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  • Breaking Down the Symbols: Reading The Events At Charlottesville Through A Postcolonial Lens
  • Ansley Heller (bio)

On August 11th and 12th, 2017, neo-Confederate and neo-Nazi protesters rallied together in response to the intended removal of a statue of Confederate General Robert E. Lee. In a shouting display of rage, these protesters worked to bring attention to the plight of the oppressed white man and the injustices imposed upon them by politically correct liberals. These protestors were not alone however; during the “Unite The Right Rally” Black Lives Matter and other anti-racism counter-protesters showed up and met the white nationalists with mostly peaceful resistance.

As we know, cultural imperialism functions by raising one group of people up as the superior example of culture and even humanity. Controlling the symbols in a landscape is an important means to this end. Symbols, like statues and important buildings, signal social values to the public. Statues encourage individuals to look at those being immortalized in stone and to understand their deeds as strong, important, and worthy of admiration. As more and more people demand the removal of Confederate statues from public spaces, the struggle over who gets to control the narrative of the public space is heightened. For white nationalists descending upon Charlottesville, the removal of the Lee statue represents another attack on their cultural dominance. For anti-racism counter-protesters, the loss of the same statue represents the removal of a symbol of oppression and a departure from the (perhaps not so) subtle condoning of white supremacy.

Postcolonial theory offers insights into the social dynamics fueling the recent clash at Charlottesville. Postcolonial theorists Edward Said and Homi Bahbah draw attention to the psychological experience of colonization and postcolonialism on both the colonized subjects and the colonizer. Said’s influential concept of Othering, referring originally to the myriad ways in which dominant societies portray those they are colonizing as less than human, has made its way into common parlance. With its’ inherently geographic nature and its’ focus on the relationships between empowered and subjugated people postcolonialism lends itself naturally to geopolitical events all over the world.

Postcolonial criticism is set apart from other critical theories by turning its attention to people who live under cultures that oppress them, particularly those cultures from areas that have experienced direct colonization and/or cultural imperialism. India, Australia, parts of Africa, New Zealand, Southeast Asia, and the West Indies are just a few examples of areas colonized by European powers like Portugal, the Netherlands, Spain, France, and England. [End Page 35] Traditionally the United States is not included as one of these areas, given that the country became an imperialist global power in its own right, yet interesting insights can be derived by applying postcolonial theory to modern political events in the US.

Take for example the recent events in Charlottesville, Virginia. On the surface there is little more here than a squabble over a statue, but postcolonial theory allows us to look more closely at the underlying struggle as a manifestation of power dynamics between subjugated and structurally empowered groups. As white nationalists fight to maintain their perceived dominance by protesting the statue’s removal and attempting to control the narrative of who is welcome in the landscape, counter-protesters made their own declaration of power. By showing up to encourage the statue’s removal and to meet white nationalist fervor with their own political commitments, anti-racism counter protesters declared their unwillingness to be beaten back into the past. Postcolonial theory allows us to read this push-back against a symbol of centuries long structural racism as a manifestation of subjugated peoples’ refusal to be Othered and made unwelcome in their homes and cities. A public monument to a Civil War general who actively fought for the right of gentried landholders to commit human atrocities sends the symbolic message that people of color are not welcome or valued in the contemporary polity. To pass by symbols of one’s historical oppressors each and every day sends a constant message that one is still considered less than human, perpetuating Othering by those with structural power. By altering the landscape of Charlottesville so that it...


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pp. 35-38
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