Claiming Bad Kin

This is the first part of a talk I’m offering today at McMaster – access copy here.

Many white people I know have been sparked to reflection in the wake of the “not guilty” verdicts in the Gerald Stanley and Raymond Cormier murder cases. Some have been moved to ask what it means to be a white settler in this place currently called Canada, confronting the murders of Coulton Boushie, Tina Fontaine, and so many others. When we understand what is happening, wherever we notice it, many of us respond by wanting to distance ourselves from harm, or by denying that it’s really so bad, or by attempting to be firmly on the side of the angels. In particular, those of us who benefit from harm and wrong-doing may want to take the side of the oppressed, the murdered, the wounded. We may respond by disavowing our connection to the people killing the earth and its people, critters, and ecosystems. In some real way I love this response, this rejection of being complicit with harm. I think it signals a lively and laudable rejection of wrongdoing that we can all get behind, and a desire to transform or end the social relations that produce suffering. But precisely because the complicity-denial impulse expresses a wish to end suffering we ought to assess whether denying complicity is an effective political stance.

In this talk I’ll be primarily focusing on whiteness in its articulation with the past and present of colonialism, Black enslavement, and border militarism. But it is vital to mark that all of this takes place and is complexly entangled with environmental devastation, global warming, and the spread of industrial toxicants alongside everyday vitalized materials that capitalism renders pollutants. And all of this rests on a eugenic logic that dictates who deserves to live and who to die and that threads disability-hating throughout its narrative of fitness of species. People who benefit from social relations of harm frequently try to claim kin relations with the people who are targeted by racism or to reject kin connections with wrongdoers. Many white settlers respond to histories of colonization by claiming Indigenous ancestry, or to histories of enslavement by claiming abolitionist ancestry or by remaining ignorant of enslavers in the family tree, or we respond to histories of border militarism by naturalizing or celebrating contemporary state formations. Many white settlers mobilize individualizing and neoliberal logics, that is, to deny complicity with or benefit from ongoing social relations of harm that result from colonization, chattel slavery, and militarized borders.

Christina Sharpe’s piece “Lose Your Kin” came out shortly after the US election of Donald Trump. The article begins with a quote from Saidiya Hartman’s book Lose Your Mother: A Journey Along the Atlantic Slave Trade Route: “Slavery is the ghost in the machine of kinship.” Hartman’s project in Lose Your Mother is to trace what happens when someone cannot find the traces, the names, the histories of history they know is present and shapes their lives. Sharpe’s project in “Lose Your Kin” is to invite white people to refuse white kinship and to recognize that, as she writes, “One must be willing to say this is abhorrent. One must be willing to be more than uncomfortable. Once must be willing to be on the outside. One must refuse to repair a familial rift on the bodies cast out as not kin” (Sharpe 2016, para 10). She is right, I think, to argue that “Kinship relations structure the nation. Capitulation to their current configurations is the continued enfleshment of that ghost [of slavery]” (para 11). In this inquiry into what it means to resist the continued enfleshment of the ghosts and present hauntings of slavery, eugenic projects, the violence of borders, and colonialism, I pivot to ask if refusing to capitulate to current configurations might require acknowledging our social and political entanglement with them.

I am interested in what it could mean for white people and settlers more generally who benefit from historical and current effects of enslavement, colonialism, border militarism, racial distributions of environmental devastation, and capitalism to claim kin with the people producing these effects. If we are complicit in the pain of this suffering world, how might we take responsibility for our bad kin? I started thinking about this question in part through listening to conversations over the past several years about people who claim various sorts of Indigenous identities without being able to trace their family history to the lived, community experience of indigeneity. One articulation of why this move doesn’t work came from Kim Tallbear’s important work on why DNA tests cannot confirm or deny Indigenous identity. She says, “We construct belonging and citizenship in ways that do not consider these genetic ancestry tests. So it’s not just a matter of what you claim, but it’s a matter of who claims you” (“Sorry, That DNA Test Doesn’t Make You Indigenous” 2017). Audra Simpson, speaking of the case of author Joseph Boyden, wrote:

this conversation has never been about Indian status, or blood quantum, it is simply a matter of kin. Do settlers understand what it means to be a relation to each other? And the crucial relationship of this relatedness to one’s society, to politics, to land? The settler state does, that’s why it took our children from us and dismantled our kinship systems with the Indian Act in 1876. So we hold on to our kin relations where we can and we reclaim them as we can. We understand kin very well indeed. .. It is not shameful to ask who you belong to. It is not “lateral violence” or a lynch mob to ask who your relations are. It is the beginning of a conversation that unlocks who you are and how you shall proceed with each other.” (“Eksá:’a Onekwenhtara on Twitter: ‘Mic. DROP. All Hail the IroQueen. Https://T.Co/QedwCGBSAq’” 2017).

It seems to me clear that, indeed, it does not only matter what we claim about who we are; it matters who claims us as kin.

White nationalists claim me, as a white person, as kin. Though they may not know me personally and though they would likely despair of my politics, they are working for a world in which I and white people like me hold citizenship, reproduce “the white race,” and are safe and flourishing. Listening to Tallbear and Simpson, and reflecting on Sharpe’s work, I started to wonder what would happen if I claimed them back.

My argument here has three parts. First, I argue that Indigenous practices of relationality cannot be taken up by settlers, and that instead we must craft new practices of being in relation that can destroy settler colonialism and its articulation with anti-Black racism and border militarism. Second, I forward a conception of situatedness as arising from both the histories we inherit and the webs of connection that shape the social relations within which we exist; differential inheritance produces differential responsibilities. Third, I argue for a specific form of responding to whiteness that involves white settlers claiming rather than disavowing our connection to white supremacist people and social relations. I explore the potential of the roles of friends and comrades working as race traitors against whiteness and gesture towards the importance of directly confronting white supremacists.

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