The study of settler colonialism has evolved from a nearly exclusive examination of the interplay of Indigeneity and white settler colonial domination to an engagement that has become attentive to questions of racialized migration. Because British settler colonies violently displaced Indigenous peoples without widespread exploitation of their labor, racialized migrant labor has played an important role in establishing and developing settler colonies, from the exploitation of enslaved and convict labor, to indentured and contract labor, and to contemporary iterations of guest and undocumented labor. The reliance on hyper-exploitable, deportable, or disposable classes of migrants has been an integral logic of settler colonialism in North America, rendering Indigenous communities even more vulnerable to dislocation, dispossession, and environmental harm. Asian North American cultural representation offers a rich site to explore settler colonial logics of land dispossession, resource extraction, relocation, urban redevelopment, and incarceration. In particular, Asian North American cultural production has often recycled settler colonial tropes that both denigrate and romanticize Indigenous cultures in claims for belonging that attempt to challenge the racial logics of civil, social, and political exclusion. In North America, the projection of a heroic “pioneer” identity aims to recover early Asian labor from historical obscurity by demonstrating its vital contributions to developing the settler nation. These expressions reinforce the value of Western civilization and industry over an empty, uncivilized, and unproductive Indigenous world. Asian American invocations of “local” identity in Hawai‘i similarly assert a romanticized identification with Indigenous cultures that obscures Asian Americans’ structural dominance and active role in the dispossession of Native Hawaiians. Alternatively, Asian North American cultural producers have also become strong voices in social and cultural movements to prioritize Indigenous self-determination, ecological protection, and decolonial anti-capitalism. Critical approaches to Asian North American representation have become increasingly attuned to reckoning with colonial complicity, exploring the ethics of responsibility, indebtedness, and solidarity with Indigenous communities.
Settler Colonialism in Asian North American Representation
19th-Century Spirit Photography
Spirit photography emerges out of the widespread movement of Spiritualism in the 19th century. In 1848, the Fox sisters of upstate New York claimed that the mysterious knockings emanating from the walls of their farmhouse represented the opening of a spirit telegraph that faciliated communication between the world of the living and the world of the dead. Spiritualism quickly became a techno-religious movement closely aligned with the abolitionist and suffragist movements. The movement utilized burgeoning technologies to apply a scientific rigor to phenomena beyond the five human senses. The photochemical process and the swift advancement of photography as both an art and science were particularly powerful mediums for providing evidence that spirits can manifest in the visible world. Sir John Herschel coined the term “photography” by combining the Greek words photos and graphé, literally “light writing” or “writing by light.” The term itself advances the concept that the camera produced an unmediated reproduction of the natural world, and, with the first spirit photograph emerging in 1862, believers understood that the camera was both capturing spirits of the dead and scientifically proving that the spirits were real. Nineteenth-century debates about the veracity of these images pivoted on the question of what photography was capable of capturing. Scientists knew that photography could capture invisible fluorescence, and Spiritualists argued that if the camera could capture the invisible world, then it could also capture spirits.