The use and misuse of ‘colonial mentality’
The term “colonial mentality” is one of the go-to phrases for Filipinos to explain certain aspects of our culture and collective experiences, from the preference for things that are “imported” to the very desire to go abroad. In my own ethnographic fieldwork, I hear people use the term to explain the desire of many Filipinos to whiten their skins, evincing the frequent use of the term to explain our beauty standards.
As expected, politicians are frequent users of “colonial mentality” in their rhetoric, mobilizing it to suit their purposes. Like other populist leaders in the Global South, Rodrigo Duterte is exemplary in his anti-colonial posturing, for which the trope functions as a commonsensical appeal to the people, a rebuttal to human rights concerns that are disingenuously labeled as “Western values,” and an excuse for a foreign policy that favors Beijing.
“All the remaining colonial mentality, that’s obsolete already,” Harry Roque said back in 2018 to defend what he called “the pivot of the President to China.” This week, the presidential spokesperson invoked the term anew to dismiss people’s concerns over Sinovac’s vaccine seemingly being preferred over others.
Now it is very true that the colonial legacy has cast a long shadow over our country. Beyond the nationalist rhetoric raised by the likes of Mr. Duterte and Marcos, Constantino’s critiques about the fundamental flaws of our educational system, Quimpo’s assertion of Christian ethnocentrism as stemming from colonization, Gramsci’s concept of hegemony, and Fanon’s notion of “borrowed colonialism” remain valid lenses with which to view Philippine society, as well as the Filipino diaspora.
However, using “colonial mentality” as a shorthand explanation for social phenomena is problematic, because it is misleading, incomplete, and often inaccurate.
Take, for example, the matter of skin whitening, and beauty standards in general. While it is true that Doña Victorina’s desire to be less “indio” and more “mestizo” is still among us, the preference for white skin in the country predates the colonial encounter, and is nowadays inspired more by Hallyu than by Hollywood. Moreover, “colonial mentality” glosses over the economic imperatives (e.g., having a “pleasing personality”) that inform people’s desires to try to enhance their bodies.
It is certainly an economic reality that many Filipinos have a bias for things “imported.” However, this preference has limits, as evidenced by our food preferences which are largely local; if anything, we have “colonized” other cuisines by making them our own (case in point: the Filipino spaghetti). In any case, the assertion that Filipinos will embrace something just because it is foreign is not just insulting to our people, but also unsupported by evidence.
As for the desire to go abroad, doubtless we can implicate the perception that emigration signifies success. However, there is a clear interplay of factors—from the personal to the political—that informs people’s desire to live elsewhere, as when people all over the world express the desire to move to countries like New Zealand where leaders actually practice evidence-based governance.
For their part, the political uses of “colonial mentality” are largely self-serving ways of justifying politicians’ actions: Human rights violators tend to dismiss the idea of human rights as “Western values” when it comes to their victims—but they are quick to invoke those same rights for themselves. In like manner, it is richly ironic that the administration is crying “colonial mentality” over Pfizer while seemingly showing subservience to China over Sinovac.
As the recent events in Washington DC, and as the relatively-poor performance of Euro-America in the pandemic, underscore, we cannot look to the West alone, and we do need to broaden our horizons to other countries, including our neighbors and China itself. Moreover, there is a continuing need to decolonize our ways of thinking in various domains, from education to geopolitics, mindful of Freire’s call for a “critical pedagogy.”
But just as importantly, we cannot blame colonialism for all our problems. Many countries that endured colonial rule have performed much better than us in controlling COVID-19. Many of them have also fared better in terms of overall national development. Instead of just looking at villains abroad, perhaps we should also take a hard look at the people who try to colonize, exploit, and miseducate us from within.
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