(Image description: Black & white print of white British men having their feet washed by a black African man in an African village)
As a child of diaspora from a colonized nation (Nigeria), colonization is something that I know and feel personally, but the image of it only revealed itself to me in stark relief in a dream I had last night.
I spent a year before this in Taiwan teaching English as part of America’s neo-imperialist machine to spread our language and culture and subsume and eventually destroy local identities and languages abroad. I was placed in a Taiwanese aboriginal community which was all the more damning, and it took me many months to understand my place and role as a colonizer in this setting causing damage every single day I walked into the classroom.
It didn’t matter that I was black and experiencing antiblackness, I was still a Westerner spreading our imperialist language and hurting the community which had embraced me with open arms as a “foreign looking” foreigner. I had Western privilege even if I didn’t have white privilege as well like my colleagues.
Understanding my Western privilege and the damage I was causing to the community and kids that I was working with (many of whom could not understand or speak their indigenous languages due to their own colonization by Japanese and Han Chinese over the preceeding centuries) was incredibly difficult to say the least, and it broke my heart to know how much I was hurting these kids that I had grown to care so much about.
I did what I could to minimize the damage after self-examining and seeing these things for what they were. I collaborated with professors and local teachers to create a community based cultural empowerment and art project for some of our students meant to promote their local language and culture—the same languages and cultures which I was helping to subsume during my day job. The project won national recognition, and the kids will soon get to be featured on the national stage in Taiwan for doing a project in which they personally explored and told the stories of their lives and community using tools we provided them to aid in their exploration. A positive message to send to kids in a community that faces tremendous amounts of institutionalized discrimination and marginalization within Taiwan to this day.
But at the end of the day, I was still an outsider and a colonial agent there hoping, praying that my work there could “cancel out” some of the damage I was at that point contractually locked into dealing for a year as an English teacher (I completed my grant in July). What was the net impact? What does colonization look like and how can I tell how much damage versus good that I did?
There is now a new teacher at my school- a pretty white girl with blonde hair and blue eyes. I’ve heard that my students love her, and I also can tell that she doesn’t have an understanding of her role there as a colonial agent which is just further compounded by her whiteness, making the damage she is doing in an already vulnerable indigenous community as an “English teacher” all the more damaging. I saw a picture on facebook of her working with some of my former students, them crowded around her smiling and laughing, and immediately my heart sank and shattered. I was devastated not that they had found a new teacher that they liked, but that the cycle of colonization was just perpetuating and exacerbating itself.
Later that night I dozzed off and suddenly I was in the midst of a vivid dream.
One of my students, Jesse, who I had seen in the facebook picture crowded around the white teacher smiling came up to my dream self, and he looked completely normal and happy. I was happy to see him when he suddenly rolled up his pant leg to reveal a ghastly scene.
His leg was covered with deep, open gashes that went down almost clear to the bone. Red with fresh blood along the length of the cuts, but old enough that the blood did not poor or gush— it just stayed smiling sinisterly at me with a pinkish-red gleam. The gashes were everywhere I looked up and down the length of his leg- vertical, horizontal, diagonal slashes going every which way tearing and contorting his leg into a mangled mass. And in between his flesh was discolored and beginning to gangrene and rot.
All of this on a body that outwardly looked completely healthy and “okay.”
My dream self was horrified and immediately called my collaborator on the cultural empowerment project I had done in the community in a panic. I wanted to know what I could do to help him. If there was anything that I could do to help.
But it quickly became clear from our conversation that there was nothing that I could do to help.
And then that part of the dream abruptly ended.
When I awoke I realized that this was all a metaphor for colonization. For not just the damage I had done to these students I cared so deeply about, but which, as I’d seen in that facebook picture of them with their new white teacher, has only just been compounded many times fold this year. You do not solve a problem caused by colonization by adding more colonizers to the mix, even ones like me that might “mean well” otherwise.
It was also so clear from his outward health but the tremendous scars that laid right beneath the surface (when he pulled up his pant leg) what colonization really looks like. It is not always a physical manifestation, but the longer and far more damaging legacy is internalized and shows itself in different ways.
The loss of language, of customs, traditions, a way of being, living and seeing the world.
That’s only some of what colonization strips the colonized of in the metaphysical domains of our minds and spirits. These are some of the same losses that I’ve incurred as a child of diaspora from a colonized nation and which I perpetuated during my own time abroad as an English teacher.
This is the ugly face of the colonization and destruction that links and binds so many of us together across space and time.
I will just end with this quote from Chimamanda Adichie which encapsulates these ideas so well, as it’s so important that we all understand what colonization “looks” like and the tremendous damages and losses which are incurred under any and all colonial regimes:
"[He] was dangerously wrong to quantify the effects of colonialism and to reduce it to land. This does not diminish the enormous practical and emotional significance of the loss of ancestral lands. But the truth is that the losses associated with any unjust government— and colonialism was an unjust dictatorship—cannot be limited to those things that we can measure. The losses are more nuanced: the loss of language and stories, the loss of a way of being and a way thinking, the loss of dignity, and the loss that comes when succeeding generations inherit those losses."
Those more nuanced losses are arguably the most damaging and lasting legacy of colonization, and those were the same scars which my dream self found on my former student hidden right beneath the surface.
And that is what colonization looks like.