Postcolonial What?

In my last post I covered the first part of my comprehensive exams list on non-profits and faith-based organizations. Next up is the part about postcolonial organizing and representation.

Now you might be wondering, what does postcolonial even mean? For those who aren’t familiar, postcolonialism is “a way of articulating resistance to dominant, Eurocentric perspectives that are seen as the norm” (Broadfoot & Munshi, 2007, p. 253). Its goal is to interrogate the past and present effects of colonialism in our world.

There are several central texts on postcolonialism, many of which can be found on my full comps list. For now, I want to focus on two: Fanon’s (1952) Black Skin, White Masks and Said’s (1978) Orientalism.* 

Black Skin, White Masks

Frantz Omar Fanon was born in the French colony of Martinique (now considered part of the Caribbean islands). He writes from the perspective of the colonized subject and interrogates the psychology of colonialism and racism.

Fanon’s central argument is that the practice of colonialism is internalized by the colonized, which creates an inferiority complex that causes marginalized people to mimic their oppressors in an attempt to be more like them. From his experience as a black man, he explains that racism convinces people that in order to be accepted they must adapt to the dominant (white) way of acting and living.

Liberation from racism and colonialism was Fanon’s primary goal. He wanted to expose this flawed psychology and false constructions of what is “ideal.” However, he wrestles with how the oppressed can liberate themselves when they must use the oppressors’ language and systems to be heard.

This ties into Said’s argument in Orientalism, which considers where knowledge comes from and who gets to define one’s humanity.

Orientalism

To understand Orientalism, we must begin with the assumption that the labels “East” and “West” are man-made and were created by people in power, thus they are not neutral labels. For Said, the “Orient” is a geographical space that was created by Western Europe’s perception of other lands that were considered “exotic” or “different.” Thus, the West got to define what counts as the East, and the East never got to define itself on its own terms.

A second way of defining Orientalism is as a way of thinking about existence and knowledge that is differentiated between the “Orient” (what we now call the Middle East, Africa, and Asia) and the “Occident” (Western Europe, and eventually North America). This division was created because knowledge about the Orient was controlled and produced by the Occident. Because of this, our ideas about what it means to be human and what is right or true came from those in power.

Finally, Said argues that the third conception of Orientalism refers to the “Western style for dominating, restructuring, and having authority over the Orient” (p. 11). Essentially, because the West (predominantly powers like Britain and France) defined the East, an unstable power dynamic was created where things that are Western were considered normal, good, and proper, whereas things that are Eastern were seen as different, wrong, and untrustworthy.

These definitions of Orientalism explain why colonization was rationalized as a good thing that would benefit the people being colonized. In truth, colonization was a demeaning and controlling practice that still has lasting negative implications.

Summary

Both Fanon and Said were not directly associated with postcolonialism, but they are seen among the founders of postcolonial thought. Postcolonialism as an academic discipline is still being defined and discussed, especially in the field of communication.

If all of this sounds radical to you–good. In many ways it is. But such radical thought is needed to break down the systems of racism and hatred that have become normal. As Fanon said:

“hate is not inborn; it has to be constantly cultivated, to be brought into being, in conflict with more or less recognized guilt complexes. Hate demands existence, and he who hates has to show his hate in appropriate actions and behavior; in a sense, he has to become hate.”

These messages are as important today as when they were written. Our society still faces extreme hatred of the “other”, and deconstructing the origins of those thoughts is one way to move forward towards a better tomorrow.

In my next post I will explain why these readings matter to my research and field of study. Stay tuned.


*The dates listed here are the first years Fanon and Said published their work. The versions that I read are newer editions with additional forewards, so you can refer to the dates on my comprehensive exams list 1 for those versions.

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