Colonialism is Dead, Long Live Colonialism
I am a colonial artifact, my very existence a result of the conjoining of British greed and Indian aspiration.
Anyone reading this in the US or Canada also qualifies as a colonial product, certainly. But colonialism, like a franchise brand, manifest differently across the globe. American and Canadian peoples can be seen as colonial products*. In sports scores, the asterisks denote egregious circumstances, like corked bats or coked batters. In colonialism, some nations enjoyed the egregious benefits of self-rule as well as the sheer acceptance of the people’s humanity. While the US and Canada, twin-nations separated at birth and showing differing levels of decrepitude, were once colonies of the British crown, their national state is untainted by colonialism. (One might even see these nations as the few, the proud to profit from their colonial past).
Colonialism for the vast majority of the world is not an asterisk to their history, but the pivotal moment when existence was transformed, and not for the better. Colonialism meant increased trains, roads, and schools, but those were not selfless gifts but instead investments in the colonial machine. Schools trained workers in Colonial enterprises. Roads and trains helped colonial powers survey “their” land and efficiently remove goods for sale. Colonialism was a business proposition built on the backs of humans.
The strict sense of colonialism waned in the late 20th century. The colonial system, with its concomitant racist systems, still exist. India is not a subject of the crown, but the UK still holds great sway. The US no longer owns the Philippines, but a powerful relationship still exists. Economic colonialism, in other words, maintains similar power structures despite the purported end to colonialism.
The five centuries of European control of the means of production and manipulations of markets have lasting effects on every country left behind. The global economy is like equality vs. equity illustration. Most nations enjoy self-rule, but only a few came to this state without generations of the intellectual knee-buckling and the outright thievery of colonialism. Britain never suffered hoards of people removing their mineral and gem resources. France never found themselves forced to grow commodity crops for another market altogether. Most nations are now “equal” but start at a massive disadvantage.
The privilege of colonialism might feel far away. Just as some white Americans eschew charges of racism by stating ‘my family didn’t own slaves’, many people in colonizer nations could say ‘my family wasn’t related to Queen Victoria’. Both claims are hooey. The privilege of colonialism is not hereditary, exactly. The colonial system was based on race, with power concentrated in whites. It is no surprise that the US and Canada, nations built by white settlers on the bones of Native American cultures and peoples, enjoyed self-rule. Small-pox and winking deals ensured these nations were basically as white as the lands of the colonizers.
Aspiration and opportunity have driven millions of people from their ancestral homes to the colonizer nations, a sort of step-home. While the United Kingdom remains largely white, 13% of the nation are people of color. The sun never set on the British Empire, and now people from all those sunny locales reside in the UK. Where once the empire was vast, now the UK sees a vast breadth in their populace. The privilege of colonialism also transferred, in some ways, to people of color living in colonizer nations. A UK-born Bangladeshi has the privilege (for a little while) of being able to work in the EU, of British education systems, of British infrastructure. Any person of color living in a colonizer nation or the colonial* nations knows this privilege is hard-won. The repopulating of colonial subjects in the lands of the colonizers set off anger, distrust, uncertainty, and violence. There was a sort of double standard. Whites had previously had the mobility, as well as the means of self-determination. People of color moving into the colonizer nations upset this system.
Each person of color feels colonialism in myriad ways. Asians, born in America, are almost always seen as foreign. Such experiences may seem small, but they point to the perniciousness of colonialism. If you are not a native American/ First Peoples, you are a settler. If you are an American of color, your skin is seen as a marker of otherness, a palimpsest of past wrongs. If you are white, your skin is a marker of “being from here,” a patently false feeling. White people are no more American than I, but their state is rarely contested.
Colonialism might seem like ancient history. After all, America threw off screwy King George a couple hundred years ago. Much of Asia gained self-rule in the 20th century. But pretending colonialism is a past-tense state is incredibly problematic. It allows us to gloss past the issues that colonialism continues to cause in everyday life. European nations and the US are whinging about the influx of refugees and migrants. This migration of peoples is directly related to colonialism. Lives are lost when we ignore the cultural cracks colonialism created.
Our whole world view is thanks to colonialism, from the primacy of the northern hemisphere to the default state of the English language. Much of the problems in contemporary society will not disappear without facing and addressing the way that colonial veins the fiber of our global culture.