Colonial complexes on ethnic minds

The racism of European imperialism in Africa: “The submission of King Prempeh: The final act of humiliation, 1896.” (From the collection of Cynthia Brantley)

Nina Arif is a freelance journalist with an MSc in International Politics. She has produced for the BBC, Al Jazeera, and writes for various online publications. Nina is currently based in Saudi Arabia. You can follow her on Twitter @nina_arif


This may be presumptuous of me but I’m going to take a bet that if you’re a non-white person who grew up in a Western country, you have at some point suffered from an inferiority complex. At times you felt or still feel inadequate. Perhaps this is because you’ve had to work harder than your white counterparts to prove your self-worth, which has made you more aware of your skin tone being a potential disadvantage to your career progression. Or perhaps you’ve at some point opted for personal dress styles, hair styles and cosmetics which play down your ethnicity.

I argue that the feeling of insecurity which many like myself grew up with is normal. After all, since birth we’ve been bombarded with images of the archetypal beauty which looks nothing like us. We’ve been taught that Western modes of thinking, systems of rule, technological advancements etc far superseded anything that came from the backward and uncivilised Eastern world from where we originated. We are presented with depictions of migrants from the East in tattered clothing who are “flocking” and “swarming” towards the West to become economic parasites. And every time we watch a news piece about our countries of origin, we get the impression that they are (to quote Donald Trump) “sh*t hole” countries.


Palestinian-American scholar, Edward Said, coined the term ‘Orientalism’, which pretty much sums up what I’m talking about here. Orientalism is the idea that the Orient (or East) and its people are inferior to the Occident (or West). Rooted in European colonialism, the propagation of this idea which “othered” Easterners and categorised them as subhuman helped the West’s domination of the region by inducing hostility towards the colonised. Therefore, it made more palatable their violent exploitation, just as it continues to do so today.

It is important to understand that similarly to how the current global hegemonic culture asserts that Westernisation is better for us, the colonisers of the past marketed their conquest as a “civilising project”. It was the “white man’s burden” to bring the benefits of civilisation to all those barbaric brown people. Initially, this meant bringing salvation i.e. Christianity to the East, and later on “free trade”, which basically meant exploiting the global South’s resources in order to make the West very wealthy.

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The fabricated ideas about the West’s superiority which were central to the exploitation of the East, were so potent that even the great Ottomans began to accept such views: they adopted Western clothing and beliefs about the backwardness of Easterners, and even used the same racist stereotypes as their European counterparts.

Perhaps that was part of their downfall a century ago. Today, such Orientalist ideas remain prevalent too. As Edward Said explained, they are propagated in various ways which extend beyond armies and militaries. They are peddled through literature, academia, art, music, the education system, and the media.

This has allowed for the hegemony of colonial powers to continue in tandem with bodies such as global financial institutions and an array of other international organisations, which emerged whilst colonised states were being granted “independence”. National University of Singapore Law, Professor Antony Anghie, explains how international law itself has colonial roots and incentives, arguably existing to serve Western powers (most African leaders brought before the International Criminal Court will tell you this too). In sum, colonialism never ended, it just changed form.

Roots of division

Now, I could potentially go on to (rightfully) lambast the West for propagating Orientalist ideas. I could talk about the fact that colonialism established notions of racial and religious hierarchy everywhere: in India the British introduced communalism, governing on the basis of their religion, in Lebanon the French supported the Maronite Christians against the British-backed Druze with both imperial powers causing Lebanon to become insidiously sectarian. In Rwanda, the Belgian colonialists invented categories of Hutus and Tutsis, and ruled both differently, thereby spawning hatred and resentment which erupted into genocide.

We can look at how the Middle East and Africa were carved up almost overnight with its people forcibly divided through the creation of artificial borders – nation states – which made it easier to rule them. We can look at the role of European and American missionaries in pitting Christians against Muslims by emphasising their differences and creating differences where none existed.  We can look at how almost every case of genocidal violence has its roots in colonialism. But I’m not going into all that right now. I’m redirecting my focus onto the descendants of the colonised as being a bigger part of the problem than the colonisers themselves.

Upholding Orientalism

Today, there is no need for Western countries to promote Orientalist ideas because the people of the East are perfectly capable of doing it for themselves. Growing up I was told by Pakistanis to keep out of the sun because having darker skin meant being less attractive. Skin bleaching products like ‘Fair and Lovely’ aren’t even regarded as embarrassing, but rather, an essential part of a woman’s boudoir in many global South countries. Meanwhile nose jobs to attain a Caucasian look have also become commonplace. I even remember as a child being told that I should pinch my nose to make it thinner because thin noses are prettier than thick ones. I also learnt to hate my naturally curly hair – no doubt the result of years of subconscious conditioning amounting to an acceptance of Western notions of beauty – ideas upheld by people who are not white.

