Rethinking Sovereignty and Belonging in Colonial Contexts: A Conversation about Democracy and Violence with J. Kēhaulani Kauanui and T.J. Tallie

Friday, April 23, 2021.

1:30-3:00pm, Virtual Webinar.


This webinar is the culmination of the inaugural 2020-21 Democracy Initiative Graduate Seminar. Organized and facilitated by the DI Graduate Fellows, the conversation brings together two leading scholars of settler colonialism to discuss their work on state violence and Indigenous resistance, embodied citizenship and belonging, the role of the scholar and the politics of the archive. Audience questions will be welcomed. 

Democracy Initiative Graduate Fellows, 2020-2021: Isabel Bielat (History), Charles Bradley (Education), Emily Marks (French), John Modica (English), Onur Muftugil (Politics), Dana Moyer (Politics), Hana Nasser (Politics), Meghan O’Donoghue (French), Layla Picard (Politics), Bob Qu (History), Tarushi Sonthalia (English), Felix Zuber (History).

Please find introductory essays by the Graduate Fellows and a bibliography of selected readings by Professors Kauanui and Tallie below. 

Graduate Fellow Responses to Professor Kauanui

Graduate Fellow Responses to Professor Tallie



    J. Kēhaulani Kauanui is Professor of American Studies at Wesleyan University. Her most recent book is Paradoxes of Hawaiian Sovereignty: Land, Sex, and the Colonial Politics of State Nationalism (Duke University Press 2018). She teaches courses related to Indigenous sovereignty, settler colonial studies, anarchist history and activism, and critical race and ethnic studies.


    T.J. Tallie is Assistant Professor of History at the University of San Diego. He is the author of Queering Colonial Natal: Indigeneity and the Violence of Belonging in Southern Africa (University of Minnesota Press, 2019). He teaches courses in African history, global history, Pacific history, and the history of gender and sexuality.  

    Graduate Fellow Responses to J. Kēhaulani Kauanui

    Isabel Bielat (History), Charles Bradley (Education), Emily Marks (French), John Modica (English), Onur Muftugil (Politics), Dana Moyer (Politics), Hana Nasser (Politics)

    Law and Lawlessness in Hawai‘i

    Professor Kauanui’s work on Hawaiian indigenous rights claims highlights how law sanctions violent processes of settler colonialism and imperial expansion in democratic states. For example, legal recognition of Hawaii as an autonomous state within a nation-state, a proposal put forth by certain segments of Hawaiian independence movements, furthers the U.S. settler-colonial occupation of Hawai‘i by coercively imposing an alien system of legal rule on subjects that did not initially consent to be bound by the laws of the U.S. Further, in Paradoxes of Hawaiian Sovereignty: Land, Sex, and the Colonial Politics of State Nationalism (2018), Kauanui notes that the notion of “lawlessness” was racially ascribed to indigenous peoples who were thought to be pre-modern, uncivilized, and incapable of governing themselves through law (52). The law is also implicated in violence in its erasure of  Hawaiian indigeneity. Kauanui claims, for example, that the legal categorization of Hawaiians as “Asian Pacific” renders them “immigrants” within the U.S. before the law.[1] Kauanui further notes that the “blood quantum rule” designates a certain percentage as constituting full Hawaiian-ness (100). In doing so, this classification renders certain native Hawaiians both on the island and in the diaspora invisible as Hawaiian indigenous subjects.

    How does law relate to Hawaiian politics as it historically unfolded? Kaunaui charts the progression of Hawai‘i as a “multi-tribal” state, to a kingdom, to a U.S. colony, and finally as a 50th U.S. state, and she highlights the fault-lines within indigenous and native rights movements during each stage. Existing U.S. law, however, does not have a framework for understanding this complex debate over recognition and indigeneity. One reason for this is the primacy of U.S. civil rights law and Native American tribal law in determining equality for minority groups in the U.S. Kauanui articulates this insight succinctly in relation to Hawaiian politics: “neither civil rights nor indigenous rights under U.S. federal law can account for the full Hawaiian sovereignty claim to national statehood.”[2] Both ideas obliterate “unadjudicated claims to “former crown and government lands of the Kingdom of Hawai’i.”[3]  Both reject the full extent of Hawaiian self-rule. U.S. civil rights efforts for equality before the law and the subsequent legislation that led to equal voting rights and employment opportunities cannot account for indigenous specific rights claims. Indigeneity, unlike race, is tied to an original claim to rootedness in the land. Thus, Kaunaui’s analysis suggests that legal recognition of Hawaiian indigeneity through U.S. civil rights efforts is insufficient to address the full extent of the myriad exclusions of Hawaiian claims for independence from existing U.S. jurisprudence.

