I am enraged when apologists for colonization pose the question of British presence adding value to brown and Black lives—as though we have benefitted so much by being seen and exploited by white folks. In this situation my throat dries up—a fire from rage and sadness. And it happens often. Usually white people say things as ill-conceived and idiotic as this. Third World Quarterly recently published an article called “The Case for Colonialism” written by a white man in Portland, Oregon. Did I read it? After the first section I couldn’t stomach the fuckery. I wanted to scream my throat bloody. I wanted to cut the author down to a stump. I knew that I had to write something about it to recuperate my ancestors’ humanity. Instead of dashing off a Facebook post, I wanted to write something longer that gave me time to collect myself, brush my shoulders off, wait until my blood pressure lowered enough that writing could no longer cause me physical harm.
I thought this article was bad until a family member told me not to worry—maybe I “should look at both sides.” Is it an American thing that I wanted to strangle this particular uncle? Did my family’s move to the United States make me more violent and disrespectful to my elders of my own community? I found myself not knowing how to respond. There was just too much to say, yet I couldn’t summon the words through the iron shroud of my anger. And to make it worse, I hated myself for weeks after I was unable to explain that the British did not do well by us Coolies.
I present two situations about what to do when people tell you “But wasn’t colonization a good thing?”, followed by a writing prompt for you to inhabit your space and to summon your voice. There’s always a need to stand firmly on your feet, knowing exactly who you are.
Situation One: When A White Person Says This to You
IMAGINE YOU HAVE JUST MOVED TO HAWAI’I—a country under illegal occupation. You are a brown queer who comes from Coolie heritage. Illiteracy, alcoholism, and indenture still pepper your gait. Being new to the land, you know some about the history—that the United States illegally occupied it and overthrew the Queen Liliu‘okalani before militarizing the space. The people of Hawai‘i have resisted this occupation for years. You know that there was a period of indentureship in the islands, that people came from China, Japan, Korea, and the Philippines to work the sugar plantations and pineapple fields. The Hawaiian cane fields rhyme with Guyana’s: there is a similar history of colonization, hell, there are similar Creole Englishes spoken in both places.
Wanting to show you are down with the struggle for sovereignty, you read as much as you can from Hawai‘i’s Story before your first day of orientation. When you arrive at the university in Mānoa and climb the stairs up Kuykendall Hall and find the classroom where the students assemble, you sit next to a white woman with red hair at the Graduate Teaching Assistant orientation at the University of Hawai‘i. The moderator, face fringed with a frangipani lei, asks you to turn to your neighbor and tell them what you study.
“I’m studying creative writing: poetry and translation. I also have an interest in postcolonial theory and literature,” you say.
The white woman looks at you and smiles. “I’m interested in poetry and creative writing, too.”
Oh, a potential friend! you think. Then she opens her mouth again.
“As for postcolonial theory—don’t you think that colonization was good in some ways?”
You choke. Black flies pour out of her mouth and buzz around your head. How can you possibly respond? Your ancestors were indentured laborers living in horrid conditions, assaulted and gravely injured by the British empire. Even the act of writing is a new technology for your family. You think: Is it good that we were beaten, raped, and dehumanized all in the name of sugar? Is it good that diabetes and alcoholism—which are absolutely the fault of colonization—haunt us today? Does she mean that the Bengali famine was a good thing—the starving of 1943-1944 was beneficial? Infants withering into dust on the streets as Britain lined its stole with brown skins? Is it good that “white men save brown women from brown men”—men who they claimed are abusive inherently because of climate? Is it good because it gave us Science that started out with proof of why brown bodies and people are lesser? Is it good because it validates white supremacy? Is it good because the human can still be saved in the brown savage? And this is only considering your own family’s history, not to mention the woeful ignorance of other colonized stories and histories as well as the local settler colonialism in Hawaiian spaces.
If and when a white person says this, considering that anything from a Person of Color’s perspective is often believed to be unthinkable, you don’t have to answer. The person who says this doesn’t understand you and your ancestors to be human. You are not this ignorant fool’s teacher. Find another white person around you who understands better the impacts of colonization and have them explain, letting them take on the emotional labor. It’s good to have a store of white folks who can explain in white terms to other white folks. How many times have you heard people like this say Why do you have to bring race up again? This is a way to shut down an argument using the strawman of the race card. If there were such a thing as a race card, would it let us check out secret books on how to accumulate wealth? Books about how best to serve a white master? Books about how to be desirable to white folks? How best to bear the beating of the magistrate? Get the fuck out of here with your race card. The person who says this is a fool. Don’t explain shit to them. Chances are the white person will only listen to another white person anyway.
