence within communities or organizations are not working that effectively? How do we address challenges of enacting them for violence outside the community?

5) When we try to address state violence directly, we will have to directly deal with state repression. In particular, people of color who fight back from attacks are often arrested (such as Marissa Alexander) How do we address these realities?

6) Restorative justice models often operate because they are backed up by the state if a perpetrator of violence does not follow agreements. What do we do as a back up if someone doesn’t follow accountability agreements without relying on the state?

Transformative Justice Strategies

1) Tie TJ to a larger praxis about beginning to run society ourselves – including our own education, health care, etc.  Thus, we can attract folks who might not have an issue with the PIC but would be interested in building better governance and economic systems they see directly impacting them.

2) Door-to-door organizing. Begin to know all the people in your neighborhood to be able to create more systems of accountability.

3) Develop city-wide TJ rapid response networks for cases of police violence.

4) Monthly conference calls/social networking to connect local groups with each other so we start building to a bigger scale from the beginning. Also, this breaks down isolation that can occur when one feels they are doing this work in isolation from others who are also struggling?

5) Learn from models both historically and today who don’t haven even a semblance of police protection.  What did people do under connections of slavery, indigenous genocide, etc, death squads, etc.

6) Integrate TJ into all the work we are doing, particularly in educational reform.  So people learn how to hold each other accountable as a matter of practice.

7) Develop our own abilities to do investigation – examples would be groups like Black And Missing

8) Develop a neighborhood check-in system (not a neighborhood watch).

9) Begin hosting TJ events that are not just in our comfort zone or the usual people we talk to

10) Expand our knowledge base of various TJ practices that exist around the world.

11) Begin community based tracking systems to document violence.

12) Organize peacebuilders, including youth peacebuilders who know community well and can address problems as they arise? We can also organize peacebuilders in the schools.

13) Develop networks with religious communities that might have connections to more conservative sectors of society where perpetrators of hate violence might live.

14) Need to broad-based education on need to divest from law enforcement and PIC

15) TJ is a positive project rather than a negative project. Until we have alternatives, we may have no other option but to go to police in some circumstances. That does not make us less radical.

16) Develop community centers that use tranformative justice

17) Develop processes in advance that can help violence from happening in first place. Don’t wait for the crisis to happen.

18) Develop alternative economies of trade so we have less direct contact with the state.

19) Develop effective conflict resolution and de-escalation skills/

20) Develop networks of resources for accountability

21) Reclaim streets – create “no police” zones.

22) Film officers

23) Engage in acts that disrupt criminal legal proceedings

24) Find where perpetrators live. Call them out in their own context.

25) Develop Truth Commissions where we hold our own trials.

26) Be open to trial and error and making mistakes.

27) Develop our own security systems and processes

28) Develop emergency responses teams in cases of natural disasters so we don’t have to rely on law enforcement.

29) Take over gentrifying spaces. Bring them into the community.

30) Develop a collective response team on each block in our neighborhoods.

31) One group that was being targeted by KKK decided to go to them directly instead of being mediated by the state. Try to take on hate groups directly.

32) Develop websites where we can exchange TJ ideas

33) Develop relationships with malcontents in the police who might be interested in holding other officers accountable.

34) Develop autonomous mental health resources and economic resources so people who are homeless or who have psychiatric disabilities are less likely to be in contact with the state./

35) Campaign to end police presence in the schools.

36) Know your rights campaigns for educators, youth, community members, etc.

37) Autonomous emergency response services

38) Co-counseling

39) Skill sharing spaces

40) Community-based 911s.

41) Document work we’re doing, including our failures

42) Push for the decriminalization of drug use

43) Change school discipline policies and get TJ programs in schools.

44) Social media campaigns to alert peoples of perpetrators of where we can find them

45) Connect to employers of perpetrators; find them in their social context.

46) Create structures of accountability using familiar structures to attract more people (such as alternative student councils or radical neighborhood watch programs)

47) Integrate anti-oppression education in work to a bigger scale to prevent this violence from happening.

48) Don’t try to reform police; try to replace it with something better.

49) We are taught to call police department but not to talk to one another?  Differences between DV and say witnessing ‘petty theft’

50) De-escalation strategies

51) Develop alternatives to criminalizing youth

52) Challenging policing in all areas of life

53) Challenge concept of property ownership. Protection of property leads to police intervention

54) Create economic shares to alleviate need for “stealing”

55) Create local, intergenerational, community based freedom schools.

56) Intergenerational conversations on accountability.

