“The difference between the Dutch and Indonesians is that they are hardworking, unlike Indonesians who are mostly lazy.” “If Indonesia wants to become a first-world country, they have to follow the footsteps of the Europeans.” Some of you might think that these remarks came from some racist, pretentious, white guy who whole-heartedly believes in the superiority of the West as a global superpower. Well, you’d be surprised to know that these words came from one of my Indonesian friends and not the everyday “Karen” you see so much on Instagram. Now, this is not the first time I have heard these words. I have heard other friends of mine reiterate the same sentiment or, at the very least, relate to these opinions, so it was not shocking to hear this. To a certain extent, it was even predictable for my friends to express these thoughts since it has become so commonplace.
Why do so many Indonesians constantly put the West on a pedestal while simultaneously belittling their own cultural heritage?
And why do I also sometimes agree with them? So, I decided upon myself to find answers to these questions.
Now, before you jump into any conclusions about Indonesians being self-hating or my friend being a racist, you should know that many of the very same Indonesians friends I have talked to who share the aforementioned mindset also have great things to say about Indonesia as a country, its rich culture, and the people in it. But why is there still this shared belief in the Indonesian culture as forever secondary to whatever the Europeans do? Why do so many Indonesians constantly put the West on a pedestal while simultaneously belittling their own cultural heritage? And why do I also sometimes agree with them? So, I decided upon myself to find answers to these questions. What I discovered was a past that has long been disregarded and sometimes even completely discredited; tracing it all the way back to the history of colonialism and its parasitic mark on the mentality of people in post-colonial societies.
Indonesia has had a long history of colonization, originating all the way from the 18th century (Indonesia Investments, n.d.). The domination of the mind, as well as of the resources of a people, was paramount in the colonization process. Therefore, colonists imposed an artificial feeling of inferiority as a means of demoralizing their colonies (David & Okazaki, 2006). This was accomplished by portraying the culture of the colonized world as backwards, unfit for the modern world, incapable of looking after themselves, and therefore, requiring a paternalistic rule from the West (Young, 2003). In doing so, the colonial culture (a.k.a. Dutch culture) effectively becomes the dominant culture, dictating the “correct” conducts of government, law, literature, and rhetoric.
While it is true that many such colonies have achieved independence, this idea of attaching more importance to the values of colonial culture while devaluing one’s own local culture still affects people in many postcolonial countries today (David & Okazaki, 2006). Even after the period of decolonization in the early 20th century, the beliefs, values, and attitudes of the previous colonial era are still ingrained in the local population and continue to hold power over their psyche. This is what many scholars have coined as “colonial mentality” (David & Okazaki, 2006; Fanon, 1963; Strobel, 1997), a form of internalized racial inferiority or internalized racism. In effect, “the dominant group has the power to define and name reality, determining what is ‘normal, ‘real’, and ‘correct’” consequently, “ignores, discounts, misrepresents, or eradicates the target group’s culture, language, and history” (Speight, 2007, p.130).
Some limitations to this argument need to be addressed. While it is true that some of the spite for Indonesia reiterated by the many conversations I’ve had with my fellow Indonesians can be very easily traced back to their discontent with the conducts of the government itself, the additional parallels constantly made to Europe cannot be attributed to the same grievance. This psychological bias towards the West has its roots in a much deeper part of the subconscious, one that most Indonesians themselves are unaware of due to the centuries long indoctrination of the colonial mindset.
While “independence has certainly brought the colonized people’s moral reparation and recognized their dignity … they have not yet had time to elaborate society or build values” (Fanon, 1963, p.40), leaving the dominant culture to fill in this gap.
In effect, people today, and I believe most of my friends, have the sense that this colonial mentality has always been a natural part of their psyche, up to the point that it is even “normal” to think that the “West is the best”
I have seen this played out in many social interactions I had growing up back in Indonesia. From heads of state publicly stating that “Indonesians should adopt the mentality of the colonists in order to be taken seriously in the international stage” (Thomas, 2019), to the lack of representation of people with indigenous facial features in the media since European features are seen as “more attractive”, and even to the common everyday insults that associates people of darker-skin tones to a lack of status and beauty. These are just some of the examples I have encountered that traces all the way back to the colonial mentality.
As per my observations, I also noticed that many of my friends struggle with their obvious love for Indonesia and their latent colonial mentality which requires them to hate the place they grew up in. I have also had my fair share of feeling stuck between the two contradicting views. For so long have I struggled in a state of shame and disgust for the culture of my ancestors and I know I am not the only one who feels this way. How do we, as people who grew up in these postcolonial societies, begin to come to terms with our internalized colonial mentality and how do we liberate ourselves from it? With any process of breaking down systems of oppression, liberation starts with “the naming of the social and political structures that dominate and silence” (Strobel, 1997, p.69). Once achieved, the next step of liberation is to question reality as constructed by the dominating narratives (Strobel,1997). This stage is imperative in the process of decolonizing the mind because one must reconnect with the past in order to understand the present, no matter how hurtful the past may be. Lastly, the only way to secure long-lasting change is to move the oppressed community towards visibility and empowerment through enlightened activism (Strobel, 1997).
With this in mind, I have come to realize that I still have a long way to go before I am fully aware of my internalized colonial biases and even further from being liberated from it. Being raised in a quite privileged household, going to mostly international schools, and now pursuing further education in the Netherlands, I can’t deny that a lot of my thinking has been heavily Westernized, maybe even striving away from my ethnic Indonesian roots. But the mere act of writing this article shows that I am capable of reflecting on my internal biases. I urge everyone of my friends, and everyone who reads this article, to do the same. We all have biases and we all have prejudices. It is up to us to figure out where they come from. Once we’ve come to terms with that, only then can we move forward as a community.
David, E.J.R. & Okazaki, S. (2006). Colonial mentality: A review and recommendation for filipino American psychology. Cultural Diversity and Ethnic Minority Psychology. 2006: 12 (1):1-16. doi:10.1037/1099-9809.12.1.1.
Sejarah Penjajahan Indonesia. (n.d.). Indonesia Sejarah Masa Penjajahan Belanda | Indonesia Investments. Retrieved from: https://www.indonesia-investments.com/id/budaya/politik/sejarah-penjajahan/item178
Strobel, L.M. (1997). Coming full circle: Narratives of decolonization among post-1965 Filipino Americans. In Root, M.P.P. (Ed.), Filipino Americans: Transformation and identity. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications.
Fanon, F. (1963). The wretched of the earth. New York: Grove Press.
Young, R.J.C. (2003). Introduction: montage. In Young, R.J.C. (Ed.), Post-colonialism: a very short introduction. New York: Oxford University Press.
Speight, S.L. (2007). Internalized racism: One more piece of the piece of the puzzle. The Counseling Psychologist, 35, 126-134.
Thomas, V. F. (2019). Moeldoko: Indonesia Harus Membangun Mental Penjajah – Tirto.ID. Retrieved from: https://tirto.id/moeldoko-indonesia-harus-membangun-mental-penjajah-egQK