Study Guide

Postcolonial Theory Buzzwords

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The pièce de résistance of poco? Resistance. As in political resistance. As in rebel, rebellion, protests, marches, MLK Jr., Gandhi…get the drift?

But wait. Can you engage in political resistance without waving a picket sign at a protest? That's a good question. In fact, that's exactly the question a lot of poco theorists argue about. What exactly counts as "resistance"?

If you're hardcore, then—yes—you better wave that sign and march on the National Mall. If you're more into subtlety, like some poco academics, then sometimes just being yourself can be a form of resistance (like Homi Bhabha. And isn't that enough with a name like Homi Bhabha?).

Basically, poco focuses on ways of thinking, writing, and acting that resist the powers that be. Whether with pickets, poems, or poco sticks.


Nothing tricky here. An empire is a large spread of land ruled by an emperor or empress.

Okay wait, maybe it's a little tricky. In poco-speak, "empire" doesn't have to be ruled by an emperor exactly. It can have a prime minister, a president, a king or queen, a wizard or an elemental ruler. In other words, poco folks use the term a little more loosely than the way it appears in your trusty Webster's dictionary.

"Imperialism," then, is when one of those powers-that-be fellas decides to move into people's houses in other countries and claim control over those lands to up the original country's global status, wealth, fear factor, and evil factor.

Basically, it's a handy term to show that a nation is getting a little too dominant in its drive to conquer new lands. And not just lands, but people's daily lives, ways of talking, foods, books...the list goes on.


This is where poco and P.C. start to butt heads.

Originally, it means someone who is lower in rank, like a colonel to a captain.

But then Gayatri Spivak wrote this humdinger of an essay called "Can the Subaltern Speak?" and basically answered the title question with a resounding NO, because the imperialist oppressors speak for them.

But rewind a sec…who or what is a subaltern?

In poco-speak (and here's where it's not so P.C.), a "subaltern" is basically a "poor person." If you want to get fancy, you can think: "economically oppressed." In poco world, "subaltern" also takes on a racial significance since the term is mostly used to talk about people whose countries were, at some point or another, colonized by imperialist nations. That covers lots of folks in South Asia, the Middle East, the West Indies, Africa…in other words, people who aren't white.


To colonize is to move a bunch of your nation's troops (and normal-people settlers too) to another country and totally take control of the land, politics, and people of that original country.

The colonizer is the person who does the colonizing or taking over of another land and its people. The colonized is the person being taken over by the colonizer. Yep. It's that simple.


Appropriation usually means you're taking something from someone else without permission and using that thing for your own ends. You know—like stealing. So that has to do with what the colonizers did to the colonized, right?

Wrong! Well, right, but in poco world, the colonized can appropriate too, and that can be the beginning of something pretty revolutionary (or at least rebellious).

In that meaning, it has to do with the colonized appropriating something that "belongs" to the colonizers (usually it refers to language) and starting to use it how they want to, not just because it's imposed on them. So, dwellers in a Caribbean colony start speaking English, but they infuse it with their own meanings and melodies instead of trying to talk exactly like the queen.

Totally empowering, right? That is, unless you are the queen.


Is it a Prius? Is it a genetically modified pea-blossom? Is it a liger?

Nah. Hybridity is what happens when a colonized (or post-colonized) person takes on some of a colonizer's manners and habits and develops a "subjectivity" (roughly speaking, an identity) that blends the colonizer with the colonized.

So, say you grew up in India under the British Raj (basically, British = colonizers, Indians = colonized). You resent the Brits for being all bossy in your homeland, but you also got a pretty good education (even if you talk with a British accent) and can't really imagine life without cricket. Yup, you pretty much personify hybridity.


You think colonialism's over? Think again! There's neo-colonialism, as in a new form of colonialism, as in "Hey, you thought colonies were a thing of the past? Sucker!"

Neo-colonialism isn't just colonialism that's happening now; it's a form of colonialism that uses new methods to dominate new lands, like your typical Walmart edging out the Mom 'n' Pop marketplace in Mexico or in China. Maybe guns and armies are involved; maybe not. Either way, the fight for colonial independence is far from over.


On your sheet of binder paper, the margin is the part where you do your doodles instead of taking detailed, helpful notes on the main liney bits.

When it's about people, marginalization happens when a person or a group get smooshed over to the less-important sides instead of getting the full rights and respect all citizens are supposed to enjoy. Poco is hyper-aware of the plight of folks who are relegated to the doodle sections of society—specifically when they're from traditionally doodly corners of the world with long histories of imperialism.

Strategic essentialism

Sounds scary, right? It's not as bad as it seems. You've got "essentialism," which in the world of philosophy basically means thinking in terms of an "essence." An essentialist is someone who believes people and things have an innate, unchangeable nature that is just there and not something that depends on circumstances.

Kind of like when you get in a fight with your brother or sister and you're pretty sure s/he is a total jerk, but then your mom reminds you that your sibling is actually a "good person inside." That's essentialism in action (a big no-no for most theorists, by the way—not just about their siblings but about humans in general).

But wait! When you add "strategic" to "essentialism," you've got something radical and politically powerful: a method or tool of fighting The Man. That's because it's the people who belong to a certain marginalized group using the label that's been given them to come together, rather than letting it add to their marginalized status—in other words, it uses a group identity in a simplified way so those people can achieve certain goals.

Imagine this: a group of people with totally different personalities unify themselves under the label "black" or "feminist" or some other politicized identity. Some of the blacks may also be feminists; one may like chess and another prefers rollercoasters. But they share a commitment to social justice. So they unite under this label because they recognize that they're more powerful if they come together as a group, under a single name, in order to fight for what they want (like, say, Civil Rights).

Once they've accomplished their goals, they can go back to being different types of people, with different aims and hobbies and favorite ice creams. That's strategic essentialism: a temporary method of political activism for rebels, revolutionaries and insurgents alike.

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