I’m standing in line to see Trevor Noah. Like an excited teenager waiting to see a rock star. Only this isn’t a rock concert. I’m in a long line with a few hundred co-workers at an optional, private company event – all because I’m a fan of his comic bit on colonialism.
He talks about colonialism at this event too, about growing up in South Africa during the apartheid period. He shares about his experience in such a funny way, that the audience hears the injustice, but laughs at the same time.
Listening to someone from a formerly colonized country connects with me on a deep level. His experience is distinct, and yet, familiar. We share a lived experience of colonization.
A Lived Experience
I came from a formerly colonized country myself: the Philippines. The Spanish came and colonized the country for almost 400 years. Then the Americans colonized the country for 48. Then the Japanese occupation and World War II happened. A couple of decades after the war, the very young democracy was ruled by a dictator named Ferdinand Marcos, who enforced Martial Law for 21 years. I was born during the Marcos regime, post-Martial Law. He was overthrown in 1986 during the People Power Revolution. At the time, I was a kid living in Manila.
After the event, I reflected on colonization and what folks like me – who had come from formerly colonized countries – offer our larger world. Trevor Noah rightly said that being in so much debt, knowing there’s so much corruption, we often feel a low national self-esteem coming from the developing world. And yet we do have something to offer: our lived experience.
A New Reality
After the election, I believe our new reality in the U.S. will be more overt racism, more frequent, impacting more people of color, immigrants and Muslims. For those of us who are not used to this, it will be disarming. And even those who have experienced it before will still be shocked and angry every time it happens.
The message of who is superior and who belongs will be communicated through these acts – whether directly or indirectly.
Acknowledging our new reality is important because this will help us cope, and ultimately find ways to resist, racial injustice and oppression.
A New Resistance
Resistance can come in many ways and forms. It starts with the stories we tell ourselves.
Growing up in Manila, I believed the lie that our American colonizers were superior, and I was inferior. Even though I was born decades after the American colonization, the “colonization of the mind1” still existed strongly in Pilipino culture during that time. People emulated their former colonizers.
When I came to America, I discovered it wasn’t superior at all. There were some good things, sure, but also some neutral things, and some things that were downright evil – like racism. I came to realize not one culture or society is superior or inferior to another. This freed me from my colonized mind – to a large degree.
But decolonizing the mind involves many layers. Though the top layer is free, there are still layers underneath. But because of lived experience, I can spot signs of colonization and react, resist and fight to survive.
Faced with our new reality, how do I again resist the “colonization of the mind1”? I thought of a few ways.
Humor is a part of most cultures. But what’s striking to me is when people from formerly colonized places have a sense of humor. Talking to my Southeast Asian/Pacific Islander friends, it seems like we share this trait of not taking ourselves too seriously. We like to poke fun, a lot of times, at ourselves. Somehow, self-deprecating humor allows us to be our true selves. It’s oddly empowering to make fun of ourselves and our situation. Sometimes, when a situation is so frustrating, the only release is to make fun of it. Though it may seem sacrilegious, I think humor is actually helpful in dealing with oppression.
A couple of days after the elections, I decided to post this on Facebook.
My friends thought it was funny and started confessing what they were eating to cope.
Humor can be an escape from pain. It doesn’t negate or dismiss injustice and pain. Rather, it’s a way to say to the powers that be, ‘You can’t control my sense of humor’.
One of my heroes is Ninoy Aquino, who led the opposition against dictator Ferdinand Marcos. Ninoy Aquino famously said, “The Filipino is worth dying for.” He gave a pivotal speech in Los Angeles, galvanizing Pilipinos in America to resist and fight. He began by making jokes, “For the past 25 years, I was a politician. We used to pay people to hear us, this is the first time people paid to hear me.” He was so funny but incredibly compelling and brilliant at the same time.
We create words for things we value as a culture. Pilipinos have many words to describe friendships and togetherness. Tagalog words like kapwa which means neighbor, kindred, fellow human beings. Pakikisama means doing whatever one can do to uphold group harmony. Bayanihan means mutual cooperation for the greater good of the country. Really these English translations do not capture the deep meaning of these words, for they are written on our hearts and translated in how we treat each other.
Our communities can support us when we are attacked, ridiculed, or told to leave the country. We need their voices of love, to combat fear and hate. We need to remind each other of the truth of who we are and where we belong.
3. ) Free the Colonizer
During the event, Trevor Noah mentions insight he’s gained from President Obama’s Eulogy2 at Nelson Mandela’s memorial service.
President Obama said of Mandela, “It took a man like Madiba to free, not just the prisoner, but the jailer as well…He changed laws but he also changed hearts.”
“What he sets about doing was changing the mind of the guard who was with him every single day, the men who were taught to oppress him. They had to change Nelson Mandela’s guards regularly because they would come to see him as a human being. They couldn’t understand why he was being oppressed and why black people were being oppressed,” Trevor Noah said.
Though I understand this cognitively, I must admit it’s hard for me to believe the jailer – in my language, colonizer – is trapped in their own prison. Maybe it’s because I believe they have so much power, why can’t they save themselves?
A few years ago, I had the opportunity to go to Spain as part of a training event. I really didn’t want to go. I had no desire to face the people who conquered and abused my people.
I arrived in Madrid for a layover and took a taxi. The driver spoke no English and my Spanish was minimal. It didn’t matter, he kept talking. He talked about religion, his family, the Spanish economy and Madrid. Full of warmth, I felt like he was talking to an old friend. He even came the next morning at dawn to drive me to the airport.
My interaction with the taxi driver made him human, and not the conquistador.
How do we free the colonizer so we can be free? We need to change their minds, yes. But before that can happen, we need to change ours. Maybe it starts with seeing the colonizer as a human being, created in the image of God. A human being, full of fear and loathing, just like me. A human being who’s never too far from changing his mind and heart.
I really hope I’m wrong about our new reality. I really hope we have nothing to worry about. But regardless of the situation, humor, community and freeing the colonizers are good for us anyway.
1D’Errico, P, (December 2011). What is a Colonized Mind? [Article]. Retrieved from http://indiancountrytodaymedianetwork.com/2011/12/12/what-colonized-mind
2President Barack Obama (December 10, 2013). Remarks by President Obama at Memorial Service for Former South African President Nelson Mandela [Speech]. Retrieved from https://www.whitehouse.gov/the-press-office/2013/12/10/remarks-president-obama-memorial-service-former-south-african-president-