The resurgence of public indignation against the systemic racism in Western societies provides an opportunity for the national soul-searching required to adequately make amends. Yogi Hale Hendlin proposes that the expiry date of colonialism has come due, requiring a program of thoroughgoing decolonization amounting to nothing short of reconfiguring the nation-state to reflect the plural cultural realities of the current citizenry.
The eruptive Black Lives Matter protests in the United States, now observed around the world, foreground the persistent but ignored systemic racism and general inequality – precisely because they are more than merely symbolic. Rather than politely making easily ignorable requests, the current indignation reveals not new sorts of violence, but rather a new public consciousness of the long-standing structural violence. Strategically downplaying structural inequalities because it inconveniences those confronting undeserved entitlements and privileges at the expense of others is no longer viable.
While the current “unrest” of continents reawakening to the injustices and human rights violations has its proximate cause in the deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Tony McDade, Ahmaud Arbery, and others, the racially-motivated state-sanctioned murders of these and other people of color are a continuation of a torrential history of violence justified by colonial powers based on stealing the land, the resources, and the life of others. Taking from others what is not yours to take, can only be done under the cover of moral legitimization and rationalization. Such justifications don’t work for ever, but have expiry dates. And the statute of limitations on such nonconsensual logics is up.
Colonial empires, like Holland, Belgium, the UK, and France – to take a sample of the European context – have a duty to reckon with their colonial past which lives on in the neocolonial present. This reckoning includes the origins of their nations’ wealth and the relative economic colonialism and resulting historical scars inflicted on their former colonies and trade routes. Some might say let bygones be bygones. But their legacies remain with us, literally chiseled in stone. For example, many knew little about Leopold II, the genocidal Belgium king responsible for killing 10-17 million Congolese, until his responsibility was resurrected in the recent desecrations of public statues bearing his depiction. The ancestors of these dead, and the millions more amputated as punishment under Leopold II’s reign of terror in Africa, have cellular memory of these harms that continues to hamper their flourishing. So much for arguing that prosperity is available to all equally, as if there were a clean slate and fair starting positions. Europe, the Americas, and Australasia will not be free until we acknowledge in terms of both recognition and redistribution the enormity of the task of making amends for centuries of injury in nonsymbolic terms.
The counter-discourse to colonization and its perversion of both colonized and colonizer is decolonization. Decolonization is both an ecological and social movement claiming that in the long-term, to survive it is impossible ignore and thus exacerbate the living impacts of historical injustice. As Frantz Fanon pointed out, we all suffer from dehumanizing zero-sum relationships based on domination – no matter whether we believe it advantages us or not. Decolonization frameworks offer instead obvious but perhaps courage-required policies restituting material, territorial, educative, and institutional capital, not empty and impotent symbolic gestures. As Tuck and Tang remind us, “decolonization is not a metaphor.”
Certainly, symbolic changes such as moving beyond revisionist histories are necessary – they are consciousness-raising issues that pointing the current location of the Overton window of acceptable discourse. Indicative of the low bar of dominant discourses on race and reconciliation is the fact that there’s still a struggle in the Netherlands to overcome the revisionist racist history of Zwarte Piet, or the resistance in the United States to create a Juneteenth holiday to commemorate emancipation of African-Americans from slavery. Instead of arguing over the yearly reparations European and other colonizer nations should be making to former colonies – on the order of the war reparations Germany paid back for WWII – or in which ways our society needs to radically transform to increase representation of previously marginalized ethnicities, genders, women, and so one, the battleground has barely budged from its unwholesome past in recent decades. Instead of honest moral accounting, we’ve grown complacent with endless empty gesturing.
Part of this hagiography of colonialism has to do with a lack of imagination. As Claude Steele’s Whistling Vivaldi describes the living history of racism in stereotypes, the existential burden of stereotype threat offers an unlevel playing field that for some is hard to understand if you haven’t experienced it. A white person on a court of black basketball players may feel pressure that the quality of his performance reflects on the stereotypically comparative poor basketball abilities all white people. Likewise, negatively-valanced stereotypes against people of color drag them down and hinder learning and performance, in addition to the actual physical and structural violence they meet through casual and institutional racism. As John Stewart recently said in an interview, “people say, ‘I’m tired of everything being about race.’ Well, imagine how [expletive] exhausting it is to live that”!
Despite our inclusion of immigrant and ethnically diverse groups in full-fledged de jure political membership, often these groups de facto are kept peripheral. As colonial governments included increasingly more diverse peoples into their preexisting structures, they resisted actually transforming the governing structures themselves. Yet, what needed to happen with a polity not just numerically but substantially changed, was collectively reconceptualizing and rebuilding the reigning political, economic, and social structures that hitherto had been based on systematic inequalities and violence. To properly decolonize, the needs, desires, and orientations of the new constituents must be reflected in a transformed constitution.
