Psychological colonialism

One of the major ways in which colonialism has continued to exist in our world today is through the mind.  It is unbelievable the way the global system(s) have been moulded to produce peoples who think they are organized in a hierarchy.  The media, capitalism, international relations, consumerism, heteronormativity, racism – all of these have combined to create a world in which every person knows there place.

Yet at the same time, many people who are not at the top of the hierarchy (white, male, older, from certain parts of Europe and the US) do not simply accept their position but struggle against it. We know we’re not less human, even though we’re being told that everyday (implicitly or explicitly). Thus life is a constant struggle where you have to defend your race, gender, nationality, sexuality, preferences to not only those who are prejudiced towards you but to yourself. I’ve experienced so many moments where I’ve questioned myself and my beliefs – are women more emotional than men? is Islam a gender-biased religion? are Arabs culturally backwards? And then the tremendous guilt that comes with that because I shouldn’t be asking those questions. But I’m socialized to believe certain things about certain groups, and it is a constant battle to tell myself that these things are social constructions.

Who is an Aryan?

A friend recently told me about an experiment done in the 1940s in America.  Two psychiatrists used dolls to study children’s attitudes about race.

They found that black children often preferred to play with white dolls over black; that, asked to fill in a human figure with the color of their own skin, they frequently chose a lighter shade than was accurate; and that the children gave the color “white” attributes such as good and pretty, but “black” was qualified as bad and ugly (click here).

They argued that these results showed that the children had internalized racism caused by being discriminated against and stigmatized by segregation.

Is it really surprising that black children chose to play with white dolls? Or that they saw themselves as lighter than they actually were? Think of what these kids are taught since the moment they are born: what do they see around them, what do they see at school, what do they experience in the public sphere? There are millions of implicit messages being sent to us each day, especially through the media. These play an integral role in defining us and defining our self-image.


Is it really surprising that so many people are self-deprecating or have an inferiority complex? Are we socialized to have those? Even today I am still shocked to hear Egyptians talk about the US as superior and Egypt as backwards – America, with a history of 500 years and Egypt with a history of 7000 years? Moreover, I find it surprising that people don’t try and understand why we have “more developed” and “less developed” countries today (I hate using those terms but just making the point that some countries are in a better economic and political situation).

How to move past this? How do we stop seeing our own cultures, genders, religions, sexualities as inferior? And even more difficult is to not do what has been done to us: inferiorize others in order to feel better about what is ours. Is the way to feel better about being a woman to put men down, as many radical feminists have done? Is the way to feel better about being a Muslim to emphasize that all non-Muslims are infidels? Surely that’s just reproducing the same racist colonial rhetoric we’ve always been complaining about.

I guess the only way to deal with all of this is to be conscious of how power is used by global systems to produce inequalities and hierarchies, and to constantly be conscious of these, especially when we reproduce them. It’s a constant battle, but it’s better to be aware than to blindly accept and reproduce.


7 thoughts on “Psychological colonialism

  1. Candice

    My husband is one of those who find white more beautiful and thinks of himself as lighter than he is. I’m trying to make sure my daughter doesn’t feel that way though so I am making sure she gets exposed to all sorts of beauty and grows up as an open person… I’m doing the same with gender ideas. Telling her it doesn’t matter if this item is “for boys” or “for girls” anyone can enjoy it. She chose Thomas the tank engine shoes last time and is aware that they are “supposed” to be for boys but I’m making sure that she feels confident enough in herself to bust those stereotypes if she wants.
    I was proud of her last week – she coloured a picture of a little girl and colored her skin brown 🙂

  2. This is a great post. Thanks for covering such an important topic. I found myself relating to some of the questions you asked. It made me reflect on my experiences growing up as a Pakistani Muslim in a predominately white non-Muslim area. I wouldn’t see myself as an attractive person, I was always embarrassed when my parents would speak Urdu around my friends, and I intentionally avoided the handful of South Asian students that went to my school. I spoke negatively about my culture, about where I was from, and would participate in perpetuating stereotypes about other racialized people. It was until after 9/11 when I started to really appreciate my roots and make efforts to reconnect.

    The destructive phenomenon of the colonized mind or internalized racism is something that I think is overlooked a lot. It disturbs me when I hear Muslims say stereotypical things about fellow Muslims. It disturbs me when I see Pakistanis abandon their culture and language for the sake of conforming to the white mainstream. I know from my own experiences with internalized racism that it is not easy to overcome.

    I like the point you made about not reproducing racism and oppression while we’re defending ourselves. Unfortunately, we see this happen a lot among activists and I think that’s a failure of understanding the importance of intersectional approaches. Anyway, great post.

  3. Really enjoyed this post! I am catching up on posts I had not read and you have a good variety of interesting topics!

    I’m quite white, but I love darker people. I think brown – in its variety of shades – is so pretty, but then I think ALL of God’s creation is lovely! It’s we silly humans who classify people as prettier or uglier based on traits WE find attractive. Eh, as the saying goes, “Beauty is only skin deep.” May we all find inner beauty in others…that is the best kind (or at least I think so!)

  4. Daayiee

    Sara, a great article and very timely, and speaks to the world situation where 9 out of 10 people are people of color and they spend their time disenfranchising each other–we can be far more productive in our lives than this. Additionally, this subject should not be one that is archived in just our minds, but we need to use it to help make change happen in their mindset. We have to show people their internalized racism and inferiority complex–that means when it happens, we have to confront them (nicely) when a person of color hears another person of color playing the superiority “race” card. Though they may not acknowledge they are doing so, over time it will sink in and they will see their error in prejudicing someone they do not know. Needless to say, it keeps all people of color at each others throats and many whites (not all) enjoy the show.

  5. I agree. Each of us can hold the consciousnous of the positions we occupy within our own spheres, where other power differentials may be at play: Muslim to non-Muslim, when in a Muslim-dominated nation; Arab to non-Arab Muslim within Muslim communities, or born-Muslim to convert-Muslim; man to woman; straight to gay; etc.

    And, at the same time, we can challenge the little voice that whispers to us, throughout the day, at night, or whenever it sibilantly speaks, telling us we are less important, less valuable, less worthy, less human, than whoever sits further up along that imaginary scale of worth and dignity (no matter what the axis of measurement is: gender, race, age, ability, sexual orientation, religion, etc.).

  6. Pingback: On: What We Talk About When We Talk About China | In Jiangxi

  7. Knowledge is the only true way my dear. Knowledge of the opression, knowledge of neocolonialism, knowledge of who we can be as a people and the power we collectively hold. I believe that is the only way we can change our psychological disposition and counter the mind control systems put in place.

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