Sons for the Return Home and the post-colonial legacy of guilt / by Grace Kim

The following is a critical essay that I wrote for a class on indigenous literature in the fall of 2016. The finished essay won the William Frost Memorial Award for academic excellence and best critical or scholarly essay and was awarded a $700 prize by the English department at the University of California, Santa Barbara.


The complexities surrounding environmental and racial policy, especially within the context of Indigenous communities, are layered and pervasive. A long history of colonization and its onslaught of open racism, anthropogenic climate and landscape change, racially-biased policy, imposition of Western standards of progress and economy and bureaucratic processes has left behind a racially prejudiced system, with an obscene disparity in the lifestyles of those who are favored by the system and those who are marginalized by it. But indigenous studies has not been shy about delving into the controversies of colonialist rule, and enlightened by the mistakes of the past, there are now visible efforts being made to tackle the issues fostered by the oppressive system left behind. However, while the acknowledgment and recognition of the oppressive colonialist past is a necessary start to a solution, it does not in of itself necessarily mean for better policies and relations afterward. In fact, extensive study and awareness of such history has led to the strange phenomenon of a post-colonial legacy of guilt. This post-colonial guilt is an emotionally charged misconception of current racial identities, relationships, and policies. It places emphasis on the individual that experiences the guilt from benefiting from these injustices, rather than on the individuals and communities that have actually suffered from colonialist policies. While it seeks to remedy the injustices inherited from the colonialist past, it is counterintuitively rooted in a philosophy of ‘othering’ that only furthers oppression. Albert Wendt portrays this legacy of guilt and how it unfolds in interpersonal relationships through the romance between a Samoan boy and European New Zealander girl. We see how this guilt also persists in a contemporary context, looking at policy-making and systemic oppression in the case of Maori-Crown relations, and media portrayals of racial relationships in the U.S. By examining the expansive presence of post-colonial guilt, it becomes evident that it not only pervades but also hinders progress towards a resolution and equality at both macro (systemic) and micro (interpersonal) levels.  

The problem with trying to alleviate the past wrongs of colonialism at a systemic level is that post-colonial guilt is not fueled by a genuine understanding of the cultural identities that have been marginalized. Rather, perpetrators of post-colonial guilt seek an efficient and speedy remedy to absolve its inherited guilt by simply ‘flipping the switch’ and implementing facile strategies that tend to overlook and oversimplify the dynamics of evolving cultures and peoples. Rather than breaking down previous stereotypes, they merely rewrite the definitions to impose a different kind of frigid political identity. We see this imposition of identity on indigenous communities in the case of New Zealand treaty-based policies between the Crown and the Maori people. While policies were intended to recognize indigenous rights and aid the Maori, who have had a long and tumultuous history with European colonists, they ultimately ended up excluding a large portion of the Maori community. The New Zealand government mandated that “only traditional kin-based iwi [or ‘tribes] were their Treaty partners” despite the fact that an overwhelming majority of Maori resided in urban areas and no longer carried affiliation with iwi (Barcham, 141-142). Consequently, the Treaty-based partnership between the Crown and only Maori who actively belonged to iwi “effectively excluded and delegitimized other forms of Maori community”, thus merely shifting the borders of exclusion rather than eradicating them (Barcham 141). Colonial guilt plays its part in that the Treaty policies stemmed out of a desire to aid the very peoples that were injured by colonial policies, and thus were only willing to identify Maori who looked and organized in the way that fit the Western projection of what Maori looked like in colonial times. Thus, Maoris became subject to “recognition of difference only in the maintenance of a prior identity”, the prior identity being organization via tribal units such as iwi (Barcham 137). This inflexible construct of Maori identity, aside from being historically inaccurate, “fails to recognize the possibilities of alternate forms of community identity”, particularly the identity of urbanized Maori (Barcham 139). The post-colonial guilt that motivates these flawed policies are rooted in the psychology of othering, as it creates a dichotomy between the Western majority and indigenous minority, where the latter is identified only in its difference from the former. Urban Maori, in the context of this binary, occupy a liminal space between the urban majority and indigenous minority that are affiliated with iwi, and because of shared characteristics with the majority, urban Maori are suddenly stripped of their indigenous identity. This parochial definition of Maori identity has created two mutually exclusive spheres between European and indigenous and ultimately resulted in Treaty policies that did little to achieve their goal of aiding and protecting Maori rights.

