On colonialism and postcolonial structures of racism and inequality
Racism is a symptom of a larger problem. However, most of us now choose not to address the wider problem: people have remained imprisoned in their ‘places and stations’ in life, even after the supposed liberation of postracial, postemancipation and postcolonialism were to have affected widespread and sweeping changes. The UK-based Guardian provided food for thought with “Belgium comes to terms with ‘human zoos’ of its colonial past”, by Daniel Boffey.
Colonialism as we know it is responsible for much of the racism, the neoliberalism and the hardline fascism on migration and immigration that rises out of countries like Britain and the U.S.
The antipathy of whites for blacks, especially African tribes, predates colonialism and slavery, but builds as a result of the institution that sees blacks as soulless, so unhuman. For much of the 19th and early 20th centuries, these powers, along with France, Belgium and Spain, for example, controlled the globe in not-so-kind ways. They extracted and exploited as colonial powers do. They created a system of racial inequality that replaced ethnicity as a justifiable way of proving another’s inferiority. The Belgians in the Congo and Zaire or Rwanda, spoke volumes to the inequities and power asymmetries that have set awry all development and governance since their departure.
Colonialism created the rule by superiority mandate, and the recognition of superiority through whiteness, as Imperial Leather attests. Those countries occupied and then left when it became unprofitable to remain never recovered from the systemic and systematic creation of a racial hierarchy and divide that remains entrenched. Frantz Fanon discusses this in French history.
These legacies play themselves out today in similar realities as those which were colonized and asked to defend the colonial power in WWI and WWII, and then when the center needed labor, for example around the 1940s. The ‘immigrants’, who happened to be British, were brought in and made to work in hostile conditions where the people who benefited from, but understood nothing of empire and imperialism, found the presence of colonial subjects unpalatable. Today, the same people who landed in Britain as British citizens or subjects are now told they are not British and being ‘repatriated’ to a home they left almost half a century before to assist the mother country, now turned hater. Sound similar to the U.S.?
Colonialism made Britain, Spain, France and Belgium rich. Colonialism made more countries poor and unequal on the world stage. Immanuel Wallerstein’s and Eduardo Galeano’s works, along with Orlando Paterson’s and Eric Williams’ works, bear this out. Imperialism made the U.S. rich, as it used and abused territories like Puerto Rico, The Philippines and its once-occupied neighbor, Cuba, through legal and policy apparatus like laws that made it legal for U.S. citizens to reside in those spaces and benefit, but illegal for Puerto Ricans, for example, to vote in the U.S. general elections or to inscribe inferior subjectivity on their bodies through the Foraker and Jones Laws. It has created spatial injustice that David Harvey and Edward Soja work through, where as Fannon attests, the settler community is far superior to the negro town, deprived of anything ‘nice’. Colonialism has created a serious and stubborn racial inequity that results in racism through insistent and endemic inequality and deeply racialized xenophobic othering.
Boffey’s story, much like the awareness-building program about reparations paid to former slave owners after emancipation, starts a discussion that has become thorny and contentious. A takeaway is that a racialized, exoticized group of others was created through colonialism and imperialism that was only ever further consolidated after these systems supposedly ended. So, as British slave owners were paid handsomely for their losses suffered as enslaved Africans were freed to a unkind world, we have begun to hear rumblings of black people not liking white people, or reverse racism. Sadly, this is not the material fact.
There are, indeed, some historical material facts about colonialism and its continued legacy in the 21st century Caribbean. When the system colonialism created is challenged, it seems as if there is a knee jerk reaction from settlers to an assumed charge of racism. It is also ironic that in John Grisham’s “A Time to Kill” one of the characters says about the KKK, ‘all you have to do is scratch the surface and they are there’. This would seem reasonable given the current racial situation in the United States where there are ‘good people on both sides’ – a comment that justifies and incites further racism and racist actions as seen even more recently at the now infamous Starbucks in Philadelphia, where two black men were arrested for occupying a space while being black.
Across the Atlantic, British citizens from the Windrush generation are being threatened with deportation because of this reborn right wing rhetoric espoused by members of Parliament and enacted by their officers. This heralds a tragic flaw in the system that uses systemic racism, as well as structural and cultural violence to unfairly treat those who seem to be out of place. Most Windrush Brits would have come over from the Caribbean to Britain in the 1940s and 50s to fill voids in the labor market. Their belonging has now been undermined and their identity thrown out, much like their usefulness and humanity, after slavery ended.
