Albert Memmi’s THE COLONIZER AND THE COLONIZED is and is not about America

Hello friends. It’s a gorgeous day in San Francisco–sunny, blue skies, seventy degrees. The kind of day the California myth was built from. I took the opportunity to do some maintenance on my website. I changed my theme again, because the one I used before was ugly. And of course the new theme had all kind of wackness that I had to alter (like I had to give it a max width, otherwise it would expand to fill the whole screen).

I feel very pleased with the new look. Minimalist, but not ugly. I am ready to be a serious person.

Have been reading Albert Memmi’s The Colonizer and the Colonized. This is about the psychology of colonization. I think one thing that goes unstated in a lot of discussion about colonization is that there’s a clear difference between modern and pre-modern conquest / colonization. In pre-modern times, the ruling classes held their place by right of blood. In many cases (the Norman Conquest is a great example), the ruling class simply came in and took the place of a native ruling class. They didn’t need to justify their position on top of the heap–it was natural that someone be on top: the first generation won their position by the sword, and all subsequent ones had their position through birth. That’s why after a while the cultural barriers between the conquerors and the conquered become fuzzy, either because the conquered adopt the culture of ruling class (as in Egypt after the Arab conquest) or the conquerors adopt the culture of their subjects (as the Mongols did in China) or the conquerors and conquered blend together (as happened in England after the Norman Conquest). Because ruling status is passed on by blood, there is no need to worry that your right will be attenuated by acculturation. Whatever language you speak and whoever you marry, your kids will still be on top (unless they lose on the battlefield

But colonization is different. It takes place in modern times, when the ruling class holds its place, notionally, through merit. They have passed exams. They have gone to college. They have gained skills. They have acquired rank. And in this case, the ruling class is often not the kids of the conquerors. The conquerors quite frequently have been displaced by late-comers from the mainland (as happened to Pizarro) or they or their kids have simply gone home, to be replaced by new arrivals, so there needs to be a mechanism to allow the conquering class to be continually refilled. Moreover, the colonizers–the people who materially benefit from colonization–often can only succeed in their conquest using the resources of their home state, which is almost never ruled by an aristocracy. Thus, blood ties mean little, when it comes to binding the conquerors to the rulers of the motherland. Hence, racism and apartheid. The use of race creates an enduring bond between the two peoples–the colonizers and the people of the motherland–and it allows a pathway for people from the motherland to continually arrive in the colony and exploit it. Any British person could go to a British colony and achieve a higher status. As Memmi memorably puts it:

Today, leaving for a colony is not a choice sought because of its uncertain dangers, nor is it a desire of one tempted by adventure. It is simply a voyage towards an easier life….You go to a colony because jobs are guaranteed, wages high, careers more rapid and business more profitable. The young graduate is offered a position, the public servant a higher rank, the businessman substantially lower taxes, the industrialist raw materials and labor at attractive prices

Reading this book, I also see the way postcolonial writers like Memmi have influenced Afropessimism and Critical Race Theory in the US. Reading a book like this, which is about Tunisia, one can feel a strong temptation to try and frame Black people in the USA as a colonized people. For instance, take this passage in Memmi’s book.

Although he is everything in the colony, the colonialist knows that in his own country he would be nothing; he would go back to being a mediocre man. Indeed, the idea of mother country is relative. Restored to its true self, it would vanish and would at the same time destroy the super-humanity of the colonialist. It is only in a colony, because he possesses a mother country and his fellow inhabitants do not, that a colonialist is feared and admired. Why should he leave the only place in the world where, without being the founder of a city or a great captain, it is still possible to change the names of villages and to bequeath one’s name to geography ? Without even fearing the simple ridicule or anger of the inhabitants, for their opinion means nothing; where daily one experiences euphorically his power and importance?

This idea strongly resembles the idea of the ‘wages of whiteness’ that was articulated by WEB Du Bois, but has recently been taken up by a number of writers. This is the idea, which I encountered, in Frank B. Wilderson III, that modern society requires Black suffering in order to operate. That Black people are eternal victims, eternally acted upon, and that it can never be any different:

there’s something organic to civil society that makes it essential to the destruction of the Black body. Blackness is a positionality of “absolute dereliction,” abandonment, in the face of civil society, and therefore cannot be liberated or be made legible through counter-hegemonic interventions. Black suffering is not a function of the performance(s) of civil society, but of the existence of civil society.