57) Develop tech based alert systems – cell phones, etc.

58) Create community safe (or safer) spaces

59) Theater of oppressed to brainstorm on ways to deal with the situation

60) Focus on strategies that stop the violence from happening rather than afterwards.

61) Response teams using all sectors (including business) such as Audre Lorde Proejct “Safe outside the system” in Brooklyn

62) Model TJ responses in our organizations

63) Take responsibility for safety of our communities by replacing police w/ community self-defense groups:

64) Develop responses to violence on campuses that don’t rely on campus administration or law enforcement

65) Start developing local responses then grow to regional, then to national, then to global responses to hate/police violence

66) Instead of trying to put someone in prison, have them financially support family for life.

67) As intermediary step, use civil rather than criminal approaches that allow for more creative forms of redress but also have less of burden of proof so more likely to get result you want

68) Look outside how the criminal justice defines “violence.” Many forms of violence that need redress that are not legally addressed at all in system.

69) If you come up with a relatively functioning TJ situation, have at least 2 of those folks leave and start another one so the models proliferate.

70) Document our work, including our failures

71) Build connections with groups that we don’t have anything in common with and even disagree with so we can build accountability when needed.

72) Don’t presume certain sectors are “permanent enemies.” Many Native peoples have developed successful campaigns with racist white people because they didn’t presume they would always be enemies, but start building connections.

73) Rethink what “justice” looks like on a mass scale so justice doesn’t equal going to prison.

74) Resist idea that best way to deal with a bad thing is to make it a crime.

75) TJ models often break down because so intensive. Need to build in self-care and long-term sustainability.

76) Need to learn our previous histories of TJ so we don’t always reinvent the wheel.  Archive our work.

77)   Shouldn’t just address law enforcement violence, but also military violence.

78) Begin organizing in sites of work, the way dentist associations passed resolutions against Vietnam.  Start planning TJ ideas wherever we are already working.

79) Develop small alternatives in a bigger way by connecting the small alternatives with each other.

80) Build more connections with those in PIC so we don’t think of it as “out there.”

81) Take collective responsibility for all who do harm.

82) Must address harm we do in our own orgs. How can we stop PIC when we can’t stop violence in the NPIC?

83) Need more common public spaces to interact with each other.

84) Watch out for TJ getting co-opted by stated and integrated into legal system.

85) Develop clear says to share experiments

86) TJ must address issues of accessibility – disability, age, who has access to social media, education, etc.

87) Address school to prison pipeline with teachers/students/community to stop folks from ending up in contact with law enforcement

88) For state officials, shut down the streets where they live. Got to churches they attend, etc.

89) Use social media to shame and expose but without focused on getting law enforcement to do something

90) Trauma puts limit on ability of our communities to be resilient. Need both structural change and healing.

91) You can organize an informal coalition to address IPV & bring whatever assets you have. Maybe it’s a car, access to space, food

92) Use families and social networks as places that will find justice rather than the police.


The Problem with “Privilege”

The Problem with Privilege

by Andrea Smith

For a much longer and detailed version, see  my essay in the book Geographies of Privilege  

In my experience working with a multitude of anti-racist organizing projects over the years, I frequently found myself participating in various workshops in which participants were asked to reflect on their gender/race/sexuality/class/etc. privilege.  These workshops had a bit of a self-help orientation to them: “I am so and so, and I have x privilege.”  It was never quite clear what the point of these confessions were.  It was not as if other participants did not know the confessor in question had her/his proclaimed privilege.   It did not appear that these individual confessions actually led to any political projects to dismantle the structures of domination that enabled their privilege.  Rather, the confessions became the political project themselves.    The benefits of these confessions seemed to be ephemeral.  For the instant the confession took place, those who do not have that privilege in daily life would have a temporary position of power as the hearer of the confession who could grant absolution and forgiveness.  The sayer of the confession could then be granted temporary forgiveness for her/his abuses of power and relief from white/male/heterosexual/etc guilt.   Because of the perceived benefits of this ritual, there was generally little critique of the fact that in the end, it primarily served to reinstantiate the structures of domination it was supposed to resist.  One of the reasons there was little critique of this practice is that it bestowed cultural capital to those who seemed to be the “most oppressed.”  Those who had little privilege did not have to confess and were in the position to be the judge of those who did have privilege.  Consequently, people aspired to be oppressed.  Inevitably, those with more privilege would develop new heretofore unknown forms of oppression from which they suffered.  “I may be white, but my best friend was a person of color, which caused me to be oppressed when we played together.”  Consequently, the goal became not to actually end oppression but to be as oppressed as possible.  These rituals often substituted confession for political movement-building.  And despite the cultural capital that was, at least temporarily, bestowed to those who seemed to be the most oppressed, these rituals ultimately reinstantiated the white majority subject as the subject capable of self-reflexivity and the colonized/racialized subject as the occasion for self-reflexivity.

