Settler / Migrant

Some thoughts related to this article by Monica Tan.

The first time I heard a non-white migrant use the word ‘settler’ to describe all other non-white migrants in so-called Australia, I recoiled at this naming that felt so unfamiliar to my experience. I didn’t associate with being a settler because that term seemed to place me within the same racialised group as white people – and I had my own familiarity facing their racist hostility.

In any case, the discomfort of that moment provoked some thinking on my part, as well as a few conversations with Aboriginal people, non-indigenous people of colour and white folk. After initially feeling that my position as a brown migrant bore no relation to white colonialism, it became apparent that for many Aboriginal people it most certainly did. Dispossession from country, loss of access to resources, and the struggle to hold onto cultural forms are all ongoing effects of an unceasing colonisation that remains in full swing. While racial power in this country is still specifically invested in whiteness, there are significant material benefits that non-indigenous people of colour have been able to access as an effect of colonisation.

There seems lately to have been a significant amount of writing and discussion by non-indigenous people of colour related to the complexity of this issue. Monica Tan’s recent article in The Guardian (which has been given – I assume not by her – one of those overly-long, righteous sloganeering Guardian headlines that I’m not going to bother typing out here) is a good example. It’s an easy to read, but cleverly nuanced article that places herself both outside White Australia, but still having benefitted from colonisation.

It’s interesting that she starts with a confession about identity politics: that “as a Chinese Australian woman”, she wouldn’t have considered herself to be “a colonial oppressor”. Amongst other things, my initial reaction to being called a ‘settler’ similarly reveals the problems of an individualised identity-based politics that shifts focus away from structural issues. My recoil was based so entirely in a personalised sense of something not being of my own experience that it shrouded the surrounding environment. It’s not that identity politics entirely disavows all structural analysis, it’s just that it tends to tip the balance too heavily towards individual experience as the site where oppression occurs and where change might be affected. This leads to a tendency to obscure a more radical politics of struggle and solidarity directed at multiple sources of power.

This is to say, the purpose of identifying different axis of power shouldn’t simply lie in how we position ourselves in terms of privilege/guilt/oppression. While individual actions might be reflections of power, recognising its trajectory becomes infinitely less useful when frozen and only considered at the level of the individual. In this instance, the trajectory of colonial power is far from being favourable to migrants of colour, yet ultimately leaves us in a position where we also “benefit from the dispossession of Indigenous Australian lands”. While in an obvious sense, our place here has long been determined by the White Australia policy – even in the decades after it being repealed, its residue effects how non-white people exist and take up space – it is also true that the migration(s) that have occurred have been administered within the parameters of the colonial state with no recourse to Aboriginal sovereignty.

As Tan travels around this country, she has encounters with Indigenous Australians where she is able to delight in “gestures of solidarity” that place her outside the colonial oppressors, but also moments where she is confronted with being part of a category of non-indigenous “colonial Australians trying to stuff their spiritual void with the richness of ancient Aboriginal culture”. The contradiction of occupying seemingly conflicting positions might provoke some personal discomfort, but it is simply a result of the dislocations thrown up by colonisation. Until now, the economic and social requirements of Empire and capitalism enforce racial hierarchies and privileges that sometimes shift as conditions change.

Tan explores this very thing as she comes across reminders of the long history of Chinese migration to outback Australia. From the late 1800’s through to the early 1900’s – even after White Australia was introduced – the labour of these migrants was necessary for the developing colonial, capitalist state in creating the infrastructure that would drive the economy. Yet these migrants were always outsiders, never part of the national narrative that was only invested in whiteness. While their struggles and resilience should be recognised and celebrated, it also comes with the knowledge that the projects they worked on were part of the displacement of Aboriginal people from traditional country. And so it continues.

The world created by colonisation is complicated and has resulted in much geographical and cultural dislocation and displacement. This has negatively impacted many peoples, but especially Indigenous people of colonised countries. Still, we might locate some positive counter-force as we recognise points of intersection and commonality in our struggles. The history of so-called Australia ensures that whiteness exists as a nexus of social, cultural, economic and political power. This means, as Tan points out, that between Indigenous people and migrants of colour, “sometimes our experience of stereotyping, marginalisation and racism” overlap. These commonalities will be important in forging solidarity, but they will only be worthwhile if, as non-indigenous people of colour, we are able to become comfortable in acknowledging how our position here has benefitted from the process of colonisation.

To finish I’ll return to the word ‘settler’ – which Tan does not use in her article. This word holds within it some of the contradictions I have tried to express here. I still do not think it sufficiently describes the relationship of migrants of colour to whiteness, nor does it convey our own histories of displacement due to colonisation in the countries we came from. However, situated in this country, it does very specifically – and uncomfortably – help name our relationship to the ongoing process of colonisation. The discomfort this might provoke, as I can attest, is a useful point of reflection. Recognising this position, does not undercut the potential of solidarity, it is a pre-condition of it.

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