Dismantling the Colonial Box

Cindy Deschenes

In 2009, I began working on something I call the colonial box theory (colonial box for short). It was a physical manifestation of my thinking, reflections, and observations first sparked by the knowledge and wisdom of two First Nations individuals: Harold Tookenay (Anishinaabe from Long Lac First Nation, Ontario) and Angie Louie (Crow from Crow Agency, Montana). Harold wowed me with his 4 Walls of Oppression and Angie, with her Grief and Trauma Awareness Wheel. Their ideas around colonialism, oppression, grief, and trauma were grassroots thinking.

The inspiration that led to the colonial box theory.

This ongoing work is based on the knowledge and wisdom of many First Nations, Métis, and Inuit friends, communities, family, and their voices who taught me along the way. However, none of the conversations I held would have been possible without the original knowledge and wisdom of Harold and Angie. They are true change makers and lights in this world, and because of their brilliance, I began thinking, talking, and writing.

While the title colonial box theory began as a trenchant riposte, it made more sense after producing my first crudely drawn diagram: a three-dimensional image blending Angie’s, Harold’s, and my works. After seeking proper permission from Angie and Harold to credit and use their work, the University of Saskatchewan’s kinesiology program has since incorporated it into their course where the ideas of Métis Scholar and professor, Dr. Leah Ferguson melded beautifully with the colonial box theory.

What is “the box” and why dismantle it?

In order to begin to understand how to escape from or do away with the box, one must first begin working at understanding how these systems function against oppressed and otherwise marginalized groups. So, imagine my thinking when I was asked to blog about “breaking out of the colonial box” in a few short words – WHAT A FEAT!

We can break with old, outdated, harmful thinking that serves us and society no good.

Why? Colonialism, while often simplified in definition, is complex and requires deep thinking and much reflection. Therefore, to do justice to the box, explain the dynamic factors involved – and speak to the players involved – would at minimum require a full morning with you on Zoom (though in person is best). A major reason being, there are many dynamic (and complex) factors at play. In general, the box is first explained beginning with the flooring labelled “imperialism, colonialism, privilege, and government,” which also houses justice systems. This forms the foundation of the box which acts to stabilize the following walls: health, education, technology, and globalization systems. The walls act to support one another, creating forces and barriers to negatively impact marginalized groups.

After spending some time reflecting on a way to go about this, I decided I would speak to a few of the forces created as a result of the box, which directly affect the economic and social well-being of our communities today: bias, discrimination, othering, and oppression (all of which feed racism).

What is othering?

Beginning with othering, we first need to understand it is the act of viewing or treating one or more people as fundamentally different from ourselves. Next, we need to understand how othering can be quite harmful. We can do so by inviting Oprah and Dr. Perry to join this space as they talk about how othering matters in their book, “What Happened to You?” In it they explain how othering can leave individuals feeling rejected, isolated, unsafe, and overly vulnerable because of bias, discrimination, and racism directed toward them. As a result, people may be left without a sense of belonging. Consequently, othering has a big role to play in contributing to the stress (and trauma) of another.

Examples of people who are othered include Indigenous peoples and people of colour. People who are othered are more likely to experience daily microaggressions that come from any number of directions and causes the individual to feel unsafe. As we teach in our trauma workshops, people who feel unsafe likely do not have any trust or may have low trust of others. And as Brené Brown shares, people who have low levels of trust in others tend to “armor up” as a protective mechanism. This armor in life looks and sounds rough, tough, and/or gruff. Add to this existing knowledge that people who feel unsafe often have greater challenges in things like learning, recalling, and retaining information.  When people feel unsafe, it is not surprising that they may also experience difficulty with relationships. As we can guess, this leads to an enormous cost to society (Steven M. Covey speaks to this in his book, “The Speed of Trust”) since it can lead to more mistrust.

Othering can leave individuals feeling rejected, isolated, unsafe, and overly vulnerable because of bias, discrimination, and racism directed toward them.

At CTRI we add that people who feel unsafe have a more difficult time regulating (i.e., managing challenging emotions), which can manifest as barriers in concentrating, sleeping, and learning, and have a cumulative negative impact on one’s effectiveness and productivity in the workplace. This quickly becomes problematic since the ability to self-regulate is no longer a matter of “just getting over it.” Rather, Oprah and Dr. Perry spell out in their book, What happened to you? how it is further complicated since marginalized people who feel unsafe (or othered), will not usually have the same kind of access to the privilege of regulation because of being othered.