These rituals around self-reflexivity in the academy and in activist circles are not without merit.   They are informed by key insights into how the logics of domination that structure the world also constitute who we are as subjects.    Political projects of transformation necessarily involve a fundamental reconstitution of ourselves as well.  However, for this process to work, individual transformation must occur concurrently with social and political transformation.   That is, the undoing of privilege occurs not by individuals confessing their privileges or trying to think themselves into a new subject position, but through the creation of collective structures that dismantle the systems that enable these privileges.  The activist genealogies that produced this response to racism and settler colonialism were not initially focused on racism as a problem of individual prejudice.  Rather, the purpose was for individuals to recognize how they were shaped by structural forms of oppression.  However, the response to structural racism became an individual one – individual confession at the expense of collective action.  Thus the question becomes, how would one collectivize individual transformation?   Many organizing projects attempt and have attempted to do precisely this, such Sisters in Action for Power, Sista II Sista, Incite!  Women of Color Against Violence, and Communities Against Rape and Abuse, among many others.  Rather than focus simply on one’s individual privilege, they address privilege on an organizational level.  For instance, they might assess – is everyone who is invited to speak a college graduate?  Are certain peoples always in the limelight?  Based on this assessment, they develop structures to address how privilege is exercised collectively.   For instance, anytime a person with a college degree is invited to speak, they bring with them a co-speaker who does not have that education level.  They might develop mentoring and skills-sharing programs within the group.  To quote one of my activist mentors, Judy Vaughn, “You don’t think your way into a different way of acting; you act your way into a different way of thinking.”  Essentially, the current social structure conditions us to exercise what privileges we may have.  If we want to undermine those privileges, we must change the structures within which we live so that we become different peoples in the process.

This essay will explore the structuring logics of the politics of privilege.  In particular, the logics of privilege rest on an individualized self that relies on the raw material of other beings to constitute itself.   Although the confessing of privilege is understood to be an anti-racist practice, it is ultimately a project premised on white supremacy.   Thus, organizing and intellectual projects that are questioning these politics of privilege are shifting the question from what privileges does a particular subject have to what is the nature of the subject that claims to have privilege in the first place.

The Confessing Subject

My analysis is informed the work of Denise DaSilva.  She argues in Toward a Global Idea of Race that the western subject understands itself as self-determining through its ability to self-reflect, analyze and exercise power over others.  The western subject knows that it is self-determining because it compares itself to ‘others” who are not.  In other words, I know who I am because I am not you. These “others” of course are racialized.  The western subject is a universal subject who determines itself without being determined by others; the racialized subject is particular, but is supposed to aspire to be universal and self-determining.

Silva’s analysis thus critiques the presumption that the problem facing racialized and colonized peoples is that they have been “dehumanized.”  Anti-racist intellectual and political projects are often premised on the notion that if people knew us better, we too would be granted humanity.  But, according to Silva, the fundamental issue that does not get addressed, is that “the human” is already a racial project.  It is a project that aspires to universality, a project that can only exist over and against the particularity of “the other.”

Consequently, two problems result.  First, those who are put in the position of  racialized and colonized others presume that liberation will ensue if they can become self-determining subjects – in other words, if they can become fully “human.”  However, the humanity to which we aspire still depends on the continued oppression of other racialized/colonized others.  Thus, a liberation struggle that does not question the terms by which humanity is understood becomes a liberation struggle that depends on the oppression of others.

Silva’s analysis implies that “liberation” would require different selves that understand themselves in radical relationality with all other peoples and things.  The goal then becomes not the mastery of anti-racist/anti-colonialist lingo but a different self-understanding that sees one’s being as fundamentally constituted through other beings.  An example of the political enactment of this critique of the western subject could be glimpsed at the 2008 World Social Forum that I attended.  The indigenous peoples made a collective statement calling into question the issue of the nation-state.  In addition to challenging capitalism, they called on participants to imagine new forms of governance not based on a nation-state model.  They contended that the nation-state has not worked in the last 500 years, so they suspected that it was not going to start working now.  Instead, they called for new forms of collectivities that were based on principles of interrelatedness, mutuality and global responsibility.  These new collectivities (nations, if you will, for lack of a better world) would not be based on insular or exclusivist claims to a land base; indeed they would reject the contention that land is a commodity that any one group of people should be able to buy, control or own.   Rather, these collectivities would be based on responsibility for and relationship with land.

