Essay #Curadaterra

Decolonization Matters

Black Lives Matter protests in the United States and around the world are illuminating systemic racism and inequality precisely because they are so much more than symbolic. Rather than politely making easily ignorable requests, these protests reveal a newfound public awareness of long-standing structural violence. Strategically downplaying structural inequality for those benefiting from it is no longer viable.

While the current “unrest” has its proximate cause in the deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Tony McDade, Ahmaud Arbery, and others, the murders of these and other people of color since are a continuation of a history of violence long justified by colonial powers. Such justifications were instrumental in order to steal land, resources, and the lives of others. But contrary to the colonial narrative, such justifications don’t work forever. They have expiration dates. And the expiration date is up.

Colonial empires in Europe like Holland, Belgium, the UK, and France have a duty to reckon with their colonial past which continues by other means today. This reckoning includes examining the origins of their nations’ wealth and the resulting scars inflicted on societies in former colonies and along trade routes.

For example, few in my generation knew much about the history of Leopold II, the genocidal Belgium king responsible for killing 10-17 million Congolese in the late 1800s, until his legacy of horror was resurrected in the recent desecrations of public statues depicting him. The ancestors of those killed and tortured under Leopold II’s reign of terror in Africa carry cellular memory of his atrocities. These inter-generational harms require inter-generational reparations.

In the face of such not-long distant violence, the claim that prosperity is available to all equally, as if there were a clean slate and fair starting positions, is obnoxiously irrational. Europe, the Americas, and Australasia – the colonizer seats – will not be free until we acknowledge such facts in non-symbolic terms, through both recognition and resource redistribution for centuries of injury.

The counter-discourse to colonization is decolonization. Decolonization is both an ecological and social movement maintaining that, for progress and survival, it is impossible to ignore 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. Instead, decolonization frameworks offer policies restituting real material, territorial, educative, and institutional capital. As Tuck and Tang remind us, “decolonization is not a metaphor.”

It is time to consider the yearly amount of reparations European and other colonizer nations owe to former colonies—on the order of the war reparations Germany paid back for WWII—and how our society will radically transform to increase representation of previously marginalized people. To properly decolonize, the needs, desires, and orientations of the full spectrum of our current national constituents must be reflected in transformed constitutions.

Historically, those who bring new perspectives and ways of being to the table are only begrudgingly and marginally integrated in forms of government. Spelling out the task, political theorist Nancy Fraser distinguishes between affirmative recognition—engaging in positively  revaluing a trait or quality (like Steve Biko’s “Black is Beautiful” campaign)—and transformative recognition, which takes these affirmations of difference to remake the very categories that comprise them.

Our mission for the 21st century is not to fetishize the so-called “talented tenth” top achievers of a minority population and see them as anomalies; it is to recognize and not gaslight the actual lived-experiences of people of color and those historically discriminated against. No one should be forced to contort themselves in external or internalized performances to please those in power. Being a “model citizen” assumes an abstract monolithic model, when in fact we need plural and diverse ways of being together. We need to take up solidarity 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 engaged in related causes. This intersectionality is precisely why so many climate change activists are now spiritedly supporting social justice.

The “white fragility” fear that the oppressed will become the new oppressors turns out to be a self-serving myth. Matriarchy isn’t a mirror reflection of patriarchy; Black Power doesn’t mean reproducing a black version of white supremacy. Rather, these alternative approaches signal the transformation and reconciliation of categories, not reproducing them merely with a different set of people at the helm.

Identification with whiteness based on oppression of others to enforce some concept of superiority is an inherently unstable and unsustainable grounding, requiring the constant application of force. Only when we provide extra support for those whose potential has been suppressed can the successes of historically advantaged minorities (those comprising what bell hooks calls the “white supremacist capitalist patriarchy”) benefiting from de facto and de jure discrimination actually carry the validity of genuine accomplishment. Insofar as we fail to raise up those we or our ancestors have unfairly oppressed, our successes will ring hollow.

Even if we can’t immediately territorially decolonialize, it’s worth having a discussion about it in the open. And even if we as a society put our full weight into such a program now, decolonization will take generations.

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, to be achieved through tailored approaches to groups that have not had access to education, jobs, housing, or other basic resources. A universal basic income (UBI) or free public transportation, for example, benefits all, but especially those groups disadvantaged due to discrimination based on race, sex, or gender.

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.

Colonization had its shadowed run. Time’s up, and we must find a new just and inclusive way forward through creatively deconstructing it, block by block, thought by thought.

About Yogi Hale Hendlin

Yogi Hale Hendlin is an environmental philosopher and public health scientist committed to identifying and ameliorating the environmental determinants of health. Yogi is Associate Editor of the journal Biosemiotics, and is an assistant professor in the Dynamics of Inclusive Prosperity Initiative and Erasmus School of Philosophy at Erasmus University Rotterdam, as well as research associate in the Environmental Health Initiative at the University of California, San Francisco.

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