Tuesday, January 27, 2009

A paper on a book by Albert Memmi by Joy Eidse

In the preface to the book “The Colonizer and the Colonized,” Albert Memmi (1965) calls himself “a sort of half-breed of colonization, understanding everyone because I belong to no one” (p. xvi). Memmi lived in Tunisia, North Africa during the French colonial occupation which lasted from 1881-1956. He was a part of the black Jewish community. In terms of power structure, the colonialists, the French, were at the top. Memmi, not being a member of the colonial class was, in essence, a colonized person. He argues that he was not among the most oppressed groups of society, that position was relegated to the Muslims, but he, nevertheless, was definitely not a part of the ‘power elite.’ Memmi talks openly about the fact that he worked to assimilate to the French way of life, despite his distaste for their treatment of the people within the colonies, the colonized, he appreciated their culture. Memmi was an academic and many of his colleagues were French. In fact, Memmi eventually immigrated to France.
Despite Memmi’s disclaimers about how oppressed he was, or wasn’t, in comparison to other groups, within the colony, a reading of the chapters on the colonized, portray intense oppression, no matter how aligned with the colonizer the colonized person attempts to become. In the first chapter, Memmi explains how there can be no such thing as a ‘colonial’ as defined by history. His reason is that no matter what the intentions of the member of the colonizer, he will always be privileged due to his membership in the colonizer community and, most importantly, due to his skin color. This is demonstrated on a day-to-day basis, as Memmi (1965) describes:
Every act of his daily life places him in a relationship with the colonized, and with each act his fundamental advantage is demonstrated. If he is in trouble with the law, the police and even justice will be more lenient toward him. If he needs assistance from the government, it will not be difficult; red tape will be cut; a window will be reserved for him where there is a shorter line so he will have a shorter wait. Does he need a job? Must he take an examination for it? Jobs and positions will be reserved for him in advance; the tests will be given in his language, causing disqualifying difficulties for the colonized. (p. 11-12)

