Decolonizing Yourself

This semester I’m taking a seminar about empires and imperialism. It’s something I’ve been interested in for a while, and something that the US school system does a poor job in including in curriculums

I grew up never knowing enough about my Indian and Guyanese heritage, and always wanting to learn more. Then, I went to Hungary and learned a shit ton about the Soviet Union which only increased my fascination. Natural next step: take a class on how empires work and what happens to them.

The last thing I expected from my political science seminar was painfully obvious parallels between state relationships and people relationships. Seems logical though, right? States technically are just large people interacting with each other. People run countries, so countries act as people.

I’ve been having lots of conversations about unhealthy relationships and mental health since being back at Wellesley. The Wellesley population has a lot of underlying issues that no one likes to address. We don’t always put our own wellbeing first, choosing to focus instead on grades or taking care of other people. I’m not saying those are bad things, but many of us don’t take enough time for ourselves. We like to brush things off and pretend we’re totally fine.

I was doing this for about two days until I encountered the first reading for my seminar. It talked about how empires usually exercise asymmetrical influence and power, and mentioned “Jefferson’s Rule,” which states that an empire is a “long train of abuses” that “evince a design” to make or keep a country subject to another. This implies that one being has more power over another and exercise that power in a way that potentially hurts the subjugated being.

The next reading mentioned that power is relational. It can only exist when two or more parties interact. Creating an empire and maintaining it requires power asymmetry so if the oppressed state is able to successful gain more power, an empire can be taken down.

What does this have to do with people? You can look at an empire in two ways. The first is as another person who has a negative effect on you. The second is as your own brain wreaking havoc on yourself. (I think this second part is necessary, because when talking about unhealthy relationships, often times your relationship with yourself can be left out of examples).

For now let’s focus on unhealthy relationships with another person(s). They are the empire, and you are the colonized territory that is enduring this “long train of abuses.” BUT power is relational, so as soon as you cut them off you’ve effectively eliminated any power struggle altogether. As we know from history, many colonized territories eventually had uprisings and were able to kick the colonizers out. If a friendship or a relationship with someone is starting to look like asymmetric, it’s time to kick them out.

We also discussed in class that while technically decolonization did occur, some things were still left over from the influence. Take India for example, they’re still on the British education system even though they technically haven’t been a colony for almost 70 years.

Same thing goes for people. Even if the unhealthy relationship you were part of has now ended, there could still be after-effects. It’s normal. Sometimes we don’t realize just how far our influence on each other can reach (which strays a little bit from the empire definition, since empires were pretty cognizant what they were doing), and sometimes we don’t even realize how much we have been affected until later. But, progress is always possible.

Now, your brain is slightly different since it’s technically not an outside influence and it’s hard to separate yourself from your brain. For the purposes of this analogy though your brain is quite the antagonistic outsider. It won’t let you get out of bed in the morning. It has you feeling apathetic. It makes you cry a lot. You don’t deserve that shit, obviously. You have been colonized by your negative feelings and you gotta do something to escape from this control.

We talk a lot about self-care at Wellesley, but too often I feel that it’s become a parody of itself. Practice self-care? Oh sure yeah let me go read a book for an hour when that’ll only make me more stressed because that’s one less hour I have to work on a pset. We don’t give ourselves enough credit for how much we’ve actually accomplished in our lives because we’re constantly comparing ourselves to others. The empire (aka your brain) is telling you you’re not good enough, just like some empires justified their conquests by telling the conquered that it was for their own good. It’s not. You are way better off with a healthy balance of power.

Empires and colonization are things we look back on in history and feel ashamed of. The general sentiment is “never again.” In hindsight we know there aren’t excuses for that type of behaviour. Imperialism is easy to condemn, but too often we let others and ourselves off the hook in our everyday lives, and that’s not beneficial to anyone. Putting unhealthy relationships into the lens of empires provides a zero tolerance perspective. No, I won’t let myself be socially colonized, dammit. I at least owe that much to my ancestors.

End goal? Don’t be colonized by yourself or anyone else (and don’t colonize others!). And if you get sucked in there are many ways to start a revolution and kick that empire to the curb. Yes, it’s easier said than done. India and Hungary had failed revolutions time and again but eventually prevailed. Not everything happens right away but recognizing imperialistic symptoms within your relationships is the first step.

It’s hard. Sometimes your efforts won’t immediately work, but don’t give up

As Audre Lorde wrote, “caring for myself is not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare.”