by Janani Balasubramanian
I’ve noticed in several radical, POC spaces I’ve been in over the years, that the words ‘colonized’ and ‘decolonized’ are used frequently, and without necessarily a reference to a specific colonial event or structure. I’ve started to do it too. I’m not sure way this is the case. Perhaps there’s something almost sexy about it–not that colonization is sexy, but that being able to use ‘colonize’ and ‘decolonize’ often becomes part of a particular hip, radical ‘aesthetic’. Perhaps also it’s just more work to dive deeper into the multiple racial/imperialist dynamics at play.
Often, in these spaces, ‘colonized’ is used as a synonym for POC. Using ‘colonized’ as a stand-in for racial domination or, equivalently, ‘decolonized’ as a stand-in for racial liberation is fraught, for many of the same reasons that using person of color without a more specific racial analysis is fraught–that is, it has the possibility of glossing over multiple privileges and dynamics. Colonialism is a rampant phenomenon, but it’s also a specific one: it involves the extension of sovereignty of one people/nation over another. Settler-colonialism (like in the US) further involves settlers occupying colonized peoples’ lands. Colonialism is marked by psychological trauma as well as material domination, but it is not just a general term for racism. Similarly, decolonization is not a general term for anti-racism; it involves the removal of colonizers’ control over land, resources, bodies, and minds.
I want to challenge us (radical, POC communities) to be more critical of when and why we’re using colonialism as our primary lens, and to be more intentional than the colonized=POC=brown paradigm. Here, I point to some of the ways that construction is problematic:
1. Not all POC were/are colonized. Most of our peoples were/are under colonial control, but not all. This is not to say that POC whose peoples were never formally colonized are not affected by colonialism; as a product of trade/labor routes, and the ways that our origins are homogenized, we definitely experience racism that isn’t necessarily specific to our histories. But being POC doesn’t necessarily carry a direct colonial history.
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2. Decolonization is not a metaphor. I’ve witnessed multiple non-Indigenous POC talk about creating ‘decolonized spaces’ or ‘decolonizing our minds’. Decolonization is not a just a set of processes to create more just racial relations. In the US, it literally involves unsettling non-Indigenous people. From Tuck and Wang’s article ‘Decolonization is not a metaphor’: ‘Decolonization brings about the repatriation of Indigenous land and life; it is not a metaphor for other things we want to do to improve our societies and schools.’
3. Along the same lines, colonization and decolonization are not individual practices. They are structures. We do not decolonize ourselves; we participate and/or work in solidarity with the decolonization of peoples and communities. That distinction is important.
4. In the US, we are in the belly of the imperialist beast. When US people talk about decolonizing ourselves or our societies, we need to consider the privileges we gain by being in the heart of modern empire. Decolonization is not something that happens divorced of the US removing itself from its colonies and imperialist control of other nations’ resources.
5. We need a more careful analysis of what diaspora is and isn’t. Recently, I read a piece calling for decolonizing yoga by returning its control to South Asian-Americans. That proposal is an oversimplification. Material and political gains for diaspora does not necessarily translate to reparations for folks in places of origin. Diaspora aren’t total stewards of cultures, histories, and resources: that kind of stewardship and decolonization practice needs to center folks operating within the Third World.
6. Not all racism comes about through colonialism. Race is brought into being also by labor relations, migration patterns, war, enslavement, etc. None of these processes is totally separate from colonialism, but it’s important to hold their specificity. In a recent piece critiquing Vijay Prashad’s writing on South Asians in the US, Tamara Nopper argues that ‘colonized’ becomes a way of ignoring the ‘singularity of racial slavery’. She traces the history of the colonial analogy:
Popularized in the 1960s and 1970s by scholars and radical activists and artists, the colonial analogy posits that non-whites in the United States constitute a “third world within.” This colonial analogy is a version of the white/non-white model of race relations, which has been called into question by Afro-pessimists as well as other scholars who conclude that the U.S. racial hierarchy is structured by a Black/non-Black divide.
This isn’t to say that we shouldn’t be using decolonization as a paradigm. I’m arguing instead that treating decolonization (and unsettlement) seriously means understanding what it is (and isn’t). Colonization and decolonization are processes with material consequences, not words to throw around whenever we want to talk about oppression.
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Janani Balasubramanian is a South Asian literary and performance artist based in Brooklyn. Their work deals broadly with empire, desire, microflora, ancestry, apocalypse, and the Future. They’re a regular contributor at BGD, and one-half of the spoken word duo DarkMatter. They’re currently working on their first sci-fi novel, H. You can read more of Janani’s work at queerdarkenergy.com.
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