Let’s Talk ‘Decolonization’ by Unaspencer

(10 am. – promoted by ek hornbeck)

I write today to, hopefully, start a dialogue and ongoing series about the concept of decolonization. I’m fairly new to the term. Some of the concepts have been in me for a while, but I did not have connection to a philosophy or political movement, much less a name. So, I’ll share my entry point and early thoughts about decolonization. I invite you to share yours.

When I left my house in Boston and headed to New York City to be present in Liberty Square last September, I was going as an “Occupier”, I suppose, since the action was called “Occupy Wall Street”. So many of us felt so strongly that the message about the deep layers of corruption in our economic and political systems resonated, that we didn’t even think about the word defining this burgeoning movement.

For me, the Occupy movement was connected to Arab Spring and the Encampanadas of Spain and even the Green movement in Iran. And Palestine.

Palestine. How could I even think for one moment that “occupying” was a good thing? Well, clearly, I didn’t think.

It didn’t take long, though, for some to realize that the corruption wasn’t just about banking and money in politics. The corruption goes to the core of the culture we’re living in. Some of the very tenets we base our value system on are unjust. Built right into what we believe is an acceptance of being the generators of pain and suffering for others. What we’re seeing in the blatant exploitation and inhumanity of the financial crimes is reflective of something in all of us: a predatory nature. A predatory nature that we socially codify through memes such as “possession is 9/10ths of the law” and “survival of the fittest” and “competitive edge” and “independence” and “free market”. That it is radical to suggest that a culture, which measures profit-making as the key indicator of it’s health, is based on something ugly, tells us that we have deeply rooted ways of being which foster the corrupt systems we live within.

I’ve had these thoughts for a long time. In my youth I was a very competitive athlete. I had a prosperous early career as a computer programmer in the 1980s. I have multi-faceted,  ‘pedigreed’ American ancestry. A direct ancestor was celebrated for being the leader of the people who “forged the first great pathway west” through Kentucky and Tennessee. Family documents show them celebrating their colonizing efforts. (ironically, another branch of my family is quite likely related to Cherokee Chief Ross who led his people along the Trail of Tears.) In short, I was a yuppie, happily thriving in the world created by colonization.  

I always had a bit of a “radical” edge, I suppose. Once, while I was at a business luncheon, in my fancy, $900, Donna Karn suit, a glass of champagne was sent to me with a note, “from one closet punk to another.” I looked around the room at all the other suits and  knew who sent that drink. A moment of subversive solidarity. Still, I was pursuing “The American Dream” until I went to business school. There, when faced with the founding principles of capitalism, I wholly rejected them. Everything was cold and with zero concern for a just and sustainable existence for all people. War terminology applied to business practices. I could not adopt that. I had gone to school to “boost my resumé” and, presumably, my career. I ended up turning down offers to join venture capital firms. I would go on to run the first urban composting company in the United States, a very mission-oriented pursuit. Everything I have done since then has been mission-oriented.

Still, I didn’t have the words for how I perceived things. I no longer felt good about the concept of “competition”. Competitions have winners and losers. A society built on “competitive spirit” requires losers. Far more losers than winners. Only one person claims the title at the end of a tennis tournament. Everyone else is some varying degree of loser. It rankles me to no end that someone who is second best in the world at what they do is “suffering a disappointing loss” at The Olympics when they receive their silver medal. Moreover, I feel great pain about the history of our culture. It’s a living history. Here in the United States, we have committed and continue to commit genocide against The First Peoples. The early settlers came here for economic opportunity and they generated their successes by dragging millions from their homelands and enslaving them to get free labor and greater profits for themselves. Every single aspect of what this country is would not exist without slavery and genocide. Yet, we continue to call this “exceptional” and we continue to state that the lifestyle we have become accustomed to is a good and normal thing that we should continue to aspire to and convince, well force, everyone else in the world to aspire to.

I could articulate my perceptions, but I didn’t have a name for it until I entered the world of Occupy and encountered an already existing movement called “Decolonize”. (Though I can’t attend often due to a scheduling conflict, I am eternally grateful for the Decolonize to Liberate working group at Occupy Boston.)

Decolonize. That word seems to scare people. Almost every time I utter it in front of people, there is someone who will ask, “do you expect everyone to leave here and go to Europe?”

The political act of decolonizing is not about rearranging where everyone lives. Even if you did that, people would still have a mindset, an ethical compass, which would lead to new colonizing and new systems of oppression. Decolonizing is about rearranging the way we think and how we treat each other. What does “justice for all” really mean? Have the vast majority of people living on this land experienced justice?

We know the answer to that question. Injustice has plagued this land. “Freeing” slaves whilst keeping the rewards of their labor was not justice. Giving native peoples barely survivable land land that you claim they have sovereignty over, which you do not honor, is not justice. Breaching every treaty we ever made with those same people is certainly not justice.

