by Hannah Bressler
“...Go freely with powerful uneducated persons, and with the young, and with the mothers of families, read these leaves in the open air every season of every year of your life, reexamine all you have been told at school or church or in any book, dismiss whatever insults your own soul, and your very flesh shall be a great poem and have the richest fluency, not only in its words, but in the silent lines of its lips and face, and between the lashes of your eyes, and in every motion and joint of your body..”
-Walt Whitman, American mystic and poet
We live in a post-colonial* world. Even the areas of the world that were not directly colonized have socially internalized many of the European values spread through colonialism. Many of our ideas around race, gender, economics, government, our relationship to our natural environment, geographical borders, etc… are heavily shaped by traditional Western-European-Colonial-Imperialist thought and the reactions against, or ramifications because of it. This is because it takes a lot of philosophy to reason out why it’s OK to pillage, enslave and generally exploit human beings for profit. And we know that a lot of exploitation is still going on, though often in far less obvious ways like political and economic oppression, or the fetish of nationalism and race.
But I don’t want to talk to you about history, I want to talk to you about the art inside you.
I know you’ve felt it before, that feeling, that “I’m so over White Culture” feeling. Other people have felt it too, like the ones that organized social revolutions to exercise agency against their oppressors, and to fight for or negotiate political independence. It’s important to note that this radical restructuring of global exploitation didn’t even happen that long ago, not really. We are still working to decolonize and decentralize ourselves.
In 1986 Ngũgĩ wa Thiong'o wrote “Decolonizing the Mind” a book that advocates for linguistic decolonization. In case you haven’t read it, I’ll summarize some of his main points here: “When you use the language of the colonizers as your main way of speaking, thinking, talking and educating, you are internalizing a lot of your previous oppressor’s belief structures and values, even when your country is no longer directly colonized.”
(Seriously, what a thinker. I wish Beyonce would quote him for her songs. )
Ngugi got outraged about shit that mattered, mainly centralist education. This was a man who loved human connection through literature, and was tired of using the language and model of the colonizer to commiserate with oppressed, exploited, colonized people.
This is where I see him as an a visionary of self-love. It’s hard, very hard, to try to reflect your own internal (or external) reality onto a page when you have in your head a “proper” way to speak, to think, to write, to be. You forget, when you think with a centralized model, that your way of doing things, the way you learned and created with your friends and family, the way you practice on a regular basis, isn’t “wrong”, just dissimilar to the standard handed down to you.
One example of the centralized and decentralized thinking is television (centralized to a few people in control of corporations creating mass entertainment) and internet forums (decentralized and available to anyone with access to a connected device). You can find almost anything you can imagine on the internet (or, thankfully, things you haven’t yet imagined), whereas the vast majority of cable television creates a repetition of ‘normative’ themes so obvious as to be not worth mentioning here.
Another example of centralized versus decentralized is one current political movement against centralist standardized tests in public education. I want to note that a decentralized model is not the same as de-standardized ideal. Without using centralist ideas, you can still have standards, ideals, and goals for yourself and your community, but you can create those standards from your own personal and social understanding, your own communities, your own reality.
So then, what happens when you try to decolonize your mind? It’s hard.
For instance, it’s difficult to decentralize the narratives in your mind because we still use terms like “the media” instead of “the opinions of a few people mass broadcasting to an audience.” The very language you use everyday is full of mental metaphors, structures and ideology you may never become fully aware of.
Also, it can be difficult to find legitimacy in your own language -- and by language I don’t just mean a simplistic term like “English,” because there are more versions of post-colonial European languages than I can count--, but the legitimacy of the way you and the people living around you speak and think, and legitimacy for your own way of being with people.
What often happens when someone does this, starts to celebrate their non-standardized self? That person often becomes painted as hyper-something. For example, if you are tired of performing femininity in a culture that values “modesty,” --which isn’t modesty in the literal sense of the word, like wanting some privacy for yourself, or acting out of a desire to be relatable to other people around you, but modest in the sense of the word that “It is a young girl’s responsibility to not appear too sexy or provoke desire in people around her by showing too much of herself” --- then you may start to shift away from that centralist standard and, being known as “the girl who shows more skin” you may be seen as an exhibitionist, or a disruptive presence. And the generation before you will tell you in a million small and large ways how to perform your gender because that’s what they had to do. Remember that the oppressors are often people who have internalized their oppression. It sucked for them too.
So now, how can we love ourselves deep enough to let go of some internalized oppression?
What is the way you are centralized in your speaking, thinking, imagining, telling jokes, or talking through ideas?
How are you centralized or how would you like to center yourself?
It starts, like so many other things, with paying attention. It starts with recognizing the beliefs and perspectives of other people and knowing you don’t have to be the same or think the same as they do. It starts with listening so deeply to your own heart and creating something out of your own vision, from what you find find real, or beautiful, or funny, or precious, or worth examining, and letting go of what doesn’t resonate with you. Using your own authentic language starts and ends with a practice of self love.
I believe, like Ngugi, like Walt Whitman, that centralizing yourself around the legitimacy of your own imagination will allow you whole other level of mental liberation, and that the more we love ourselves enough to engage ourselves with our own reality, the more we agency we can practice, the more alive and connected we will be to the world.
*Colonialism, I use here to mean that which includes but is not limited to: a structure of European centralist government and culture that tried to recreate itself all over the world with disastrous effects. The term “post-colonial” I use to describe the social consequences after colonial rule and the ways in which people try to rebuild their social structures afterward.
Be honest to yourself about what you want: out of life, to eat, to feel, to do in this world. Honor whatever it is, without judgment. Give yourself whatever it is you need. This is a process that takes time. It is the process of getting to know yourself, getting to know your body – without judgments or assumptions – learning to let all the parts of you be what they are.
Face them, hear them, know them, and find peace in letting them be.
Many of us work against ourselves – denying us pleasure, fulfillment, and fullness. This is no way to find peace. We are working for peace within our bodies and ourselves to reconnect us to our power center. We are learning how to listen to ourselves and honor our needs and desires.
Be kind, be gentle, be love, be open.
Enjoy your body.