Terminology and Angry Settlers

“I need to ask you something, because you’re … I mean, what do you refer to me as? What do you call me?”

This was the bait presented to me by a fellow student in an Indigenous issues course. I could tell this person wanted the conversation to go in this direction from their lead, because it had nothing to do with what the professor’s discussion question was. (The question was asking for alternative names to this place, the land, the place of the university, the class). They knew that I’m Indigenous, Kanien’kehá:ka, because I said it to them in the introduce-the-person-next-to-you icebreaker the week before.

I responded with, “white, or settler. Probably settler. I…” They got the answer they wanted, and they were obscenely offended, interrupting me with, “But I’m not the original settlers that came here and did those things.” Drawing from the conversations I’d had with graduate students and other individuals who openly identify as settlers, along with the reasoning provided in the reading (which I briefly discuss below), I said, “you wouldn’t have a problem with being called settler if you did what you could, whether big or small, to dismantle the systems from which you benefit from…”

They interjected with, “are you trying to say that I don’t combat racism?”

At this point the professor was telling the class to end our discussions so she could hear our answers in the collective space. Somewhere in that encounter I decided I didn’t want to engage, not because I am unopen to conversations with people about these topics, but because they were aggressive and unwilling to listen.

Later on, a second discussion question was posed, relating to our reading that week, which included Chapter 2 of Chelsea Vowel’s Indigenous Writes: A Guide to First Nations, Métis, and Inuit Issues in Canada. This chapter, titled, “Settling on a Name: Names for Non-Indigenous Canadians,” discussed terminology, and who is a settler. She outlines 3 categories: settlers (“the non-Indigenous peoples living in Canada who form the European-descended sociopolitical majority”), non-Black persons of colour, and Black people (page 17). Vowel briefly outlines the power structures around each of these terms, stating at one point that settler is a relational term, in reference to the ongoing structure of settler colonialism (page 16-17).

Before the discussion question could be addressed, this person immediately asserted their dominance over the conversation by saying, “you can’t label people of one group as one negative thing – calling someone a settler is disrespectful. That’s like feminists who label all men as rapists and bad people.”

I wanted to say how that isn’t feminism, but I wanted to address the issues in the order they said them. I said that treating someone with disrespect is different than changing what you say because someone is uncomfortable, in an attempt to get to the point that I wasn’t going to stop using the term settler because it made them uncomfortable. But I couldn’t get to that point because they continued cut me off, while they expressed how they were oppressed too because of their gender identity and socioeconomic status. They weren’t in a mentality to listen because they were offended, and felt like I was labelling them a bad person, blaming colonialism’s entirety on them.

The professor quieted the discussions to bring the class back to a larger discussion/her lecture once more. They provided an effective explanation of the term settler, and went over the Vowel reading. This individual raised their hand at least once to pose a question, interrupted the professor’s response, and got into a long discussion with the instructor after class, as students waited in line.

A part that stood out from this chapter of Vowel’s Indigenous Writes is when she talks about oppression intersecting:

“Frank Wilderson III points out that it is too simplistic to think of oppression in binaries: settler versus Indigenous, settler versus Black, or setter versus everyone else.(…)

These oppressions can overlap, and this is important to understand in the context of settler colonialism. Just as it is true that Indigenous peoples can participate in anti-Black racism, and reinforce oppressive structures based on that racism, it is also true that other non-Indigenous peoples can buy into and reinforce settler colonialism by supporting the occupation of land and exploitation of resources as a method to achieving greater civil and social equality. Reinforcing anti-Black racism or settler colonialism does not undo the marginalization faced in other aspects of life, but the complexity of the relationship between all peoples living here is not something we can lose sight of” (page 18 – emphasis added).

If the conversation was on less-hostile terms, I would have tried to use that quote to explain what I’m unable to. I hope that get something out of this Indigenous studies course, if anything, an acceptance of and responsibilities associated with the term settler.

Reflections

There is tremendous pressure on Indigenous peoples, in particular Indigenous youth and students, in educating others around us about the varied histories and current realities. We are told by numerous Indigenous people that we have a responsibility to teach those who are ignorant, to carry out reconciliation, and to speak from a good mind.

While I believe small-scale reconciliation through educating people on a personal level is important, there are situations in which this is not possible to carry out. Sometimes the weight of colonialism, combined with the weight of our own personal struggles, is too heavy.

Sometimes dissecting colonialism, and hashing out the history becomes too much, because what we are discussing is a lived experience on a daily basis.

As a young woman who is seeking out what it means to be Kanien’kehá:ka through re-learning and re-centering our culture and teachings, I have learned that having a good mind is central. This is an ongoing challenge – especially when you’re met with uninformed, aggressive, and disgruntled settlers.

In these situations, it becomes necessary to assert a refusal to engage because not doing so will result in further harm to you. This is not to say I will never participate in discussions with settlers again surrounding Indigenous history and realities that I know about, but taking a step back sometimes is necessary to able to think clearly, but equally as an act of self-care.

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