Wilderson’s writing is evocative, but can be a bit contorted. What I think he’s getting at, though, is that modern society, liberal society, where everyone notionally has the freedom to do as they’d like, would be intolerable for white people if they didn’t think they were likely to ‘win’ the struggle for status and comfort. And that the existence of Black people and other minoritized people almost guarantees that the average white person will have a bunch of people beneath them.

This idea has a lot to recommend to it. For instance, it would explain why white elites–people with high education and powerful jobs and lots of money–often believe strongly in racial equity and even in reparations and redistributing wealth to close racial disparities. It’s because these people are already indisputably at the top of society, so for them it is psychologically damaging to imagine that society might not be fair–it devalues their achievement in their own eyes. Moreover, for these people, the biggest psychological threat is other white people. Believing strongly in, say, affirmative action allows them to block other white people from jobs while, in the guise of handing out largesse to non-white people, they can also be like, “Oh they don’t really deserve the job, they only got it through affirmative action.”

Whereas white people who are somewhere in the middle, status-wise, prefer to believe that non-white people have a leg-up, because it makes the white person’s achievement’s look better–even with all the discrimination they faced, just for being white, they were able to get pretty far! And if they couldn’t reach the top, well, the odds were stacked against them anyway.

I don’t find the idea (that every white person psychologically depends on the domination of non-white people) to be totally convincing, though. Because you could always frame it the other way, couldn’t you? Maybe every non-white person’s psyche depends on being subjugated by white people, because it magnifies the worth of our achievements (we got so far despite all this oppression!) and excuses our failures (we didn’t have a chance of reaching the top anyway).

The problem with this kind of thinking is it seems to put the cart before the horse. People aren’t oppressed because the oppressor gets some psychological satisfaction from oppressing them–they’re oppressed because the oppressor derives an economic benefit from it.

In a colony, it’s impossible not to see that you’ve come into someone else’s native land, and you’re oppressing them. Like, take America. All of this land belonged to indigenous people at some point. Now they’re one of the worse-off people in the country. If the settlers hadn’t taken their land, they would likely be much better off today.

But that’s an economic relationship–we took the land, and we benefited from the taking. Now, wanting to feel good about the taking might result in some complex psychology, but the psychology didn’t itself create the taking. Similarly, in Memmi’s book, racism serves a concrete purpose–it both justifies colonization (the natives need us because they are inferior) and it prevents colonization from ever ending (the natives will always be permanently separate from us, so our cultures can never merge and unite us in a way that would end the exploitative relationship).

But when it comes to modern America, the mechanisms that create and empower racism seem much more obscure. If being white in America is necessarily exploitative, such that white people can only have a good life by shutting out a certain group of people from getting all the good things (land, wealth, meaningful jobs), then why are there a huge number of antiracist white people? Wouldn’t that be somewhat suicidal?1 And why would society ever, even if only sporadically, lurch towards more equity?

Afropessimists have put in a lot of work to explain away civil rights progress–most notably through the interest convergence hypothesis, which is that white America only embraces civil rights when it is convenient (i.e. during the Civil Rights era, America needed to give Black people more rights in order to win the propaganda war against the Soviet Union).

A point they have in their favor is that racism undeniably exists, and it has propagated itself somehow despite most people claiming to be against racism. But I just think the situation in America–where non-white people, unlike in a colonized country, have considerable political power–is too complicated to be explained purely in terms of white psychology or incentives, or even a subset of white psychology. In a colonized country, you’re dealing with a few hundred thousand people who have direct administrative, military, and police control over millions of native people. In America, the situation is quite different.

It seems to me that the situation in America is both simpler and much more complicated. America has many groups, including many different groups of white and non-white people, who all have their own goals and cross-connections, and while some of those cross-connections are exploitative, not all of them all. In America, like in a colony, it is possible for white people to exploit non-white people, but, unlike in a colony, it’s possible for non-white people to put enough pressure on white people that cooperation becomes more productive than exploitation.

  1. The beginning of Memmi’s book is about how it’s impossible to really be an anti-colonial European resident of a colony, because you can never truly integrate with or communicate with the native people, so you’re just left eternally atomized and alone amongst the colonizers. 

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