So as I fall deeper down the Writing Outside Your Demographic rabbit hole, it turns out there is a vast wealth of topics and information to process. I’m struggling to choose the most logical order of topics. In the future, expect to see me delve into topics like appropriation, exoticism, Othering, objectification, and stereotype. Several of those are interconnected, much like the tangled web of sexism, racism, ableism, and hetero/cis normativity in which we live every day. Because in 2015, the United States of America is a country that privileges white over non-white, straight cis men over not that, and able bodied/neutrotypical over not that. That’s how it is right now. Things are changing. Part of that change is art. That’s why I’m writing this series.
Okay, now that I’ve justified my own existence in this moment, like you do, I want to move on to today’s topic. It’s a huge theme in science fiction and fantasy from The Tempest to Avatar: Colonialism.
What is Colonialism?
Ahahah, well, I went to look up a dictionary definition of colonialism, and I got a visceral example of attitudes towards it. Google, that ubiquitous American corporation, tells me this:
- the policy or practice of acquiring full or partial political control over another country, occupying it with settlers, and exploiting it economically.
The Oxford English Dictionary, yes from Oxford University in England, says this: “The colonial system or principle. Now freq. used in the derogatory sense of an alleged policy of exploitation of backward or weak peoples by a large power.”
Please take a moment and think about the difference between those two definitions.
Although I’d be willing to bet colonialism has been a thing ever since there was more than one human on the planet, one of the times it really heated up was in the Western Hemisphere from the “Age of Exploration” in the 1400s-1500s until the modern countries mostly settled down into their current shapes in the 1900s. Colonialism is not a dead force today, just slightly less of a country-shaping one. In the past century or so it’s shown up in conflicts regarding map lines being drawn in ways that are unworkable for the people who actually live there (see Hutus, Tutsis). There’s a lovely gif of colonialism in action from 1942-2008 here.
How does colonialism show up in the world?
Look at a map of the North America. Look at a map of Africa. Look at the borders. See the bits where there are big straight lines? That’s where the colonizers of these spaces chopped up the land on a map and said “this is mine.”
I am not really exaggerating at all. In the 1884-5, leaders from France, Germany, Britain, Belgium, the Netherlands, and Spain sat down and divided up Africa once and for all. Um. They didn’t want to go to war with each other over African land, you see.
In the United States, states in the East tend to be smaller and have more borders that follow natural formations, like rivers. Western states tend to be larger and often have long swaths of straight border. This is because the US (i.e. the former English colony) was bought in pieces from previous colonizers, such as the French and Spanish. In the case of The Louisiana Purchase, President Thomas Jefferson bought 530 million acres of land at about 3 cents an acre from Napoleon Bonaparte in 1803, shortly before the war of 1812.
As the actual U.S. Department of State Office of the Historian points out,
“When news of the sale reached the United States, the West was elated. President Jefferson, however, was in a quandary. He had always advocated strict adherence to the letter of the Constitution, yet there was no provision empowering him to purchase territory. Given the public support for the purchase and the obvious value of Louisiana to the future growth of the United States, however, Jefferson decided to ignore the legalistic interpretation of the Constitution and forgo the passage of a Constitutional amendment to validate the purchase. This decision contributed to the principle of implied powers of the federal government.
TL;DR The USA and rest of the world has a long and intimate history with colonialism.
How does Colonialism show up in writing and media?
Having run out of land, now the most pervasive form of ongoing colonialism may well be in the realm of media and ideas. This is more or less the same thing as cultural appropriation, which I will cover in depth next week. Understanding colonialism is a building block to understanding what appropriation is and how it works.
Your actual colonialism is responsible for and/or tied up in a lot of ideas and tropes that pervade media and literature. Some examples: Barbarians. Savages. Noble Savages. Manifest destiny. The White Man’s Burden. Slavery. Native American-themed camps for white kids. The myth that Native Americans suddenly stopped existing. The idea that non-white people are more likely to have magic powers, or to withstand greater amounts of pain, or are closer to nature.
What relationship does my world and story have to colonialism?
If your story is set on Earth in a “history as it happened” timeline, think about how your setting has been impacted by colonialism. Think about your characters. Do they think about it? Are they positively or negatively affected by it? Think about how you are affected by colonialism.
If your story is set on alternate Earth or on another planet that isn’t conveniently homogenous, consider how colonialism has affected the history and shape of the world. Think about this when you are drawing maps. Who set forth the borders of your map, and were they they people who live there? Were they about war over territory? Were they about geography? What happened to make the lines go like that?
You story doesn’t have to be directly about colonialism in order to be good, or to achieve great justice in the world. But if you don’t think about what colonialism has taken place in your world, or take into account how colonialism affects your world and characters, you run the risk of straying into territory like cultural appropriation, accidental racism, or even just very tired tropes.