Situation Two: If a Brown Person Says This to You
IMAGINE YOU PERFORM SOME POEMS at the Queens Museum of Art. Along with Andil Gosine, Gaiutra Bahadur, Lisa Outar, and Ian Harnarine, you show your participation in Coolitude poetics, which looks in the face of the history of indenture and wrests back to the power of history making from white hands. Most of the audience are, like the entire panel of artists and academics, Indo-Caribbean people who share a similar history. Queens, New York is the heart of the Indo-Caribbean diaspora with folks coming from Trinidad, Guyana, Jamaica, Surinam, Guadeloupe, and more—so this audience is particularly beautiful for you. So many Coolies around instead of the more common occurrence: one Indo-Caribbean person around, if any at all.
During the question-and-answer portion of the panel, a middle-aged man in a suit, with a slightly British accent, asks, “But without the British we would still be poor villagers . . .” You read a kind of casteism in this response that implies we have benefitted because we no longer have caste. The assumption behind this question is that pre-colonial life in India was hopelessly backward and rural—dacoits and bandits hiding behind every tree. It’s true that caste changed dramatically once our ancestors left India, though many people like to think of themselves descended from Brahmins instead of acknowledging their mixed-caste nature and Dalit ancestors as well. To this man, the British rescued us from alterity and caste discrimination. The irony is that the British mobilized caste identities for their own colonizing evils.
But this is an uncle. You want to be respectful of him and of his own survival strategies that led him to the museum that day. Being alive at all is a marvel, as Audre Lorde says. She writes in “A Litany for Survival”:
So it is better to speak
We were never meant to survive.Audre Lorde
You imagine that she is speaking to you, a Caribbean person who descended from servitude. You imagine that she is also talking to the Uncle. You feel a personal responsibility to speak to this kind of belief. You are a writer and a speaker and a teacher. And this Uncle is from your own community of immigrant folks in New York City.
Let me tell you, we still have caste, though it’s different than what’s practiced in the many cultures of India. The word for a specific Dalit caste was a swear word my Aji used until she died and that my father’s family still uses to describe people. We also have a new kind of racism to deal with—anti-Blackness and anti-Indianness.
The polarities between Black and Indian people in Guyana began with the need of the British for us to hate one another, lest we realize that we have more commonalities and band together and decolonize. The British were geniuses in their evil craft.
The question of whether colonization has benefitted us Coolies arises from the colonized when questioning colonial authority. After I wrote the article “Why I Will Never Celebrate Indian Arrival Day,” many people cheered. Still, many people balked—members of my extended family included. Would you rather be poor in India? Their question echoes.
When a brown person asks this, the sting is a particular kind of hurt. Is this a member of the petit bourgeoisie who is grateful for the dregs of colony that they were able to manipulate into personal wealth? Has colonization now destroyed our imaginations? What world can we create when we start the laborious journey towards a personal politics of decolonization?
Whatever the case, how completely saddening it is for us to look at our own histories, the sufferings of our Ajas-Ajis and Nana-Nanis, the records of how dehumanized our ancestors were, and to say this is a good thing. It stings fiercely. An orange pain with threat of infection. God knows that trying to reclaim a voice at all is a steep mountain for the disenfranchised, and it has to be in the colonizer’s Queen’s English, which was, though we wrote on papers, not my first language.
When a brown person says, But wasn’t colonization a good thing? I say: We are alive and learning to be whole because of our own tenacity—our own inherent instinct to survive. I am not alive because the British gave me anything.
There’s a difference between my being grateful for the resourcefulness and courage that I’ve inherited from the brown women—Hindu, Muslim, and Christian, who I descend from—and my thanking the system that turned us into exploitable work animals.