In contrast, with each privilege of the colonizer, the colonized person faces a disadvantage in kind.
The position of the colonized in this constant disadvantage is one of poverty and constant discrimination. Although Memmi was a scholar, and likely had a regular income, the stereotypes placed upon his people by the colonizer would have followed him everywhere. The idea that the colonized are lazy, no matter how hard they work, that they are not intelligent, not matter how much education they receive, must have weighed heavily on Memmi on a daily basis and affected him regularly. He tells of his fears that he would not be allowed to sit for the Philosophy examination as a young student, due to the fact that he was a member of the colonized.
Memmi describes the colonizer who tries to assimilate, seeing all the advantages of the colonizer and believing that, if only he would deny his own disadvantaged people and adopt the ways and beliefs of the colonizer, the privilege would also be his. Although this entire book is born of Memmi’s personal experiences, this seems to be the position that Memmi personally identified with. He continues to describe the journey of the colonized who tries to assimilate as one ending in rejection from the colonizer. No matter how much he rejects his own culture, language, religion, beliefs, and people, and tries to adopt that of the colonizer, he will never be accepted by them. In response to this rejection, he will turn back to his own people and culture and revolt against the colonizer.
I have rarely considered myself an oppressed person. I am white, heterosexual, married, born in Canada, have English as a first language, am from a Christian, middle classed family, I am able bodied and of sound mind. Recently, I have begun to recognize one area in which I have felt oppressed and that is as a woman. In the fundamental, Evangelical, Christian culture that I was raised in, women were to submit to men. God spoke to men and they, in turn, told women how to direct their lives. Women’s roles were delegated to producing and raising children and to running the household. Any other pursuits were considered hobbies, not to interfere with this primary role. In broader society I have felt the expectation that women are to be agreeable, pleasant, happy and outgoing. They are to care for society’s physical and emotional needs at the cost of their own. As an introvert, who tends to be a critical thinker, and more interested in philosophy than baking, this has caused me problems. In areas that I have been interested in, particularly as a musician, I have felt ostracized by men in the field who feel that a woman’s role in music should be limited to being a singer, backup singer, and/or a backup musician, but never as a technician or producer and rarely as a serious songwriter. Creative control is meant to belong to men. Often in my life, I have felt oppressed by reactions to my physical appearance. As a younger, single person, I felt objectified by men who showed very little interest in my personality and ideas and soon halted our friendship when it was clear that it was not to be physical. At the same time, I felt rejected by women who treated me as if I was arrogant and out to steal their men before knowing anything about me and have often had difficulty making female friends. Living as a woman is one area in which I have most consistently felt oppressed, in my life, and can most relate to Memmi.
For those who are not being oppressed, even if they are not actively seeking their own gain at the expense of others, they are gaining at the expense of others. In the quote given earlier, from the first chapter of the book, Memmi describes how the colonial cannot exist because he is inherently privileged in so many ways, by virtue of his skin color. Memmi spells out the day-to-day privileges of the colonizer, and, in doing so, effectively describes the condition of the colonizer as the antithesis of the privileged. This description served to provide me with a clear enough picture of the situation that I found myself, for the first time, able to begin to imagine both the position of the colonizer and the colonized within a colony. For every privilege the colonizer has, one has been usurped from the colonized. Memmi (1965) describes it this way:
If his living standards are high, it is because those of the colonized are low; if he can benefit from plentiful and undemanding labor and servants, it is because the colonized can be exploited at will and are not protected by the laws of the colony; if he can easily obtain administrative positions, it is because they are reserved for him and the colonized are excluded form them’ the more freely he breathes, the more the colonized are choked. (p. 8)
The colony is created to be a mini replica of the colonizer’s homeland rendering the colonized as aliens in their own homes. Not only is everything around unfamiliar to the colonized person, he is barred from entry and condemned to being considered less than the colonizer. It is essential for the colonized to believe that they are less or, at the very least, be constantly reminded of it in order for the colonizer to benefit from the exploitation of the colonized and their land. It is essential that the colonized remain distant in appearance and culture in order for the colonized to continue on in their charade of supremacy domination. The colonizers are there for economic gain and they must convince themselves that the colonized are less than they are in every way, in order to justify their exploitation.
In the colonial situation, racism is the key to justifying the exploitation of the colonized as well as the tool of the oppression of the colonized. It is used on both the personal and institutional level to ensure that the colonized person cannot rise above his or her social status.
The process that the colonizer who accepts goes through in order to justify the oppression and exploitation of the colonized people begins with the acceptance of the inherent power given to the colonizer by virtue of his skin color. Although he knows that he has not gained his position or power by his own virtue, instead of giving up his power, he accepts. This is partly due to the pressure of friends and family, partially due to the enjoyment of his position and privilege. Unfortunately, he cannot fully silence the guilt he feels over his ill-gotten gains and must some how justify it to himself and others. This is done by comparing his group of colonizers to those being colonized, stressing the differences and moralizing them in favor of the colonizer. Everything the colonized person does is inferior in some way to the colonizer, (Memmi cites the trait of ‘laziness’ as most often attributed to the colonized) therefore, they deserve the harsh treatment they receive. In time, he comes to believe that the differences are biological and starts to feel sorry for the colonized people and sees himself as a sort of benevolent, paternalistic figure, there to save them from themselves. The creation of charities for those suffering the results of colonization, allow the colonizer to feel that he is above reproach in his lifestyle and gains and leaves the colonized person to recognize that any opposition expressed, regarding the harsh treatment he receives, will never be heard by the colonizer.
As a result of these beliefs, nothing the colonized person does can be viewed in any other way, by the colonizer, than as inferior. In order for the colonizer to maintain his privilege, he must continue to believe that he is superior and that no colonized person deserves what he has, otherwise, the colony will fail. Within the colony, the colonized person will never have opportunity to rise above his or her social status.
