Words Mean Things: Understanding Colonialism

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Colonization is the act of forcefully stripping sovereignty of a country through acquisition of land, resources, raw material, and governmental structures.

My turn to state an equation: colonization = “thing-ification.” – Aimé Césaire

The use of social media as a powerful tool for free education on various topics continually rises, with definitions, experiential narratives, and resources being shared through Twitter threads, short videos, Facebook statuses, and even memes. And while this is a mostly positive phenomena, there seems to be a trend of words, and thus words’ associated theories, being used misguidedly.

Often, this is a simple case of fighting character limits and the loss of nuance that occurs through online mediums, and other times it seems a phenomena of genuine miseducation and confusion. Words like intersectionality, decolonize, imperialism, socialism, and other loaded terms that come with decades of jargon are at times applied to everything, and their actual meaning is lost.

Observing this pattern is what lead me to the idea of an article series titled “Words Mean Things,” wherein each month I choose a different word and discuss the theories, uses, theorists, examples, applications, and praxis surrounding it. The goal is to do this as concisely as possible and, understanding these will never be wholly conclusive of all definitions, applications, and examples of certain words, to deliver small primers that exist as resources to lead readers to study deeper. I often say that words mean everything, and then anything, just before meaning nothing.


Colonialism is a system of land occupation and theft, labor exploitation, and/or resource dependency that is to blame for much of our modern concepts of racialization. It is an act of dominance in which a forceful state overtakes a “weaker” state; this means that colonization is the act of forcefully stripping sovereignty of a country through acquisition of land, resources, raw material, and governmental structures. Systems of colonialism are based in notions of racial inferiority, as they as they perpetuate white/European domination over non-white colonial subjects.

The most obvious (and broad) example of colonialism is the expansion of Europe into Africa, Asia, and Latin America, and the subsequent creation of colonies. Through violence and manipulation, a relationship of control and influence was exerted economically, socially, politically, religiously, and culturally. In Jamaica, for example, the British empire invaded and colonized the island in the mid-17th Century, and subsequently established British colonial school systems, laws and regulations creating dependency on Britain, and pushed European gender, religious, and wardrobe norms onto the society.

There are various forms of colonialism and colonial projects, but all involve some form of domination, control, and/or influence on an indigenous population through violence and/or manipulation. It is also important to note that these various forms of colonialism often intersect and overlap, too. In his 1972 essay “Discourse On Colonialism,” one of the most important pieces of writing I have ever read, writer Aimé Césaire states:

“Between colonizer and colonized there is room only for forced labor, intimidation, pressure, the police, taxation, theft, rape, compulsory crops, contempt, mistrust, arrogance, self-complacency, swinishness, brainless elites, degraded masses. No human contact, but relations of domination and submission which turn the colonizing man into a class-room monitor, an army sergeant, a prison guard, a slave driver, and the indigenous man into an instrument of production.”


Exploitation Colonialism, Plantation Colonies, and Settler-Colonialism

Three of the most prominent forms of colonialism are exploitation colonialism, plantation colonialism, and settler-colonialism. In Unsettling America’s “Settler Colonialism Primer,” Laura Hurwitz & Shawn Bourque give us useful definitions of these three iterations of colonialism, stating:

“Exploitation colonialism involves a small amount of colonists whose main objective is to profit from the colonies resources and exploit Indigenous labor, usual exported to the metropole or “mother city” (think of the British in India). Plantation colonies utilize a mix of exploitation and settler colonialism in different regions and areas. In settler colonialism land, not labor, is key. In this system, Indigenous Peoples are literally replaced by settlers.”

As previously stated, forms of colonialism often overlap; in the United States, British colonialists forcefully removed Indigenous Peoples and settled on their land, while also eventually installing a plantation-economy built on the labor of enslaved Africans. Understanding settler colonialism, and the theory surrounding it, is key to understanding conflicts in places such as Palestine, Eritrea, and South Africa.

These three different forms of colonialism are responsible for the underdevelopment of African, Asian, and Latin American countries, and the massive accumulation of wealth by European/Western countries. In the monumental book “How Europe Underdeveloped Africa”, Guyanese revolutionary Walter Rodney stated that colonialism “meant the development of Europe as part of the same dialectical process in which Africa was underdeveloped.”

Settler-colonialism also allows us to examine the notion of Indigeneity, and the Indigenous-settler relationship, which is one of conflict. The term “settlers” is used to refer to those who directly stole and settled land, as well as those forcibly brought to the land (enslaved Africans, immigrant laborers, etc).

