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Settler Colonialism: American Indians and US Racial Self-Conceptions

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In Part 2 of a recent interview (find Part 1 here), Gender Policy Report curator, Professor William P. Jones, spoke to Sociologist Evelyn Nakano Glenn, a Professor of the Graduate School and founding Director of the Center for Race & Gender at the University of California, Berkeley, about settler colonialism. Settler colonialism is a concept that aims to bring American Indians into sociological theories of race, and race formation, which have previously focused primarily on African Americans, Latinxs and Asians. Settler colonialism traces how historical interactions between Europeans and American Indians were central to the development of foundational ideas in the United States such as the relationship between private property and freedom. Today, discussions of U.S. national identity still often conceive of the nation as white. However, Professor Nakano Glenn argues that white identity is profoundly shaped by a willful “amnesia” about the violence involved in the nation’s founding and expansion. Nakano Glenn sees President Trump’s admiration for white supremacists such as Andrew Jackson as “a good measure of the popular consciousness” about the nation’s racial identity. Settler colonialism also helps us understand national ideas about gender, both in terms of masculinity and the “settler maternalism” that white women deployed to impose their standards of domesticity on non-white women in the period of westward expansion.

Excerpts from the conversation, edited for clarity, appear below.  The full audio recording follows.

 

William P. Jones

The work that you’ve done in the past has focused largely on immigration and the way in which the histories of servitude and slavery have shaped race relations and thinking about race in the United States. How do you see settler colonialism as bringing a different perspective on those conversations?

Evelyn Nakano Glenn

I became interested in settler colonialism and I’ve been teaching in ethnic studies for a long time, and I’ve done comparative work, and it’s always been around African American, Latinos, and Asian Americans, and not at all about Native Americans. Who, even though they’re part of the ethnic studies department, tend to fall outside the analysis of racial formation. My colleague, Michael Omi, and his colleague, Howard Winant’s, work on racial formation in America is about those three main groups and not about Native Americans. It seems to me that Native Americans are very critical in terms of shaping American racial formation and particularly the formation of whiteness. The encounter with indigenous people and the necessity of, quote, “eliminating them” in order for white settlers to be able to populate the continent was absolutely critical, not only in terms of the founding of the nation but also in terms of the conception of whiteness that develops out of that. Notions of private property, the ownership of private property, are linked to independence and freedom, which are very seminal concepts in terms of American identity. The recent rise of white nationalist’s movements reminds us of the fundamental way in which whiteness is not just a racial category, but is very deeply implicated in the conception of the nation as a white nation and the culture being essentially a white culture. Which originates in that first encounter with Native Americans and then the subsequent treatment. But, as scholars of settler colonialism have argued, a basic part of settler colonialism is the colonial amnesia about the foundational violence on which the nation is founded. Native Americans have been totally marginalized in so many ways in terms of consciousness and where they fit within the relations among groups in this country.

William P. Jones

It’s interesting, the talk about colonial amnesia. […] It strikes me that Trump himself seems very aware of history in a particular way. Whether it’s his attachment to Andrew Jackson or the history of genocide. There’s sort of a strong personal attachment to that. Or his defense of Confederate symbolism. On one hand, it is an amnesia, it’s a sort of selective memory, but it’s also a political identity that’s very deeply rooted in a sense of history. It seems like those are maybe contradictory.

Evelyn Nakano Glenn

I think that’s actually an excellent point. […] So I think that fact that he has those strong identifications and imagery indicates that they’re really part of the popular culture. I think that’s the level at which his consciousness operates. So in a sense, he’s a good measure of what is the popular consciousness of what our history is. It’s a very selective account as you know. So that popularization, the lionization of Andrew Jackson, who was essentially a populist—he was a white populist—that sort of fits with the current ideology.

William P. Jones

What does the concept of settler colonialism do for our understanding of race, gender, and class?

Evelyn Nakano Glenn

There are people who have worked on settler maternalism who argue that white women have had a particular role within white settler projects. Which is the kind of civilizing mission. They were very much involved in the removal, placement, and education of Indian children in government-run boarding schools, for example, and various kinds of reform. Some of these reforms are around home economic and care work and domestic service training women from the Mexican community in California, Indian women in the Indian boarding schools. They were simultaneously learning so-called American housekeeping techniques. In fact, there was a textbook that was used in the Los Angeles school district, called Americanization Through Housework, which was used to teach Mexican-American girls how to keep house and stop using peppers and corn and switch to potatoes. There were similar projects in terms of assimilating European immigrants, especially Eastern and Southern European, whose immigration increased in the 1880s and 90s. In the East, there were tenement projects for Americanizing immigrants that focused on American dietary practices. But, what was specific about the ones for Native American girls and Latinas was preparing to become workers in white households. It’s preparing them to be American but preparing them for a subordinate role in American society. That the assumption is that the hierarchy will still be there, but they would speak English and be able to maintain a so-called American household.

 

LISTEN TO THE FULL CONVERSATION

 

— Photo of the Fort Shaw Boarding School mandolin club originally appeared in the Women’s History Matters blog.  Photo caption: Cultural assimilation was the primary objective of off-reservation boarding schools such as Fort Shaw.