What is Postcolonialism?

Postcolonialism is probably more familiar than you think.

But it sounds academic, and that can put a lot of people off. This isn’t helped by the fact that so much postcolonial writing is dense and unreadable. Take for example Gayatri Spivak’s famous postcolonial essay Can the Subaltern Speak?:

“This parasubjective matrix, cross-hatched with heterogeneity, ushers in the unnamed Subject, at least for those intellectual workers influenced by the new hegemony of desire. The race for ‘the last instance’ is now between economics and power. Because desire is tacitly defined as an orthodox model, it is unitarily opposed to ‘being deceived’. Ideology as ‘false consciousness’ (being deceived) has been called into question by Althusser. Even Reich implied notions of collective will rather than a dichotomy of deception and undeceived desire.”

That is just baffling. Like The Emperor’s New Clothes, sometimes I wonder just how much academic-speak goes unchallenged for fear that everyone else understands it.

For a much better introduction to postcolonialism, watch the BBC 4 documentary Rich Hall’s Inventing the Indian:

“What we’re dealing with, is a colonial legacy here. A legacy in which the mainstream society in America has predetermined what matters, and what doesn’t matter when discussing history… Indigenous peoples along with countless other ethnic minorities have been excluded from far too long from this whole creative process of making stories that are supposed to be about them.”

Postcolonialism is thinking that focuses on the legacies of colonialism. For example, there are postcolonial books on Africa’s place in the world economy and the legacies of racism in America. In trying to explain these ongoing histories of exploitation, postcolonialism tackles historical misrepresentations like Thanksgiving.

It brings to attention the construction of identities like “American Indian” and “African”. This isn’t to say that there aren’t “American Indians” (or rather, people indigenous to the land that is now known as the USA). It is the imagined identity of “American Indians” as mystical, savage or primitive that is contested.

Dallas Goldtooth
Dallas Goldtooth @dallasgoldtooth

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