Colonialism is a system. It is not built on individuals and their skin color. It exploits space and people to enrich a colonial center, usually in Europe, through the products it cannot produce. The Bahamas was built on this colonial model of exploitation and extraction. It was never built to be a self-serving, self-directing space that created its own laws and policies. Most of the laws remain colonial instruments that can and often are used to oppress the black population. The laws that have worked to empower foreign direct investment are similar to these. However the former and the latter work together to control and disempower local production. An excellent analysis of this system would be Galeano’s “The Open Veins of Latin America”. Yet, even with this kind of analysis, and overlaying it with Johan Galtung’s work on cultural and structural violence, there remains a misunderstanding when we discuss structural inequalities. Some people call unfair these charges. Gail Saunders’ “Race and Class in the Colonial Bahamas” and her essay “The Changing Face of Nassau” speak eloquently to this cruel and systemic structural inequality and violence.
Colonialism and the postcolonial or neocolonial system have co-opted and continued these forms of cultural and structural violence and inequality.
Notwithstanding the shift to black majority rule, there remains a systemic structure of violence and deep inequality. Banks are another agent of colonial exploitation, if we read Piketty’s “Capital”. This is not about individual racism or one’s dislike for another. It is precisely and expressly about systemic and systematic structured exclusions. Jacqui Alexander argues thus: “Of significance is the fact that black nationalist masculinity could aspire toward imperial masculinity and, if loyal enough, complicitous enough, could be knighted (Craton, 1986:29), although it could never be enthroned. It could never become king.”
As we pass through this millenium, we understand that, when nationalism gave way to independence from colonialism, we were meant to have freed ourselves from the structures and strictures of the old guard; nationalism was argued to have liberated the black people and to have allowed them to become captains of industry as much as leaders in politics. The reality is that this shift never truly materialized. As Alexander states: “Black masculinity continues the policing of sexualized bodies, drawing out the colonial fiction of locating subjectivity in the body (as a way of denying it), as if the colonial masters were still looking on, as if to convey legitimate claims to being civilized. Not having dismantled the underlying presuppositions of British law, black nationalist men, now with some modicum of control over the state apparatus, continue to preside over and administer the same fictions.”
The idea that massa day was done, as Alexander argues, was quickly dashed as the same patterns of extraction and exploitation just with different faces behind their implementation, continued, even with the advent of Bahamianization. “All of these effects replicate the racialized colonial pattern of poverty, private ownership and lack of access to resources. These are the very grounds on which oppositional movements have challenged the state; it is the reason that its moral claim to leadership is unraveling,” he writes.
This colonial paradigm in the postcolonial state in no ways blames racism for the results we live with today, but it remains a key linchpin.
This system sees to it that the black male body is criminalized while the black female body is sexualized, meanwhile they both serve as exoticized in a streamlined structure, where racial tensions, classism and colorism play themselves out in structures that limit access to education and in turn delimit those being policed from greater access to more lucrative and empowering possibilities. The colonial system has never been broken. So, when deals are struck to introduce foreign companies to provide jobs for local servers, the takeaways, as Gordana Pesakovic and Olivia Saunders demonstrate in “Negotiated Foreign Direct Investment: A Case study of The Bahamas”, argue that “FDI policies have created a dual economy that places the commanding heights of the economy in the hands of foreigners”.
What has changed? We may argue that blacks have been empowered, but in reality, racism, classism and the re-entrenchment of inequalities and inequities have only flourished under neoliberal and now far-right anti-immigration rhetoric of late (post)colonialism or neocolonialism. The racism and reactionary stance of Britain to the Windrush generation is not about individual racists or people not liking someone based on skin color, nose size, lip thickness, penis or breast over-endowment, but rather a systematic and systemic structural disenfranchisement created and perpetuated through colonialism and its exploitative and extractionary reapings. The East India company and The West India Regiment are as much markers of colonialism’s racist divide as the 21st century rejection of cross-generational British citizens living in and contributing to the mother country, and the U.S.-Mexico wall. Bahamians, too, live in this system and many ostensibly remain in human zoos, only outside the gates.
• Ian Bethell-Bennett is a professor at the University of The Bahamas.