Everyday Colonialism

In 1991, Philomena Essed wrote an important book titled Everyday Racism: An Interdisciplinary Theory. In her seminal text, Essed outlines how seemingly subtle and innocuous interactions between majority group members and women of color are muddled with racism. Essed termed these interactions, “everyday racism.” Other scholars in social psychology have called everyday racist acts “microaggressions.” In this post, David Mayeda discusses a recent commercial from Australia and his own research with Maori and Pacific students in Aotearoa New Zealand to illustrate the power of everyday racism and what he and his colleagues term, everyday colonialism.

Before I get into this post, check out this recent commercial that demonstrates what indigenous peoples in Australia (Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders) must cope with on a regular, everyday basis.

Here at SociologyInFocus, a sociological topic we tend to neglect is colonialism.  First let’s define imperialism – “the practice, the theory, and the attitudes of a dominating metropolitan centre ruling a distant territory; ‘colonialism’, which is almost always a consequence of imperialism, is the implanting of settlements on distant territory” (Ashcroft, Griffiths, & Tiffin, 2002, p. 46). In short, colonialism is imperialism put into action.

Today, old school colonialism is less prevalent. Instead what we tend to see are modern remnants of colonialism operating systemically through what scholars call “neo-colonialsim.” In neo-colonial settings, previously colonized states have gained political independence from the colonial powers of yester-year. However, contemporary political, social and economic arrangements persist that keep indigenous peoples pushed to society’s margins and in a state of perpetual structural disadvantage. Thus, colonialism lives on even if we don’t realize it.

Taking a slightly different twist, consider the example of settler-states, where western Europeans came hundreds of years ago to settle on indigenous people’s lands. In countries like the United States, New Zealand, Australia and Canada, European settlers, namely of British descent, altered the legal and economic frameworks such that indigenous cultural values were marginalized and in some cases completely obliterated from newly imposed Eurocentric systems. On top of that, indigenous populations were typically descimated from mass death due to disease.

Of course indigenous populations were not completely wiped out, and indigenous peoples have never been helpless victims. In today’s settler-states, indigenous peoples break stereotypes, reaffirm their cultural values and work to de-colonize society. These positive examples notwithstanding, colonial racism persists, leading to the kinds of structural and racialized disadvantages among indigenous peoples that are similar to what African Americans experience in the United States (see Nathan Palmer’s post on the conditions in Ferguson, MO, USA). And then there is the everyday racism.

In addition to the structural racism indigenous peoples face, they must encounter daily interactions with majority group members that subtly but significantly reassert a second-class status. Such behaviors include having majority group members not taking indigenous peoples seriously, incessantly interrupting indigenous peoples, stating that racism no longer matters, surveilling indigenous peoples in stores, avoiding indigenous peoples in general – maybe watch the commercial at the beginning of this post again.

The power of everyday racism does not lie in any one act, but rather in how frequently these acts happen to ethnic minorities. When ethnic minorities experience everyday racism on a regular basis, it wears and tears on their morale. They constantly wonder if they should confront perpetrators of everyday racism and risk being labelled hyper-sensitive. But if ethnic minorities let the everyday racist acts go, then they struggle over not confronting the problem.

Essed’s work on everyday racism applied to ethnic minorities, but not indigenous persons. When everyday racism happens to indigenous peoples, my colleagues and I argue those actions can be called “everyday colonialism,” as notions of colonialism are preserved in a modern context. In Aotearoa New Zealand, Maori represent the indigenous population; ethnically diverse Pacific people (from Tonga, Samoa, Niue, the Cook Islands, Fiji, and other Pacific nations) comprise a sizeable immigrant population, though they are not indigenous to New Zealand.

Our interviews with high-achieving Maori and Pacific university students found that Maori students experience everyday colonialism and Pacific students everyday racism on campus in highly similar fashion to the commercial presented in this post. While most majority group students are not racist, enough question Maori and Pacific students’ place in the university by incessantly stating they were admitted through affirmative action and that they are on underserved scholarships, assuming things are easier for minorities when such assumptions couldn’t be further from the truth.

So what can you do? One, reflect on your own attitudes and behaviors; don’t enact everyday colonialism or racism. Two, be a responsible bystander. If you hear or see a peer engage in everyday discrimination, step up, safely intervene. Indigenous peoples and other ethnic minorities shouldn’t have to shoulder the burdens of colonialism and racism alone.

Dig deeper:

  1. Although everyday colonialism and racism are probably not the most insidious forms of discrimination, explain why their outcomes are still very powerful.
  2. Have you noticed forms of everyday racism or colonialism on your university campus or in other organizational settings? If so, describe them.
  3. How does the Australian commercial connect everyday colonialism to mental health concerns?
  4. If you witness someone enacting everyday colonialism or racism, how might you safely intervene?