But they suggested that these collectivities could not be formed without a radical change in what we perceived ourselves to be.  That is, if we understand ourselves to be transparent, self-determining subjects, defining ourselves in opposition to who we are not, then the nations that will emerge from this sense of self will be exclusivist and insular.  However, if we understand ourselves as being fundamentally constituted through our relations with other beings and the land, then the nations that emerge will also be inclusive and interconnected with each other.

Second, the assumption that we have about liberation is that we will be granted humanity if we can prove their worthiness.  If people understood us better, they would see we are “human” just like they are, and would grant us the status of humanity.  As a result, anti-racist activist and scholarly projects often become trapped in ethnographic multiculturalism.  Ironically, in order to prove our worthiness, we put ourselves in the position of being ethnographic objects so that the white subject to judge our claims for humanity.

Rey Chow notes that within this position of ethnographic entrapment, the only rhetorical position offered to the Native is that of the “protesting ethnic.”  The posture to be assumed under the politics of recognition is the posture of complaint. If we complain eloquently, the system will give us something.  Building on Chow’s work, this essay will explore how another posture that is created within this economy is the self-reflexive settler/white subject.   This self-reflexive subject is frequently on display at various anti-racist venues in which the privileged subject explains how much s/he learned about her complicity in settler colonialism and/or white supremacy because of her exposure to Native peoples.  A typical instance of this will involve non-Native peoples who make presentations based on what they “learned” while doing solidarity work with Native peoples in their field research/solidarity work, etc.  Complete with videos and slide shows, the presenters will express the privilege with which they struggled.  We will learn how they tried to address the power imbalances between them and the peoples with which they studied or worked.  We will learn how they struggled to gain their trust.  Invariably, the narrative begins with the presenters initially facing the distrust of the Natives because of their settler/white privilege.  But through perseverance and good intentions, the researchers overcome this distrust and earn the friendship of their ethnographic objects.  In these stories of course, to evoke Gayatri Spivak, the subaltern does not speak.  We do not hear what their theoretical analysis of their relationship is.  We do not hear about how they were organizing on their own before they were saved/studied by these presenters.

Native peoples are not positioned as those who can engage in self-reflection; they can only judge the worth of the confession.  Consequently, the presenters of these narratives often present very nervously.  Did they speak to all their privileges? Did they properly confess?  Or will someone in the audience notice a mistake and question whether they have in fact become a fully-developed anti-racist subject?  In that case, the subject would have to then engage in further acts of self-reflection that require new confessions in the future.

Thus, borrowing from the work of Scott Morgensen and Hiram Perez, the confession of privilege, while claiming to be anti-racist and anti-colonial, is actually a strategy that helps constitute the settler/white subject.   In Morgensen’s analysis, the settler subject constitutes itself through incorporation.  Through this logic of settlement, settlers become the rightful inheritors of all that was indigenous – land, resources, indigenous spirituality, or culture.  Thus, indigeneity is not necessarily framed as antagonistic to the settler subject; rather the Native is supposed to disappear into the project of settlement.  The settler becomes the “new and improved” version of the Native, thus legitimizing and naturalizing the settler’s claims to this land.

Hiram Perez similarly analyzes how the white subject positions itself intellectually as a cosmopolitan subject capable of abstract theorizing through the use of the “raw material” provided by fixed, brown bodies.  The white subject is capable of being “anti-“ or “post-identity,” but understands their post-identity only in relationship to brown subjects which are hopelessly fixed within identity.   Brown peoples provide the “raw material” that enables the intellectual production of the white subject.