Settlers are in opposition to Indigenous Peoples so long as they remain on their land, using their resources, and perpetuating violence on their people. It is also important to note that most Indigenous activists and scholars do note a difference in the settler identity of white/Europeans who forcefully settled the land, and that of enslaved Africans who were forcefully brought to the colony.



Neo-colonialism was coined by Ghanian Pan-Africanist Kwame Nkrumah and, unlike the three aforementioned forms of colonialism, is used to describe the ways that powerful, typically Western states impose indirect domination on former colony states. This means that legally and definitionally the former colony is “independent” of a colonizing country’s military and political control, however through economic systems is still very much intentionally dependent on its former colonizer.

In the introduction to his book “Neo-Colonialism: the Last Stage of Imperialism,” Nkrumah defines neo-colonialism as when “the State which is subject to it is, in theory, independent and has all the outward trappings of international sovereignty. In reality its economic system and thus its political policy is directed from outside.”

Through trade agreements, international banking systems, international development institutions, and foreign aid debt, former colonies are made to be subservient and dependent on former colonizer countries. Nkrumah describes this as the “worst form” of imperialism, because it allows for the neo-colonizing state to have “power without responsibility,” and no need to justify its control of a foreign country because it is indirect.

An example of this is seen in former colonizing countries giving massive amounts of foreign “aid” to former colonies like Haiti, Burkina Faso, the Congo, or Puerto Rico. This foreign “aid” is delivered with the promise of helping underdeveloped nations – nations whose underdevelopment can be largely blamed on the very country loaning the aid – and recreates the colonial power dynamic through millions of dollars of debt.

Burkinabé revolutionary Thomas Sankara stated in a speech once that “debt is neo-colonization, in which colonizers transformed themselves into ‘technical assistance.’ We should say ‘technical assassins’,” and called debt “cleverly managed re-conquest of Africa.”


Agro-Colonialism and Green-Colonialism

Agro-colonialism is a relatively new term; it describes the process by which international development institutions foster landgrabs for multinational corporations, which then exert immense power and control over agricultural production of a nation. This includes but is not limited to dominance, control, and intense influence over mineral mining, raw material harvesting, farming, and land/livestock cultivation.

Devlin Kuyek, a Senior Researcher at GRAIN, an international nonprofit that supports the rights and movements of local farmers fighting for community-control of their land and farms, described that in the Congo, many new companies “are taking over old plantation concessions.” In the Congo, one corporation leading this charge is Feronia, a multinational corporation backed by American and Canadian investors, who has purchased much land in the Congo and subsequently implemented a colonial plantation-style worker model. Thus, in the former colonies that are mineral and raw material rich, the colonization of land and subsequent exploitation of labor is done through multinational corporations rather than military power.

Another slightly new but important term is Green-colonialism, wherein foreign governments use the language of “nature preservation” and “animal conservation” to foster control and influence over land in former colonies. Using the Congo again as an example, we can analyze Germany funneling millions of dollars into Congolese environmental conservation efforts, particularly the massive Kahuzi-Biéga National Park, with the expectation of influence in the region following. In August of this year, a group of german-funded Congolese “eco rangers” opened fire on two men from the Batwa tribe, a minority ethnic group to the land, killing a 17 year old and heavily injuring another man; this shows that German funding, like “green funding” in many countries, is behind the paramilitary groups popping up to keep Indigenous people from their land for the sake of environmental protection.

Thus, foreign development/conservation money in places like the Congo, Brazil, and Honduras places abstract protection of the environment over the material conditions of the people. In the Congo, where there are millions facing hunger and displacement, German conservation efforts are keeping natives from the land, vegetation, and animals they’ve cultivated for centuries.


Decolonization, Postcolonial Studies

A term that, in my opinion and simultaneous self-indictment, is used incorrectly quite often. In the 2012 essay “Decolonization is Not a Metaphor,” Eve Tuck and K. Yang states that decolonization “brings about the repatriation of Indigenous land and life; it is not a metaphor for other things we want to do to improve our societies and schools.” Thus, decolonization is not an abstract transgression against the structures of whiteness as it is commonly used, rather a legitimate action by Indigenous communities to re-appropriate land and self-determination.