You don’t have to have all the words then and there—especially if you’re winded or feel betrayed. Those responses are real. The first thing should be to take care of your brown, queer self. If they insist, But you wouldn’t be here today without the British—would you rather go back to living in the Indian villages, poor and suffering? Look at India. The British gave them trains! absolutely speak up. Colonialization happened. Our ancestors were indentured—there’s no way of undoing it or pretending like it didn’t change the world. If the Indian villages that we came from were poor, then it was the British who engineered them to be so. This is not a controversial statement. Consider the Agra Famine, the Bengal Famine of 1943, or the Indian famine of 1899 to name just three documented instances. The British built the train system for themselves, so they could extract India’s wealth. According to the Indian writer Shashi Tharoor, each track was routed toward the shipping centers so the British could ship their gems, gold, poppies, rice, etc. off to their frozen island. Altogether the British used starvation to control their colonies and are, according to some accounts, responsible for over fifty million deaths. Here is one example from the BBC about how the often-quoted Winston Churchill has South Asian blood on his hands.
Colonization globalized the notion that some people could be living waste. Colonization began the unparalleled indignity and torment of the Transatlantic slave trade. Colonization keeps Native peoples from protecting their water and land. Colonization makes you think your brown is superior to other browns. Colonization makes arbitrary borders. Colonization requires some people to be called “illegal.” Colonization makes you call your queer children abominations.Colonization makes you think that my Aji’s unlettered languages are inferior to English knowledges, and that she died believing that all of her songs and stories were of little to no value. It’s colonization that says you are a “thing” to be used and thrown out.
Do I think my life is better because my ancestors were indentured? My Aji told a story about her grandfather was tricked into coming to Guyana, promised return passage, and was ravaged by the plantation economy until eventually he was forced to fight in World War II. What did Britain ever give him?
Yes, you may now be literate in English, and that has helped you gain in the United States, but now to look back on all of the blood and violence and to say it was worth it demeans the human spirit within you. Or is it that you actually think you are inherently superior to others, like the people who colonized you? If so, remember your own grandparents most likely ate daal and rice with their bare hands.
How to Challenge People Who Say, Wasn’t Colonization a Good Thing?
HERE IS A WRITING PROMPT to help you through this situation—to be prepared for when ignorant people say to you But isn’t colonization a good thing?
Take a deep breath in and hold it for five seconds. Release. Hold for five seconds. Feel your feet on the ground. Imagine your spine being completely straight.
Remember that being dumbfounded is okay. It’s what led me to write this essay.
- Think about your ancestors who were punished in the fields. Write a response that connects history to your personal experiences (think epigenetics). Write a letter to them expressing your wish to liberate them from their toiling.
- Consider what traumas have you inherited and how are they expressed today? Think about a specific image where all these threads (class, gender, colonization, patriarchy, transphobia and homophobia or any other bigotry that you’ve had to work—or still are working—hard to overcome) intersect. Is it in your mother getting up to get your father a glass of water even though she is also eating dinner? Is it when your father practices his American accent in public and makes fun of other South Asian people with his white friends? Write about your experiences with these, your parents’ experiences with these, your grandparents’ experiences. How are they connected?
- Think of a time when a family member said something you didn’t agree with politically. Let’s say it was something like voting for tr*mp and how you should be grateful for being in this country. What are the specific contradictions that they make when posing these statements? Think of DACA and the way that tr*mp’s proposed cuts to family reunification visas will affect Guyanese Americans the most.
Don’t worry if you have to return to this article several times before you are able to put words to this hurt. I’ve taken my time to come up with my own responses to this kind of thinking. Mostly they are rooted in an understanding of this kind of position—erasing ourselves and playing small is exactly what Empire wanted us to do. It makes sense that these kinds of sentiments remain. It’s up to you to change your own thinking. Don’t be mad at your reactions or lack of action. Notice them and think it through. Write as many drafts as it takes to prepare yourself for this kind of conversation. Doing so has made me feel present.
RAJIV MOHABIR is the author of three collections of poetry including Cutlish(Four Way Books 2021) which was longlisted for the 2022 PEN/Voelcker Prize and a finalist for the 2022 National Book Critics Circle Award. He also authored the memoir Antiman (Restless Books 2021) which is a finalist for the 2022 PEN/America Open Book Award. As a translator, his version of I Even Regret Night: Holi Songs of Demerara (Kaya 2019) won the Harold Morton Landon Translation Award from the Academy of American Poets in 2020. He teaches in the MFA program at Emerson College and lives in the Boston area. He teaches in the MFA program at Emerson College and lives in the Boston area.
If you enjoyed this essay, check out Rajiv Mohabir’s book, Antiman, out now via Restless Books!