21 May, 2024


Colonial Legacies: Cultural Imperialism & The Fracturing Of Ethnic Identities

By Janakie Seneviratne

Janakie Seneviratne

Cultural imperialism evolved from the concept of using cultural domination as a means of political and economic control. The idea behind cultural imperialism is that a powerful group, often a colonial power or dominant nation, imposes its cultural values, beliefs, and practices on a less powerful group or nation. This imposition is not just about spreading culture but is often a deliberate strategy to exert influence, control resources, and maintain dominance. It was a tool used to weaken the cultural identity and unity of colonized peoples. By imposing the culture, language, and values of the colonizers, the colonized were often made to feel inferior or backward, which reinforced the power dynamics of colonial rule.

This deliberate suppression of indigenous cultures and languages by colonizers was often part of a strategy to maintain control and create divisions among colonized populations. This tactic is commonly referred to as “divide and rule” or “divide and conquer.” By erasing or suppressing the languages, cultures, and histories of indigenous peoples, colonizers aimed to weaken their sense of identity and unity, making it easier to control them. “Divide and rule” strategies deliberately fostered divisions among different communities, leading to mistrust, conflict, and power imbalances that persist to this day.

One of the most effective ways to achieve this was through the imposition of the colonizer’s language as the official language of government, education, and other institutions. This marginalized indigenous languages and cultures, often leading to the loss of traditional knowledge and practices. This process led to the erosion of indigenous cultures and languages, as well as the loss of traditional knowledge and practices and their roots. It created a situation where the colonized were forced to adopt the culture of the colonizer as the norm, further entrenching the power imbalances.

Furthermore, colonizers would often frame their infrastructure projects, such as roads, railways, and ports, as signs of progress and modernization. Colonizers would present these projects as signs of progress and modernization, while the underlying goal was to deepen their penetration into local territories and assert control over resources. By framing infrastructure development as a benefit to the local population, colonizers sought to legitimize their presence and gain support from certain segments of society. However, the reality was often the erosion of traditional ways of life, the disempowerment of local communities, and the suppression of cultural practices.

Even today, in former colonies, there are segments of the population who continue to believe that the actions of white colonizers were ultimately for the benefit of the people. I have many associates who studied in leading Buddhist and Christian private schools, where they may have been influenced by the ideologies taught. These schools often emphasize traditional values and histories, including teachings that may present a more positive view of the colonial era. As a result, this so-called elite class, often beneficiaries of historical privileges and status, have been influenced to believe that the actions of white colonizers were ultimately for the benefit of the people. For many in this group, speaking in their mother tongue was considered shameful, while the language of the colonizers was given high value.

In many former colonies, the colonizers bestowed titles, land, and other privileges upon certain individuals or families who aligned with their interests. These privileges often continue to be passed down through generations, creating a class of elites who benefit from historical injustices. Power dynamics based on wealth, ancestral acquisitions, including names and honorary titles bestowed by the colonizers, still play a key role in the mindset of the so-called elite class. These individuals often hold onto their inherited privileges and status, which were often granted or solidified during the colonial era. The names and titles given by colonizers can serve as symbols of this inherited status, reinforcing social hierarchies. These factors create a mindset where the elite class sees themselves as inheritors of a legacy of power and privilege, often disconnected from the struggles and experiences of the broader population. This perpetuates inequalities and maintains a system where access to resources and opportunities is skewed in favor of the elite. Challenging these power dynamics requires a recognition of how historical injustices continue to shape the present. It involves questioning inherited privileges and working towards a more equitable distribution of resources and opportunities for all members of society.

Cultural imperialism continues to be relevant today in many forms, not just in the context of historical colonialism but also in the modern world where globalization and media dominance can lead to the spread of certain cultural norms at the expense of others.

In the case of Sri Lanka, prior to colonialism, the island was home to a diverse array of cultures and communities, including the Vedda, Sinhalese, Tamils, Moors, and others. These groups had their own languages, religions, and traditions, and while there were certainly conflicts at times, there were also periods of coexistence and cultural exchange.

The Vedda people, indigenous to Sri Lanka, are believed to be descendants of the island’s earliest inhabitants. Genetic studies have shown that they share genetic similarities with certain tribal populations in India, particularly those considered to be among the earliest inhabitants of the Indian subcontinent. These findings support the idea that there were ancient movements of populations between Sri Lanka and the Indian mainland, contributing to the genetic diversity of both regions.

Understanding the genetic connections between the Vedda and Indian tribal populations sheds light on the complex history of human migration and settlement in South Asia. It underscores the importance of considering genetic evidence alongside archaeological, linguistic, and cultural data to reconstruct the past and understand the relationships between different population groups.