Thus, self-reflexivity enables the constitution of the white/settler subject.  Anti-racist/colonial struggles have created a colonial dis-ease that the settler/white subject may not in fact be self-determining.  As a result, the white/settler subject reasserts their power through self-reflection.  In particular, indigenous peoples and people of color become the occasion by which the white subject can self-reflect on her/his privilege.  If this person self-reflects effectively, s/he may be bestowed the title “ally” and build a career of her/his self-reflection.  As many on the blogosphere have been commenting recently (see for instance @prisonculture and @ChiefElk), an entire ally industrial complex has developed around the professional confession of privilege

Of course, this essay itself does not escape the logics of self-reflexivity either.  Rhetorically, it simply sets me up as yet another judge of the inadequacies of the confessions of others.  Thus, what is important in this discussion is not so much how particular individuals confess their privileges. If Native peoples are represented problematically even by peoples who espouse anti-racist or anti-settler politics, it is not an indication that the work of those peoples is particularly flawed or that their scholarship has less value.  Similarly, those privileged “confessing” subjects in anti-racism workshops do so with a commitment to fighting settler colonialism or white supremacy and their solidarity work is critically needed.  Furthermore, as women of color scholars and activists have noted, there is no sharp divide between those who are “oppressed” and those who are “oppressors.”  Individuals may find themselves variously in the position of being the confessor or the judge of the confession depending on the context.  Rather, the point of this analysis is to illustrate the larger dynamics by which racialized and colonized peoples are even seen and understood in the first place.

The presupposition is that Indigenous peoples are oppressed because they are not sufficiently known or understood.  In fact, however, this desire to “know” the Native is itself part of the settler-colonial project to apprehend, contain and domesticate the potential power of indigenous peoples to subvert the settler state.   As Mark Rifkin has argued, colonial logics attempt to transform Native peoples who are producers of intellectual theory and political insight into populations to be known and hence managed.  Native struggles then simply become a project of Native peoples making their demands known so that their claims can be recognized the by the settler state.  Once these demands are known, they can they be more easily managed, co-opted and disciplined.  Thus, the project of decolonization requires a practice of what Audra Simpson calls “ethnographic refusal” – the refusal to be known and the refusal to be infinitely knowable.   The politics of decolonization requires the proliferation of theories, knowledge, ideas, and analyses that speak to a beyond settler colonialism and are hence unknowable.

Alternatives to Self-Reflection

            Based on this analysis then, our project becomes less of one based on self-improvement or even collective self-improvement, and more about the creation of new worlds and futurities for which we currently have no language.

There is no simple anti-oppression formula that we can follow; we are in a constant state of trial and error and radical experimentation.   In that spirit then, I offer some possibilities that might speak to new ways of undoing privilege, not in the sense of offering the “correct” process for moving forward, but in the spirit of adding to our collective imagining of a “beyond.”   These projects of decolonization can be contrasted with that of the projects of anti-racist or anti-colonialist self-reflexivity in that they are not based on the goal of “knowing” more about our privilege, but on creating that which we cannot now know.

As I have discussed elsewhere, many of these models are based on “taking power by making power” models particularly prevalent in Latin America.  These models, which are deeply informed by indigenous peoples’ movements, have informed the landless movement, the factory movements, and other peoples’ struggles.  Many of these models are also being used by a variety of social justice organization throughout the United States and elsewhere.  The principle undergirding these models is to challenge capital and state power by actually creating the world we want to live in now.  These groups develop alternative governance systems based on principles of horizontality, mutuality, and interrelatedness rather than hierarchy, domination, and control. In beginning to create this new world, subjects are transformed.  These “autonomous zones” can be differentiated from the projects of many groups in the U.S. that create separatist communities based on egalitarian ideals in that people in these “making power” movements do not just create autonomous zones, but they proliferate them.  These movements developed in reaction to the revolutionary vanguard model of organizing in Latin America that became criticized as “machismo-leninismo” models.   These models were so hierarchical that in the effort to combat systems of oppression, they inadvertently re-created the same systems they were trying to replace. In addition, this model of organizing was inherently exclusivist because not everyone can take up guns and go the mountains to become revolutionaries.   Women, who have to care for families, could particularly be excluded from such revolutionary movements.  So, movements began to develop organizing models that are based on integrating the organizing into one’s everyday life so that all people can participate. For instance, a group might organize through communal cooking, but during the cooking process, which everyone needs to do anyway in order to eat, they might educate themselves on the nature of agribusiness.

At the 2005 World Social Forum in Brazil, activists from Chiapas reported that this movement began to realize that one cannot combat militarism with more militarism because the state always has more guns.  However, if movements began to build their own autonomous zones and proliferated them until they reached a mass scale, eventually there would be nothing the state’s military could do.    If mass-based peoples’ movements begin to live life using alternative governance structures and stop relying on the state, then what can the state do?  Of course, during the process, there may be skirmishes with the state, but conflict is not the primary work of these movements.  And as we see these movements literally take over entire countries in Latin America, it is clear that it is possible to do revolutionary work on a mass-scale in a manner based on radical participatory rather than representational democracy or through a revolutionary vanguard model.

