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Wednesday, October 14, 2020

Book Review – Red Skin White Masks: Rejecting the Colonial Politics of Recognition by Glen Sean Coulthard

Roberta Cory 

Review – Red Skin White Masks: Rejecting the Colonial Politics of Recognition by Glen Sean Coulthard


Anyone who reads a review of a book should take into consideration the subjectivity of the reviewer (not deliberate bias, but for sure the background experiences, gender, and political position the reviewer comes from).  Short bio then: I am a synthetic thinker between the biological sciences, continental philosophy, and art/anthropology. As a female, a synthetic thinker, and an intellectual, I grew up alienated from my social circumstances. I have great empathy for righteous rage.


Red Skins, White Masks begins as an academic piece, covering the history of the subject of racial alienation and victimhood. It acknowledges the Hegelian dialectic of confrontation between the subject and the object (either/or thinking), French existentialism, colonialism, and the psychology of the oppressed. Coulthard follows the position of Frantz Fanon, psychiatrist, Marxist philosopher, and freedom fighter in the Algerian war for independence from France in two ways. First, by analysis of the term “recognition.” Second, in discussion of the term “resentment.”


In agreement with Fanon, Couthard makes the case that, in a master/slave, or colonist/colonized power imbalance, asking for recognition means that the terms and understanding of relationship are defined by the giver, and enforced by the giver, the party in power. But it goes deeper than that, since the mind of the colonized is under control of the colonizer. That is what is meant by the recent call to “decolonize your mind.” Whatever recognition is granted by the colonizer, the language, and culture, (the hegemony), of the party in power remains. In addition, the skin of the colonized is always an object of difference and speaks a history of victimhood.


“Resentiment,” from Nietzche, is the psychological position of wanting what those in power have, including wishing to have their skin, and to blend in. This is not a healthy position, and the only way to overcome it is to turn it around. Fanon affirms “violence” as the needed therapeutic in overthrowing the power of the hegemony. All revolutions for freedom and independence are violent. But there is a violence that stops short of revolution, when the property, the infrastructure, and the symbols of the oppressor are rendered impotent. When treaties, Acts, Rights, legislation, and determinates of status (written by the colonizing powers) are signed but not enforced (in other words, there is no mutual good intent between the signees) then the only way forward is “direct action.” 


First Nations are of two minds. The elected Council and Chiefs have not decolonized their minds. They want in on the capitalist game. They want to own the land which was taken away, in order to profit from resource exploitation. 


Coulthard devotes the last part of his book to the “spiritual” traditions which are still available, as a different relationship of Indigenous people to their land, which is that of sustainability. In a hunter, gatherer culture, humans are on an equal and not superior plane with all of the life and life sustaining systems in which they are imbedded. The understanding of a mutual, balanced, and not exploitive relationship with the earth is shared by deep ecologists, their potential allies in this last struggle to save the habitability of the planet. The issue of tradition is a gnarly one – we see it contested in the recent Supreme Court nominee hearings in the United States where a “pure, true way” of thinking from the writers of the U.S. Constitution is appealed to when settling ethical issues in the present reality. Many historians have shown that there is no “garden of Eden” to go back to and recreate. But within the reality of current issues (climate change) the capitalist paradigm of exploitation and resultant inequality does not hold and indigenous ways of dialogue, listening, respecting, and holding sacred are needed.


In his Conclusion, Coulthard says, “…the efficacy of Indigenous resurgence hinges on its ability to address the interrelated systems of dispossession that shape Indigenous peoples’ experiences in both urban and land-based settings.”  In earlier chapters he had drawn a distinction between time based and space based relationships. Colonial thinking is time based; ownership is determined by historical documents. Indigenous thinking is space based, rooted in the mutual relationship of the human animal to the land. For example, in colonial thinking, water rights belong to the person who owns the deed to the property. In Indigenous thinking, water, as it is essential to all life, is shared and protected as drinkable for all future generations. Mi’Kmaq scholar Bonita Lawrence is credited for her work on the necessity to repeal the “colonial divisions” which separate Native individuals from their land and their identities, and to work towards relationships of mutual empowerment. This implies traditional teaching and healing within the urban environment, access to the Native land and the Indigenous people still living on it, economic and political aid from urban Indigenous people who are in a position to give it, and a curb on gentrification of Indigenous low income spaces in the city. 


Dory Nason, Anishinaabe feminist, is the second woman Coulthard credits with taking on the issue of colonial divisions, in this case perpetuated between genders in her work towards Indigenous resurgence. Nason shows that the violence done through the residential schools, the Indian Act, and other state institutions has resulted in both material and symbolic misogyny. Yet with Idle No More and subsequent resistant actions women have taken the lead. The strength of women, their righteous anger, and their encompassing love, needs recognition from within the Native male community to heal the divisions created by the colonizers. 


One can read this book as relevant to all minority cultures oppressed and divided by their colonizers to render them either useful as serfs, neutralized by infra-conflicts, or terrorized by bullying. As a woman, all of the above pertains to me and my sisters. We have been useful as property; sex partners, mothers, caregivers, and domestic or field servants, we have squabbled amongst ourselves over degrees of oppression or privilege, over who is a true “female” (under the hegemony of dualism), and over “identities,” and we have been bullied by our fathers, our husbands, our bosses, and our firstborn males. So, I for one have great empathy for the situation this book tackles. In the spirit of inclusion and intersectionality, I have to recommend a book that not only takes on a most relevant topic, but, is universal in its message. 


Roberta Cory