Colonial powers, however, exploited existing differences and hierarchies, exacerbating tensions for their own benefit. By favoring certain groups and suppressing others, they sowed the seeds of division that continue to impact the country’s social and political landscape. Without this history of colonial manipulation, it’s conceivable that different communities could have found ways to coexist, celebrate their diversity, and build a more inclusive society. Many countries are now working towards reconciliation and unity, acknowledging the damage caused by colonial legacies and seeking paths to healing and mutual respect among all communities.

The study, published this week in the scientific journal Mitochondrion, has revealed that the Vedda have a greater genetic similarity with these five tribes than with either Sri Lanka’s Sinhalese or Tamil populations with whom they have shared the island for centuries.

Furthermore, cultural exchange, trade, conquest, and migration have played significant roles in shaping ethnic identities. Many ethnic groups have borrowed language, customs, and traditions from neighboring or conquering groups, further blurring the lines of “purity.”

The idea of “pure” ethnicities is often used to promote exclusivity or superiority, but it does not hold up to scientific scrutiny. Embracing our diverse and blended ancestries can foster understanding and appreciation for the rich tapestry of human history and culture. Throughout history, ruling elites and those in positions of power have often exploited the concept of “purity” within ethnic groups as a tool for their own benefit. This exploitation has been a means to justify discrimination, oppression, and control over certain populations to consolidate power and maintain control over resources. By promoting the idea of a “pure” ethnic group, they create an “us versus them” mentality that justifies their authority and positions them as protectors of the group’s purity. This exploitation of purity has led to discrimination, ethnic cleansing, genocide, and other forms of violence throughout history. It’s a tactic that continues to be used in various forms today, often subtly, leading people to unknowingly fall prey to these tactics, especially when acquiring political power.

Cultural imperialism has also affected women’s liberation. The movement of women from former colonies, along with the rise of women’s movements in both developed and developing countries, has highlighted a new aspect of women’s rights. Just discussing the differences between women from developed and developing nations won’t advance women’s rights in either world. Instead, we should seek connections between women’s groups without erasing their unique histories or the differences of nation, race, gender, caste, and class.

The impact of this deliberate suppression is still felt today in many parts of the world, where efforts are ongoing to revive and preserve indigenous languages and cultures. These efforts are crucial not only for the preservation of cultural heritage but also for addressing the power imbalances that persist as a legacy of colonialism.

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Latest comments

  • 0

    A good account of colonisation and cultural imperialism except that the author could have been more explicit about their impact on Sri Lankan populations and their cultures.
    Instead she suggests “Without this history of colonial manipulation, it’s conceivable that different communities could have found ways to coexist, celebrate their diversity, and build a more inclusive society.”
    There’s no such guarantee.
    Prior to colonisation, if you think of it in terms of colonisation by the Europeans, indigenous societies that prevailed were fuedal and their existence was frugal. The power dynamics she highlights that exist between different strata of people were more.
    The ethos that define modern societies that we have taken for granted were first introduced by the European colonizers and their legacies that still continue to dominate the world for justifiable reasons. Ethos like democracy, human rights, equality, freedom of speech, empowerment of women, etc., That’s their source of superiority.

    • 1

      Continued from above…
      Veddas were marginalised first by colonisers from India, according to currently accepted history with the arrival of Vijaya. If one were to interpret colonisation in a more broader biological perspective Veddas were the original colonisers of the island. Basicallly Homo sapiens from certain parts of the African continent colonised the rest of the planet. Neanderthals that existed at that time were basically wiped out. So, colonisation is what we humans have been doing throughout our existence on the planet and now we want to colonise Mars and perhaps the rest of the universe too in time to come. Colonisation is part and parcel of the legacy of Homo sapiens. Those who had technological and strategic superiority won and will continue to win.
      On the new genetic study published in Mitochondrian – except for identifying certain tribal groups in India that is closely genetically linked to Veddas, the rest I thought we already knew, including the fact that earliest inhabitants of the island perhaps were off shoots of first sapiens that migrated out of Africa and colonised the Indian subcontinent. The original study is unfortunately behind a pay wall. So one can only comment on the others’ reporting.

      • 2

        PS: Colonisation of the planet by H. sapiens had its own impact on the environment and rest of its flora and fauna, ultimately resulting in the climate crisis we are experiencing today.

  • 0

    – A must read for Lester.

  • 2

    Colonizers would present these projects as signs of progress and modernization, while the underlying goal was to deepen their penetration into local territories and assert control over resources.
    Very applicable to how the ruling Sinhalese penetrated into once declared the Lands of Tamils.

    • 0

      Sinhalese consider themselves superior because of their inferiority complex.

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