    Kauanui’s analysis of international law suggests that international agreements both inhibit and enable certain indigenous rights-claims. She suggests that international legal frameworks such as the 1907 Hague Resolutions nor article 73 of the UN Charter and the Committee on Decolonization are wholly reliable resources for a decolonial project. Recourse to these documents often leads to disputes over legalistic terminology. Kauanui writes that these disputes over terminology can divert attention from “the white supremacist practices and policies that are part and parcel of the colonial subordination of Kanaka Maoli, whether Hawai’i is considered to be a former U.S. colony or not” (66). For Kauanui, the locus of Hawaiian politics should be “indigenous dispossession and colonial-induced poverty” (67). However, international law can also be a source for resistance for indigenous groups. Professor Kauanui’s analysis suggests that some Hawaiian groups turn to the decolonization imperative in international law to contest their subordinate status as a 50th U.S. state.

    Finally, we would like to end this discussion with some questions to provoke further inquiry and discussion: What exactly causes law's inability to reflect and realize the political implications of indigeneity? Is there something inherent in the concept of indigeneity that resists the abstraction of legal or juridical language? Or, does the problem lie somewhere else, say, with constraints and problems that beset American democracy?


    Decolonial Approaches to Sovereignty, Activism, and Comparison


    J. Kēhaulani Kauanui’s work Paradoxes of Hawaiian Sovereignty: Land, Sex, and the Colonial Politics of State Nationalism (2018) raises crucial questions about the politics and methods of comparison considering ongoing consequences of settler colonialism and movements of indigeneity revitalization in contexts both internal and external to Hawai‘i.


     Expanding our seminar discussions of different instances of settler colonialism, we would like to ask Prof. Kauanui about the relevance of comparison in competing indigenous land-based and settler colonial notions of Hawaiian sovereignty. During her discussion, Kauanui examines the “colonial biopolitics” and legislative frameworks underlying transition points in Hawaiian sovereignty such as the nineteenth-century recognition of the Hawaiian Kingdom as observing Westphalian sovereignty (19). Given the historical particularities of Hawaiian sovereignty, can broader transnational discussions incorporate insights from contemporary Hawaiian discourses on sovereignty? What are the implications of adopting a comparative approach to questions of indigenous and native sovereignties?  To what extent can these decolonial approaches outlined in her conclusion inform work on enduring indigeneity and settler colonialism as “a structure, not an event”?[4]


    To briefly summarize, in Hawai‘i there are two distinct ways in which Kanoka Maoli are claiming sovereignty, and Kauanui highlights two distinct paradoxes with each claim. On one hand, there are those who are proponents of US federal recognition (54). Yet, the process through which becoming a dependent nation is currently a state-driven effort, not federal, and “appear[s] to be preemptive attempts to squash outstanding sovereignty claims that were not legally extinguished when Hawai‘i was admitted as the 50th state of the American “union”” (61). The other claims of sovereignty are organized in order to restore the Hawaiian Kingdom Government and they advocate for deoccupation. (66,72). A paradox of the deoccupation argument is that it does not acknowledge as colonial the continued appropriations of land, culture, and language.

    A strong thread in Kauanui’s argument considers sovereignty in relation to activism outside the state framework, including revitalizing ancestral Hawaiian land management practices related to the concept of ea. Introducing this term, Kauanui centers its definition on an ethical relationship to the land through acknowledging  “the power and life force of interconnectedness among deities, ancestral forces, humans and other animals, and all elements of the natural world” (200). We were fascinated by Kauanui’s second chapter and conclusion as she emphasizes the decolonial aspects of land-based restitution projects such as community gardening plots connected to ancestral practices of land management. She envisions cultural renewal as enduring resistance to the logic of the elimination of the native that underlies settler colonialism.

