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The Subtle Messaging of Colonialism

Updated: Mar 11, 2021

Palwasha A. and Lamisa. H

Did you know that Chadwick Boseman fought for Black Panther to have the African accent of Wakanda? The producers pushed for him to have a British or American accent, and when Chadwick argued that that wouldn’t make sense because Wakanada had never been colonised, they said it would be hard for audiences to understand, and that if they made that decision, they’d have to “stick with it”. The producers told Chadwick that they could say that the character had “studied in a foreign country”. Boseman stuck to his guns and won, and T’Challa was allowed to have his African accent, but the anecdote is shocking in that it is so un-shocking. Why would a character from Wakanda, an African country that was portrayed as having never been invaded by the British have its prince speaking in a British or American accent, and furthermore, why was this point something that Boseman had to fight for?

Imagine if Marvel’s producers had won, and were successful in giving T’Challa a British or American accent. Every other Wakandan in the movie would have retained the accent of their dialect and we would have had, in the first movie featuring a black superhero lead, some superior subtle colonial messaging, just like in almost every other Hollywood production we can think of. So let’s break this down.

What is ‘Colonial Messaging’?

Colonial mentality is the ethnic or cultural inferiority we internalise as a result of colonisation. Our film, media and entertainment perpetuates these messages in everything they produce, and often leave us with the subconscious belief that the cultural values of the coloniser are inherently superior to our own. Growing up, we are met with white washing, Eurocentric depictions of the 'other', and this representation or lack thereof has serious implications in our society, as well as the constant pushing of the ideal that white is superior.

We all know what colonial messaging looks like in the media, especially in the news we consume- we constantly have to undo the damaging stereotypes put forth about our communities by the media, for example, the global Muslim community having to constantly denounce violence, but what about more subtle messaging? Especially that found in the media we consume as children.

Why Does it Matter?

“Why do you think this doll is the nice one?”

“Because she’s white.” “Why do you think this doll is the bad one?” “Because she’s Black.”

In the famous and alarming “doll study” of 1939 we were shown that Black children’s self esteem and identity had been severely compromised as a result of racial segregation. The test was originally designed in 1939 by pioneering Black American psychologist Dr. Kenneth Clark and his wife and partner Dr. Mamie Clark. The Clarks would show a young child two dolls, one Black and one white, and then ask them which doll was pretty, which was nice, and which was bad. They were not surprised to find that the white children they interviewed overwhelmingly preferred the white dolls, but dismayingly, so did the Black children. Two-thirds of the Black children expressed that the white dolls were better, prettier than the ones that looked like them.

This experiment was recreated 50 years later, and the results showed that out of 21 Black four- and five-year-olds at a Harlem child care center, 15 children preferred the White doll—the same ratio the Clarks found during segregation. You can watch the experiment at the link below.

One of the children who has just said she thinks the Black doll is bad, is shown answering a follow-up question: “which doll looks like you?” The little girl hesitates, touches both, and then slowly pushes the Black doll forward. The original test was measuring these responses in a time of racial segregation, when we know without a doubt that Black people were being portrayed by media as inferior to white people. The fact that this experiment would have disarmingly similar results now may be due to the colonial messaging we are exposed to all our lives, as so often it targets our subconscious.

Capitalism and Colonialism

To bring awareness to our world’s current state of rapid environmental degradation, we have the recent Netflix series hosted by David Attenborough, our favourite British gentleman eagerly telling us about the natural world in his wavering voice. In fact, when you think of reporting on conservation and the natural world, many of us in the West think exclusively of Attenborough. You may even have read the words “natural world” in his British accent in your head. But there’s an important discussion happening at the moment about what Attenborough is pinpointing as the problem. In his series, Attenborough correlates overpopulation with the climate crisis, saying the former is one of our planet’s biggest concerns. Basic research tells us that capitalism is the culprit of the climate crisis, not everyday people. We need to be deeply critical of how Attenborough is choosing to use the immense authority given to him with his platform, to support overpopulation theory. Overpopulation theory is rooted in colonial ideology and, while overpopulated areas do create pollution, it does not amount to even a fraction of the carbon emissions emitted by only the top 10% of the world’s richest. What all this reinforces is that white supremacist and colonial ideals are safeguarded and reinforced by the gatekeepers of our media.

Netflix, you’re disappointing us.

How is a movie like ‘Holidate’ even allowed anymore? To fit the diversity quota, every supporting role was given to a Black or POC actor while the main characters remained white. Again, the POC best friend trope is shoved down our throats. Though this trope can be seen in so many Hollywood productions, it's especially present in some of our most beloved romcoms. Netflix’s newest dance movie ‘Work It’ unfortunately screams white saviour and fills the POC best friend slot by none other than Miss Liza Koshy. In the movie, the predominantly POC dance troupe, filled with actual dancers stops dancing because the white protagonist pulls out. The protagonist whose whole thing is that she can’t dance. And then when she has her change of heart and comes back, they start dancing again. Did she steal their legs and brains?

Ah, the POC best friend. In Clueless it’s the sassy Dionne, in Emily in Paris (Netflix, please) it’s the sassy Mindy Chen. In Devil Wears Prada it’s the sassy Lily, who catches Anne Hathaway getting a little too cosy with Simon Baker. In Ten Things I Hate About You, in A Cinderella Story, in Another Cinderella Story, the POC best friend is ever-present, and ever-sassy.

What’s the point of this trope? It subtly makes us understand, again and again, that we are not main character material, in an industry notoriously lacking POC lead roles. It asserts that people of colour lack the agency necessary to enact positive change in their own lives, and that any of our achievements stem from interaction with the white saviour. Within this overarching trope, are further tropes of sassy Black bff (A Cinderella story) nerdy Indian bff (Deadpool, although he’s a taxi driver), flamboyant gay male bff (bonus points if he’s Black) whose only purpose is to help you find love (My Best Friend’s Wedding, every romcom past 1995).

It’s not just the butchering of Michael Oher’s story in the Oscar-winning ‘The Blind Side’, his depiction as a mentally challenged Black man whose life is changed by his adoptive white family, when in reality he can’t recognise this portrayal of himself (and neither can his real-life adoptive white family). It’s not just about the Oscar-winning movie ‘The Help’ having a fictional white woman’s efforts be the catalyst for the liberation of a whole community of Black women, while the real Abileen’s identity was stolen to create this white saviour narrative- it’s the reasons behind why, what these narratives do to us, and our understanding of ourselves.

Starting The Process of Decolonisation

In addressing and dismantling this constant, subtle colonial messaging, we need to be aware of what it looks like. We need to mentally point it out when consuming media, and equip ourselves with knowledge and educational resources that help us turn the tide. The movement towards inclusivity and fairness in our media is not stagnant- there are countless change makers, activists, creators and others already doing the work, and it’s up to us to learn how to join them. Though the road to dismantling systemic racism is long, we are becoming the leaders, the creators and policy makers of the future.

Let’s talk about a specific, seemingly small act. When Hasan Minhaj appeared on Ellen, he corrected her when she pronounced his name. This act communicated a very clear message, not just to white people but also to the brown community and every person of colour, that subtle colonial messaging would not stand in that instance, and that it should be publicly addressed and defied. The news and entertainment media teach us about minorities, ethnic and marginalised groups. This industry has one of the greatest educational impacts for people who have little to no contact with the members of certain groups being represented. A simple act of pronouncing a name correctly on international television, starts a conversation about unlearning and unpacking the subtle messages of colonialism we have been fed all our lives. It places us back into the centre of our own narratives, and on the path to a more nuanced and truly representative multicultural outlook in our film, entertainment and media.

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