Indonesia: Decolonizing the mind
Counter Narratives, January 30, 2019, by: Aria Danaparamita
The term “decolonization” is becoming the crux of critical social, cultural, literary and historical study, particularly at Western institutions. Defined rather literally, “decolonization” is the undoing of colonialism. In this strictly practical sense, the peoples and places that make up modern-day Indonesia was “decolonized” in 1949. But what about the Indonesian mind?
Thinker and writer Frantz Fanon (in)famously wrote: “Imperialism leaves behind germs of rot which we must clinically detect and remove from our land but from our minds as well.” But what does it mean to decolonize the mind? Can the mind be colonized? Who colonizes the mind? Is it the same force that colonizes the body?
On 17 August 1945, the future president of Indonesia Sukarno proclaimed: “We, the Indonesian people, hereby declare the independence of Indonesia.” But as Indonesia can attest today, independent is not the same thing as decolonized. Unlike decolonization in the practical sense, decolonizing the mind means engaging with colonialism—including its history and its present-day impacts—not just in the physical or even economic sense. Instead, it calls on us to critically reflect on how colonialism has affected our mind, how it influences how we think, and how we process the world.
At this point, it is first and foremost important to note that there is no singular colonized mind, because there is no singular experience of colonialism. Some Indonesians fought fiercely against the Dutch. But many others were willing participants in the Dutch administration, or even benefited from it—whether they were the corrupt bureaucrats chastised in Multatuli’s Max Havelaar, or doctors and teachers who benefited from Dutch education and employ. Another critical caveat is that when we speak of decolonizing the mind, representations are just as important—if not more important—than realities.
For Indonesians, the multitudinal effects of colonialism on the mind is palpable. One direct way is through personal experience and memory. Some Indonesians who are still alive today, in their 80s or 90s, spent their childhood and teenage years under Dutch colonialism. For the elite, this meant attending lessons taught in Dutch. In fact, Dutch may even be their primary language, in addition to their local dialect (Indonesian language was not widely used until after independence). For them, their minds were, almost literally, colonized. Colonialism taught them what they knew, affected how they lived, how they learned, how they understood their place in the world. They were not able to represent themselves, rather the Dutch represented their history and language to them.
But the mind can also be colonized indirectly. Like many things, colonialism is learned and it can be learned long after its physical shackles have been broken. The most common example cited of the “colonized mind” in today’s Indonesians is the “inferiority” complex with regards to race. This can be something as obvious as artistic representations in popular TV or advertising of lighter-colored skinned people as more attractive or morally good (colorism). This particular representation has historical roots in Dutch race-based policies, which divided the East Indies population into categories of “European” (including in some cases part-European), “indigenous,” and “foreign Easterners.” The more European—and whiter—you are, the more privileges you received.
This also affects self-representations of Indonesians towards Europeans, including the Dutch. In today’s Indonesia, many white people continue to get more privileges compared to the indigenous, whether one looks at the pay gap between expats (which includes Europeans) and locals, or simply visits a restaurant where a white person is afforded better service.
But the colonized mind is more than skin deep. A much deeper and fraught psychological third example of the colonized mind has to do with power over knowledge and representation itself. Postcolonial critics, Edward Said or Gayatri Spivak among them, argue that the colonizer enacted violence not by mere military force but by conquering historical representation. Those who were oppressed were forced to the margins, erased. To decolonize the mind is therefore to empower the mind with the ability to self-represent: to understand one’s history, to write one’s history, to create one’s own representation.
At present, however, this remains a challenge which cannot be separated from practical realities, where many historical documents that could inform an Indonesian’s historical sense of being had been taken to the Dutch archives, along with artistic and religious artifacts. Decolonizing the mind will therefore take more than Sukarno’s Proclamation of Independence, or current President Joko Widodo’s campaign slogan of a “mental revolution.” Rather, it will take active and difficult engagement with how we collect, organize, present, and process knowledges and representations—for Indonesians and Dutch alike.
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About the author: Aria Danaparamita researches the history and art history of Southeast Asia, with a focus on early 19th-century European colonial period in modern-day Indonesia and Myanmar. She is interested in exploring histories of networks, connectivities, and relationships between Europeans, locals, and trans-imperial actors, particularly in the production of knowledge and cultural artifacts. She received her B.A. in History from Wesleyan University (CT, USA) and M.A. in History of Art from the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London (London, UK). She was a Freeman Asian Scholar and Alphawood Scholar, and former journalist at Voice of America and The Cambodia Daily who has contributed to a number of publications including Foreign Policy, Al Jazeera, and The Diplomat.