by Kathleen Ferrier

Born in Paramaribo, Suriname, Kathleen Ferrier has lived in Chile and Brazil, in the Netherlands and in Hong Kong. Her work experiences include politics, international and non-governmental organisations, the United Nations, academic institutions and international businesses. She is based in the Netherlands, where she is appointed Chair of the Dutch UNESCO Commission. This essay emerged out of a keynote speech during the virtual 6th edition of Europe Lab on Decolonial Encounters, July 2021.

To many of us colonialism is something from a faraway past. But is that true?

Let us have a close look at our world today and see how (traces of) colonialism still define our worldview and also the way we relate with each other.

According to Wikipedia, colonialism is “a practice or policy of control by one people or power over other people or areas, often by establishing colonies and generally with the aim of economic dominance. In the process of colonisation, colonisers may impose their religion, language, economics, and other cultural practices.”

This definition is absolutely true for what we have seen happening in the colonial past of many European countries. Spain, Portugal, the UK – that “ruled the waves”, France, Germany, Denmark, the Netherlands, Belgium… all colonial powers that controlled large parts of Asia, Africa and the Americas. Certainly, their aim was economic benefit and for that reason they did not hesitate to do whatever needed, to make the controlled areas as profitable as possible. Part of that was seeking the best, the strongest, work force. That is how the slave trade in the 16th century started. Particularly the transatlantic slave trade, in which men and women from Africa were sold and transported to the Americas, to work on the plantations, is inseparably related to colonialism of that era, a dark page in the history of humankind, that still is having a huge impact on many societies today.

“We are here because you were there”, is often said by the descendants of the colonised of those days. Because, “whether you like it or not, there is an ongoing relation between our countries”. A relation that went on, after the abolition of slavery and after independence.

What also went on and goes on in many countries and in a variety of ways, is the way people of colour are treated:  in a racist and discriminatory way. The Black Lives Matter Movement that started after the death, by police force, of George Floyd in the USA in 2020, had a huge impact around the world, but mostly in the US and Europe. It made clear how the times of colonialism and slavery still are present through structural racism.

But let us not think that structural racism is exclusive for those countries that used to have colonies, that were involved in slave trade and that therefore have mixed populations as a result. Also, in countries like Russia or Ukraine, black people experience structural racism and discrimination. They are there because they were invited, as students or co-workers, coming from Cuba, Mozambique and Angola for instance. One of the explanations could be that regarding black and coloured people as inferior to white, became a worldwide accepted way of thinking.

In general countries like Russia and Ukraine are not considered as former colonial powers. But if we look at the definition we used, we might argue that also countries like Russia and China can be called colonial powers. Because the way Russia related to the Baltic States and in a certain way also the Central Asian Republics was with the aim of economic gain and dominance. The same goes for China, in the way it relates to countries in the region, around the South China Sea, and in Africa. Economic gain certainly also plays a role for China as it develops relations with the EU and individual European nations.

Of course, one could easily disagree on this, and with valid arguments, but still, isn’t it true that, whether we think of colonialism centuries ago or we look at the ways countries relate to each other in our times, it all comes down to power relations, to dominance? To the question: who has the power? It all boils down to relations of dependency. And yes, often money and economic gain play a crucial role in answering the question who depends on whom. And since financial and economic power are closely related to political power, it is often true that economic dominance comes with political dominance.

In that sense we are living in interesting times.

For many years the so called “western liberal democracies” promised to provide the people with economic prosperity and political stability and therefore considered themselves as the ideal political and economic system. The ideal system, assuming the same natural superiority we saw with the colonial powers in the times of colonialism. In that sense colonialism has not ended. It has taken other forms. Also, the idea that certain people are inferior to others, today does not only relate to people from different ethnicity or skin colour. Migrant workers from Eastern European countries face structural and severe discrimination in a country like the Netherlands.

It all comes down to power relations and these are shifting rapidly. Certainly, China is becoming very assertive, and with reason. Since the “western liberal democracies” lately are loosing political authority (the latest USA presidential elections are not an example of the benefits a democracy can bring…). I too often hear people, also in Europe, arguing that an authoritarian capitalist system, like the one in China, has many positive aspects, also with regard to the economy.

It all comes down to power-relations, to the way we look at each other and treat each other. That is an important lesson the colonial times have taught us.

Our times call on us, people of good will, to take that lesson seriously. If we do so, we can not but acknowledge the importance of the values that are at the basis of the European Union. And once we have acknowledged that, we have to stand strong for our democracies.

Because the human and civil rights that they stand for deserve our commitment and protection.

Today perhaps even more than ever.