Internal Colonialism: Definition & Examples

Instructor: Emily Cummins
European colonialism was a system of domination whereby external powers ruled countries from afar. In this lesson, we'll talk about another kind of colonial domination: internal colonialism, or the process of creating forms of domination that are imposed internally in a society.


When you think of colonialism, certain imagery probably comes to mind. You might think of ships coming in search of resources and white Europeans imposing their way on places as distant as India and Africa. Typically, when we say colonization, we're referring to a process whereby countries were ruled and dominated by a distant power. Examples include the British in India and the French in Algeria. During colonization, economies and societies were controlled by these distant powers, often justified by the belief that some races and societies were backward and inferior.

But might there be other forms of colonialism? In this lesson, we'll talk about the idea of internal colonization, which is a theory that seeks to explain how inequality and domination are maintained in a society when there is not necessarily a foreign power ruling.

Theory of Internal Colonialism

As we mentioned, when we think about colonialism we tend to think about this as an external process. But scholars began to think about the possibility that some forms of colonialism originate from within a country. The theory of internal colonization looks at how we produce our own forms of racial domination within a society. Different racial and ethnic groups are subject to forms of oppression forced on them by a dominant group in society. Let's look at some examples and talk a little bit more about how this theory developed.

Internal Colonialism and the Third World

Much of the theory of internal colonialism emerged in the wake of anti-colonial struggles in the so-called third world in the 1960s (as an aside: many scholars don't use the terminology third world any longer and prefer terms like the global south because 'third world' really came out of colonial legacy). One of the most famous theorists in this era was the French doctor and scholar Frantz Fanon. As countries in places like Latin American and Africa (such as Fanon's Algeria) decolonized, violence and the terrible conditions of colonialism didn't change. Fanon theorized that the suffering of colonization caused the colonized to internalize the violence of colonialism. Fanon noticed that the formerly colonized often committed violence against one another.

A key to this perspective is the way that colonial structures outlasted the colonizers. In other words, the impact of colonization continued to be felt in countries long after colonizers were no longer officially ruling the country. Colonization had permanently affected the social, economic, and political order of the former colonies. The process of colonialism made countries extremely unequal and this is why we see a lot of inequality in former colonies today.

Frantz Fanon and the violent process of decolonization and liberation struggles in the global south inspired scholars writing about issues of racial inequality in the U.S. Racial minorities began to view their predicament in the U.S. as similar to other places across the globe. They saw their struggle as part of a broader system of white racial domination across the globe.

Internal Colonialism in the United States

High levels of poverty and lack of access to resources began to be viewed as a structural problem in the United States and scholars began to question the deep inequality between races. In other words, other than seeing racial inequality as an individual action or event, it came to be viewed as deeply engrained in our society.

In the United States, sociologists began to write about the inner-city ghetto as an important site of internal colonialism. The intense spatial segregation and concentration of minorities we find in ghettos is based on racism, the belief that some races are inferior.

Scholars have made the important point that the black ghetto persists and is more durable than other concentrations of minorities. For example, early European immigrants to the U.S. found themselves in ethnic enclaves but they eventually assimilated into mainstream society. The black ghetto is the result of a kind of racism that has been unique to blacks in our society.

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