Thoughts, questions, and responses to “Decolonization is not a metaphor”

“Decolonization, which we assert is a distinct project from other civil and human rights-based social justice projects, is far too often subsumed into the directives of these projects, with no regard for how decolonization wants something different than those forms of justice.” (pg. 2)

Reading this article shifted my perspective in 3 ways:

  • Really? Beginning to think about how decolonization is different and not overlapping with other social justice frameworks.
  • Beginning to think of how I and we want to alleviate our guilt – or “move to innocence” – around the violent issues that come with being a settler, benefiting from it, and continuing to perpetuate settler colonialism.
  • Learning to hold incommensurability, unsettling as it is.
cactus flowers in arizona, hopi land

First: Understanding our “moves to innocence” is part of interrogating our privilege

“Directly and indirectly benefiting from the erasure and assimilation of Indigenous peoples is a difficult reality for settlers to accept. The weight of this reality is uncomfortable; the misery of guilt makes one hurry toward any reprieve.” (9)

Understanding our own privileges often brings up a lot of guilt associated with our part in oppression. As part of human nature, we want to alleviate this guilt – to get to a state of cognitive consonance – we want to feel better! Things like developing a critical consciousness (ahem) of privilege/oppression, donating money to a cause, dedicating your career to it, claiming a distant (perhaps not real) native ancestor, are actually “diversions, distractions, which relieve the settler of feelings of guilt or responsibility, and conceal the need to give up land or power or privilege.” (21)

These are what Tuck & Yang call “moves to innocence,” ways we can rid ourselves of this pesky thing called guilt.

“Settler moves to innocence are those strategies or positionings that attempt to relieve the settler of feelings of guilt or responsibility without giving up land or power or privilege.” (10)

However, these strategies don’t actually remedy the thing we’re feeling bad about.

In particular, we can see our moves to innocence, engage with them, and transform them:

“We provide this framework so that we can be more impatient with each other, less likely to accept gestures and half-steps, and more willing to press for acts which unsettle innocence…” (10)

In other words, our guilt carries potential. Guilt is actually good in that it tells us that we know something’s wrong! However, most of our strategies to alleviate guilt claim to be finite — I donated, I’ve done my part, now I can resume whatever I was doing — and don’t really address the wrong we feel. On the other hand, the uncomfortable position of guilt is home to rich discussions, new ideas, and hopefully, transformation. It reminds me of a quote I just read:

“Our job is not to make young women grateful. It is to make them ungrateful so they keep going. Gratitude never radicalized anybody.” – Susan B. Anthony

Learning to embrace these very real feelings that come with privilege is important and necessary in moving toward decolonization.

redwoods in california, miwok land

Second: Decolonization is not a subset of social justice: “incommensurability is unsettling”

“The promise of integration and civil rights is predicated on securing a share of settler-appropriated wealth (as well as expropriated ‘third-world’ wealth.)” (7)

Tuck & Yang point out that much of social justice is based on the existence of a settler colonial state. Often, remediating the wrongs done to many people of color, rely on colonialism.

In particular they point to three movements that neglect decolonization or turn it into a metaphor. Here are simple summaries:

  1. Third world decolonizations we often forget about what is happening and has happened here (where ever that is) in order to focus on imperialism/colonialism globally or abroad, elsewhere.
  2. Abolition of slavery and deconstructing the prison industrial complex rely on taking land from natives to give to previously enslaved peoples.
  3. Critical pedagogies like place-based knowledge situate our experiences upon land but do not move to include land itself as active, only as receiver/passive.

For each, Tuck & Yang provide the start of a “bibliography of incommensurability.”

Further, they suggest that real solidarity and collaboration arise from acknowledging our differences rather than smearing them together in order to construct makeshift coalitions:

“We argue that the opportunities for solidarity lie in what is incommensurable rather than what is common across these efforts.” (28)

“We offer these perspectives on unsettling innocence because they are examples of what we might call an ethic of incommensurability, which recognizes what is distinct, what is sovereign for project(s) of decolonization in relation to human and civil rights based social justice projects.“ (28)

prairie in illinois, winnebago land

Third: Now what? Holding incommensurability, guilt, and other unsettling feelings

“An ethic of incommensurability, which guides moves that unsettle innocence, stands in contrast to aims of reconciliation, which motivate settler moves to innocence. Reconciliation is about rescuing settler normalcy, about rescuing a settler future. Reconciliation is concerned with questions of what will decolonization look like? What will happen after abolition? What will be the consequences of decolonization for the settler? Incommensurability acknowledges that these questions need not, and perhaps cannot, be answered in order for decolonization to exist as a framework.

We want to say, first, that decolonization is not obliged to answer those questions – decolonization is not accountable to settlers, or settler futurity. Decolonization is accountable to Indigenous sovereignty and futurity. […] The answers will not emerge from friendly understanding, and indeed require a dangerous understanding of uncommonality that un-coalesces coalition politics – moves that may feel very unfriendly.”


How can we start and hold spaces within ourselves for this unsettling feeling without moving straight to a way to alleviate our guilt?

How can we hold spaces that are problematic at a group level that create discussion and do not end with something that claims to be a solution? In other words, how can we create spaces that also hold unsettling discussions, and even the “dangerous understanding” that comes with it?