Some of you know that I am still in school, hence my MIA status the last little while (ok, the last long while). Well, I only have one more paper to write this term, so with a little breathing room, I thought I would post some of my smaller assignments, starting with my response papers
to various books I read this term. First up: A lil Colonizer/Colonized
action by good ol' Memmi. I had been looking forward to this one for several years. Enjoy.
In the Introduction to Memmi’s The Colonizer and the Colonized, Jean-Paul Sarte succinctly points out an important but often obscured reality of colonization, “that there are neither good nor bad colonists: there are colonialists.” This perspective has particular relevance in the Indigenous territories that have never experienced decolonization, formal or otherwise - mainly the countries now known as Canada, USA, New Zealand, and Australia. All of these countries have developed broadly accepted national mythologies that invoke varying degrees of legitimacy and patriotism among Settler populations. And while Memmi was writing primarily about his experiences on the African continent, specifically as a Jewish immigrant in Tunisia, many of his insights into the portraits of the colonizer and the colonized are relevant to an analysis of Indigenous-Settler relations here in Canada. In offering a critique of Memmi's anti-colonial classic, I point out some differences as experienced by Indigenous peoples in Canada, especially on the question of assimilation in our current era of neoliberalism. Finally, I comment on what might be Memmi's most obvious shortfall, that of his failing to meaningfully acknowledge the experience of Indigenous women in the process of colonization.
Memmi writes that, "All Europeans in the colonies are privileged," and that whether the colonizer is rich or a poor "dupe and victim, he also gets his share." As years turn into decades and generations of Settlers are born in the colonies, one often hears the argument from Settlers that they are innocent of the crimes of colonization. In fact, not only are they innocent the argument goes, but they no longer benefit from a place of privilege relative to Indigenous people. Memmi points out that this is just not the case, and that all colonials benefit at the expense of Indigenous people. And while it is important that their unique place of privilege is acknowledged, it is also important to understand that they also suffer from the dehumanizing effects from colonization. Speaking of the experience of left-leaning colonials, Memmi writes, "He lives his life under the sign of a contradiction which looms at every step, depriving him of all coherence and tranquility" and "it is certainly admitted today that one can be, while awaiting the revolution, both a revolutionary and an exploiter." And while Memmi writes that, "it is more convenient to accept colonization" for some, "to possess victory completely he needs to absolve himself of it and the conditions under which it was attained." This persistent need for legitimacy and absolution can be seen in the current BC Treaty Process and various Comprehensive Claims negotiations throughout Canada, despite the de facto legitimacy and sovereignty that the state already enjoys.
Memmi's chapter on the "Mythical portrait of the colonized" illustrates many of the ways in which the colonizer seeks to legitimate his role as usurper in the name of "progress" and "industry." The colonizer in painted as a man of action and virtue, while the colonized is cast as lazy and indolent. The dehumanization and objectification of the colonized have had profound effects, not the least of which is a little matter of genocide. Memmi also writes, "The most serious blow suffered by the colonized is being removed from history and from the community. Colonization usurps any free role in either war or peace, every decision contributing to his destiny and that of the world, and all cultural and social responsibility." He writes further, "The colonized seems condemned to lose his memory." These disconnections that have occurred as a result of colonization continue to plague Indigenous people, not merely as an historical trauma, but as an ongoing experience. Indigenous children are still being removed from families, Indigenous people are faced with economic dilemmas that force many to leave their homelands to seek education and work in Settler communities, and the Indigenous experience continues to be characterized as one of inferiority in the face of overwhelming Settler values and worldviews.
In his Conclusion, Memmi writes, "Contemporary colonization carried an inherent contradiction which, sooner or later, would cause it to die." What Memmi did not foresee, however, would be what Kwame Nkrumah called, "neocolonialism" and an ongoing relationship of the exploiter and the exploited. Indigenous people continue to live this experience in Africa, Asia, and the Americas. As it relates to Canada, Memmi would also be wrong in writing, "the colonialist never planned to transform the colony into the image of his homeland, nor remake the colonized in his own image!" He writes further that, "Within the colonial framework, assimilation has turned out to be impossible." In the 1950s and 1960s it might have been more accurate to make this assumption, with segregationist policies in North America and formal decolonization occurring in Africa, but in today's neoliberal era, assimilation and homogenization have become hallmarks in the ongoing imperial project.
Symptomatic of much of the writing of his time, Memmi also completely ignores the experience of colonized women and even goes so far as to suggest that colonial women are "less concerned about humanity in an abstract sense..." In the Afterward, Susan Gilson Miller points out this shortfall in Memmi's writing as well, noting that aside from the obvious, women have always been profoundly influential in African liberation movements. While The Colonizer and the Colonized provides us with many important insights into the respective minds of both Settlers and Indigenous people, the omission of the roles and experiences of women in the process of colonization is fatal to any prospect for successful decolonization.