Decolonising the Mind

Writing by Fernanda de Szyszlo. Illustration by Heather Baillie.


Despite growing up in Peru, my history classes did not focus on our history. We learnt about the Battle of Hastings, not the Battle of Boyacá; Napoleon, not José de San Martín. Outside of school, we all watched American films, discussed American politics and generally saw the United States as the peak of civilisation. Latin America was left in the shadows.

How did this happen? Why did we turn away from our local cultures?

Imperialism does not only affect the economic, political and social lives of the colonised. It is a phenomenon that touches and transforms a person’s subjectivity, affecting how they see themselves and the world around them. Colonialism forces its victims to internalise the idea that their language, their culture, and their religion are unacceptable and worthless. As a general rule, anything native is disparaged, while anything Western is celebrated and desired. This is what is often referred to as the colonisation of the mind.

Studying the colonisation of the mind reveals that the production of knowledge is neither neutral nor innocent. This process never takes place in a vacuum. Rather, knowledge is produced by people with specific points of view and with particular aims in mind, which will shape their understandings of the world. In the colonial context, the production of knowledge about colonised peoples was used as a way of controlling them. Edward Said used the concept of Orientalism to expose the ways in which the colonial production of knowledge was guided by political and economic interests [1]. Said argued that Western scholars constructed descriptions of non-Western cultures to support and justify imperialist aims. ‘Orientals’ were homogenised and dehumanised, and their cultures were described negatively in relation to the West. The West, which was always portrayed in a positive light, was civilised and rational, while the non-West was the opposite - uncivilised and irrational. The West could get away with these harmful depictions because it had the military and political power to back them up, enabling it to represent other cultures in a way that suited its interests.

These myths were not only spread among Westerners; they were purposefully forced onto colonised peoples, with catastrophic results on their identities. The political thinker and psychiatrist Frantz Fanon described these effects in great detail in his book, The Wretched of the Earth. According to Fanon, ‘the settler only ends his work of breaking in the native when the latter admits loudly and intelligibly the supremacy of the white man’s values’ [2]. The colonisation of the mind was a central process of imperial domination because it separated people from their culture and from themselves [3]. Colonisers tried to convince colonised peoples that their national history and culture were inferior to their Western counterparts, and that they were naturally evil and immoral. This allowed settlers to portray colonialism to the natives as necessary to save them from their own wickedness.


Fanon, who grew up in the French colony of Martinique and worked in Algeria during the war of independence (1954-1962), researched how individuals experienced the colonisation of the mind. He observed that Algerians and Martinicans had internalised the coloniser’s racism to such a degree that they had begun to discriminate against those in their communities with darker skin tones. Instead of turning against the colonial power, they attacked each other. Moreover, this process of cultural destruction and domination uprooted them from their past and forced them to question their identities.

Unfortunately, the colonisation of the mind did not stop in the 20th century, when the last anti-colonial wars were fought. Imperialism is not a thing of the past, and the fight for decolonisation is not over. Nowadays, many of these racist and hostile descriptions of non-Western cultures continue to shape foreign policy in the West, and the voices of non-Western scholars are systematically ignored. Western history, culture, philosophy and literature are still taught around the world in lieu of their local counterparts and portrayed as universal. To be seen as knowledgeable, it is essential to be well-versed on these Western topics.

So, how do we free ourselves from these ways of thinking? How do we decolonise the mind?

There is, of course, no easy answer. But a crucial step is to start asking questions. We have to ask ourselves: who produces knowledge and for whom is it produced? Is it an indigenous person speaking of their own experiences, or is it someone else speaking for them? We have to question the context in which knowledge is produced. Who decides if a story is worth telling? What assumptions inform someone’s understanding of a situation?

These are just a few questions we can start with. What they all have in common is that they strive to decentre the West. In Said’s words, we must be aware of ‘the strength of Western cultural discourse, a strength too often mistaken as merely decorative or “superstructural.” My hope is to illustrate the formidable structure of cultural domination, and specifically for formerly colonised peoples, the dangers and temptations of employing this structure upon themselves or upon others.’ [4]

The aim is not to reject Western sources of knowledge. The aim is to realise that there is much more beyond the West, and that this knowledge has been ignored and unappreciated for centuries. We have to turn to the rich intellectual traditions of Asia, Africa, the Middle East, and Latin America to find different analytical frameworks and ways of seeing the world [5]. This is how we can begin to recover. Particularly for colonised peoples, directing their attention to their local history and culture will show them that ‘there was nothing to be ashamed of in the past, but rather dignity, glory and solemnity’ [6]. This process will shatter the imperialist myth that non-Western cultures are inferior, and it will pave the way for recovery from the colonisation of the mind.

References:

[1] Edward W Said, Orientalism, Reprinted with a new preface.. (London: London : Penguin, 2003).

[2] Frantz Fanon, The Wretched of the Earth, trans. Constance Farrington (London: London : Penguin, 2001).Pages 33-34

[3] Tshepo Madlingozi and Features, “Decolonising ‘Decolonisation’ with Mphahlele,” New Frame, November 1, 2018, https://www.newframe.com/decolonising-decolonisation-mphahlele/.

[4] Said, Orientalism. Page 25

[5] Dipesh Chakrabarty, Provincializing Europe : Postcolonial Thought and Historical Difference, Princeton Studies in Culture/Power/History (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 2000), http://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=nlebk&AN=74923&site=ehost-live.

[6] Fanon, The Wretched of the Earth. Page 169


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