Following the trend to use “decolonize” as a blanket statement to describe all acts of bettering race relations in a specific context, and “colonize” to refer to nearly all marginalized people of color, the applicability of those two terms seems to have drastically shifted. In the article “What Do We Mean When We Say Colonized?” Janani Balasubramanin gives seven points describing why the misuse of “colonized” and “decolonized” is a problematic construction. Below are an abridged, shortened version of those points:

  • “Not all people of color were/are colonized. This is not to say that POC whose peoples were never formally colonized are not affected by colonialism; as a product of trade/labor routes, and the ways that our origins are homogenized, we definitely experience racism that isn’t necessarily specific to our histories
  • Decolonization is not a metaphor.
  • Colonization and decolonization are not individual practices, rather structural oppression/actions.
  • In the US, we are in the belly of the imperialist beast […] Decolonization is not something that happens divorced of the US removing itself from its colonies and imperialist control of other nations’ resources.
  • Material and political gains for diaspora does not necessarily translate to reparations for folks in places of origin.
  • Not all racism comes about through colonialism. Race is brought into being also by labor relations, migration patterns, war, enslavement, etc. None of these processes is totally separate from colonialism, but it’s important to hold their specificity.”
  • Colonized peoples can also colonize. India, for example, is a formerly colonized nation currently occupying Kashmir, and trading billions in weapons with Israel.”


Thus, according to many Decolonization is much more of a structural, or even societal praxis rather than a personal detachment from whiteness. Conversely, however, many arguments have been made to assume decolonization as a both a structural/group event and an individual/personal act. Within the worlds of academia and activism, words often take on different meanings and their applicability shifts throughout time.

Postcolonial Studies, therefore, is the academic analysis of and response to the legacy, history, and cultural consequences of colonialism. Post-colonialists are concerned with dissecting, examining, deconstructing, and ultimately abolishing the institutional, structural, and interpersonal effects of colonialism. A great example of this are websites “Decolonize All The Things and “Decolonize All The Science,” created by Pan-Africanist writer Shay Akil. Both websites are aimed at giving articles, reading lists, and other resources to understand the effects of the legacy of colonialism as they stand today, and provide commentary on things such as “theory, pop culture, social critique, and activism” from a postcolonial framework.

One example, however, of where these seemingly distinct uses of “decolonize” come together to create material transgression against a colonial institution is the “Decolonizing Science Reading List,” which is a wonderfully helpful reading list of various works discussing the colonial legacy/roots in science, provided by theoretical physicist Dr. Chanda Prescod-Weinstein. The list was initially as response to the 2015 highly controversial planned Thirty Meter Telescope and protests against it from Native Hawaiians who didn’t want it built on Mauna Kea, and its purpose is to dissect and challenge the various ways institutions of “modern science” reinforce and create colonial/settler-colonial actions. In the introduction to the list she states:

“I believe science need not be inextricably tied to commodification and colonialism. The discourse around “diversity, equity and inclusion” in science, technology, engineering and mathematics must be viewed as a reclamation project for people of color. Euro-American imperialism and colonialism has had its (often unfortunate) moment with science, and it’s time for the rest of us to reclaim our heritage for the sake of ourselves and the next seven generations.”


In this conceptualization of the ‘colonization of science’ and its decolonization, one can see that the use of a decolonial/decolonization theory is slightly different, and focuses on a specific structure (science) within the system of colonialism/post-colonialism. This is different from the previously described ‘decolonization’ given by Balasubramanin, Tuck, and Yang, while still making clear sense and equal importance. So it seems in 2017 we have two main uses of “decolonization” which run parallel to one another.

The use of the word “decolonize” is something that personally confounds me, and on some days I want to sway one way or the other with how I use it, and how I feel about its use. I do believe it can be, and should be, a healthy mix of both: a term used to describe the praxes of Indigenous Peoples reclaiming land, sovereignty, and self-determination, which can also be used at times to describe and re-shaping the legacy of colonialism within our epistemology, institutions and structures.

I do know that Frantz Fanon wrote that “if we wish to describe [decolonization] precisely, we might find it in the well-known words: ‘the last shall be first and the first shall be last.’ Decolonization is the putting into practice of this sentence. That is why, if we try to describe it, all decolonization is successful.” This seems most correct, and is sufficient for my own curiosities on its uses.



Author Bio: Devyn Springer is an Atlanta writer, activist and artist who recently published his debut book “Grayish-Black” which is available on Amazon. You can follow him on Twitter at @HalfAtlanta.




Featured Image: via FAB NYC


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