Am I a colonizer?

In my Colonialism and Collaboration class, we recently discussed Albert Memmi's Colonizer and the Colonized. Our class decided that, while he may have a lot to offer discussions of colonialism, there are some real problems with his work.

But I'm not going to discuss right now the various inconsistencies and generalizations of Memmi's work, but rather, one topic that made me think about my own experiences in China, my role as a Chinese scholar, and then finally, why I think his theory is problematic. He claims that a person from a colonial power living in a colony has no choice but to be a colonizer as there is always an implicit hierarchy, even if the colonizer is perhaps less wealthy or has less social capital than the colonized with whom he interacts. This immediately brought me back to my time in China. I am guessing that when I lived in China, I lived on a lower-middle class income (by Shanghai's standards, mind you, not by all of China's standards). Yet I often found myself implicitly being treated as though I had more money, that I was wealthier, and that socially, I was higher up on the hierarchy. People were much kinder to me, showed me more respect, than I think they would an average person, and assumed that I had much more money than I did. There were other smaller, institutionalized symbols of this hierarchy, such as nice apartment buildings that would only accept foreigners who looked like foreigners, free gifts and better service at restaurants, etc. More than anything, however, I recognized the special treatment I received, even though I was by no means really a special person in any way.

Now, I realize there are a series of differences here. China is not a colony, technically it never was. I am not and could not be a colonizer, even by his loose definitions. And I was not in China for economic opportunity, certainly I was not there to be exploitative. But just from the subtlety of my interactions with others, I felt a certain hierarchy. If I were to take my experiences as any kind of proof or lack thereof of Memmi's theory, I do think there is an area where his argument falls apart. He makes the assumption that because people treated colonizers with this hierarchy that this hierarchy was either a product of an internalized hierarchy on the part of the colonizer or ultimately caused an internalized hierarchy. I can speak for myself to say that this was not true, I often felt the opposite, if any kind of hierarchy materialized in my mental framework. While I cannot in any way speak for actual colonizers, I do believe it is presumptuous to assume that just because a hierarchy materializes in a peoples' treatment of the other does not mean that that other has necessarily internalized that hierarchy and placed themselves above others.

But then again, I could be wrong. Like I said, I'm not a colonizer.

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