Colonialism Research Paper

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The matrix of structures, ideologies, and actions that have formed both historical and contemporary patterns of colonialism have shaped the world-system in irreversible and deeply influential ways. Serious consideration of colonialism recognizes that no matter where the starting point for analyzing colonialism is set, the process, structure, and lingering effects of such a geohistorical phenomenon cannot be grasped in a simplistic or one-dimensional way by either academics or those who continue to live colonized lives, for the implications of such naïveté are too severe. Numerous critical scholars—such as Edward Said, Gayatri Spivak, Ania Loomba, Samir Amin, Immanuel Wallerstein, and Wole Soyinka—have devoted their academic careers (which are often rooted in their lived experience within colonial rule and systemic colonial endeavors) to understanding the social, cultural, and political project that is colonialism. While the terms colonialism, empire, imperialism, and even globalization have been employed to describe analogous processes, the realities behind colonialism are complex and systematically, structurally, and culturally catastrophic for the colonized. Colonialism can be critically discussed through three primary lenses: (1) the colonialism project as a structure of domination subjugating one group of people to another across political entities; (2) internal or domestic colonialism as a similar structure occurring within a given nationstate, typically against socially marked groups; and (3) the colonialism of the mind, wherein the colonized are institutionally, pedagogically, linguistically, and cognitively conquered by the colonizer.

Most common definitions of colonialism describe a general process in which a nation-state expands its territory as well as its social, cultural, and political structures into extant territories beyond its own national boundaries. Most standard definitions also describe a process in which one power exerts and maintains control over what ultimately becomes a dependent area or people. Yet such definitions are deeply insufficient for critical scholars of history, sociology, literary theory, anthropology, and other areas of study. Indeed, colonialism is a geopolitical, sociocultural, linguistic, and hegemonic project of domination and oppression rooted in the racialized and gendered contracts emerging out of Europe in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries (see Mills 1997; Pateman 1988). As a project of the European Enlightenment, colonialism is critically seen not as aberration but as a purposeful design intended to spread a hegemonic structure whereby one people (“whites”) benefit from the exploitation and subjugation of another people (“nonwhites”). Colonialism is a form of systemic oppression and domination. The basic, descriptive form of colonization existed before the emergence a distinctly European, racist, hegemonic project (e.g., in the ancient empires of Egypt, Persia, Macedonia, Mongolia, China, and Central and South America). But while the processes of colonialism were of a radically different form, the consequences for those who were colonized in ancient times were as thorough and deep as they were for those colonized in Africa, India, Latin America, and other areas by Europeans in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. In the contemporary world, neocolonialism and imperialism often mirror earlier colonization efforts through complex and ultimately exploitative economic, military, political, social, and cultural processes. Many see such processes at work in various episodes of foreign intervention by the United States either directly (Grenada, Panama, Iraq) or indirectly (Chile, Cuba, Indonesia).

Understanding the oppressive and exploitative nature of colonialism in the world-system is crucial. However, solely attending to such processes across sociopolitical boundaries can divert critical awareness away from similar ideologies and structures of colonization within a given context. Indeed, similar processes and exploitative “contracts” have emerged within countries since the fifteenth century. In the U.S. context, several critical scholars (e.g., Andre Gunder Frank, Robert Blauner, Immanuel Wallerstein, Maulana Karenga, and Vine Deloria Jr.) have raised the question about whether groups such as African Americans and Native Americans represent internal colonies within the United States.

Questions surrounding internal or domestic colonization focus on the fulfillment of several social structural components, highlighting the internal relationships of colonialism between oppressor and oppressed. First, if a particular group is politically disenfranchised within their own country (e.g., through electoral structure or limited access to discourse or positions), then that group may be an oppressed internal colony. Second, if the group in question is economically disadvantaged and exploited within the society it calls home, then the group represents the possibility of domestic colonization. Third, when members of a group are occupationally subordinated through segregation, impeded structural access to opportunities, or de facto discrimination and racism (e.g., African Americans or Native Americans), they are internally colonized within a matrix of colonialism. Fourth, when individuals in an ethnic or minority group are sociopsychologically humiliated through media misrepresentation, decentering (objects of history, rather than subjects) in education, and interactional isolation, they are part of an internal colony. Finally, minority groups often become culturally manipulated and commodified within their own societies through the market, the media, and campaigns of fear and consumption, and this can lead to domestic colonization. States often utilize the tools of colonialism against people within their own borders to effectively create internal colonies.

As the social landscape is also reflected and embedded within our mental and cognitive landscapes, existence within a structure of colonialism can affect individual and collective repertoires of action, thought, belief, and behavior. Thus, another lens through which one can view colonialism is that of the colonization of cultural, ideological, and cognitive terrains. The political philosopher Frantz Fanon, who was born in the French colony of Martinique, illuminated such a form of colonialism through his critical, structural, and psychoanalytic analysis of colonization. Fanon and others identified a “colonization of the mind,” an internalization of inferiority that persists long after colonial powers have physically left. While some authors have discussed the kind of moral and epistemological psychology needed for oppressors to engage in colonialism, writers from the Brazilian educator Paulo Freire to Fanon recognize that, in a system of colonialism, the oppressor, buttressed by the system and enjoying systemic privilege, maps systemic forms of domination within the minds of the oppressed that fundamentally alter strategies of resistance, protest, political opposition, and notions of individual and collective identities.

Colonialism, in the almost 600 years of its world-system domination, is a systemic, hegemonic, and totalizing form of oppression stemming from the project of European Enlightenment, and as such it has structured the world-system in favor of the West. While direct colonialism, through colonial rule, may eventually wither away through anticolonial movements and processes of “decolonization,” the effects of such a system linger in the international relations, internal structures, and mental cartography of the colonized. Such a structure has proved not only catastrophic for the colonized, but also, as Freire would argue, for the colonizer as well.


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  11. Mamdani, Mahmood. 1983. Imperialism and Fascism in Uganda. Nairobi: Heinemann Educational Books.
  12. Mills, Charles. 1997. The Racial Contract. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.
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  14. Pateman, Carole. 1988. The Sexual Contract. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.
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  21. Zerubavel, Eviatar. 2003. Time Maps: Collective Memory and the Social Shape of the Past. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

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