Wednesday, 22 February 2012

Decolonising One's Mind

I've been thinking about a phrase I've often seen at one of my favourite blogs, Womanist Musings. The phrase is "decolonizing [one's] mind". I want to think about it today as it could relate to my own mind, as I'm not sure that it's appropriate. I have most often seen it used in relation to the minds of people of colour (POC), and this would make sense etymologically, since 'colonisation' almost always refers to the lands of POC being appropriated by people of a more dominant race, most often white. When the phrase is used in social justice spaces, it is used to describe the difficult process of training one's mind not to fall prey to the dominant narratives present in (for instance) white Western culture. So, to give a rather simplified example, expelling (or not internalising in the first place) the notion that a brown-skinned person is less important than a white-skinned person. That notion is evidently incorrect, and yet dominant culture teaches and reinforces this lesson every day, to white people and people of colour both. It is damaging to both white people and POC to believe this lesson, but of course it is much more damaging for any person to believe negative propaganda about themselves than it is to believe negative propaganda about someone else (or about a group of people to which you don't belong). Referring to this as a colonisation of a POC's mind makes etymological and emotional sense, then.

As such, I'm not sure it’s appropriate for me, a white person, to use the phrase to think about my own mind. I can see plenty of parallels with other social justice issues – internalised homophobia in the gay community, transphobia in the trans community, to name but two – but perhaps to use the term 'decolonisation' to describe the process of erasing internalised self-hatred based on one's sexuality, gender, size, disability, or other non race-based area of oppression is problematic in itself. Perhaps to say (however implicitly) that my mind has been colonised by transphobic narratives is as inappropriate as a white person comparing some experience of theirs to slavery, or saying that if black people can say n****r, white people should be able to too. Or how about this example, from someone who genuinely thinks that they are on the side of right and will be vindicated in the end and held up as a champion for justice, just like Martin Luther King.

We all need to have language to negotiate and articulate our particular sites of oppression, particularly if we are negotiating more than one. "Unpacking the invisible knapsack" is another relevant phrase.I find both these phrases useful when engaging with social justice criticism, but despite the latter's roots in anti-racist thought, the phrase "unpacking the invisible knapsack" seems more open to use in non race-specific social justice work than "decolonising one's mind", purely because by using the word "decolonising" in relation to my own mind, I have an uncomfortable sense that I’d be appropriating even more than I already am. Working on my own privilege is challenging enough without encoding yet more signs of privilege into the very language that I use to describe the process.

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* I was interested to learn that this essay is considered a "classic" by anti-racist educators: "It has been used in workshops and classes throughout the United States and Canada for many years. While people of color have described for years how whites benefit from unearned privileges, this is one of the first articles written by a white person on the topics". (source) Funny how, although peope of colour have described this systemic problem for years, one of the first articles about it by a white person has become a "classic".

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