Rootlessness and dislocation

The suggestion that non-indigenous people living in this colonised land should seek out and connect with their own cultural roots and use this as a source of strength in acting with anti-colonial struggles here, is a common one in radical milieus. I understand how investigating ‘cultural roots’ is important for some people, that being able to trace lines of connection to ancestors who resisted colonisation in their time can be a great inspiration in the present. However, I have also found its abstract use to be both confusing and simplistically dismissive of the global consequences of capitalist colonisation and resultant migrations. I think that it is necessary to interrogate some of the problems that are contained within such an uncritical valorisation of historical identity and culture.

These issues recently arose again at a workshop I attended that was centred around issues of Aboriginal sovereignty and colonisation/ de-colonisation. One of the facilitators, a non-indigenous woman of colour, gave a spiel about the importance of locating cultural roots, of knowing the land where your ‘bones are buried’, and drawing strength from this heritage. While I don’t believe that my personal experience should be taken as constitutive of a critique of this position, I will begin by laying out my subjective position just as a bit of background, but also because I’m pretty sure that I might not be alone in this.

The lands where the bones that mean most to me are buried, are not lands that I would claim roots in. One is this country, and the other is another colonised country where a couple of generations of my family settled. However, I also have no cultural connection to the other colonised land that is most recognisably my ethnic and ancestral heritage. And I don’t feel any sense of loss at this. To recognise myself as a settler in this country means I do not hold a sense of belonging to this land. Yet this does not manifest as a sense of lack that I seek to fill by finding attachments that are otherwise insincere. I will never have to face the shock, brutality and immediate colonising violence of being dispossessed from the land I belong to while still inhabiting it. My identity and being here are shaped by the historical dislocations of colonisation but I am many steps removed from the immediate vicinity of its consequences.

I think it is useful here to draw on some of Aileen Moreton-Robinson’s work in her essay I Still Call Australia Home (from her book ‘The White Possessive: Property, Power and Indigenous Sovereignty’). Moreton-Robinson is critical of a position that some theorists have taken where they overly-privilege this hybrid, multiplicity of identities created by displacement and migration as being indicative of the postcolonial subject. To simplify, and use my own words, Moreton-Robinson would say that Indigenous people in a settler-colonial society like Australia, remain too directly in the immediate path of the violence of colonisation to fall into this idealistic description of the post-colonial. I think it is necessary here to emphasise a distinction between the broader social conditions that have been shaped by colonisation and the lived, material immediacy of settler-colonialism as experienced by Indigenous people. In recognising this distinction, I would hope that what I’m writing does not seem to be overly-privileging the displaced migrant position.

Instead, I am simply suggesting that this position is one outcome of colonisation, that it does not need to be resolved by seeking out ‘authentic’ cultural roots, that it does result in some positive characteristics, but also that in no way is it comparative to the necessity of anti-colonial struggle as experienced by Indigenous people here. Moreton-Robinson still recognises that “experiences of dislocation disrupt the migrant’s sense of belonging to a particular place and provide the conditions for multiple identities”. This is pretty much in line with my main argument here, and she uses this as a base from which to relate how the Indigenous “ontological relation to land constitutes a subject position that we do not share, that cannot be shared, with the postcolonial subject, whose sense of belonging in this place is tied to migrancy”.

I agree and would add that to recognise that belonging – for non-indigenous people of colour – is ‘tied to migrancy’ is to acknowledge that belonging and a sense of place are often ephemeral notions that shift constantly and whose meaning has very much been shaped by processes of colonisation. Maybe it is this feeling of untethered-ness that results in a desire to seek out cultural heritage, and certainly the process of holding onto some cultural traditions while adapting to the requirements of a new country are foundational to most migrant experiences. All this is to say that cultural dislocations and migrations are very much an outcome and lived reality for many people who participate in anti-colonial solidarity here. These dislocations do not simply represent weakness or something lost, they have also resulted in a resilience and adaptability that is a necessity of getting by in hostile places where whiteness is seen as defining the right to belong. These are attributes that we can put towards solidarity with Aboriginal struggles.