    How does this new imagining of indigenous sovereignty impact activism in and out of Hawai‘i? Can the diaspora community participate in activism structured through ea? Does Kauanui’s portrayal of ea transcend “competing sovereignty models of contemporary Hawaiian nationalist projects” (37)? The models of native sovereignty that Kauanui describes share a dynamism and life with models of the land. How might current activists in contemporary nationalist projects respond to this concept? While based on traditional Hawaiian practices, could ea as depicted by Kauanui also relate to forms of diasporic and decolonial solidarity outside the Hawaiian context?

    As we consider our own research methodologies and frameworks for understanding indigenous resistance, Kauanui’s work is pivotal for contemporary discussions of resistance, activism and solidarity. We would additionally like to ask Professor Kauanui: How would you counsel scholars who want to consider the questions you raise when thinking about our own work? How do you think about your academic work on indigenous sovereignty and activism in your own activism?

    Gender, Sexuality, and Recovery

    How do we decide what forms of gender and sexual politics to hold onto, revise, or abandon in the pursuit of decolonization? What are the futures of feminist, queer, and trans critique as critiques of settler colonialism? These are pressing questions identified by our team upon reading the fourth chapter of Paradoxes of Hawaiian Sovereignty: Land, Sex, and the Colonial Politics of State Nationalism (2018), “Savage Sexualities,” in which Professor Kauanui addresses Western and precolonial Hawaiian forms of sexuality that are variously adopted, distorted, celebrated, and vilified in the Hawaiian sovereignty movement. We were particularly struck by the subsection on “Same-Sex Marriage as Decolonization?” in this chapter. Here Kauanui looks at the passage of the 2013 bill certifying same-sex marriage in the Hawaiian state legislature, which “indicates a form of settler colonial continuity in Hawai‘i that extends the introduction of male-female marriage and legal coveture for women in the early nineteenth century to the contemporary politics of assimilation and affirmation of settler colonial governance (and U.S. occupation) under the cover of LGBTQ inclusion in a multiracial liberal democracy.” Hawaiians and non-Hawaiians alike mobilized Hawaiian concepts to justify their support and opposition of this bill. For example, the “True Aloha” movement countered the misrepresentation of aloha and ohana as rooted in Christianity by highlighting Indigenous Hawaiian values and practices that revealed “multiplicity in terms of gender and sexuality” (188). But by centering “marriage equality” as the primary frame of reference for this recuperation, Kauanui writes that “these affirmations could easily be co-opted into state logics,” particularly because it renders same-sex marriage as “true aloha” and puts forth these assimilationist schemes “as the new return to the old” (188). In response to these distortions of Indigenous Hawaiian concepts within the rhetoric of liberal inclusion, Kauanui advances Kahikina de Silva’s work on “the erotics of land” as a “testing ground in imagining a decolonial Kanaka erotic autonomy: a politics of sexuality that is grounded in rich Hawaiian lineages of possibility—consensual and sensual” (193).

    Lineage, recuperation, recovery, and genealogy are central to Kauanui’s decolonial approach to the study of sexuality as both key practices and major problematics. As Kauanui describes in “Savage Sexualities,” Western understandings of sexuality on Indigenous Hawaiin concepts that were translated and recorded in English, and then recirculated across generations, have created a “conceptual gap between languages and worldviews” that make it difficult “to understand and articulate what our kūpana were discussing or portraying in regard to gender and sexuality” (162). Decolonial forms of cultural recovery involve a historicizing glance unto the past that simultaneously imagines decolonial futures which include diverse forms of gender and sexual positions beyond the impositions of colonialism. These practices of recuperation attempt to undo the damages of colonial homophobia, heterosexism, and gender binarism even as they are predicated on pasts, presents, and futures that are sometimes difficult to know and feel.

    The most urgent concern in this portion of our response involves the intersection of decolonial approaches to sexuality—in this chapter illustrated by Kauanui’s examination of precolonial and colonial forms taken up by Hawaiian activists, elites, and communities—with historical, methodological, textual, and critical approaches that do not explicitly critique settler colonialism but may be retooled to traverse the conceptual gaps it has opened. Kaunaui’s critical revisions to the work of Michel Foucault are a key example, though we are interested in where and how Kauanui envisions potential intersections between indigneous critique and approaches to gender and sexuality that may depart from a biopolitical/Foucauldian framework. Does, for example, indigeneity as a category of analysis have affinity with queer(ness?) or trans*(ness?) as categories of analysis? In the pursuit of the decolonial here and now, or then and there, how can we know what needs to be preserved or scavenged?