Those who occupied contrastive positions in society brought new perspectives and ways of being to the table, but historically these have been only begrudgingly and marginally integrated in forms of government. Spelling out the task, Nancy Fraser distinguishes between affirmative recognition – engaging in positively valancing formerly discriminated against positions or states of being – and transformative recognition, which remakes the very categories of discernment to better represent the new socially-inclusive constellations. The former category assimilates, the latter pluralizes.
Our mission for the 21st century – should we choose to accept it – is not to fetishize the so-called “talented tenth” top achievers of a minority population; it is to recognize and not gaslight the actual lived experiences of people of color and those historically discriminated against. Many individuals in these groups have experienced generations of discrimination that they and their ancestors have overcome to exist today. No one should be forced to contort themselves in external and internalized performances to please others (often under duress), as long as their individuality doesn’t hurt others. Being a “model citizen” assumes a monolithic model, when in fact we need plural and diverse ways of being together to form a less blindered society. We need to take up solidary action where we don’t foist the entire burden of transformational change on the most oppressed and thus structurally most vulnerable to violence. We need less police and more social workers. More universal basic income, less corporate bailouts. More opportunities for solidarity with groups of people we normally might not interact with. This intersectionality is precisely why so many climate change activists are now virulently supporting social justice.
The historical fears that if given power the oppressed will become the new oppressors turns out to be a self-serving myth of the dominating. These false equivalencies reveal that matriarchy isn’t a mirror reflection of patriarchy, Black Power doesn’t mean reproduce a black version of white supremacy — rather, these alternative approaches signal the transformation and reconciliation of these categories, not reproducing them merely with a different set of people at the helm. The fears of whites (“white fragility”) that giving equitable respect to people of color will mean a loss of identity and security for whites, only makes obvious the illegitimate and unfounded grounds for such a frail identity. Identification with whiteness based on oppression of others to enforce some concept of superiority, is an inherently unstable and unsustainable grounding requiring constant application of force. Unearned entitlements stemming from enforced artificial hierarchies need to be reckoned with, so that the self-confidence and worth of white people (especially men) can be based on true merit, rather than on unjust scales tipped in their favor. Only when we provide extra support for those whose potential has been suppressed can the successes of those benefiting from de facto and de jure discrimination actually carry the validity of genuine accomplishments.
Recognition and thriving are not zero-sum games. To the contrary, insofar as we fail to raise up those we or our ancestors have unfairly oppressed, our successes ring hollow, as we have been afraid of genuine competition. Only cowards play dirty by undermining other contestants’ chances. Even if we can’t immediately territorially decolonialize, it’s worth having a discussion about it in the open.
Affirmative action implies as much: in order for us all to be on a fair playing field, we need to actively undo the asymmetries of colonialism in all its forms by enabling the development of historically oppressed peoples. As Director of UC Berkeley’s Othering and Belong Institute john a. powell recognizes, “Equity as opposed to equality recognizes that people are situated differently. The goal is not to treat everyone the same, but to treat everyone fairly.” To reduce group-based inequalities, we need what powell calls “targeted universalism,” universal goals for our entire society (such as dignified living conditions) to be achieved through targeted approaches (providing tailored approaches to groups that have not had access to education, jobs, basic resources, or other opportunities). A universal basic income (UBI) or free public transportation, for example, benefits all, but especially those groups who land in economic disadvantage due to discrimination based on race, sex, or gender.
There is no hidden agenda on racism – the cat has been out of the bag for centuries. Countries like the United States which were founded on white supremacy, and countries that massively profited from it like the Netherlands, need to not only make gestural amends; they need to find ways to lift those who bear the brunt of generations of discrimination. They need to engage the hard, patient work of decolonization.
There are plenty of anti-racism resources for white allies (or “accomplices,” as my friends from the Standing Rock pipeline protests call us) working intersectionally on transformational change and just futures. But unless those at all levels of power recognize the active role they have to play in repairing the damaged histories of colonialism and work for decolonialism, we’ll remain stuck in the broken loop of systemic violence, yet again heaping the responsibility for change which benefits us all on those given the least amount of institutional power to enact progress.
As the statesman and escaped slave Frederick Douglas noted in 1857:
“Those who profess to favor freedom and yet depreciate agitation, are people who want crops without ploughing the ground… The struggle may be a moral one, or it may be a physical one, or it may be both. But it must be a struggle. Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will.”
Colonization had its shadowed run. Time is up, and we must find a new just and inclusive way forward through creatively deconstructing it, block by block, thought by thought.