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.
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.