    J. Kēhaulani Kauanui. Paradoxes of Hawaiian Sovereignty: Land, Sex, and the Colonial Politics of State Nationalism. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2018.

    — — —. “Off-Island Hawaiians ‘Making’ Ourselves At ‘Home’: A [Gendered] Contradiction in Terms?” Women’s Studies International Forum, 21, no. 6 (1998): 681-693.

    — — —. “Colonialism in Equality: Hawaiian Sovereignty and the Question of U.S. Civil Rights.” South Atlantic Quarterly 107, no. (Fall 2008):  635-650.

    ‑ ‑ ‑. “‘A Structure, Not an Event’: Settler Colonialism and Enduring Indigeneity.” Lateral 5, no. 1, May 2016.


    [1] J.Kēhaulani Kauanui, “Colonialism in Equality: Hawaiian Sovereignty and the Question of U.S. Civil Rights” in South Atlantic Quarterly 107:4, Fall 2018, 637.

    [2] Kauanui, “Colonialism in Equality,” 642.

    [3] Kauanui, “Colonialism in Equality,” 641.

    [4] J. Kēhaulani Kauanui, “‘A Structure, Not an Event’: Settler Colonialism and Enduring Indigeneity,” Lateral 5, no. 1 (May 2016).


    Graduate Fellow Responses to T.J. Tallie

    Meghan O’Donoghue (French), Layla Picard (Politics), Bob Qu (History), Tarushi Sonthalia (English), Felix Zuber (History)

    Policing the Boundaries of Citizenship: Race, Gender, and Imperial Belonging in Colonial Natal

    What does it mean to be a citizen in a liberal empire? T.J. Tallie’s critical account of marriage, race, and straightness in Queering Colonial Natal, read alongside Marilyn Lake and Henry Reynolds’ Drawing the Global Colour Line, reveals interesting rifts among white members of the British and American empires. Rather than a unified approach to governing non-white populations, they depict a process of constant contestation between the imperial center and the colonized periphery over how to manage the racialized boundaries of citizenship. Debates over marriage laws in colonial Natal in the late 19th century, and over immigration to the United States and British dominions in the early 20th century, pitted racial extremists against more liberal voices over not only policy but the meaning of democratic citizenship within these ostensibly liberal empires. 

    Per Tallie, white settlers in Natal claimed a position of racial virtue, emphasizing their demographic precarity vis-à-vis larger indigenous and Indian immigrant populations in order to portray themselves as defenders of white civilization against non-white encroachment and corruption. Within Natal, they sought to make themselves the “new natives” by eliminating, subjugating, or controlling the social practices of the indigenous population. In the wider context of the British Empire, though, they portrayed themselves as the “true” representatives of white civilization because they—not Whitehall—were the ones fighting to maintain its integrity. 

    In doing so, settlers in Natal challenged the metropole’s idea of a global, multi-ethnic society predicated on imperial citizenship by framing whiteness as the real criterion for citizenship. When faced with resistance, colonists went even further, defecting in a sense from the empire and claiming a transnational racial citizenship. They believed that they needed to defend this citizenship not just in Africa, but in Australia and America as well. In the process, they tied the demographic fears of settler colonialism to immigration paranoia in Australia and America. According to Tallie, “British settlers and colonial officials alike envisioned Natal as part of a global nineteenth-century Anglophone settler project” (Tallie 2019, 2). 

    Under pressure from its militant periphery, the imperial state in these accounts was split between a conception of citizenship based on global, transracial subjecthood and one based on transnational whiteness. This conflict forced non-white subjects into a particularly difficult position. They could fight for recognition of equal subjecthood within the empire, in a public sphere increasingly dominated by virulently racialized discourse, or they too could defect and pursue redress of grievances through other routes, like nationalism, the precarious discourse of universal natural rights, or the even riskier framework of transnational indigenous solidarity. 

