Who is the settler?


ho is ‘the Settler’? What does this category animate, and perhaps more important for this intervention, what does it bely? A well-established corpus explores the histories of settler colonisation, the violence it unleashes and its ongoing impacts. This body of scholarship largely takes the complex figure of the settler for granted, reducing it to a cohesive and homogenous extension of the settler-colonial state. Yet contrary to their depiction, settler societies are marred by internal differences, internalised logics of violence and socio-political fractures that open important agendas of inquiry and critique. These relate to potential histories that diverge from the teleological pretence of settler-colonial narratives (arrival-displacement-erasure), and also vitally reveal new avenues of decolonial actions and futurity.

We write this intervention as settlers from two very different contexts, Canada and Israel. We reflect on these questions from our own settler-subjectivities: we are both Jews and share the privileged mobility to be working and living in the UK. As our own family histories document, these subjectivities function as simultaneous markers of privilege and marginalisation. Recognising this tense heterogeneity, we push against a single rubric of ‘settler’ which erases radical differences, histories and political implications that emerge in each case. Writing from two distinct settler contexts, our intention is not to paper over differences, but to problematise any singular settler position, both as an individual figure and as a social context. 

We are not the first to see ‘the settler’ as a heterogenous and contradictory category. A well-established literature of social and cultural history charts the inherent multiplicity of settler societies. Ethnic studies scholars have highlighted the importance of centring non-white peoples in this analysis (Dunbar-Ortiz, 2014; Pulido, 2018; Sharma and Wright, 2008). In an important intervention, Laura Pulido explicitly calls on scholars to reconsider the presumed whiteness of the settler. She argues that this is part of a ‘global conversation’–of which Geography is late to the game–to address with ‘the complexities of racial and (de)colonial dynamics’ (Pulido, 2018: 310). Yet in the growing corpus of settler colonial critique, this effort to question the settler’s whiteness has been confined almost exclusively to a North American context. Moreover, much of this effort is aimed at carving out new positions outside the white-settler whole: terms like ‘arrivant’ and ‘subordinate settler’ describe various minoritised positions that help theorise the complex role of, among others, enslaved Black peoples who were forcibly moved, Asian immigrants and Mexican settlers. There is immense importance in the foundations laid by ethnic, Chicana/o and Black Studies scholars toward a more nuanced critique of settler societies. But what are its imports once it is considered explicitly outside a North American context? What other entanglements might emerge in settler colonial contexts that are not founded on the North American triad of relations between settler-native-enslaved (Tuck and Yang, 2012: 17)?

In this intervention we argue that the category of ‘the settler’ needs to be radically opened and unsettled, beyond the efforts that have thus far been made. To this end, we offer three short provocations which contribute to unsettling the settler as a political figure. In the spirit of intervention these are not complete arguments but rather starting points, we hope, for ongoing consideration.

1. There is no such thing as ‘a’ settler

Settler societies are always plural, heterogenous and contradictory. They are no more a monolith than Indigenous societies (Simpson, 2017). To envision settler-communities as a cohesive collective is, in fact, inherent to a colonial fantasy that the settler state seeks to perpetuate. Constructing a stable and seamless appearance serves to solidify the settler state’s effort to inculcate a diverse collective into a single settled mission and establish a binary logic that sets settlers and Indigenous peoples as diametric oppositions.

A well-established interdisciplinary corpus has opened up the social structures and compositions of settler societies to date (for early overviews, see Pearson, 2001; Yuval-Davis and Stasiulis, 1995). In different settler colonial contexts, settler societies have emerged through multiple phases of migration and settlement, many diverging radically from the assumed “model” migrant – a white European settler. Settler states repeatedly fashion themselves around such imagined model settlers, but this fantasy of white originalism has been thoroughly questioned and shaken. 

Yet, time and again, critical efforts to understand the Colonizing Self, to quote a major publication title on the subject (Kotef, 2021), forefront an archetypal settler subject. Without doubt, these are important critiques that mobilise some degree of “strategic essentialism”, which has an important role to play in decolonial action, for example, in the formulation of demands for reparations and material recompense. The recognition of Indigenous sovereignty and reparation at times relies on the ability to articulate a collective demand by those who have been systemically subjected to settler colonial violence toward those who have systematically benefited and profited from it. We wonder, though, what and who gets lost when critical scholarship replicates a homogenous settler figure? Does this move risk repeating and potentially reaffirming the fantasy of the settler state to stand for a cohesive collective unified not only by its mission– a commitment to see to the elimination of the native–but also by a shared identity? In Unsettling the Settler Within, Paulette Regan (2010: 1, emphasis added), a former-residential schools claims manager, argues the following: 

To truly participate in the transformative possibilities of reconciliation, non-Aboriginal Canadians must undergo their own process of decolonization. They must relinquish the persistent myth of themselves as peacemakers and acknowledge the destructive legacy of a society that has stubbornly ignored and devalued indigenous experience.

