Speaker Sessions: Veronica Fynn Bruey – Colonialism and Racism
This post is a response to a talk given by Veronica Fynn Bruey at the STAND Canada 2016 Directors Conference: “Learn, Listen, Act: Promoting Reflexivity to Genocide of Indigenous Peoples.”
From January 21-23, 2016, STAND Canada convened its national leadership to listen through consultations, meetings, and events in an effort to understand our responsibility as a Canadian anti-genocide advocacy organization and initiate a robust dialogue with other groups with similar questions. The Conference took place on the unceded and occupied territories of the Coast Salish peoples, including the sḵwx̱wú7mesh (Squamish), sel̓íl̓witulh (Tsleil-Waututh), xʷməθkʷəy̓əm (Musqueam) and Stó:lō nations. We invited activist groups, Indigenous peoples, and other interested parties to engage in a critical dialogue on topics related to our conference theme with the aims of listening to Indigenous perspectives and promoting reflexive action in activist communities.
Authors: Banke Sorinwa & Evan Gray
Colonialism and Racism:
“The roots of the colonization movement date back to various plans first proposed in the eighteenth century. Colonization of free blacks in Africa was an issue on which both white and blacks were divided” (https://www.loc.gov/exhibits/african/afam002.html)
Colonialism can be traced to when the Europeans resettled and politically claimed some parts of Africa, Americas, Australia and Asia. With their understanding of ruling based on the practice and experience of the British Monarchy – a strongly hierarchical system, the Europeans decided to propagate this method across the world.
Racism occurs when there is segregation amongst people based on the colour of their skin. According to the PBS (Public Broadcasting Service), “racism exists when one ethnic group collectively dominates, excludes or seeks to eliminate another”
In colonial societies, the idea that racial differences also indicated differences in physical, intellectual and emotional capacity defined relations between settlers and indigenous inhabitants. Although considered by many to be a mark of inferiority, the physical characteristics of non-Europeans became objects of fascination for colonists. For example, there are reports of English settlers who took bodies of Indigenous Australians to laboratories so they could study and research why they were different from them.
In her talk, Veronica emphasises the importance of studying the histories of some celebrated heroes to understand how colonial-era theories of race continue to influence our culture. She cites Winston Churchill, who history largely remembers as a great English Statesman, but who saw himself and other British people as being “winners” in a Social Darwinist hierarchy, viewing Protestant Christians as being above white Catholics, and Indians as superior to Africans. As Veronica points out, these ideas have become ingrained in the societies of both the former colonial powers and the countries they colonized, as evidenced by their continued participation in the subjugation of colonized peoples around the world.
In her talk, Veronica uses the story of the founding of Liberia to illustrate how racist ideals have been ingrained into modern African societies through the vehicle of colonialism. In 1816, a group of white Americans founded the American Colonization Society (ACS) to deal with the “problem” of the growing number of free blacks in the United States by resettling them in Africa. While many abolitionists, both black and white, rejected the notion that it was impossible for the races to integrate and therefore did not support the idea of an African-American colony in Africa, the ACS had powerful support and its colonization project gained momentum. This resulted in formation of the west African nation of Liberia.
The goal of this movement was to withhold political power from previously enslaved African-American people who had been in America for over 300 years by having them resettle in Africa. Unlike the assimilation programs in Canada and Australia which resettled Indigenous populations in order to rid them of their cultural heritage, the “back-to-Africa” movement sought to return African-Americans to their geographical and cultural origins by removing them from settler society altogether. In practice, however, this simply led to them practising and reconstructing the same systems of racial classification and exclusion that they had experienced in America.
Many of those who resettled in Liberia had the notion they were of a higher class and behaved like elites due to their exposure to the Western culture, thus disavowing their African culture. This was shown in the way they treated the local populations, and often, in a refusal to speak the local dialect. This attitude has been studied by many theorists of colonialism, including Frantz Fanon, who wrote about “negritude”, a form of black elitism practised by the westernised political classes of African nations. It is important to understand, however, that these ideas are not simply remnants of a distant “colonial era”, but in fact are a contributing factor in ongoing global oppression, conflict and violence.
James C.L.R. (1938) The Black Jacobins: Toussaint L’Ouverture and the San Domingo Revolution.
Frantz Fanon (1952) Black Skin, White Masks.
Ngugi wa Thiong’o (1986) Decolonising the Mind.