The House Negro

Away from aesthetics and personal psychosis, Orientalism takes root in more insidious ways. We non-white people compete with one another and view one other as a threat in terms of job opportunities and privileges which we fear losing out on. We do this instead of cooperating and recognising that essentially we’re all in the same boat. Malcom X summed up these complexes brilliantly when he spoke about the “house negro” and the “field negro”: the house negro aspires to be like the slave master and is loyal to him to such a degree that he is complicit in subjugating his own kind for the sake of a few privileges from his master. But the field negro is different. He knows that regardless of what he does, he will never be accepted by the slave master and so he never aspires to be like him, nor will he ever ally with the slave master above his fellow negro.

I currently live in Saudi Arabia where South-East Asians and Africans are commonly regarded as inferior to Arabs, and where some Arabs are regard as better than other Arabs: the Saudis and Emiratis consider themselves above most Arabs – especially those from North African countries who are seen as being at the bottom of race pile.  I often hear Lebanese and Jordanians criticising Egyptians for example, using crude racial and cultural stereotypes. And within each nation you’ll find further divisions. It’s actually difficult to keep up with all of them.

Nationalism is an obstacle to Muslim unity.

Meanwhile, many white ex-pats living in Saudi Arabia look down on all the above. Most couldn’t tell apart an Egyptian from a Saudi or a Saudi from an Indian because “they’re all the same”.

Things get even more ridiculous when you consider that most people in this region look up to white people just like the house negro which Malcolm X spoke about. In Egypt, I remember feeling repulsed by the number of Egyptians gawking at my friend’s white skin. In Saudi I’ve witnessed students looking admirably towards their white English teachers, wanting to get close to them, while many Asian teachers were experiencing racism. A Filipino colleague would tell me stories about how her students compared her to their housemaids and some even refused to be taught by her.

Cultural Assimilation and Identity Crisis

While there are of course exceptions to the above, I think there is an overwhelming trend of Arabs aspiring to become Westernised. I say this because I see them unquestioningly lapping up the glorified notions of Western culture, which came initially through colonial education systems and presently through globalisation: neo-colonialism. I remember once asking a class of Saudi students who their role models were and was taken aback to hear “Kim Kardashian” and “Lady Gaga” repeated more than once. Not one Arab was mentioned. Meanwhile many of the Arabs I spoke to in the colonial hotbed that is Lebanon, had nothing positive to say about their fellow Arabs, and often used the word “hate” to describe how they felt about each other.

Psychiatrist and revolutionary philosopher, Franz Fanon, spoke about how cultural assimilation only leads to identity crisis and I’ve witnessed plenty of confused identities both at home in the UK and out here in the Middle East. Although perhaps those of us who grew up in the West are fortunate to have received a reality check through our contact with racists: being told to “go back to where you came from” is always a good reminder that assimilation never works. Perhaps Easterners still need their bubble bursting in this regard.

While I see a desire for Westernisation in the Middle East, I also (paradoxically) see an emphasis placed on ‘tribe’ and ‘culture’ with facets of Islam thrown in – those which seemingly reinforce the culture. Edward Said described cultures as “abstractions” that can be invented and manipulated to suit any purpose. I remember this each time I see brown people taking pride in their culture, waving flags, celebrating their kings and allowing nationalism to pit themselves against one another. Perhaps this is the reason why not many Saudis will lose sleep over the killing of their Yemeni neighbours who have been “othered” through nationalism and sectarianism. The momentum for the Palestinian plight seems to have died down a lot out here too. I think it’s actually more potent among Westerners now, leading me to question what’s happened to the once prevalent concern of people in this region for the human rights of their Palestinian brethren.

Divided and Ruled

“Othering” is what the colonialists did to those they conquered, but now it’s what we do to each other. I believe this is the reason we are so successfully dominated by the hegemonic world powers. We have preserved, maintained and perpetuated the mechanisms of divide and rule which were put into motion centuries ago. We have upheld the very same ideas which have brought us nothing but social, economic and psychological demise. We can blame colonialists, we can blame their puppet governments all over the world for being the modern-day house negros and we can blame globalisation. But eventually we will need to take a long hard look in the mirror and ask when and how we allowed our minds to become tribal.

Our problem is that we are either too busy pointing out the faults of others or have become too braindead to think about real issues, making us part of the problem. At this rate we have absolutely no chance of combatting the great forces of oppression and subjugation – be it the global financial institutions which funnel wealth from the global South towards rich countries, or the social and political problems which plague us.

Muslims are supposed to believe that God does not change the condition of a people until they first change what is inside themselves. As long as we remain divided internally – unsure of who we are, putting up barriers towards those with whom we have most in common while assimilating towards those who subjugate us, we have guaranteed that our condition will not change

A special thank you to my friend and Sanjana Deen for always allowing me to bounce ideas off her.

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