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OP-ED: Racism’s colonial ghost resurfaces

  • Published at 08:02 pm June 7th, 2020
Protests Minnesota

At the core of all imperial rule was the belief that the rulers were superior to the ruled

As the world stands in solidarity with millions across the US, protesting police brutality that resulted in the death of an African American man, the spotlight is not just on violence against people of African descent, but on the issue of racism in its various abominable manifestations. 

A photo was posted on social media showing a woman from a South Asian background holding the placard which says: Am I next? 

The protests have brought out people from all social backgrounds, united to confront a simmering malaise that has always been pushed under lofty rhetoric of human rights and equality. 

With the death of Floyd, the US plus all the other countries are suddenly seeing general people coming out to relate experiences of social prejudice. 

A researcher commenting on the BBC about the racial bias faced by people from minority communities made the most poignant observation, stating that racism is not a new phenomenon and, to tackle it, countries which were imperialist powers once need to open up their macabre past instead of airbrushing it and trace the roots of racial discrimination.  

Colonial countries should not erase the past

Most countries which were colonial powers, including Britain, France, Italy, Spain, Belgium, and the Netherlands ruled large portions of the world as imperial masters. Most cultural depictions of colonial time tend to dilute the savagery of the imperial era, giving us glossed up versions of the period. 

This is done to reinforce an utterly flawed notion that imperial rule was more like enlightened despotism, since it brought education, technology plus infrastructural development to the ruled nations. It’s never mentioned that the development was mainly carried out to facilitate an imperial objective of plundering these nations for their resources. 

Either way, whether colonial rule provided more advantages or disadvantages is a different topic and, in the context of the Indian sub-continent, we must also concede that if there was unity among the local kings and rulers, a foreign trading power would not have managed to take over as a ruler. 

The issue here is that, when a colonial power took over a country, whether by military prowess or by chicanery, the rule was hardly benevolent. At the core of all imperial rule was the belief that the rulers were superior to the ruled. This was done through relentless show of power, mindless violence, and instilling a sense of inferiority among occupied nations. 

The white-black division or, to be precise, the abhorrent concept that the “whites” are superior to the “coloureds” in all aspects was systematically propagated across the globe by the colonial powers, sometimes through force at others through much more subtle ways like the introduction of evangelical missions, medicines plus advanced technology. 

To secure the belief that products of the imperial masters are the best, the indigenous industries of most colonized countries were destroyed. In the case of India, the local weaving, steel, ship-building, and other industries were shrewdly put out of operation. 

A lust for profit

But a company is just that, a commercial venture with profit at the heart of its operation. In the case of Bengal, it was the East India Company’s oppressive taxes despite crop failures that led to a devastating famine in 1770. This and several such disasters in the following decades exacerbated the relation between the British and the locals. 

The rulers, therefore, realized that it was time to instil fear and subjugation to carry on the colonial juggernaut. The same policy with a few changes here and there have been applied by all the other European colonial powers. 

In the early 20th century, all the imperial powers ruled others with the basic principle that the masters are of a higher race and when colonialism finally crumbled after World War II, very few of the colonial countries ever apologized/atoned for their imperial era mistakes. 

In September 2013, the Dutch ambassador to Indonesia made a formal apology to Indonesia, a former Dutch colony, for atrocities committed in the country between 1945 and 1949. The date here is of special significance because, between 45 and 49, is post-WWII. During the Second World War, the Netherlands was occupied by Germany, a Fascist state then, while the allies, including the Dutch, were portrayed as powers of freedom. 

In reality, WWII was a conflict between fascism and imperialism, not democracy, because most nations on the allied side were colonial powers. 

Anyway, a deliberate failure to acknowledge and apologize for using racism as a tool to subjugate has had insidious repercussions, seeping into social layers of colonial countries in the decades following WWII. 

Most European nations, including Britain, are now champions of human rights, equality, and equality but this is a phenomenon of the last 50 or 60 years. Nations which followed centuries of colonial policy steeped in prejudice cannot simply become bastions of human rights unless there is a concerted effort to face the shameful chapters of the past and admit openly that their policy was wrong, inhumane, and undermined the dignity of the people they ruled. 

In the ongoing turmoil in the US over the killing of Floyd, China is getting a chance to point the finger at America to show that US’s rhetoric about upholding human rights is hollow. For information, the US, built on the exalted ideals of democracy and freedom, was also a gun-toting colonial force, opening up Japan through Commodore Matthew Perry’s “Gunboat diplomacy” between 1852-1854. 

The current outrage against racism proves that imperial countries jumped into the human rights campaign without clearing their closets first of imperial skeletons. The phantoms of racism that fuelled colonialism remain and Floyd’s death has proven that ideas of white superiority fervently injected for centuries has lurked underneath a cosmetic social change. 

George Orwell comes to mind: All animals are equal but some are more equal than others.

Towheed Feroze is a journalist and teaches at the University of Dhaka.

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