Most concerning about the locating cultural roots imperative is the implication that the greatest strength is to be drawn from achieving some historical authenticity. Again, this fails to conceptualise anti-colonial struggle as being grounded in the material realities and a multiplicity of identity and entanglements that subsume us in the present day. For many of us there is no singular place where our cultural roots are located. For me, this means that my solidarity with Indigenous struggle comes from a series of connected positions that correlate to colonial histories: arriving in Australia as a young child of a migrant, single-parent; growing up brown in a country where power and belonging is invested in whiteness; being a settler in a violently settler-colonial society; etc. None of these relate in any way to a vision of decolonisation that implies winding back to some pure, frozen pre-colonial moment.

Additionally, the valorisation of cultural roots as a generalised strategy presents dangerous complications in a world where white supremacy and fascism is a growing threat. When finding authentic cultural roots is proclaimed as a source of strength to a room (including many white people) it is potentially opening the door to nativist fascism. This is the adaptation of fascism that predominates the western world. It is the one that allows racists to disingenuously claim support for de-colonial struggles in the global south as long as those brown people stay over there. It allows them to justify racist movements as simply protecting ‘pure’ European culture and identity. It is what has spawned the violent and reactionary theory of ‘the great replacement’. In addition to the dangers of white supremacy, such claims to cultural heritage and authenticity can also easily become a path towards dangerous forms of third world nationalisms such as currently can be seen in India with Mohdi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).

While I have attempted to put forward why seeking out an ‘authentic’ cultural heritage presents problems for non-Indigenous people of colour, it is also important to note that it presents problems for Aboriginal struggles too. At the workshop there was an excellent and timely intervention by an Indigenous woman who made the important point that visions of sovereignty for Aboriginal people in so-called Australia cannot be based in some idyllic pre-colonial visions. We can understand the significance of practising culture and keeping heritage alive for Aboriginal folk in this settler-colonial country – where the colonisers went all out to decimate their existence. However, to be Indigenous and struggle for sovereignty in so-called Australia very much involves knowing that hopes for de-colonisation must engage with present realities and the changes to Aboriginal culture and identity that have been wrought by almost 250 years of colonisation.

These aren’t oblique considerations relevant only to perceived identity formation. Instead, they directly relate to struggles around land, sovereignty and decolonisation. In ‘Against Native Title’, white anthropologist Eve Vincent explores the conflicts and complexities surrounding a specific native title claim in South Australia and relates how within the native title claims process “Aboriginal people are also held incarcerated within, or held captive to, a particular moment in time”. That is, they are expected to substantiate their own self-understanding and connection to country through accounts that “are confirmed by, and are consistent with, outsiders’ accounts of that frozen moment”. The point being that, having displaced and dispossessed Indigenous people, the coloniser’s law now unironically demands that they prove their belonging by demonstrating their uninterrupted connection to historical place and time. This is the unreal version of indigeneity that western liberalism seeks to foster, of a pure authentic ‘native’ who against all odds has managed to retain their sacred dignity.

While the implications of exploring cultural roots are quite different for Aboriginal people and migrants – and in either case I am not arguing that it is always and only a negative – I do think the example of Native Title legislation underlines how cultural roots tied to ideas of historical authenticity can be a reactionary position that suits narratives of colonisation. These in effect downplay the realities of displacement and cultural dislocation. They also too easily dovetail into fascistic ideals of cultural purity and hegemony. Additionally, we should recognise that the rootlessness of migrants is, at the least, simply a function of the lived, material realities of a colonial world, but in a more positive light, has meant we have our own experiences of traversing some of the faultlines of racism and colonisation. From recognising this, it is possible to draw on experiences that can inform our capacity to act in solidarity with Indigenous anti-colonial struggles here.

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