    Gandhi’s career—first as an activist for Indian rights in Natal, and then as a fighter for Indian independence—encompassed both options. His early activism in Natal on behalf of the Indian immigrant community mainly appealed to the metropole on the basis of the Crown’s promises of equality for all subjects (Lake and Reynolds 2008, 121, 326). The subsequent arc of his career towards Indian nationalism demonstrates that in the face of withering racism, many non-white imperial subjects eventually opted for an activism based on anti-imperial principles. Extrapolating from this example, we wonder whether the available sources reveal a similar tension among Natal’s indigenous population. Did they favor arguments for rights and dignity based on an imperial-subject logic, or in opposition to colonization? Did this tendency change over time?

    This was not a one-sided conflict for the soul of the empire, however. While settlers tried to push their views of racial purity onto London, London also used race as part of its governing strategy by depicting itself as the benevolent protector of indigenous interests against settler oppression. Tallie shows this paternalistic strategy at work in describing the Zulu King Cetshwayo’s visit to London in 1883, four years after his defeat and deposition in the Anglo-Zulu War. Natal’s settlers and the British state were entirely at odds over how the defeated Zulu king should be treated, and particularly whether he should be returned to power (as the British government desired). This became a longstanding point of conflict between the colony and the center.

    Settlers in Natal did not just use race to construct citizenship, but also gender. By employing discourse about ostensibly oppressive indigenous marriage practices like ilobolo, they argued that they needed to exercise social control over indigenous populations to protect their women. The narrative of ilobolo-as-woman-slavery let settlers claim to be protecting both native women and liberal ideals, all while pursuing their own racist goals. There are, of course, much more recent examples of this type of discourse: in carrying out the invasion and occupation of Afghanistan, neoconservatives in the George W. Bush administration argued that, as First Lady Laura Bush so powerfully phrased it, “the fight against terrorism is also a fight for the rights and dignity of women” (Bush 2001). Similar justifications for violence as a crusade for liberal democratic ideals came from what scholars have called the “good Muslim” and “secular feminist” camps (Akbar & Oza 2013, 152-153).

    Clearly, the intersection of race, gender, and citizenship within a liberal empire remains both discursively powerful and continually contested. This dynamic of contestation between center and periphery over the meanings of race and citizenship troubles adds an important dimension to our understanding of imperialism, settler colonialism, and their continuing ramifications for colonized and colonizer alike. How does thinking about the contestation between center and periphery over these issues change our understanding of settler colonialism? And what role does the native actually play in this contest? For instance, does indigenous resistance strengthen the metropole’s more distant, ostensibly benevolent approach to managing native populations, or does it favor the more aggressive tactics of settlers?


    Amna Akbar and Rupal Oza. “‘Muslim fundamentalism’ and human rights in an age of terror and empire.” In Gender, National Security, and Counter-Terrorism: Human Rights Perspectives, edited by Margaret Satterthwaite, Jayne Huckerby, 152-182. New York: Routledge, 2013. 

    “Radio Address by Mrs. Laura W. Bush, Crawford, TX, November 17, 2001,” George W. Bush Presidential Center, Houston. Web, accessed March 16, 2021.

    Marilyn Lake and Henry Reynolds. Drawing the Global Colour Line: White Men’s Countries and the International Challenge of Racial Equality. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008.

    T. J. Tallie. Queering Colonial Natal: Indigeneity and the Violence of Belonging in Southern Africa. Minneapolis: University Of Minnesota Press, 2019.

    Tallie, T. J.. “On Zulu King Cetshwayo kaMpande’s Visit to London, August 1882.” BRANCH: Britain, Representation and Nineteenth-Century History. Ed. Dino Franco Felluga. Extension of Romanticism and Victorianism on the Net. Web. [Accessed 3/15/2021.]

