Colonialism is when one country, the colonizer, “violently invades and takes control of another country, claims the land as its own, and sends people—’settlers’—to live on that land” (Teen Vogue). By the early 20th century, European powers colonized almost every continent.
Colonization was driven by imperialism, the idea that “civilized” nations should rule over “primitive” non-white peoples, and capitalism, which caused Western corporations to search for cheaper labor and materials abroad. After World War II, most colonies gained their independence through wars of national liberation (Britannica). Vietnam gained freedom from France, while Kenya became independent of the British Empire (ThoughtCo). But colonization is anything but ancient history.
Intellectuals in wealthy, white countries pretended that colonization benefited colonized people. In his poem “The White Man’s Burden,” The Jungle Book author Rudyard Kipling describes the U.S. charitably taking up the “burden” of civilizing the “half devil and half child” non-white peoples of the world (Kipling Society).
In reality, “colonizers believed the world was theirs for the taking, saw Black, Indigenous, and other people of color as disposable, and believed that nothing mattered more than the currency in their pockets” (Teen Vogue). The effects of colonization didn’t vanish overnight. For example, France exterminated the indigenous Taino people of colonial Haiti before importing hundreds of thousands of enslaved African workers who frequently died of starvation and abuse. In 1791, enslaved Haitians rose up against the white owners, defeating the French Empire to win independence (Britannica). But France demanded Haiti pay $21 million in “reparations” for lost French property—including the monetary value of the Haitians themselves. Haiti wouldn’t make the final payment until 1947, ensuring it remains the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere (Teen Vogue).
• Call Congress to demand a Ceasefire Now and an end to the genocide in Gaza.
• Approach your city councils with a principled resolution, like the historic Richmond City Council Resolution Affirming Richmond’s Support and Solidarity with the Palestinian People of Gaza.
• Follow and support the Palestinian Youth Movement.
Former colonies across Latin America, Asia, and Africa gained independence only to find wealthy white nations still had the final say. The Western ruling classes that profited from colonization invested those profits to create today’s multinational corporations, which continue to exploit workers and resources in ex-colonies. Former colonial powers retain overwhelming military power and influence in “international” institutions. It’s in the interest of wealthy people in the United States and Western Europe that the ex-colonies don’t develop economically so they can continue to be exploited through neocolonialism (Britannica).
Another ongoing form of colonization is settler colonialism. The British ruling class only made up a small percentage of British India’s population. In contrast, settler colonialism doesn’t just seek to rule the native population; it seeks to wipe them out. The United States is a settler-colonial project built on unceded Indigenous land. Note that we don’t say the U.S. was a settler-colonial project: settler colonialism “exists as long as settlers are living on appropriated land and thus exists today” (Unsettling America). Decolonizing a settler-colonial project doesn’t mean exterminating every settler or sending them back to Europe. It means dismantling the political and economic structures that continue to privatize and appropriate unceded land while oppressing and dispossessing Indigenous peoples today (SPLC).
The State of Israel is another example, an attempt to remove the Palestinian population in order to replace them with settlers, predominantly from Europe (United Nations). It’s true that Jewish people trace their ancestry back to the land claimed by Israel millennia ago. I can trace my ancestry back to Korea, but that doesn’t mean I can kick the members of BTS out of their mansions. In contrast, the State of Israel has pursued an “intentionally acquisitive, segregationist and repressive settler-colonial occupation” to create a Zionist state by taking Palestinian land and attempting to destroy the Palestinian community (UN).
It would be wonderful if white supremacist colonial ideologies were no longer with us. Sadly, that’s not the case. An astonishingly racist piece published in “liberal” publication The Atlantic last month calls the Israeli attack on Palestinians and the U.S. invasions of Syria, Afghanistan, and Iraq examples of “civilization” fighting “barbarism.” Those resisting American and Israeli attacks aren’t fighting out of political principles, desire for self-determination, or even because of self-interest or corruption. Instead, author Eliot Cohen tells us that “barbarians fight because they love violence.” He claims that negotiating with them would be futile since “barbarians fear argument.” All that the “civilized world” can do, Cohen says, is “contain and push back the barbarians”:1 that is, kill them (The Atlantic). Rudyard Kipling at least pretended that colonizing people of color would civilize them for their own benefit. Cohen rejects any possibility of “educating” the colonized. He simply recommends exterminating them.
The solution to colonization is decolonization. A wholesale transformation of the power relations that keep an entire population subservient to another is never a comfortable or easy process. But we should understand that the alternative is far worse: the continual physical and mental violence of a people being denied their land, personhood, and liberation. Decolonization is not a metaphor or the recitation of a land acknowledgment. It is the radical transformation necessary to finally end the violence of colonization (CAIRN). To remain neutral on the question of decolonization is to choose the side of the oppressor.
• Colonization is the invasion and control of one country by another.
• Colonization was followed by neocolonialism, where former colonial powers continue to control ex-colonies.
• Settler colonialism is the attempted elimination rather than rule over colonized peoples.