The Not-So-New ‘New’ Natives: Thoughts on Paris

Savagery is not descending on Europe. To suggest as much would be a misnomer, a white lie. No, it is colonialism that is once again descending onto the continent. French philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre concludes his 1961 Preface to Frantz Fanon’s The Wretched of the Earth by suggesting that Europeans have turned into the “native.” From Sartre’s perspective, Fanon helps to explain (to the European) why “it is better to be a ‘native’ in the pit of misery than an erstwhile colonist.’

paris in twilight

Neither words nor concrete political actions can justify or vindicate the vicious attacks that took place in #Paris on November 13, 2015. Most assuredly, #ISIS is a scourge on the earth. This is not the first time Paris has turned crimson with the blood of the innocent. On October 17, 1961, Parisians massacred upwards of 200 Algerians. Blood and bodies were left to float down the Seine. Despotism and fascism do not arise in a historical vacuum. Their roots rest in colonial practices that have never really ended, but only shifted directions over time. Europe, and North America, have become the contemporary colonial frontier; keeping in mind the West's long violent shadow cast on so many other parts of the world gives a different kind of meaning to President Obama's statement on the Paris attacks:

This is an attack not just on Paris, it’s an attack not just on the people of France, but this is an attack on all of humanity and the universal values that we share.
— Barack Obama, November 13, 2015


It is understandable that Westerners are angry. And we would be crazy not to feel fear. But our (future) humanity will be measured by how we channel such fear, by how humanely we respond to those who have been (and continue to be) victims of our past “humanity.” Colonialism has responded to these sorts of fears through violence, and through colonial practices, we have transmitted to the rest of the world that the surest path away from fear is through the sword. As westerners, we may hold a variety of universal values, but through our colonial tactics, we teach the world that our most fundamentally held value is that some lives matter and others do not. Indeed, Joseph Conrad distilled the essence of colonialism down to the simple, if antiseptic phrase: Exterminate All the Brutes. Do we really have to wonder why the new natives of colonialism--We, the (Western) People--matter so little to 'them?' 

Sartre, for all his failures, was honest. And in his honesty we are offered words that might help us to understand the present moment, current violence, and the ethical mandate in front of Westerners now in the wake of renewed regional, national, religious, ethnic, and racial hostilities.

Our victims know us by their wounds and shackles: that is what makes their testimony irrefutable. They only need to know what we have done to them for us to realize what we have done to ourselves. Is this necessary? Yes, because Europe is doomed. But, you will say once again, we live in the metropolis, and we disapproved of extremes. It’s true, you are not colonists, but you are not much better. They were your pioneers, you sent them overseas, they made you rich. You warned them: if they shed too much blood you would pretend to disown them; the same way a State—no matter which one—maintains a mob of agitators, provocateurs, and spies abroad whom it disowns once they are caught. You who are so liberal, so humane, who take the love of culture to the point of affectation, you pretend to forget that you have colonies where massacres are committed in your name….

It’s the end; as you can see, Europe leaks like a sieve. What then has happened? Quite simply this: We were the subjects of history, and now we are the objects. The power struggle has been reversed, decolonization is in progress; all our mercenaries can try and do is delay its completion.
— Jean-Paul Sartre, Preface to Frantz Fanon’s The Wretched of the Earth, 1961

I do not have answers. But like many of you, I have questions and anxieties. And I do not want to be consumed by fear. I want to see myself, my white self, anew—as Native—and begin to imagine what the end of colonialism would look like, what a new humanity would look like. And so I’ll reread Fanon, read Sartre with new eyes, and encourage you to join me, too.

D O W N L O A D for Frantz Fanon’s The Wretched of the Earth