Albert Memmi’s Colonized/Colonizer

Albert Memmi, a French writer, came from a Tunisian background. He wrote his book The Colonizer and The Colonized as a way to make sense of his own life, including his ‘mixed marriage’. He felt both like the colonized, due to his Tunisian heritage, as Tunisia only gained independence from France in 1956 following 75 years as a part of their empire, but he also felt like the colonizer due to belonging to a native BUT non-moslem (an older term for Muslim) group (p17), these groups being regarded as having more privilege to the colonized, but being disregarded by the colonizers. Memmi saw the colonizer and the colonized not only as connected but dependent on one another.

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He breaks the colonizer down into various parts:

  • Colonial: The European who is privileged purely because they are European but remain no more privileged to the colonized in regards to their living conditions and class.

The Colonizer:

  • The Usurper – Able to live a more comfortable life in the colony, earning more and spending less. They have a superior status and are privileged thanks to their background. But they realise that their privilege is illegitimate.
  • The Colonizer who refuses – notices and withdraws from the conditions of privilege or remains to fight for change BUT does not aim to use the colony language or religion. Therefore, by being in the colony at all, he perpetuates the system. He may only gain peace at mind by leaving the colony and its privileges altogether.
  • The Colonizer who accepts – The colonialist. ‘A colonizer who agrees to be a colonizer. By making his position explicit, he seeks to legitimize colonization’ (p89) by asserting his cultural superiority. ‘All the efforts of the colonialist are directed toward maintaining this social immobility, and racism is the surest weapon for this aim…’ (p118) establishing ‘a fundamental discrimination between colonizer and colonized’. (p118)
  • The colonialist reassures himself by telling himself that he is accomplishing a mission: he is bringing civilisation to the uncivilised… ‘he has the immense merit of bringing light to the colonized’s ignominious darkness’. (p119)
  • This leads to paternalism, ‘a charitable racism’ (p120).

He breaks the colonized into various parts in a similar way:

  • The Mythical Portrait of the Colonized: In this we see the colonizer and the colonized marked together with binary descriptions wherein the colonizer is good, and the colonized bad. The colonizer ‘has a virtuous taste for action’ (p123) and the colonized exhibits ‘an unbelievable laziness’ (p123). In the same way, ‘the colonizer suggests that employing the colonized is not very profitable, thereby authorising his unreasonable wages’ (p123). A European in the same role would be paid three or four times more, therefore paying the colonized is cheaper, and is not warranted the same legal protection.
  • ‘…the colonizer establishes the colonized as being lazy. He decides that laziness is constitutional in the very nature of the colonized. It becomes obvious that the colonized…’ (p125) despite his efforts ‘could never be anything but lazy. This always brings us back to racism, which is the substantive expression, the accusers benefit’ (p125).
  • ‘Just as the colonizer is tempted to accept his part, the colonized is forced to accept being colonized’ (p133).
  • Situations of the Colonized: The colonized loses their culture.’The most serious blow suffered by the colonized is being removed from history and from the community’ (p135). ‘He is in no way a subject of history any more… [and] has forgotten how to actively participate in history and no longer even asks to do so’ (p136).
  • This leads us to The Two Answers of the Colonized: The colonized must either assimilate or revolt. ‘Those who understand their fate become impatient and no longer tolerate colonization’ (p164).  The colonized ‘will one day begin to overthrow his unlivable existence with the whole force of his oppressed personality’ (p164).
  • To assimilate, the colonized tries to change his appearance to look whiter, and begins to mimic the ideas of the colonizer, themselves expressing opinions of music and art that follow those of the colonizer, despite their true feelings (p166). The point is that the colonized must resemble the white man, the colonizer (p166).
  • ‘At the end of a long, painful process… the colonized would perhaps have dissolved into the midst of the colonizers’ (p167). However, the process of assimilation is impossible, as the colonized not only has to reject his own group, but needs to be accepted in the colonizer’s group, where he will find himself meeting ‘with the colonizer’s rejection’ (p168).
  • Assimilation’s failure ‘is due not only to the colonizer’s bias but also to the colonized’s backwardness’ (p169-170). The colonizer would also not allow assimilation because the doing so makes the colonizer put an end to himself (p171).
  • The only option left is then revolt. ‘…revolt is the only way out of the colonial situation, and the colonised realizes it sooner or later’ (p171). ‘…the day has come that the colonized must refuse the colonizer’ (p172). The colonized boycotts the possessions of the colonizer, their cars, their products, their culture… ‘the colonized has… become a xenophobe and a racist’ (p174) born from the ‘colonialist delusion’ (p175). It is a racism that is social and historical not biological or metaphysical… it does not scorn more than it fears, and it still admires, for it looks up to the colonisers still, but ‘to go all the way with his revolt… he will forego the use of the colonizer’s language, even if all the locks of the country turn with that key’ (p181).
  • What will become of this revolt, is that the colonized tries to accept himself defining a positive myth of the colonized, but he finds that he is uncertain of himself, and therefore uncertain of being able to convince the colonizer of his worth leading him to his self-inflicted alienation. The only way to move on from this is to ‘await the complete disappearance of colonization’ (p185).
  • ‘Having reconquered all his dimensions, the former colonized will have become a man like any other. There will be the ups and downs of all men to be sure, but at least he will be a whole and free man’ (p197).
Image: https://www.amazon.co.uk/Colonizer-Colonized-Albert-Memmi/dp/1844070409
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