This weekend, between Chadwick Boseman’s untimely death at the age of 43 from colon cancer and the Romancelandia uproar over romancing colonialism, cultural otherism, and slavery, I started thinking about what white people know about colonialism.
I (thought I) understood what slavery was, why we fought the Civil War, and why Black people are angry in America. I grew up in the 90s, where we saw LA destroyed by the Rodney King riots and the racial tension surrounding the OJ Simpson trial. But I observed these comfortably from my white communities. My high school was overwhelmingly white and my college, more so. I knew I was going to major in political science, but my sophomore year, my advisor suggested I double major in history. I was all for it as it gave us the context of today’s politics. As someone obsessed with all things European as a way to learn more about my family and where they came from, I started taking European history classes. I certainly wasn’t interested in American history classes. By complete accident, I ended up in Dr. Frank Chiteji’s class on African history after 1880.
Dr. Chiteji was an awakening to me. His stories about growing up in colonial Tanzania, how his degrees were both funded by the Soviets and the US, based on alliances at the time, and how European greed and lies of moral superiority put Africa on their current trajectory. Until this point, white men had taught been my history teachers. I never had a Black teacher, let alone, professor until Dr. Chiteji. I took three of his courses during my major, and ended up in his senior seminar on decolonization because the European senior seminar didn’t fit in my schedule. I sometimes wonder what that must have been like for Dr. Chiteji, to teach decolonization to a bunch of privileged white kids at a place like Gettysburg College. During this semester, he introduced me to the writings of Frantz Fanon, which became the basis of my honors thesis.
Today, I’m a professor of political science who teaches international political economy at a predominately white institution. Because of Dr. Chiteji and the other professors who stressed the importance of understanding the connection between European and African history, I make sure we discuss colonialism at length in all of my classes. And yet, I am amazed when students tell me I am the only teacher who has discussed colonialism in the political science classes. How, and better yet, why are white professors allowing this narrative of American exceptionalism to perpetuate in 2020? When we talk about systems of power, why are we excluding a discussion of historical white supremacy in both domestic and international contexts?
In my Global Issues through Film class, I made a conscious decision to teach Black Panther as the counterfactual to colonialism. What would Africa has been like without colonialism? Black Panther is an important movie because of the introduction of a Black superhero in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. The representation isn’t lost on Black Americans who have been waiting for this moment (check out this video for just a snapshot). But what do white Americans see when they watch this movie? Do they feel Killmonger’s anger, not just toward Wakanda and T’Challa for their roles in his life, but also the colonizer. Do white audiences recognize that they are the colonizer? Echoing T’Challa, we may not have held slaves ourselves (or even our families), but we benefit from these structures of power that have perpetuated for centuries. The answer is, in some instances, yes.
But in most, many, white people don’t. That’s why we are still having these conversations about systemic racism and trying to convince white people that systemic racism exists. Sometimes I’m so shocked at this but then I remember how history is taught in our schools, what I knew (and didn’t know) as a college freshman who was interested in history, and how much of this history isn’t taught or is glossed over even at the college level. In standing in front of a classroom, either in person or via zoom in this weird world we live in, each one of us should consider how we’re contributing to the perpetuation of systemic racism by ignoring empire and colonization. The gift of being a college educator is being able to share knowledge with our students– and if you don’t find the history of colonization and how that had an impact on the body of work you teach, it is time to reflect on that and see how you can incorporate it in your classroom.