This inherited guilt is not restricted to the structural sphere; it trickles down to pervade even the intimacies of interpersonal relationships, as poignantly drawn by Albert Wendt in Sons for the Return Home. In the relationship between a Samoan boy and a European New Zealander girl, we see how the “ongoing dynamic” of “indigenous-settler relations” permeate their romance (Barcham 137). When the couple embark on a road trip around New Zealand, the boy wakes up one morning to see a live hawk for the first time. He is captivated and moved at the sight of the bird in flight, but the trance is quickly disrupted when the bird is shot and killed by the girl. Furious with her, he yells, “Your lily-white ancestors ate everything that was worth eating in this fucken area. Now you even want to kill the bloody scavengers you brought with you!” (Wendt 95). Despite the fact that they are partners in a deep and intimate relationship, the two struggle to overcome the rift they’ve inherited from a colonial past. He finds it impossible to see her as an entity discrete from her “lily-white ancestors” and the alienating white majority in New Zealand. The girl also participates in a similar struggle, as she tries to distance herself as far as possible from her colonial inheritance of “blood and lies and fears and nightmares” from the “uncivilised, uncouth savages who came here from England” (Wendt 142). She is no stranger to the cruelties of her ancestors, and the particular language she uses to describe the New Zealand landscape to the boy reflects her uneasy conscience. “I have a history too, though it’s not as old as yours or the Maoris’ who owned the plain before we robbed them of it” (Wendt 86). Aware of the means by which her ancestors came to own the land, she is unable to make claim to it or her own history, knowing that the beginning of her ancestor’s ownership marked the end of the indigenous peoples’. Her speech is thus riddled with guilt and passive apologies. She puts forth a disclaimer, “though it’s not as old as yours or the Maoris,’” and addresses her ancestors’ “robb[ing] them” of their land, to indicate that she views her and her ancestors’ claim to the land as illegitimate. This sentiment becomes all the more transparent in her vehement outburst at her father, when she yells that her “grandfather was a thief” and the “superstitions you call ‘truths’ - such as decency, respectability, progress, money, white racial superiority [are] all bull-shit” (Wendt 142). Yet, this guilt does little to bring her and the boy closer. Instead, it widens the rift between them and it is apparent how deep the paradigm of ‘us’ versus ‘them’ is ingrained in her for she can only appease her guilt by condemning her own history.  She is unable to find a place that can hold both her and the boy as equals without one being the victim and the other being the perpetrator. Her language serves as an attempt to assure the boy and herself that they are ‘on the same side’, but ‘sides’ can only exist in opposition to each other. Her colonial guilt only reinforces the divide between their history and race, and works to temporarily place her, at least in her mind, on the victim’s (the boy) side of the divide.

The greatest logical fallacy that fuels post-colonial guilt is the misconception that racial injustices occur due to race itself, rather than our perceptions of race, identity, and stereotypes. After a racially charged encounter at the Samoan church, the girl says to the boy, “It’s a shame we’re not like those lizards that can change colour to fit their surroundings” (Wendt 64). He responds, “a shame we aren’t all purple”, as if the problem of oppression lies in the unchangeable quality of race itself, rather than in our skewed perceptions and speculations of race and identity (Wendt 64). While his remark about being purple is not serious, and thrown for the sake of comedic relief in a tension-filled atmosphere, it speaks volumes about both his and the girl’s perception of race as unavoidable and rigid identities. Just as ‘flipping the switch’ in government policies from persecution to federal aid does not alleviate the issues and concerns of contemporary indigenous communities, neither does turning a blind eye to race. We see similar sentiments being echoed in other post-colonial and racial contexts that are not limited to the Maori experience in New Zealand. In the popular American television series, Girls, we see an absurd yet not unrealistic depiction of contemporary racial relationships. Hannah, a white Liberal female in her twenties, begins a relationship with Sandy, a black Republican male. The two find themselves in the midst of a breakup and Hannah begins to attack his political beliefs, yelling “I would also love to know how you feel about the fact that two out of three people on death row are black men” to which he responds sarcastically, “"Wow, Hannah. I didn't know that. Thank you for enlightening me that things are tougher for minorities”. When Sandy then accuses her of exoticizing him, she responds, “Joke’s on you because you know what? I’ve never thought about the fact that you were black once”. He responds with incredulity, “That’s insane. You should, because that’s what I am”. Hannah “claims not to see race because she’s in denial about her own prejudices”, emphasizing the way by which post-colonial guilt manifests in her absurd attempt to assuage it and in her skewed perceptions of how race and racial identity should be approached (Berman). The issue with post-colonial guilt is that while the sentiment is understandable, it is not a solution in of itself. Apart from the fact that it is motivated by self-interest, it is an oversimplified approach to the convoluted, multi-layered issue of racial dynamics and systematic oppression. It is just as naive to claim to not see race, a major component of one’s political and cultural identity, as it is to largely condemn one race for the oppression of another, even if the condemnor belongs to the former. Contrary to what Hannah, the boy, and the girl may think, the core of interracial conflicts in a society that still largely functions within a white supremacist framework is not race in of itself. It is how individuals and institutions approach differences in race and how it pertains to individual and group identities.

