How do we define who rightfully owns or inhabits a territory? Well, first, it seems there is no “we” in any effort to reach this definition. There is the “us” and there is the “them.” As long as there are two identities (or more), then there will be resistance to any singular definition that is created for the ownership of a territory. The identity that has the power gets to define the terms of the struggle to claim ownership of a space– of land. But as long as the identity without power still exists, and is still defining who they are, then there will be resistance to the terms of ownership which have been established by the identity with power.
Indigenous peoples are still here– in North America, on land occupied by the United States. Indigenous peoples still live throughout the Americas, in the Caribbean and on the islands of the Pacific: Indigenous Hawaiians still live in Hawaii. The fact that Indigenous peoples continue to have their own identity within territories occupied by the U.S. is a definitive statement of resistance on their part. The same argument may be made for Africans in America– Black people– and all identities who are resisting erasure: their very existence runs against the defining control of the reigning system. Of course, we will step aside while Indigenous peoples and Africans/Black people speak for themselves, since they are the self-defined subjects of their own collective struggle against U.S./European colonial capitalism.
Yet it seems important that European colonizers (whites) recognize the need to reject “America” as an identity. Our acceptance or celebration of the “American” identity legitimatizes this identity. And the “American” identity is based on genocide, colonialism, patriarchy and capitalist oppression.
If this system of white power– European imperialist capitalism– had entirely wiped out Indigenous nations and Africans (which often appears to be its objective), then there wouldn’t be any other identity for us to accept: just the “American” identity. But colonized peoples are still here, and are still resisting. And that means there are two choices in this dialectical struggle: either we join the reactionary force of the “American” identity, as it seeks to absorb or erase all identities within its colonial control, or we join the revolutionary force that is moving in the opposite direction. There are only two choices.
If we choose to be “American,” what we are saying is that a system of white supremacy, patriarchy and imperialist violence reached a point, at some stage, where it was qualitatively changed into some other kind of system. In other words, while it is a historical fact that the settler colonies of Europe became wealthy and powerful only by occupying land inhabited by Indigenous peoples and by accumulating the productive and capital value of enslaved Africans, we could argue that at some point the “United States of America” overturned this relationship of occupier and occupied– colonizer and colonized– and was thereby transformed into some other system. And such an argument cannot be made. White people and the white-controlled system of “American” capitalism still sit on Indigenous land. Africans have still not been paid reparations. And yet Indigenous peoples and Africans are still here, still resisting, as a counter force to this system of power. If they had been entirely wiped out, such a complete genocide would have transformed this relationship. But they weren’t. So, whose side are we on?
As Kwame Ture observed, “Two objects cannot occupy the same space at the same time.” If the system of colonial capitalism in the United States did not succeed in its efforts to achieve complete genocide against the original inhabitants of this space (North America, Hawaii, Puerto Rico and so on), then its next step was to argue for a complete transformation of the objectified identities that belong to colonized peoples. By aligning with the “American” identity, “people of color” essentially no longer exist as anything other than “American.” That seems to be the secondary goal of white supremacist, colonial capitalism. And this pressure on colonized peoples to be absorbed by the dominant force of racist, “American” capitalism is in the reactionary process of being augmented– and reinforced– by whites who gladly accept the “American” identity, waving our red-white-and-blue flags, standing during the “National Anthem,” and getting teary-eyed whenever anyone mentions the military. As part of the white identity– or the “American” identity– we take up more space, creating more downward pressure on identities who are resisting erasure by the force of this reactionary power.
It’s understandable why colonized peoples would finally accept the “American” identity, because, after all, it has the wealth and the power, and so it becomes simply a question of survival. However, the contradiction of this relationship between the colonizer and the colonized is that the “American” identity will never accept “non-white” identities, even when they accept it.
For example, Barack Obama should be the ultimate example of the “American success story.” In the “land of the free” where “all men [sic] are created equal,” a Black man became President. But what is the reaction of white America (which is a reactionary identity)? To “Make America Great Again” … by putting Donald Trump in the White House.
The system of colonial capitalism in the United States will only accept people of color– Indigenous peoples, Africans, Latinxs, Asians– as long as it can use them to expand its wealth and power. Their proximity to “respectable” (or white) institutions and structures is what allows colonized peoples to be absorbed as “Americans.” But if a person of color steps outside this context of wealth and power, they are still treated by the “American” system of colonial capitalism as the “other”– as foreign, as inferior. Therefore, the transformation of the colonized identity is never complete, just as the “American” effort to commit genocide against colonized peoples hasn’t been completed. The dialectical struggle of these two opposing forces continues, still unresolved, because it cannot be resolved on “American,” white, capitalist terms.
A complete rejection of the “American” identity by European colonizers (whites) is not a question of some individual need to be rebellious. It’s not an adventure, or a personal journey, an exhilarating ride full of dangers and thrills, as we live on the edge, forever resisting conformity. It’s simply a matter of being human– of joining humanity. For how is it possible to be human— in the fullest sense of the word– while we are occupying stolen Indigenous lands, and enjoying the benefits of a white supremacist, inhumane system that exists only through the violent subjugation of most of the people on the globe? Our very identity as people is at stake. And the “American” identity within the United States of America runs against this identity, in opposition to the complete realization of our humanity, and against the survival of the entire planet as well.
The “American” identity seeks to absorb all identities within its control. It’s as if the United States is a giant vacuum sucking up all objects that come into contact with it, the machine, whose only aim is the accumulation of greater wealth– more and more profits. The English identity, and the German, the Dutch, the French, the Polish, the Irish, the Italian, all European identities, are vacuumed up into one “American” identity. If we’re “white” and we identify as “American” then our reward for aligning ourselves with its power is access to the material and social benefits that the white supremacist, capitalist system accumulates by dominating the world.
Even “people of color” are allowed by this system of power to identify as “American”– if they accept the hierarchy as it is. As soon as there is any sign of resistance by “African-Americans,” they are destroyed by this system. And quite often they are destroyed anyway, because the “American” identity is inherently racist. By committing violence against “people of color,” the “American” system is just functioning as it has always functioned. The giant vacuum, the machine, can only do what it was designed to do: create greater and greater profits through the commodification of human suffering– the violent exploitation of people and planet.
Once we– that is, white people, or European colonizers– reject the “American” identity, then we can start to recognize that we are on the stolen land of Indigenous peoples. This land is their land. We owe reparations to Black people. And whites owe it to ourselves to create a new identity, one that isn’t based on the colonial domination of people whom the system of capitalism doesn’t identify as “white.” It seems we will only create this new identity through principled, organized struggle against colonialism, neocolonialism, and the “American” system of capitalism. And this struggle begins by rejecting the “American” identity, and re-imagining who we are in terms that are not pre-defined for us by the reactionary, violent force of “American” capitalism.