Many leftists will argue that nation-states are necessary to check the power of multi-national corporations or will argue that nation-states are no longer important units of analysis.   These groups, by contrast, recognize the importance of creating alternative forms of governance outside of a nation-state model based on principles of horizontalism.  In addition, these groups are taking on multinational corporations directly.  An example would be the factory movement in Argentina where workers have appropriated factories and seized the means of production themselves.  They have also developed cooperative relationships with other appropriated factories.  In addition, in many factories all of the work is collectivized.  For instance, a participant from a group I work with who recently had a child and was breastfeeding went to visit a factory.  She tried to sign up for one of the collectively-organized tasks of the factory, and was told that breastfeeding was her task.   The factory recognized breastfeeding as work on par with all the other work going on in the factory.

This kind of politics then challenges the notions of “safe space” often prevalent in many activist circles in the United States.  The concept of safe space flows naturally from the logics of privilege.  That is, once we have confessed our gender/race/settler/class privileges, we can then create a safe space where others will not be negatively impacted by these privileges.  Of course because we have not dismantled heteropatriarchy, white supremacy, settler colonialism or capitalism, these confessed privileges never actually disappear in “safe spaces.”  Consequently, when a person is found guilty of his/her privilege in these spaces, s/he is accused of making the space “unsafe.”   This rhetorical strategy presumes that only certain privileged subjects can make the space “unsafe” as if everyone isn’t implicated in heteropatriarchy, white supremacy, settler colonialism and capitalism.  Our focus is shifted from the larger systems that make the entire world unsafe, to interpersonal conduct.  In addition, the accusation of “unsafe” is also levied against people of color who express anger about racism, only to find themselves accused of making the space “unsafe” because of their raised voices.   The problem with safe space is the presumption that a safe space is even possible.

By contrast, instead of thinking of safe spaces as a refuge from colonialism, patriarchy, and white supremacy, Ruthie Gilmore suggests that safe space is not an escape from the real, but a place to practice the real we want to bring into being.  “Making power” models follow this suggestion in that they do not purport to be free of oppression, only that they are trying to create the world they would like to live in now.   To give one smaller example, when Incite! Women of Color Against Violence, organized, we questioned the assumption that “women of color” space is a safe space.  In fact, participants began to articulate that women of color space may in fact be a very dangerous space.  We realized that we could not assume alliances with each other, but we would actually have to create these alliances.  One strategy that was helpful was rather than presume that we were acting “non-oppressively,” we built a structure that would presume that we were complicit in the structures of white supremacy/settler colonialism/heteropatriarchy etc.  We then structured this presumption into our organizing by creating spaces where we would educate ourselves on issues in which our politics and praxis were particularly problematic.  The issues we have covered include: disability, anti-Black racism, settler colonialism, Zionism and anti-Arab racism, transphobia, and many others.  However, in this space, while we did not ignore our individual complicity in oppression, we developed action plans for how we would collectively try to transform our politics and praxis.   Thus, this space did not create the dynamic of the confessor and the hearer of the confession.  Instead, we presumed we are all implicated in these structures of oppression and that we would need to work together to undo them.  Consequently, in my experience, this kind of space facilitated our ability to integrate personal and social transformation because no one had to anxiously worry about whether they were going to be targeted as a bad person with undue privilege who would need to publicly confess.    The space became one that was based on principles of loving rather than punitive accountability.


            The politics of privilege have made the important contribution of signaling how the structures of oppression constitute who we are as persons.  However, as the rituals of confessing privilege have evolved, they have shifted our focus from building social movements for global transformation to individual self-improvement.  Furthermore, they rest on a white supremacist/colonialist notion of a subject that can constitute itself over and against others through self-reflexivity.   While trying to keep the key insight made in activist/academic circles that personal and social transformation are interconnected, alternative projects have developed that focus less on privilege and more the structures that create privilege.   These new models do not hold the “answer,” because the genealogy of the politics of privilege also demonstrates that our activist/intellectual projects of liberation must be constantly changing.  Our imaginations are limited by white supremacy, settler colonialism, etc., so all ideas we have will not be “perfect.”    The ideas we develop today also do not have to be based on the complete disavowal of what we did yesterday because what we did yesterday teaches what we might do tomorrow.    Thus, as we think not only beyond privilege, but beyond the sense of self that claims privilege, we open ourselves to new possibilities that we cannot imagine now for the future.