In the U.S., Chun, Lipsitz, and Shin explore the utility and rationale of intersectionality as a tool for marginalized individuals to reconceive their racial, political, and gender identities. As they intersectionality and its applications in pursuit of labor policy reform for Asian female, low-income, undocumented immigrant workers, they emphasize intersectionality as a paradigm by which workers can see the system of oppression in place working in various spheres to undermine them (Chun et al. 920). By expanding beyond single-axis identities, the women are able to see the need for social justice as it pertains to all marginalized groups, and to understand how abuses of power are carried out at different levels. While Chun et al. discuss the practicality of intersectionality as a strategy for social justice and mobilization, we can deconstruct intersectionality to its most basic principle and define identity as being fluid and expansive, reaching out and dipping its fingers into multiple spheres. As Sandy points out, Hannah’s claim not to see race is a refusal to see him for what he is. But what he is imploring her to do is not to see just his race. He expresses his frustration at the countless women that date him, then “can’t deal with who I am” once they realize that he does not fit neatly into their preconceptions of a black man. Hannah’s remark about the statistics of black men on death row indicate her narrow assumption that black interests are universal and that being black encompasses the entirety of Sandy’s identity. His sarcastic response is indicative of a lived everyday experience where having such a rigid racial identity forced upon him is not unfamiliar. The driving principle of intersectionality is the rejection of a singular identity, as “no individual lives every aspect of his or her existence within a single identity category” and “there has never been one way to be a man or a woman, straight or gay, white or not white.” (Chun et al. 923, 937).

Taking this principle to the context of indigenous communities and post-colonial interactions, the boundaries of identity can be pushed further, past the constructs of political identities such as race, gender, and class. The way to begin addressing and remedying the legacy of guilt and consequent ‘othering’ is not in becoming ‘all purple’ but in understanding the richness and intricacies of different identities that encompass not only ethnicity but also culture, politics, spirituality, morality, and environmentalism. Efforts to manage settler-indigenous relationships at both a structural and interrelational level has sought a universal, cookie-cutter solution that can be applied to all contexts of racial relationships. But just as there are no singular, all-encompassing lived experiences, there cannot be singular approaches to the interactions and understanding of such experiences. Instead, a move towards a racially just future requires that we break down these dichotomies. The borders of ‘us’ versus ‘them’ that seem so rigid on paper are overwhelmingly fluid in our lives and relationships, and the liminal space between the two is a far broader valley than we could ever hope to confine. Thus what we need now is not a hasty call to action, but a call to understand the deep and intricate layers of what makes up not only indigenous but all identities, and the subsequent end to ‘othering’.




Barcham, Manuhuia. “Deconstructing the Politics of Indigeneity.” Political Theory and the Rights of Indigenous Peoples Eds. Duncan Ivision, Paul Patton, and Will Sanders. Cambridge: Cambridge University, 2000. 137-151. Press.  

Wendt, Albert. Sons for the Return Home. Auckland, N.Z.: Longman Paul, 1973. Print. 

Berman, Judy. "'I'm a White Girl': Why 'Girls' Won't Ever Overcome Its Racial Problem." The Atlantic. Atlantic Media Company, 22 Jan. 2013. Web. 01 Dec. 2016.

Chun, Jennifer Jihye, George Lipsitz, and Young Shin. "Intersectionality as a Social Movement Strategy: Asian Immigrant Women Advocates." Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society 38.4 (2013): 917-40. Web. 1 Dec. 2016.

“I get ideas.” Girls, written by Jenni Konner, directed by Lena Dunham, Home Box Office, Inc, 2013.