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Book Title: Racism

Book Author(s): ALBERT MEMMI

Published by: University of Minnesota Press

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appendix d

the mythic portrait of the colonized

Translated by Howard Greenfield Reprinted from Albert Memmi, The Colonizer and the Colonized (Boston: Beacon Press, 1965), 79–91. Originally published as Portrait du colonisé, précédé de portrait du colonisateur (Paris: Corréa, 1957).

Just as the bourgeoisie proposes an image of the proletariat, the exis-tence of the colonizer requires that an image of the colonized be sug-

gested. These images become excuses without which the presence and conduct of a colonizer, and that of a bourgeois, would seem shocking. But the favored image becomes a myth precisely because it suits them too well.

Let us imagine, for the sake of this portrait and accusation, the often-cited trait of laziness. It seems to receive unanimous approval of colonizers from Liberia to Laos, via the Maghreb. It is easy to see to what extent this description is useful. It occupies an important place in the dialectics exalting the coloniz-er and humbling the colonized. Furthermore, it is economically fruitful.


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206 appendix d

Nothing could better justify the colonizer’s privileged position than his industry, and nothing could better justify the colonized’s destitution than his indolence. The mythical portrait of the colonized therefore includes an unbelievable laziness, and that of the colonizer, a virtuous taste for action. At the same time the colonizer suggests that employing the colonized is not very profitable, thereby authorizing his unreasonable wages.

It may seem that colonization would profit by employing experienced personnel. Nothing is less true. A qualified worker existing among the coloniz-ers earns three or four times more than does the colo-nized, while he does not produce three or four times as much, either in quantity or in quality. It is more advantageous to use three of the colonized than one European. Every firm needs specialists, of course, but only a minimum of them, and the colonizer imports or recruits experts among his own kind. In addition, there is the matter of the special attention and legal protection required by a European worker. The colo-nized, however, is only asked for his muscles; he is so poorly evaluated that three or four can be taken on for the price of one European.

From listening to him, on the other hand, one finds that the colonizer is not so displeased with that laziness, whether supposed or real. He talks of it with amused affability, he jokes about it, he takes up all the usual expressions, perfects them, and invents oth-ers. Nothing can describe well enough the extraordi-nary deficiency of the colonized. He becomes lyrical about it, in a negative way. The colonized doesn’t let

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the mythic portrait of the colonized 207

grass grow under his feet, but a tree, and what a tree! A eucalyptus, an American centenarian oak! A tree? No, a forest!

But, one will insist, is the colonized truly lazy? To tell the truth, the question is poorly stated. Besides having to define a point of reference, a norm, varying from one people to another, can one accuse an entire people of laziness? It can be suspected of individuals, even many of them in a single group. One can won-der, if their output is mediocre, whether malnutrition, low wages, a closed future, a ridiculous conception of a role in society does not make the colonized uninter-ested in his work. What is suspect is that the accusa-tion is not directed solely at the farm laborer or slum resident but also at the professor, engineer, or physi-cian who does the same number of hours of work as his colonizer colleagues; indeed, all individuals of the colonized group are accused. Essentially, the indepen-dence of the accusation from any sociological or his-torical conditions makes it suspect.

In fact, the accusation has nothing to do with an objective notation, therefore subject to possible changes, but with an institution. By his accusation the colonizer establishes the colonized as being lazy. He decides that laziness is constitutional in the very nature of the colonized. It becomes obvious that the colonized, whatever he may undertake, whatever zeal he may apply, could never be anything but lazy. This always brings us back to racism, which is the sub-stantive expression, to the accuser’s benefit, of a real or imaginary trait of the accused.

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208 appendix d

It is possible to proceed with the same analysis for each of the features found in the colonized.

Whenever the colonizer states, in his language, that the colonized is a weakling, he suggests thereby that this deficiency requires protection. From this comes the concept of a protectorate. It is in the colo-nized’s own interest that he be excluded from manage-ment functions and that those heavy responsibilities be reserved for the colonizer. Whenever the colonizer adds, in order not to fall prey to anxiety, that the colo-nized is a wicked, backward person with evil, thievish, somewhat sadistic instincts, he thus justifies his police and his legitimate severity. After all, he must defend himself against the dangerous foolish acts of the irre-sponsible, and at the same time—what meritorious concern!—protect him against himself! It is the same for the colonized’s lack of desires, his ineptitude for comfort, science, progress, his astonishing familiarity with poverty. Why should the colonizer worry about things that hardly trouble the interested party? It would be, he adds with dark and insolent philosophy, doing him a bad turn if he subjected him to the disad-vantages of civilization. After all, remember that wis-dom is Eastern; let us accept, as he does, the colo-nized’s wretchedness. The same reasoning is also true for the colonized’s notorious ingratitude; the coloniz-er’s acts of charity are wasted, the improvements the colonizer has made are not appreciated. It is impossi-ble to save the colonized from this myth—a portrait of wretchedness has been indelibly engraved.

