Ann Stoler, professor of anthropology and historical studies at The New School, calls it “colonial aphasia.” She borrows the definition from a medical condition that affects someone’s ability to communicate after a stroke or head injury. The patient can forget how to write and understand spoken and written language. Colonial aphasia challenges what some of us may know as “colonial ignorance”—a form of denialism that relies on a purported lack of knowledge of colonial pasts and their present-day relevance. In a way, “colonial ignorance” denotes a passive phenomenon, amnesia of sorts. Yet, as Stoler reminds us, colonial histories are “neither forgotten nor absent from contemporary life.” They are here, with us, and felt disproportionately by particular bodies. Instead, “aphasia” recognizes the active act of forgetting, a concerted political and personal act that occludes the protracted temporalities of colonialism and diminishes our ability to retrieve language to make sense of how we see colonialism manifesting in our everyday lives.
UK Home Secretary Priti Patel’s speech announcing the UK plan to send single young male asylum seekers to Rwanda typified this idea of colonial aphasia. As in most of her speeches, Patel articulated this aphasia with great confidence and eloquence: “The United Kingdom has a long and proud history of offering sanctuary to refugees,” she tells us. Perhaps it is worth revisiting our past to understand how deeply fabricated this statement is.
The UK’s immigration system has its roots in racism and colonialism. By tracking the colonial roots of legal categorizations, we see how immigration laws in the UK included and excluded certain people from legal status in order to legitimize colonial power. These policies emerged soon after the formal end of colonialism to control the entry of the racialized poor into Britain and to ensure the immobility of others, notably former colonial subjects such as Caribbean—mainly Black—and South Asian migrants. In this sense, Britain has a longstanding history of draconian immigration policies, from implementing indefinite immigration detention to the deeply racialized postwar immigration controls that followed the Windrush immigration of the 1940s and 1950s—controls which White politicians justified by claiming that immigration would cause irreparable damage to the “racial character of the English people.”
More recently, the degree to which British immigration is so exhaustively racialized and gendered is manifest in an agreement between the UK and Rwanda to send single young male asylum seekers to Rwanda—not for offshore processing to then be settled in the UK, but as a permanent destination. Although there has been much criticism of this latest policy within the UK and elsewhere, little has been said about why it is single young men that are the primary target of this policy. Here again, we need to revisit our history to understand how this came to be.
The British empire was pivotal in shaping global understandings of race and gender. Modern Euro-American states like Britain coproduced and reproduced—and, whenever necessary, rearticulated—the conditions and terms of society’s racial character, which is complexly entangled with gender, nationality, sexuality, class, and religion. Gender was indispensable to this articulation. As feminist scholar Anne McClintock reminds us, “gender dynamics were, from the outset, fundamental to the securing and maintenance of the imperial enterprise.” Conquest was in part legitimized on the basis of colonial imageries about colonized men and their masculinity—for instance, as hypersexualized, violent, and threatening, especially to White European women. In this way, Britain has long been preoccupied with state-directed racial, classed, and gendered exclusions, as evident in its segregation, immigration, and carceral policies, especially of poor Black and Brown men.
It is within this context that we must understand why men from the Global South—men predominantly from Africa and the Middle East—are the target of this policy. Men from the Global South are the subject of this policy because they are often demonized by alarmist media and policy discourses across Europe, including in the UK. These discourses often invoke colonial tropes such as Black African men being inherently patriarchal, “brutish,” “criminal,” “promiscuous,” and carriers of disease, or stereotypes of Islam as the embodiment of unfathomable extremism and excessive violence. In this sense, their identities are not only understood as inherently threatening, but also incompatible with the vulnerability that could secure them refugeehood in the UK.
Sexuality and age also play a crucial role in signaling who is supposedly a threat to UK citizens and the UK government. The use of “single” and “young” by the Home Office is instructive in telling the public who should be feared. In the UK in particular, the notion of the “lone” racialized “youth” has historically been used to criminalize Black and Brown British male youth and adult men; their “deviant” and “criminal” behavior is pathologized by ascribing blame to their “dysfunctional” family units. In the image of the Global North, families are based on the idea of a heterosexual family romance, in which there is a father, mother, and a couple of children. This family unit contrasts with family units from “cultures of deprivation,” where “inadequate family structures” are perceived to exist: the notoriously absent father, the mother who has borne too many children, and similar dynamics. Single men seeking asylum from the Global South are considered racialized and sexualized figures without normative families and therefore incompatible with “British culture.”
Indeed, the presence of young Black and Brown single men from Africa and the Middle East in Europe raises angst about White feminine sexuality and racial purity. To allow for consorting between Black bodies (whether Black African or Arab/Muslim) and White female ones would result in a change in the nation’s color through the offspring of such relationships. For those racialized as White, it would amount to conceding White demographic power over public spaces—and, finally, conceding the entire nation and its future.
And so here we are. If we are to truly grasp the full significance of the agreement between the UK and the government of Rwanda, we must see how it relies on a sophisticated form of colonial aphasia that plays on widely circulated and popular ideas about single, young, racialized men being inherently threatening and incompatible with vulnerability. The severance of these immigration policies from their colonial origins conceals that their contemporary effects are ongoing expressions of empire and global racial ordering.