Postcolonialism: When the Axe is Laid at Your Own Kneecaps

A Brief Introduction by Randy Woodley

I love the fact that White folks are talking about moving beyond colonialism and it’s affects. I think it can be healthy in many ways and hopefully it can move us forward into a better future than we have had together as a shared past. Here’s my unofficial scattered thoughts on the three C’s in case you are just entering the conversation.

C1: Colonialism was about forced social Power through military conquest and the Wealth that has been extracted from the (now) marginalized over many centuries as a result of that power. Under colonial restraints the power of the privileged paved the way for those like them who are privileged, (mostly Whites) to be successful (meaning wealthy or even just employed, better educated, more healthy, etc.). It is easy to simply define 18th and 19th century colonialism in such a way. But, Wealth can also be described in terms of human life, ideas, capitol, culture, traditions, family cohesion, stories, access to sacred sites, etc.

C2: Neo-colonialism is the continued maintenance and re-creation of the system that carries out the goals and priorities of colonialism. We currently live in a Neo-colonial world. The systems that are in place now, are set to maintain the status of Whites and to disadvantage the non-white (soon to be) majority. Think of it as an American brand of Apartheid.

C3: Post-colonialism seeks to find a way out of the colonial legacy and the ramifications of neo-colonialism with both the privileged and the marginalized having a role in the solution. In other words, both are seen as being caught in the same system together. It tries to make a way for the marginalized voice to be heard. That’s the basics. It’s the nuances and the process that are a bit tougher to get at.

Step 1 (and the only one I will mention) is dealing with the Blame and Guilt Process. Today, people (and I’m referring here to the Christian and post-evangelical conversation) want to discuss reconciliation and even the larger issue of postcolonial process without the discomfort of blame or guilt. Not to be too crass, but folks-we have a really shitty past. As a half-baked historian and teacher, I know that most folks in the dominant White society have no real idea about how most of history has really played out for minorities and, they have little idea about the present and personal things that minorities have to face. I think we need to admit that, and not be afraid to keep it at the forefront of the conversation, if not, we don’t stand much of a chance to get beyond it. If we avoid blame and guilt, the feelings will just remain under the surface. We can forgive-but we should never forget! So, (personalizing it for conversation sake) don’t tell me not to blame you and I won’t tell you to feel guilty. Let’s respect each other enough to allow each to process their own feelings. Let me again, personalize the illustration with a limited, and simple story.

Say, a man beats his wife for 40 years. Although she worked both in the home and outside the home, and brought home most of the money-the bank account, cars, home, etc. is all in his name. The husband is an alcoholic as well. He would never allow her or any of their kids to get schooling beyond high school. He did this through his cruel manipulation and physical force-always ridiculing them. His only encouragement was for them to lower their expectations of themselves. His alcoholism and abuses, drove the kids away from home early and they all have their own problems with abuse and neglect, detachment issues and self-hatred. Their marriages and kids are also kind of messed up. All the members of the family appear to have little in common now except their shared terrible experience with this man.

In spite of the long years of abuse, the wife finds a way to sneak out at night to take classes at the community college. She takes online classes and she gets a basic Associates degree. Still, she has trouble finding a better job.

Then one day, the man has a conversion. He wants to make amends and apologize to the wife and kids. He doesn’t have a clue about their experience except he knows he’s been real bad. So he apologizes and wants them to become a family again. As he makes his immature attempts, he fumbles a lot. The main hurdle for the family is not forgiveness, it’s that he says he wants to forget the past and move on. Anytime one of them brings up the past he gets upset. He starts to fall back into the controlling mode and everyone starts recalling all the pain even more-becoming more upset and staying away more often.

With the rest of the family-forgetting is not so easily done. Because of this man-they are poor, battling self hatred, mostly under educated, in poor physical health and generally struggling with hatred against anyone who reminds them of their dad. Need I go on?

When White folks say they want to engage in postcolonial dialogue and even build a post-postcolonial future together, it sounds great. But here’s the deal. (I’ll use the first person again for ease of understanding), You can’t have a part in my future unless you also realize your part in my past. Realizing your part of my past means you visit it with me whenever I think it is necessary. It means you try to understand, to the best of your ability, what I felt in the past. It means you must dwell in it when it is necessary. And it means you must never forgot that in my past, you represent the pain. It means trying to suspend your individualistic, dichotomous worldview for a while and “try on” non-western, communal thinking. If you are willing to go there, maybe there is a future together. If not…well, you get to decide your own future…at least for a while.

Of course, there are so many other things to consider in this discussion. One of the most important of which is that the oppressed must take responsibility or agency for their own future by realizing that being victimized does not describe one’s own personhood, or one’s own status as always being a victim. But, and this is important, that is for the oppressed to work out among themselves. It’s extremely unhelpful when White Christians say things like, “stop being the perpetual victim.” Which for them, is often a defense mechanism to avoid feeling guilty and a means to re-assert control of the conversation.

The dialogue should continue, but please, don’t mock the pain of the oppressed and marginalized by conversations that the privileged oppressors get to name, and for which the outcome is primarily in their control. I don’t think Jesus likes that…So the toughest question here is first directed to the White privileged. How does one intentionally lose control of the outcome in an honest way? How do you lay the axe to the root, even if it means aiming at your own kneecaps?

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5 Responses to Postcolonialism: When the Axe is Laid at Your Own Kneecaps

  1. Bob Hunter says:

    Excellent analogy — I intend to steal (borrow?) this one!

    • ethnicspace says:

      Thanks Bob. I’m still waiting to post any thoughts from you or Carol. When are you guys going to join us? You both do such important work. It would be great for you all to spread the wealth and bless more folks with your experiences and thoughts.

  2. Daniel Lowe says:

    Uncle, thank you for your words. And, to you and the rest of the family, thank you for years of teaching this privileged brat how to answer, and continue to answer, that difficult question you pose at the end of this post. May I suggest a response to the question below to those who fit into my demographic; a response and also a plea?

    “How does one intentionally lose control of the outcome in an honest way? How do you lay the axe to the root, even if it means aiming at your own kneecaps?”

    My suggestion is that those who are currently writing, speaking, developing, engaging, and executing conferences and gatherings, those who are interested in this postcolonial idea who are more of a Western ilk, my suggestion to them is to lead themselves away from the center of the table; follow the voices of those who are calling you to live an honest, humble way. Take one another by the hand and go and sit down at the edge of the table with the rest of those who have become marginalized because of the behavior of our predecessors. Now, please don’t leave the table. Simply take your seat with those whose ways and worldview offer a healing response to our destructive ways and worldview. And stay there; realize the part(s) you have played in marginalizing these folks, then take the risk to live deeply with those who have suffered because of the dominating myths and legends of the West. Lay down your pens, your microphones; step away from your platforms and lecterns; take a deep breath, open your ears, and listen until you are asked to speak. And in so doing, give up control of the outcome in an honest way.

    Dan Lowe

  3. Pingback: Unedited Ramblings of a Future Plea « i'mnoticharus

  4. ethnicspace says:


    Sounds like you have gained a lot of wisdom up there in Canada. Keep sharing it with us.
    🙂 Give our love to the family and horses…

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