Because the colonizer holds all positions of power and controls every institution of society, the colony is institutionally racist, politically, educationally, and legally. Memmi (1965) quotes a politician who says, “[t]hey are not capable of governing themselves…that is why …I don’t let them and never will let them enter the government” (p. 95). Memmi describes an educational system which consistently bars the colonized person from participation by excluding him from all content. It is conducted in the colonizer’s language, it teaches only the colonizer’s history and assumes the philosophy of the colonizer. The colonized child does not find himself anywhere in this education. At higher levels, the colonized is barred more and more by unmanageable fees and continual discouragement from pursuing higher education by educators and family members who need his immediate labour to help with survival. Legally, the attitude that all colonized people are inferior and lazy is supplemented with the assumption of moral inferiority. All along the continuum from police to judge, the assumption of guilt is there and the colonized person suffers for it. They will be first accused and first punished, despite any evidence to the contrary.
The result of this racism that permeates attitudes, policies and laws, is that the colonized person has been effectively subverted, not only from rising above his social status, but from participating in society and even from the motivation to participate or attempt to promote change. The colonized person has been removed from his history, removed from the present and removed from any foreseeable future. Psychologically, he begins to believe the colonizer about who the colonized person is, and eventually, begin to take on the very characteristics that the colonizer made up about him in the first place. He begins to feel unmotivated or “lazy” knowing that any effort on his part to better his situation will be thwarted. He begins to understand himself as an outsider within the colony and stops trying to imagine his potential role in it. In anger, frustration or out of sheer desperation, he may even begin to participate in illegal activities in order to survive both physically and psychologically. This hatred called racism has powerfully and effectively served as a weapon to destroy any chance of change for the colonized person.
Canada is not immune to the condition of Tunisia from 1881 up to 1956, while under French rule. We have been in this condition for 540 years with the English, European, Protestant majority in control of every aspect of society. The attitude towards those not of this class, in particular, the aboriginal people of Canada is very similar to the attitude of the French towards the Tunisians. All the same stereotypes are applied. All the same benefits are reaped from the oppression of Aboriginal people. Aboriginal people are excluded from society, not only because they rarely find themselves within it, society being a replica, in many ways of life in England, but also by overt exclusion. In education, Aboriginal languages are not spoken, Aboriginal philosophy and perspective is rarely considered and Aboriginal knowledge is looked down upon as inferior. In politics, there is little room for Aboriginal involvement. Too often they are portrayed as an outside special interest group begging for handouts from a benevolent government who just keeps on giving despite what is seen as “self perpetuating poverty and social issues.” In the legal system, aboriginal people make up 70% of prison population despite their small numbers in society. Somehow, the rest of Canadians are blind to this blatant institutionalized racism and oppression. Likely, the benefits gained from this oppression outweigh the guilt that might be felt from it. Also, after 540 years, there is genuine ignorance about the origins of the problems facing aboriginal people and our country is large enough to be able to hide much of these issues in remote areas that are rarely encountered by the majority of Canadians.
One area that could be changed in society is the area of education. Incorporating a comprehensive curriculum on the history, culture, and current situation of Aboriginal people from Kindergarten on up and giving the option of Aboriginal language instruction from the earliest years right through to university would be a start. Educating older Canadians through the media by covering more variety of stories concerning Aboriginal people, not merely stories about crimes or corruption in leadership, but stories about innovations in Aboriginal communities both on and off reserves and giving historical context when covering stories about social issues. Documentaries about the history of Aboriginal people and continued integration of Aboriginal art, stories and culture into mainstream media. I also think that Aboriginal people should be given autonomy in the area of education and be allowed to design their own curriculum and run their own schools both on and off reserve with government funding. These schools could function as private school, in that non-Aboriginal students wishing to attend could pay a fee to receive a distinctly Aboriginal education.
In the area of the Justice system, Aboriginal people should be given the same kind of autonomy I suggested for the education system, with full financial support from the government. A system based on the traditional principles of restorative justice and consequences for crimes in accordance to the discretion of Aboriginal people. Whatever it takes to regain these principles and ideas and implement them, should receive full government support.
Another area that I think should be changed in Canada is the area of self-identification. I think the government needs to allow aboriginal people the right to define who is and who is not aboriginal and award the rights and benefits currently afforded only to “treaty Indians” to all those who identify as Aboriginal. I am in full support of self-government for Aboriginal people and believe that the Canadian government needs to do whatever it can to support this process.
Supporting Aboriginal autonomy can only benefit Canadian society. Memmi speaks about the complete disaster of colonization for both the colonizer and the colonized and how the only solution is to end it entirely. I believe that that is the only solution for Canada and the Aboriginal people of the world.
Memmi speaks about revolt. In Tunisia, this actually meant an all out war where the French were forced to leave. In Canada, revolt takes on a different form. The non-Aboriginal people cannot, at this point, be forced out by the Aboriginal people, nor will they leave willingly. The picture of revolt has something to do with the personal process of decolonization in the lives of each Aboriginal person as well as the personal process of letting go of power by those in power, in order to make room for equality among all Canadians. And since, as Memmi suggests, each member of the colonizer has some form of power over those being colonized, this process of ‘letting go’ falls to every majority member of Canadian society. Letting go of racist ideas, letting go of the belief that ones own privilege is inherently deserved and letting go of resentment for every step of emancipation achieved by Aboriginal people that may cost “us” something. These are things that need to change in Canadian society in order for the condition of oppressed and marginalized people to be improved.

2 comments:

that chick said...

re: the idea of a separate judicial system - how would that work when an aboriginal person committed a crime against a non-aboriginal person? when a non-aboriginal person committed a crime against an aboriginal person? when an aboriginal person has a non-aboriginal co-plaintiff? isn't asking native people to understand and navigate two judicial systems another form of oppression, one that could lead to an apartheid-type problem? canada had enough apartheid-type problems...

but don't you worry your pretty little head with such big words.

Joy EIdse said...

Good point, I'm only a mere Bachelor student. I'm not allowed any REAL answers until I have a couple more degrees. Maybe it could work like it does when a citizen from one country commits a crime against a citizen from another country.