Western presentations of colonialism say the quiet part out loud when they don’t say anything at all
By GEETIKA MAHAJAN — email@example.com
The story of colonization is over-simplified and over-sanitized in almost every retelling: Native Americans “died out” because of “disease”; the British “modernized” the people and technologies of India; the French “influenced” the culture and food of Vietnam. This is the kind of slippery and vague language that dominates most presentations of colonialism, disguising the brutality of occupation by making all of its consequences sound like they were a matter of circumstance. In actuality, nothing about colonization is passive, i.e. no part of it “just happens.” It takes violence to be able to seize control over an external territory, it takes violence to be able to maintain a presence there and it takes violence to be able to effectively resist occupation.
When I was in high school, the history textbooks that were used in class neglected this last part. Vague references to “Gandhi” and “ahimsa” essentially gave readers the impression that empires would occupy a land for a period of time, and then retreat after facing some amount of resistance. Empires, however, do not fade into obscurity. The issue with this presentation of colonialism is that it fundamentally misrepresents what the purpose and motives of the empire are: not humanitarianism, or benefitting its own people — its loyalty is primarily to expanding its own influence through the acquisition of land and wealth. The goal of colonialism, both in the past and in the more disguised form it takes today, has always been to expand Western hegemony.
Peaceful, non-disruptive methods of protest are not useful in this context. Kwame Ture, a prominent civil rights organizer, expressed that “in order for non-violence to work, your oppressor has to have a conscience.” The very act of entering a foreign land and manipulating its socio-economic systems for the benefit of another nation is evidence of the empire’s lack of conscience when it came to the colonized people. As such, nonviolent protest was never an option for those who sought the liberation of their country. Narratives of colonialism that fail to take this into account distort not only what an independence movement looks like, but the nature of the colonizer. To present any empire or Western power as an entity that would just leave a colony assigns them an undue amount of grace and humanity.
The issue with this misrepresentation is not just how it affects perceptions of past events; it also colors our view of current events. When “safe” figures like Martin Luther King and Gandhi are celebrated as catalysts of change, while equally important, but perhaps more divisive leaders in liberation movements get a sentence or two dedicated to their efforts, it’s easy to believe that the path to change resides in quiet, peaceful resistance. But systemic issues are deeply ingrained into the way a country functions — oftentimes, there are people who are harmed by these issues, but there are also those that profit off of the systems in place.
Colonialism is the most obvious example of this, which is why decolonization has always been a violent process. The British, French, German or American empires did not leave any of their former colonies because they were asked politely, but it is often presented as though it was a peaceful resistance that resulted in the end of colonization, or that the empire eroded away with time. This portrayal lacks both nuance and historical accuracy; it does not acknowledge that colonialism in and of itself is an act of violence. The actions of resistance movements cannot be viewed in a bubble because they are symptoms of the original act of violence, perpetrated by the colonial state.
I believe that it is important to keep this in mind, even in the present day. Though the empires of the past have fallen, Western hegemony is still very much a goal for most Western leaders, even as methods of expanding this sphere of influence grow more subtle and the media uses veiled rhetoric to avoid identifying who the real perpetrators of violence are. It’s important to think about the story of colonialism and who tells it, what kind of language they use and which governments seem to sound more like purposefully vague history textbooks. It’s important because, no matter how much the mouthpieces of the West obfuscate it, it’s a very simple story and it always ends the same way.
Written by: Geetika Mahajan — firstname.lastname@example.org
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