We fully agree with the political urgency of the task noted above, but simultaneously ask who falls under that hermetic rubric “they”? What gets lost when we continue to perpetuate a cohesive collective of settlers?

Many scholars have engaged in the important task of prying-open the categories of Indigeneity in an effort to shed new light on the alliances and solidarities that can be forged toward a decolonial future. Nishnaabeg scholar, activist and artist Leanne Betasamosake Simpson’s (2016) work on ‘constellations,’ for example, powerfully works to explore dialogue and relationship-building across Indigenous, Black and other racialised communities. We see our intervention here as a parallel effort that refuses to accept the settler state’s fantasy of encompassing and representing a unified, homogenous settler collective. 

2. Settler violence turns inward

In presenting themselves as homogeneous wholes, settler states attempt to shift attention away from internal hierarchies, inherent privileges and subjugations that carve deep fissures within settler societies themselves. And yet, repeatedly, settler societies are founded on systemic internal racial disenfranchisement and discriminations, which replicate the logic of elimination that is most explicitly enacted against the settler state’s inherent others, namely, native populations. The eliminatory violence that native peoples endure and the racialised logic that underpins it have rightly dominated critical scholarship. But simultaneously, this critical corpus largely leaves intact the Manichean fallacy that the settler state seeks to perpetuate, the fallacy of a struggle between two cohesive, diametrically opposed collectives. 

Any critique of settler colonialism must refuse this binary. First, as we detail above, because it is historically unfounded. But second, because such a monolithic view obscures the multiple ways that settler colonial states turn the violent logic of elimination inward, toward settlers who do not conform to a narrow set of ideals that guide the settler mission. At its core, this is a settler ideal of whiteness, and of patriarchal whiteness in particular (for example, see Boyarin, 1997). However, despite this fantasy of whiteness, no settler society fully lives up to this ideal of racialised purity and its cultural-ideological instantiations. All have been formed by long histories of diverse migrations and racial compositions that defy the simplified notion of the white settler and its self-fashioning as a European vanguard. This inherent tension between the fantasy of the settler state of racialised purity and the heterogenous realities of settler societies can only result in the creation of internal racialised orders that police and suppress any appearance of non-white settler identity. Internalised violence seeks to buttress the homogenous facade that non-white settlers disrupt.

This is significant because it directs critical attention to the segregative and discriminatory policies that have come to govern minoritised, non-white settler communities. There is ample research that has documented the internalised violence of the settler state and the myriad ways it enforces internal racial orders within the community of settlers (Chetrit, 2004; Smith, 2012). What remains largely overlooked is the role that minoritised settler groups–the same groups that have often been at the receiving end of settler colonial racial violence–play as the enforcers of this violent state logic. In an important recent paper, Lihi Yona and Itamar Mann (2021) document how the Israeli state systematically designates Jews of North African and Arab descent, or Arab-Jews, as an “executioners’ class”, those who can be tasked with carrying out the spectacle of material and performative violence. Delegating the execution of colonial violence to a group that has been socially marginalised and culturally denigrated allows the settler state to distance itself from the violence that is perpetrated in its name. 

Once settler societies are carefully interrogated in an effort to reveal these dynamics, the unique role of non-white settler violence emerges in the most explicit manner. Let us pause on a telling example.

In 2016, Elor Azaria, an Israeli soldier of Jewish-North African descent, shot and killed a Palestinian man, Abd al-Fatah a-Sharif, while the latter was lying wounded on the road. The case starkly featured the callousness and radical devaluation of Palestinian life under Israel’s occupation regime. But there was more to this case. When he was tried for manslaughter Azaria did not merely claim his innocence. Instead, his lawyers followed a line of defence based on ‘discriminatory enforcement’, which assumes that Azaria’s actions reflected a prevailing norm in the Israeli military. Far from an anomalous and deviant action, the killing of a-Sharif was very much in line with the governance infrastructure established by Israel to rule over a rightless population of Palestinians. It was his position within the social matrix of the settler division of labour that situated Azaria in the role of public enforcer of violence. Put simply, like many other Arab-Jews, Azaria was assigned to Israel’s executioners’ class, the ones carrying out state-sanctioned violence. 

