Our decolonising lens

Eva Schonveld

5th 2021f March 2021

By Eva Schonveld

Starter Culture started out as three white, middle class, cis gendered women from relatively privileged backgrounds. These things are both trivial and central to who we are. Reducing people to a series of identities misses the depth, complexity and uniqueness of each individual miracle; ignoring the family, social and cultural context that we have grown up in and inhabit as adults misses endless insight into the likely assumptions, motivations and blind spots we are all prone to in different ways.

Our little Starter Culture team shares a dedication to responding to the dehumanising system of domination we live in by supporting and developing spaces for the nourishment, growth and collaboration of those who work where the breadth of our inner experience (be that emotional, relational, cultural, transpersonal or spiritual) meets a passion for a fairer, more compassionate and loving world. Our experience of undertaking this work is filtered and mediated by each of our personal backgrounds and experiences, which bring both strengths and insight - and more tricky, traumatised elements which can cause trouble for ourselves and each other and which mean that at times we don’t see the world quite as it is. 

This is a core insight in understanding why human issues with prejudice, violence, consumption and pollution have escalated to the point where they’re in the process of toppling our lives as we have come to know them: we don’t always see the world as it is - and the impact of this reaches out into every corner of our lives, every decision we make.

We changed the laws but we didn't change ourselves.

The real battlefield is in our bodies.

RESMAA MENAKEM

Experiences which are too overwhelming, either physically or emotionally, to process in the usual way, are dealt with in the mind and body through a process called trauma. Without going into the complex biology and psychology of it (which you can read about in many other bits of this website), something of these states remains frozen in rigid patterns of physical and emotional reaction.

These experiences are not stored in memory in the same way as other things, but are kept in the unconscious and the body as patterns which are triggered when something happens that reminds us of the initial experience.

Because this triggering usually happens in a split second, and usually completely unconsciously, it’s very common that the frightened, angry or desolate little one - the one who first experienced the trauma and a fragment of whose consciousness is now an inherent part of these patterns - takes over for however long we’re experiencing the trigger, plunging us into a state which subjectively now has very little to do with what’s going on in the present.

These frozen patterns of trauma are stuck fragments of our natural, healthy wholeness. Some of the most difficult and rewarding work we can do as adults is to explore how to release these patterns and integrate the energy and experience locked in them into a greater sense of wholeness.

This can look like a personal issue - something to deal with in therapy or in our close relationships. And in part it is. But the trauma we experience is way more than just personal - and it will take deep cultural shifts as well as personal growth to deal with it. We have found decolonisation to be a really useful lens to look at what’s happening in the world and within each of us, what needs to change - and what things might look like if we manage to do that well.

The most recent colonial project (also known as the European colonial period) was perpetrated by the European ruling class, dispossessing and mobilising their own population in order to colonise much of the rest of the world. Prior to this, the trauma of internal dispossession and enslavement - and of invading and enslaving others - had been repeatedly embedded in the European psyche, impacting on culture and interpersonal relations so that this most recent wave, begun in the 16th century and continuing to this day under the guise of corporate activity, economic policy, politically motivated assasination and overt and covert ‘regime change’ wars, became, if not inevitable, then certainly no great surprise. 

The process of colonisation traumatises both the object and the subject in different ways. The surviving colonised people are forced to comply with their new ‘masters’ in ways that are inherently offensive to their sense of personhood and which severely limit their agency and ability to resist. Colonisers have to sever from their own innate empathy, sensitivity and sense of their own decency. 

In almost all people there is a psychological line. On one side is behaviour that sits anywhere from fully altruistic, to that which can be rationalised as ‘understandable given the circumstances’. On the other side of that line lies behaviour that negates our fundamental sense of our own decency and which when consciously, deliberately and repeatedly enacted, traumatises the enacter to the extent that they can no longer face the reality of what they have done.

Each crossing of that line makes us more likely to become caught in an increasingly self referential cycle, which validates the unbearable by repeating it, each repetition ‘proving’ through this internal logic that the previous acts were necessary, normal or acceptable.

The upshot of this is that, starting with a severely traumatised, colonising ruling class (many of whom lived on the wrong side of the ‘decency’ line and who spent a vast amount of time and money perpetuating a cultural myth that they were good, deserving, mighty and just etc) and a severely traumatised, colonised population (most of whom tried most of the time to stay on the right side of the line, but who could be pushed over it by punitive measures such as corporal punishment, empressment, threat of death etc, or by desperation due to poverty or starvation), European countries managed to visit an astonishing quantity of appalling atrocities on populations across much of the rest of the world, often disguising such oppression by describing it as the ‘civilising mission, or ‘the white man’s burden’. 

In spite of repeated attempts at reform and the steps towards greater equality over the last 200 years, the task of actually addressing and attempting to repair the harm done through colonisation has rarely done more than scratch the surface, where it has happened at all. This is because colonisation did not just happen externally, nor did it only penetrate our inner lives, cutting us off from essential parts of our psyches, it also forced its way into our shared culture, ensuring that we would pass on this colonised mindset from generation to generation - whether in the now ‘independent’ colonised countries or in the countries from which the colonisers came.

Different types of colonisation have different impacts. Earlier conquests tended to leave the native populations pretty much alone as long as they paid the required tribute or taxes. But in Europe there was a lethal combination of first feudalism and then capitalism together with Chrisitianity which insisted that those colonised (whether at ‘home’ or elsewhere) not only cede land, resources and labour, but which also saw the cultural and spiritual fabric of the subjugated peoples as part of their mission. 

This powered a massive negative feedback loop: traumatising individuals and communities, seeding in them the potential to become dominators, not least because the indigenous cultural processes which could have supported healing and recovery were also systematically destroyed: connection with local spirits demonised, spirituality privatised, childcare put into the hands of the state, pupils kept indoors and alienated from their the wisdom of their bodies, displays of emotion repressed, elders forgotten, lands held in common stolen and people forced from subsistence livelihoods and a connection with family, place and nature into slavery or wage slavery, whether on plantations or in cities. 

For most of those of white European descent, our true selves are buried under not only the unconscious pain of unprocessed childhood trauma, but also the colonial inheritance of traumatised - and tragically mistaken - assumptions about what it is to be human. That we believe that we are separate individuals, that the earth can be owned, that our hearts are not as wise as our heads and our bodies are incapable of thought, that those in power are there because they know best: all this and more is our colonial inheritance and it is this that has made it possible for the ruling class to tear up our communities, wreck our lands and poison our air.

There is a lot of work to be done!

Unpacking, bringing to light and beginning to heal this legacy is a massive, but crucially important task. Trying to create change without understanding the extent to which we are conditioned to expect - and enact - unhealthy power relations, will mean that however beautiful the social change we want to make happen, it will happen with all that unprocessed emotional material still driving it, meaning that once we’re done, the new world will soon end up looking a lot like the old one.

Starter Culture’s purpose is to support the wide range of initiatives, modalities and ways of being that attempt - in a wide range of ways - to reconnect us with our whole selves, which often begins by acknowledging how severe trauma can so often drive our responses. This work of reconnection with ourselves and each other is not something that can be done in moments, but neither is it the impossible task it can sometimes seem.

We are recruiting!
We are particularly seeking those from marginalised communities or identities.
See here for more information and how to apply.
Last day for application is 21st March 2021

Image credits

Header: With thanks to Saad Chaudhry on Unsplash

Shane Rounce on Unsplash

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