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Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack of Settler Privilege

By Dina Gilio-Whitaker

Samoset comes "boldly" into Plymouth settlement. Woodcut designed by A.R. Waud and engraved by J.P. Davis (1876).
Samoset comes "boldly" into Plymouth settlement. Woodcut designed by A.R. Waud and engraved by J.P. Davis (1876).

November is Native American Heritage Month, when we as American Indian people get to have the mic for a little while. So, I’d like to take my turn at the virtual mic to talk about settler privilege, something you likely have never thought of, or have never even heard of. What you have undoubtedly heard of, however, is white privilege.

Peggy McIntosh first popularized the concept of white privilege in her now-classic 1989 essay “White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack.” The impact of her essay was due at least in part to its clarity and readability; it broke down into a list of easy to understand ideas why white people have unearned advantages in society based on their skin color. Not that it was necessarily easy for white people to accept that they are in fact “more equal” than others, but the essay opened up a conversation that has gained serious traction in our social discourse, especially now when racism is on full, unobstructed display in this Trumpian moment.    

White privilege centers the concept of race, describing racism as systemic and hierarchical, often in binary terms of black and white, which has its limitations for other people of color. Racism is certainly not limited to African Americans; American Indian people have for centuries been targeted in countless ways that are fundamentally genocidal in nature. The single, irreducible element of the racism American Indians have been subject to is the acquisition of our lands, and this is what makes racism against American Indians different than all other forms of racism and discrimination. This is the core of a system we call settler colonialism.

People who do not have ancestral connections to Native communities are all either settlers or immigrants. People with ambiguous “Native ancestry,” like Elizabeth Warren, are so disconnected from whatever Native roots they may have had that they can no longer be considered Native. Settlers are people whose ancestors who came to acquire recently dispossessed Indian lands, such as recipients of the homesteads of the nineteenth century and earlier land speculators. Immigrants are people who came later to cash in on the benefits of American citizenship that didn’t necessarily include land (but might have if they came with enough money to invest in American land). Most are settlers (also “colonizers”) or immigrants by choice, with the exception of Blacks who are descended from slaves who were settled here without their consent.

All of today’s settlers and immigrants are in one way or another beneficiaries of genocide and land theft, even if they are simultaneously themselves victims of other forms of discrimination (with the possible exception of migratory Indigenous peoples of “Meso-America”). I realize this may be difficult for people of color to hear. But this is what it means to center settler colonialism as a framework for understanding the foundation of the US beyond an analysis of race, since the origins of the US are rooted in foreign invasion, not racism.   

To this end, I would like to propose an invisible knapsack with colonialism as its starting point for recognizing how everybody not of American Indian heritage benefits from unearned settler privilege (or complicity). You have some degree of unearned settler privilege or complicity in settler colonialism if any of these statements apply to you:

  1. I can live anywhere in the US without being disturbed that people of my race or ethnic group were not systematically killed or displaced so that I could live there.
  2. I don’t have to worry that images, symbols, or names of people of my ethnicity will be used as sports mascots, Halloween costumes, or marketing logos, and that I will be told that when they are that I am being honored, even when I say I don’t feel honored.
  3. I am not burdened that people not of my ethnicity will appropriate the spirituality and religion specific to my community and justify it with arguments that everybody has a constitutional right to practice whatever religion they choose.
  4. I am not concerned about my group’s history being accurately represented in my children’s education, or represented at all.
  5. I don’t have to worry that I will be perceived as an authentic member of my ethnic group based on a sufficient amount of “blood,” as verified by a government-issued document.
  6. I can see myself and my ethnic group represented in a wide variety of media and popular culture that aren’t predominantly stereotypes.
  7. I am usually represented in statistical findings in studies and reports.
  8. I am never confronted with comments that express surprise that my group is still existent.
  9. I am never confronted with comments that imply that my group deserved to be wiped out because they were all killing each other already anyway before being invaded by outsiders.
  10. I don’t have to hear references about my group described as a “plight.”
  11. I never have to defend against the desecration or digging up of burials of my ancestors for capitalist development.
  12. I can be assured that the American legal system will defend my ability to practice my religion in its original setting, and respect that it is based on a different set of assumptions about the world than other religions.
  13. I am not subject to a legal system that is based on a concept of cultural and religious inferiority of my group.
  14. I don’t see myself spoken of as a “savage” or other derisive term in any of the US’s founding documents.
  15. I never have to worry that my legal existence or that of my group can be terminated at any time by the US government without my consent.
  16. I have no ancestors who were considered “wards of the state” even though they committed no crime.
  17. I have no ancestors that were hunted for bounties paid for by any governmental agency.

Discussions about unearned racial privilege often results in defensiveness by people who don’t believe they are being fairly portrayed, and have evolved into what Robin DiAngelo has famously called white fragility. In part two of this series, I will discuss settler fragility and what it looks like in popular American discourse.


About the Author 

Dina Gilio-Whitaker (Colville Confederated Tribes) is a lecturer of American Indian Studies at California State University San Marcos, and a consultant and educator in environmental justice policy planning. Her research interests focus on Indigenous nationalism, self-determination, environmental justice, and education. She also works within the field of critical sports studies, examining the intersections of indigeneity and the sport of surfing. She is co-author with Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz of Beacon Press’s “All the Real Indians Died Off” and 20 Other Myths About Native Americans, and her forthcoming book, As Long as Grass Grows: The Indigenous Fight for Environmental Justice from Colonization to Standing Rock, is scheduled for release by Beacon Press in April 2019. Follow her on Twitter at @DinaGWhit and visit her website.