Two military tribunals refused to hear evidence to support the claim for selective enforcement. Israel’s settler colonial legal system disallowed any attempt to force state agencies to confront the fundamental questions of structural violence that underpins the settler colonial condition and its ruling apparatuses. Perhaps even more importantly, this moment exposes the ease with which the state positions minoritised settler groups as both its agents in the enforcement of violence, and simultaneously as the scapegoats once this violence is exposed and undermines the liberal facade that the settler state seeks to uphold (on liberalism and the settler state, see Kotef, 2021).

When settler societies are depicted as homogenous wholes that are mere instruments in the hands of the settler colonial state, these critical contradictions, fissures and struggles dissipate. Yet these are the critical moments that merit our attention, exactly because they reveal the naked logics of racial stratification that the settler state operates and the violence it employs–externally and internally–to enforce it.  

3.  Decolonisation: beyond the metaphoric settler

Without recognising the multiple positions that settlers occupy within diverse political constellations, we risk overlooking what Areilla Aïsha Azoulay describes as ‘potential histories’ (2019). She identifies historical moments that open the possibilities for decolonial futures, “different options that were once eliminated [and] are reactivated as a way of slowing down the imperial movement of progress” (Azoulay, 2019: 43). We close with two such potential histories. 

First, that of Israeli Black Panther movement in the early 1970s. The group was founded by young Arab-Jews who protested systemic discrimination and persecution by Israel’s Jewish-European establishment. One of its most important contributions was linking the marginalisation of Arab Jews and the violence Israel operates against Arab-Palestinians. Although it constituted one of the most important radical movements in the country’s history, this confluence with Black radical ideology and disenfranchised settler communities in Palestine is hardly known outside the corpus of Israeli social history. Yet the Black Panthers’ ability to foster extremely significant collaborations between young Arab-Jew-activists and Palestinian political movements signalled the potential of different political communities that refuse the imperative allegiances imposed by the settler colonial state. It was a short-lived moment, crushed by police violence and internal divisions, but one that opens new horizons for grounded decolonial action. 

Second and more recently, in 2016, Black Lives Matter (BLM) activists joined Indigenous organisers in occupying the Toronto office of Indigenous and Northern Affairs Canada (INAC). Removing Canadian flags, staging die-ins and burning ceremonial sweetgrass together, they called the Canadian government to address water, housing and suicide crises impacting Indigenous communities in Attawapiskat, Ontario. A 15-day BLM encampment followed the protest, demanding justice for South-Sudanese refugee Andrew Loku, killed by police. This short vignette casts our attention to vital alliances forged across and between communities that defy tidy boundaries of settler/non-settler. Protests such as these are not unique. These politics have been well documented in academic debates, understood largely through a language of ‘solidarity.’ Harald Bauder (2011) argues, for example, that such solidaristic moments close what he calls the ‘Aboriginal-Immigration Parallax Gap’. Yet note that this merely parses out additional others that are distinct to an otherwise stable settler construct. This is an important move, but we would go further to unsettle ‘the settler’ as a coherent entity and instead foreground its multiple, incohesive internal components. 

Rather than gloss over such dynamic encounters, we think that settler-colonial critiques must work to more fully incorporate these histories and subjectivities into their decolonial political projects. We see decolonial projects which remain attentive to these material, grounded politics in keeping with wider calls by Tuck and Yang (2012). Decolonisation, they famously argue, is not a metaphor but a material set of actions, hard-won through struggles for sovereignty, land, power. This decolonial work, we argue, can only take place if the settler is also understood through their material complexity, rather than approached as a loose signifier. For the very reasons that decolonisation ought to be a concrete and grounded reality, so too should our understandings of the settler. To view it otherwise just as worryingly gives way to banal decolonial politics.



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Dr. Noam Leshem works at the intersection of violent conflict and cultural history. His writing draws on extensive field and archival research in search of inductive political theory, scholarship that is rooted in and accountable to communities it engages with.

Dr. Jen Bagelman's academic and activist work critically examines how displacement is produced through exclusionary citizenship and bordering practices. She is also deeply interested in how people mobilise to enact more loving geopolitics.