It is significant that this portrait requires noth-ing else. It is difficult, for instance, to reconcile most

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the mythic portrait of the colonized 209

of these features and then to proceed to synthesize them objectively. One can hardly see how the colo-nized can be simultaneously inferior and wicked, lazy and backward.

What is more, the traits ascribed to the colo-nized are incompatible with one another, though this does not bother his prosecutor. He is depicted as fru-gal, sober, without many desires, and, at the same time, he consumes disgusting quantities of meat, fat, alcohol, anything; as a coward who is afraid of suf-fering and as a brute who is not checked by any inhi-bitions of civilization. It is additional proof that it is useless to seek this consistency anywhere except in the colonizer himself. At the basis of the entire con-struction, one finally finds a common motive: the col-onizer’s economic and basic needs, which he substi-tutes for logic, and which shape and explain each of the traits he assigns to the colonized. In the last analy-sis, these traits are all advantageous to the colonizer, even those that at first sight seem damaging to him.

The point is that the colonized means little to the colonizer. Far from wanting to understand him as he really is, the colonizer is preoccupied with making him undergo this urgent change. The mechanism of this remolding of the colonized is revealing in itself. It consists, in the first place, of a series of negations. The colonized is not this, is not that. He is never con-sidered in a positive light; or if he is, the quality that is conceded is the result of a psychological or ethical failing. Thus it is with Arab hospitality, which is diffi-cult to consider as a negative characteristic. If one pays attention, one discovers that the praise comes

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210 appendix d

from tourists, visiting Europeans, and not colonizers, i.e., Europeans who have settled down in the colony. As soon as he is settled, the European no longer takes advantage of this hospitality but cuts off intercourse and contributes to the barriers that plague the colo-nized. He rapidly changes palette to portray the colo-nized, who becomes jealous, withdrawn, intolerant, and fanatical. What happens to the famous hospitali-ty? Since he cannot deny it, the colonizer then brings into play the shadows and describes the disastrous consequences.

This hospitality is a result of the colonized’s irresponsibility and extravagance, since he has no notion of foresight or economy. From the wealthy down to the fellah, the festivities are wonderful and bountiful—but what happens afterward? The colo-nized ruins himself, borrows and finally pays with someone else’s money! Does one speak, on the other hand, of the modesty of the colonized’s life? Of his not less well known lack of needs? It is no longer a proof of wisdom but of stupidity—as if, then, every recognized or invented trait had to be an indication of negativity.

Thus, one after another, all the qualities that make a man of the colonized crumble away. The humanity of the colonized, rejected by the colonizer, becomes opaque. It is useless, he asserts, to try to forecast the colonized’s actions. (“They are unpre-dictable!” “With them, you never know!”) It seems to him that a strange and disturbing impulsiveness controls the colonized. The colonized must indeed

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be very strange, if he remains so mysterious after years of living with the colonizer.

Another sign of the colonized’s depersonaliza-tion is what one might call the mark of the plural. The colonized is never characterized in an individual manner; he is entitled only to drown in an anony-mous collectivity. (“They are this.” “They are all the same.”) If a colonized servant does not come in one morning, the colonizer will not say that she is ill, or that she is cheating, or that she is tempted not to abide by an oppressive contract. (Seven days a week; colonized domestics rarely enjoy the one day off a week granted to others.) He will say, “You can’t count on them.” It is not just a grammatical expres-sion. He refuses to consider personal, private occur-rences in his maid’s life; that life in a specific sense does not interest him, and his maid does not exist as an individual.

Finally, the colonizer denies the colonized the most precious right granted to most men: liberty. Living conditions imposed on the colonized by colonization make no provision for it; indeed, they ignore it. The colonized has no way out of his state of woe—neither a legal outlet (naturalization) nor a religious outlet (conversion). The colonized is not free to choose between being colonized or not being colonized.

What is left of the colonized at the end of this stubborn effort to dehumanize him? He is surely no longer an alter ego of the colonizer. He is hardly a human being. He tends rapidly toward becoming

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212 appendix d

an object. As an end, in the colonizer’s supreme ambition, he should exist only as a function of the needs of the colonizer, i.e., be transformed into a pure colonized.

The extraordinary efficiency of this operation is obvious. One does not have a serious obligation toward an animal or an object. It is then easily under-stood that the colonizer can indulge in such shocking attitudes and opinions. A colonized driving a car is a sight to which the colonizer refuses to become accus-tomed; he denies him all normality. An accident, even a serious one, overtaking the colonized almost makes him laugh. A machine-gun burst into a crowd of col-onized causes him merely to shrug his shoulders. Even a native mother weeping over the death of her son or a native woman weeping for her husband reminds him only vaguely of the grief of a mother or a wife. Those desperate cries, those unfamiliar ges-tures would be enough to freeze his compassion even if it were aroused. An author was recently humorous-ly telling us how rebelling natives were driven like game toward huge cages. The fact that someone had conceived and then dared build those cages, and even more, that reporters had been allowed to photograph the fighting, certainly proves that the spectacle had contained nothing human.