    Reading Anxiety in the Colonial Archive: Race, Gender, and Archival Interpretation in Colonial Natal’s Classrooms

    In Queering Colonial Natal, Professor Tallie demonstrates both the structures used by white settler society to establish a “normative” order in colonial Natal, and the ways in which African and Indian communities subverted (or were perceived to subvert) those structures in their dress, actions, drink, and relationships. Of the many theaters where such normalizing and subverting took place, the colonial classroom was a particularly apt stage. Describing developments in education in late nineteenth-century colonial Natal, Tallie writes:

    As indigenous Africans, Indian migrants, and British settlers all clamored for access to education, Natal’s settler legislature attempted to foster institutions that forced various peoples into roles most amenable to an emerging colonial hierarchy. The piecemeal creation of educational institutions in late nineteenth-century Natal offered opportunities for social advancement but also operated as a disciplining space that produced raced and gendered identities through the collisions of competing peoples. (151; emphasis added)

    Thus, Tallie describes the efforts of the colonial settler state in Natal to establish—through legislation and institutional support—educational spaces which could shape the settler, indigenous, and migrant populations into roles which would best serve the needs of the white settler demographic. Educational spaces as spaces for the creation of “ideal” demographic types have been explored by other scholars as well, and Tallie references Robert Morrell’s From Boys to Gentlemen: Settler Masculinity in Colonial Natal, 1880-1920, a text in which Morrell delineates the ways in which ideal white settler masculinity was often inculcated in the school space—a space in which “boys” became “men.”

    What does it mean to envisage the coming together of people across racial, class, and gender lines as anxiety provoking? Tallie’s use of the word “collision” –a word with violent, antagonistic connotations—when describing the disciplining and meeting of differently raced and gendered bodies in educational institutions is key, because this coming together of differently raced bodies was a source of significant anxiety for the settler state. The fear of providing educational access to indigenous African and migrant Indian populations was two-fold. Firstly, there was a belief that this access could lead to non-white populations acquiring subversive ideas and articulating demands for inclusion within the body politic. Secondly, there was also fear stemming from the literal collision of differently raced bodies in educational spaces—a collision which could lead to the formation of subversive ties of intimacy, association, and recognition. The opposition to interracial education was often couched in terms of morality, i.e., that a mixing of white and non-white populations could result in moral defilement for white children who were the future of the colonial settler state: “Certainly morality in this instance is a coded phrase for fear of racial intimacy” (171).  


    According to Tallie, then, “[e]ducation became another battlefield in Natal where ideas of citizenship, inclusion, and civilization were all fiercely debated” (153). However, this battle did not end with conclusive victory for the settlers as the consistent reformulation and recalibration of the colonial state’s stance on education indicates. It is in these constant reformulations and recalibrations that Tallie reads in the colonial archive that we find indications of deep settler anxiety and non-white subversion.

    We would like to turn now to this colonial archive and the particular methods used by Tallie to engage with this archive. As with any study of the ways in which both colonizer and colonized operated in a nineteenth-century imperial settler society, the primary sources for Tallie’s analysis were necessarily written in the colonizer’s hand, thus demanding a unique approach to account for colonized voices. To do so, Tallie enlists an approach used by Keletso E. Atkins in her 1993 history of nineteenth-century African labor in Natal, The Moon is Dead! Give Us Our Money!. Faced with African archival absence, Atkins and Tallie read between the lines of colonizer sources, looking for African experience through the lens of British anxieties. For Atkins, this involves, among other print sources, English-Zulu phrasebooks, considered essential for the management of servants in any British settler household. For Tallie, this involves surveys, debates, newspapers, decrees, and letters penned by colonial administrators, politicians, and teachers, all concerned with the existential threat of racial and gendered boundaries being crossed. From the gaps in the archives, Tallie reconstructs crucial aspects of colonial Natal society, a society that both depended on rigid categorization for the maintenance of settler authority but was also characterized by constant challenges to these categorizations.

    Tallie and Atkins, thus, present a methodological challenge: what if, instead of interpreting archival absence as silence, we read it as noise? Their conscious decisions to unearth colonized voices by reading for settler colonial anxieties yield urgent questions for current and future scholars: What does it mean to be using different methods of archival interpretation in our current moment? What are the politics of methodological choices? 



    Atkins, Keletso E.. The Moon Is Dead! Give Us Our Money!: The Cultural Origins of an African Work Ethic, Natal, South Africa, 1843-1900. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann, 1993.

    Morrell, Robert. From Boys to Gentlemen: Settler Masculinity In Colonial Natal, 1880-1920. Pretoria: Unisa Press, 2001.

    Tallie, T. J.. Queering Colonial Natal: Indigeneity and the Violence of Belonging In Southern Africa. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2019.

