When as a Western intellectual one easily alights upon conventional touchstones — the evils of colonialism, the normative division of people on the basis of their colour and their gender — one would do well to be aware that these touchstones and the compulsion to alight thereon, are also ideas which derive from the West, and that not everybody has a Western conceptualization of these concepts. I am one of these who didn’t have any knowledge of these ideas until very late.
I was born in Africa and lived there as a child. When, at the age of 15, I was forced to migrate to the West with my parents, I left everything behind. I left behind a place with which I had identified, I left behind animals I loved, I left behind places I loved and was familiar with. In a decisive sense, as I have discovered in retrospect, I left behind meaning — and like a traffic accident victim, I had to rebuild my very self from the ground up. Only, unlike a traffic victim, it was the spiritual self, the sense of well-being, the sense of meaning and purpose and understanding which I had to build up again, not my physical self exactly. And, I had to do this all under circumstances wherein I was either not understood or catered to at all, or was treated with direct hostility. (My father’s misplaced aggression and extreme, inherited misogyny did not help.)
Truly, I lost very much indeed — things that were priceless and will never be returned. I was a child, and had not yet inherited very much power in society. The Rhodesian school system was rigid, and I lived in fear a great deal. I was unsophisticated in terms of how most of those in the West determine sophistication: I knew nothing about recent world history when I migrated, I was relatively uncultured in terms of popular culture, I had no concept of industrial relations, nobody had imparted to me any social or political theory, and I barely knew how to make friends with those who had all these accoutrements.
So, I came to live in the West, and although I sensed that I’d lost a great deal, I came to lose even more when I was attacked because of my ‘situation of origin’.
You see, to certain Westerners, despite my humble manner and deep and terrifying desire just to get along and be accepted — to some of them I was an evil colonial. Needless to say I have been punished a great deal for the western need to see me in this way. I lost my health because of it, for quite a long duration. Then, of course, I ended up in the evil patriarch’s house and copped some more physical and mental misogynist abuse for my troubles!
So, being white, I’ve never had much power. I’ve always only been struggling for it, but for the life of me I’ve been unable to achieve very much to date. I’m still struggling economically and in other ways.
I do see whites who have power though — and whilst I admit that they may not have very much more than I do, they often (if they are at all intellectual) have internalized a trope which designates that certain people (whose identity is ostensibly based on their skin colour or origins) are evil colonials.
Often the hint I get that somebody has designated me as being an evil colonial is quite subtle and indirect — yet they are dismissive. Implicitly I understand the way that conversations develop (or fail to) when I’m being designated the evil colonial of the party.
Yet, the fact remains that generally when this is done to me, I am the weaker party of the two carrying on the discourse. I have no or little power — the other person is in a position of greater dominance.
And at times, I am compelled to ask myself about the nature of their dominance. Usually, they haven’t had to leave their home, and they’ve rarely been attacked on the basis of their ethnicity or origins. Usually such people who will address me and dismiss me in this manner are quite powerful people in their own right who have already had a relatively easy ride up some career ladder compared to myself, who doesn’t have any career and has had to struggle for the very, very little I have in terms of material means.
So, I meet these people, who are privileged within the Western world, and I ask myself, “what gives them their dominance?” — and then I sit back and I listen for a whisper or an echo of some sound.
I rarely receive anything like an answer, so I don’t bother to ask myself why I am being ignored. I point to Western empire building and western hedging of the bets concerning how various colonialist projects would work out (were the “Winds of change” really something more than that?) I consider the Western disingenuousness of pointing to the “problems of past colonialism” in various academic disciplines when current neo-colonial adventures are not mentioned. I consider the way in which those who smugly hedged their bets about African colonial projects are sitting pretty, whilst reaping the benefits of oil from Iraq and a higher standard of living on the backs of poorer Indian workers. And, I really don’t think I have a case to answer as the archetypal “evil colonial” apparently so much in demand!