Those are obvious examples of injustices and we do hear lip service given, culturally, to these “historical” events. (We’re breaching treaties to this day and the 13th Amendment has an exemption to the banning of slavery, which we are taking full advantage of in our private prison system. So, this is not just history. It’s contemporary.) What we don’t discuss much or in a way which might actually lead to justice, is how the very tenets of “The American Way”, the very things we honor as almost sacred truths, generated and continue to generate these injustices. We’re like the child who says, “Sorry for leaving my trash on the floor, mom”, but doesn’t pick up the trash and continues to leave trash on the floor. It’s a superficial acknowledgement of wrongdoing without any righting of the situation or commitment to prevention of further harm.

With our very ways of being, we cause harm and promote injustice every day. We cheer on the “winning” little league team without a concern for what the message of “life has winners and losers” implants in our children. We buy cheap food without making sure no one was abused to get it to us. We wear clothing made in sweat shops. We let children “cry it out” and put them in “time out” to show them they will be ostracized when they don’t ‘behave’, where ‘behaving’ means adopting the feelings and perceptions of an authority figure. We hug our children when they “make us proud” or “look so cute” or entertain us. Every aspect of our beings is shaped through a system of reward and deprive. And we’re willing deprive people of food, shelter, clothing and healthcare if they haven’t ‘behaved’. We are willing, in other words, to kill them. We kill people all the time. Our president now has a “kill list”. I don’t believe for a moment that we’re killing people as revenge for those killed in 2001. We’re killing anyone who dares to threaten the public perception that we are exceptional and democratic and harbingers of peace. We have the most weapons and an exponentially larger army than anyone on the planet has ever had and we dare to claim we are bringing peace. We are exceptional, yes. Exceptional at cognitive disconnect and self-deception in the name of glorifying ourselves and getting what we want, regardless of who pays what price.

But, it’s also micro. When we’re in a meeting and someone expresses a feeling about something and the first response is a rebuttal, we’re participating in the devaluing of someone. We tell them “don’t feel that. Don’t see that.” We do it to each other all the time. We compete over feelings. We compete over ideas. We normalize the concept that he who speaks with the most force gets to be ‘right’ and everyone else is silenced or ostracized. We see no room for simultaneous co-existence of multiple ideas, emotions and peoples. It happens in the workplace, in political dialogue, in families and even in the most intimate of relations. From the most subtle of interactions to the most tense, its all about who is best at dominating. We give up our agency in micro-moments everyday and hand our power to those who are most comfortable dominating.

Domination is the name of the game. It’s our “Manifest Destiny“.  Our nationalism and self-proclaimed exceptionalism and sense that it is all part of a divine plan within which we are the chosen people, are all part of that ‘destiny’ and the Doctrine of Discovery. Most of us have probably never used those words. It’s not something we discuss often. We don’t have to. It’s the inherent axiom we embody. And it’s the sine qua non. We can’t generate a truly just and sustainable world until we purge ourselves of it.

That purge is supremely challenging. We must find a way to question every thing we do, the way we are in every moment, every assumption we have about what is ‘natural’ and ‘right’ and ‘acceptable’. We must do this without so destroying our own dignity that we either can’t bear to live or can’t bear to look or need to attack the dignity of others in order to feel better. Of any revolutionary movement out there, the resistance to this will be the strongest because we are rising up against ourselves.

I would argue that we are not rising up against our true selves, though. We are rising up against the selves we have been molded to become. From the moment we were born we were trained and brainwashed and ‘normalized’. A particular lens was fused to our eyes through which we are forced to perceive the world. Underneath all that is an original self, who can still look at the world in our innately natural way if we can remove those lenses. There isn’t a nice laser-surgery process to remove them in a few moments with some anesthesia to ease the way. It’s going to be painful. Yet, it will be freeing. We will be freed of the burden of supporting, and being weighed down by, the systems of oppression we’re existing in. And the connections we make to each other will be far more rewarding and joyous, as they are free of the guilt of achieving those connections at the expense of others. It will be liberating because we will not be forced to eradicate our true selves in order to survive.

I am trying to decolonize myself, my own mind. By doing so, I am creating space for something else. Cooperation. Collective. Interdependence. Exquisite joy.

In that vein, here are some of the ways I have challenged myself:

1) be willing to be wrong in every moment.

2) don’t allow someone to convince me I am wrong. If I don’t feel it, don’t just ‘cave’.

2) offer any power I have to those who have less

3) be willing to be threatened and to risk safety for the sake of justice.

4) always speak my truth with compassion, even if it creates tension with those I care about.

5) be willing to be uncomfortable in ‘mainstream’ society; reject coersion

6) be willing to share any material gains I may have

The list will grow, but those are a starting point.

Have you ever considered decolonization? What does it bring up for you? How do you challenge yourself?

Some links for your reading pleasure:

United Nations Declaration on the rights of inDigenous PeoPles

What UNDRIP can mean for the future  

Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues: Statement on the Doctrine of Discovery  

Colonization of the Mind: Normalize This!  

Colonizing and Decolonizing Minds by Marcelo Dascal, Tel Aviv University