Who’s a ‘Colonizer’? How an Old Word Became a New Weapon

Few words map humanity’s evolution more clearly than colonialism. It was seen by European powers in the 19th century as the proud badge of the bearers of “the white man’s burden,” in Kipling’s phrase. Today, such thinking is anathema. Instead, “indigeneity” has become the go-to word conferring the moral authority of peoples on the right side of history.

Colonialism was not just a policy but a state of mind. It was not merely Britain’s East India Company seizing control of wide swaths of the Indian subcontinent to trade in silk, spices and tea, or the assault of European settlers on America’s indigenous peoples. It was the imposition of culture, language, social mores and attitudes that have proved hard to shake, or even to detect in full.

Decolonization was one thing. “Decolonizing the mind,” as the title of a seminal book by the Kenyan novelist Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o put it in 1986, was another. For him, imperial colonialism was a comprehensive process designed to make its victims “ashamed of their names, history, systems of belief, languages, lore, art, dance, song, sculpture, even the color of their skin.”

Decolonization no more put an end to colonialism than Jim Crow brought down the curtain on slavery. Colonialism has shaped modernity; the countries that were once colonial or imperial powers play a large, if increasingly contested, role in global decision making and the structure of the international order. Brazil, India and Nigeria look on as Britain and France, former colonial powers par excellence, remain as two of the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council. This is a provocative anomaly. The Enlightenment and colonialism were both born in the West, which prefers to celebrate the freedom-forging legacy of the former than confront the enduring prejudice bequeathed by the latter.

Now, a significant societal shift in the West has seen the embrace of the Palestinian cause as an extension of the powerful movements for racial and social justice that have unfurled, particularly in the United States, since 2020. In 2021, Black Lives Matter issued a statement declaring “solidarity with Palestinians” and opposition to “settler colonialism in all forms.”

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