    Friend or Foe? - Friendship in the Colonial and Neo-Colonial State

    Interpersonal relationships across boundaries of race and gender form a core characteristic of modern, liberal, and democratic society. The same holds true for the settler-colonial state, yet in vastly different ways. Friendship between the occupying settler and the perceived colonial subject was a site of complex interaction. In Queering Colonial Natal, T.J. Tallie examines how these affiliations could function to reinforce, but also to undermine “hierarchies of race, gender, and colonial power” (Tallie, 92). On the one hand, a positive affiliation between settler and colonized was integral to the idea of a civilizing mission. However, far from uplifting them to the status of equals, for most colonists, their subjects “were to be ensnared in an affective relation of constant indebtedness” (Tallie, 99) to their colonial masters. Thus, the friendship between settler and subject was fundamentally impossible and always had to remain unfulfilled. Additionally, it even served to normalize the violence that was constitutive to the settler-colonial society.

    On the other hand, affiliation also held the potential to destabilize the settler-colonial state, as friendship could “underline a shared humanity” (Tallie, 94). This was probably best exemplified by Zulu King Cetshwayo’s visit to London in 1882. He was able to use the idea of colonial friendship to cast himself not only as a deserving colonial subject, but also as a fellow human, and as the intended result of his colonizers’ supposedly uplifting influence. In doing so, King Cetshwayo successfully negotiated support in the metropole for his reinstatement in the colony, a significant, if brief, political victory.

    Similarly, Franco Barchiesi’s “The Problem with ‘We’” explores how, throughout the twentieth century, settlers in South Africa continually constructed friendships with their perceived subjects, albeit with racism as a means to resolve the tension between the democratic settler promise and the colonial reality. Together with its inherent violence, the settler project of occupation, linked with a civilizing mission, was always deeply contingent on the construction of racial categories. In this regard, Barchiesi emphasizes the settler practice of separating the perceived human ‘native,’ deserving of civilization, from the savage ‘black,’ relegated to an unredeemable and static existence. This fundamental “Blackness-as-slavery” in the colonial project fortified an “absolute and permanent dereliction” within non-white subjects (Barchiesi, 129). Thus, while friendship offered opportunities to both the colonizer and the colonized, racialized conceptions of the static otherness of non-white African subjects ultimately prevented real affiliation.

    Adding to debates around colonial friendship, Barchiesi then explores South African nationalism in neo-colonial times. He traces the rise of non-racialism as a concept fundamental to the African National Congress (ANC) and the modern South African state. Yet, while it promises a raceless society and some form of equality, non-racialism emerged from these racial categorizations and the denial of humanity to the colonized, and is still built on emphasizing the subjectivity of the acceptable ‘native’ in contrast to a perceived threatening and uncontrollable blackness. Therefore, as “‘anti-Blackness’ [became] the foundation of whiteness-as-humanity” (Barchiesi, 129), he emphasizes the longevity and the pervasiveness of settler-colonial power structures.

    Given Tallie’s insightful account of anxieties of affiliation in the settler colonial state, and taking Barchiesi’s argument that a modern non-racial South African society is fundamentally built on colonial conceptions, we have to ask what kind of interpersonal connections across race and gender are possible in the (neo)colonial state in the first place?

    It is then interesting to think not only about the limitations to friendship, but also if there is an alternative to friendship in the colonial or neo-colonial state. If so, what would such alternative modes of affiliation look like, both within and outside the structures of that state? Lastly, if an escape from these power structures is impossible, what form does friendship need to take in order to subvert colonial structures, or is affiliation the wrong place to search for such a project altogether?



    Tallie, T. J. Queering Colonial Natal: Indigeneity and the Violence of Belonging in Southern Africa. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2019.

    Tallie, T. J. “On Zulu King Cetshwayo kaMpande’s Visit to London, August 1882.” BRANCH: Britain, Representation and Nineteenth-Century History. Ed. Dino Franco Felluga. Extension of Romanticism and Victorianism on the Net. Web. [Accessed 3/30/2021.]

    Barchiesi, Franco. “The Problem with ‘We’: Affiliation, Political Economy, and the Counterhistory of Nonracialism.” In Ties That Bind: Race and the Politics of Friendship in South Africa edited by Jon Soske and Shannon Walsh, 126-165. Johannesburg: Wits University Press, 2016.