Madness for destroying the colonized having originated with the needs of the colonizers, it is not surprising that it conforms so well to them, that it seems to confirm and justify the colonizer’s conduct. More surprising, more harmful perhaps, is the echo that it excites in the colonized himself. Constantly

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the mythic portrait of the colonized 213

confronted with this image of himself, set forth and imposed on all institutions and in every human con-tact, how could the colonized help reacting to his portrait? It cannot leave him indifferent and remain a veneer that, like an insult, blows with the wind. He ends up recognizing it as one would a detested nick-name that has become a familiar description. The accusation disturbs him and worries him even more because he admires and fears his powerful accuser. “Is he not partly right?” he mutters. “Are we not all a little guilty after all? Lazy, because we have so many idlers? Timid, because we let ourselves be oppressed.” Willfully created and spread by the colo-nizer, this mythical and degrading portrait ends up by being accepted and lived with to a certain extent by the colonized. It thus acquires a certain amount of reality and contributes to the true portrait of the colonized.

This process is not unknown. It is a hoax. It is common knowledge that the ideology of a governing class is adopted in large measure by the governed classes. Now, every ideology of combat includes as an integral part of itself a conception of the adversary. By agreeing to this ideology, the dominated classes practically confirm the role assigned to them. This explains, inter alia, the relative stability of societies; oppression is tolerated willy-nilly by the oppressed themselves. In colonial relationships, domination is imposed by people upon people but the pattern remains the same. The characterization and role of the colonized occupies a choice place in colonialist ideology, a characterization that is neither true to life

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214 appendix d

nor in itself incoherent, but necessary and inseparable within that ideology. It is one to which the colonized gives his troubled and partial, but undeniable, assent.

There is only a particle of truth in the fashion-able notions of “dependency complex,” “colonizabil-ity,” etc. There undoubtedly exists—at some point in its evolution—a certain adherence of the colonized to colonization. However, this adherence is the result of colonization and not its cause. It arises after and not before colonial occupation. In order for the colonizer to be the complete master, it is not enough for him to be so in actual fact, but he must also believe in its legitimacy. In order for that legitimacy to be complet-ed, it is not enough for the colonized to be a slave; he must also accept his role. The bond between coloniz-er and colonized is thus destructive and creative. It destroys and re-creates the two partners of coloniza-tion into colonizer and colonized. One is disfigured into an oppressor, a partial, unpatriotic, and treach-erous being, worrying only about his privileges and their defense; the other, into an oppressed creature, whose development is broken and who compromises by his defeat.

Just as the colonizer is tempted to accept his part, the colonized is forced to accept being colonized.

It would have been too good if that mythical portrait had remained a pure illusion, a look at the colonized that would only have softened the colonizer’s bad conscience. However, impelled by the same needs that created it, it cannot fail to be expressed in actual

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the mythic portrait of the colonized 215

conduct, in active and constructive behavior. (And the same can be said for anti-Semitism.)

Since the colonized is presumed a thief, he must in fact be guarded against. (Being suspect by definition, why should he not be guilty?) Some laun-dry was stolen (a frequent incident in these sunny lands, where the laundry dries in the open air and mocks those who are naked), and who but the first colonized seen in that vicinity can be guilty? Since it may be he, they go to his home and take him to the police station. (The same happens to Gypsies, who camp at the edge of the city.)

“Some injustice!” retorts the colonizer. “One time out of two, we hit it right. And, in any case, the thief is a colonized; if we don’t find him in the first hut, he’ll be in the second one.”

This conduct, which is common to colonizers as a group, thus becomes what can be called a social institution. In other words, it defines and establishes concrete situations that close in on the colonized, weigh on him until they bend his conduct and leave their marks on his face. Generally speaking, these are situations of inadequacy. The ideological aggression that tends to dehumanize and then deceive the colo-nized finally corresponds to concrete situations that lead to the same result. To be deceived to some extent already, to endorse the myth and then adapt to it, is to be acted upon by it. That myth is furthermore sup-ported by a very solid organization, a government and a judicial system fed and renewed by the coloniz-er’s historic, economic, and cultural needs. Even if he

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were insensitive to calumny and scorn, even if he shrugged his shoulders at insults and jostling, how could the colonized escape the low wages, the agony of his culture, the law that rules him from birth until death?

Just as the colonized cannot escape the colo-nialist hoax, he could not avoid those situations that create real inadequacy. To a certain extent, the true portrait of the colonized is a function of this relation-ship. Reversing a previous formula, it can be stated that colonization creates the colonized, just as we have seen that it creates the colonizer.

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