As an example, a brown-toned male who is visibly First Nations is more likely to be unable to freely express their anger in the same way as a male who is light, white, or a lighter skin tone in a public space. One reason for this being that the darker-toned male will more likely be subjected to the internal biases and erroneous belief systems of onlookers who may assume males of colour are more violent, aggressive, or dangerous. A light, white, or paler-toned male, on the other hand, may be more likely to be awarded freedom and forgiveness for expressing displeasure or outright anger with the same issue because of something called hegemony – the prevalence and dominance of one group over others to the point that no one questions the dominance of said group.

This concept of hegemony feeds internal biases (both known and unknown) that place the light-toned male in a favourable view which helps maintain mechanisms of oppression. Hegemony also contributes to discrimination. For example, consider how there is an ongoing story in media and literature where countless themes portray light and dark-toned people in a particular way. The most common one observed being that light-skinned people have usually been the good guys and brown or dark-toned people have usually been represented as the darker, evil other who is punished in the end. Added to this is the plethora of media advertisements across all forums that tend to favour light-toned people in positions of high income, driving sports cars and acting as CEOs. Turn on any Hallmark movie and take note of this. Turn on the news and observe who is more likely to get positive attention – even in face of tragedy. It is a deeply embedded problem in both Canada and the US. Because of these often unnoticed differences that do influence our thinking, the expression and release of “negative” emotions by someone who has a browner and darker skin tone can result in discrimination and racism.

The importance of embracing self-awareness.

The good news is we can learn to get at a better paradigm and anew ourselves – meaning we can break with old, outdated, harmful thinking that serves us and society no good. One way to do this is by learning to work with tools to develop deeper self-awareness. One such tool is the Johari window model. This tool recognizes there is a good chance I am running with internal biases that I may or may not know about.

For example, imagine a person who encounters someone with an unfamiliar accent, who dresses differently, holds their body posture differently, or has a different skin tone and walks into your favourite hangout spot. It’s a place YOU go to when you need to unwind and just relax. It’s also a place where you likely can feel “safe” to a certain degree and may feel free to be yourself outside of work hours. Given this is YOUR “safe zone,” when the stranger enters your zone, immediately your brain picks up on the new and unfamiliar face and sets to work drawing on old knowledge to create new knowledge to help you make a decision (which happens in a matter of seconds). Your brain is trying to decide if the new stranger entering your perceived space is safe or dangerous.

The expression and release of “negative” emotions by someone who has a browner and darker skin tone can result in discrimination and racism.

This is rather unfortunate for you – and me (and everyone for that matter), yet is the reality of the way the brain works. This is because the brain likes to default to “conserve energy mode.” Consequently, whether it is you or me, we take shortcuts working with biases to draw immediate conclusions so that we can ultimately decide if the stranger is safe/unsafe or dangerous/not dangerous. Although the stranger may in fact be a humble, generous, and lighthearted individual, we may instantly decide they are not to be trusted.

This not only is directly related to hegemony, but it also ties back to biases we may have formed during early scripting (the early childhood story we develop) about who and what is “different.” Perhaps being different taught us that different equals dangerous. Maybe what we considered “different” (for whatever reason, speech impediment, skin tone, being poor, etc.) meant getting picked on or beat up. As a result, anyone who appears “fundamentally different” fires up the brain cells and reminds us that “different equals dangerous” because of the story that we learned as a kid. This leads to us feeling that this stranger who looks different is unsafe or in danger.

What are microaggressions?

Fast forward to the moment the stranger enters the room: whether or not we are aware of this thought, Oprah and Dr. Perry explain that it may still show up through our body language or in some form of communication such as a look of disgust. That one quick glance or long stare may silently communicate to the other person, “You don’t belong here!” which is also called a microaggression.

Regardless of what we may be feeling in our body (fear of the unknown and therefore fear of the stranger) or thinking (this person is different and invading my sense of familiarity), how our actions unfold toward the individual (our slightly squinting skunk eyes directed at the stranger) can be interpreted as a microaggression.

So, what’s wrong with microaggressions? A microaggression in isolation is usually harmless. However, for people who are othered (such as Indigenous, marginalized, and oppressed groups), there is a good chance that there are multiple microaggressions experienced on a daily basis. These microaggressions accumulate like stress. In turn, they can lead to big stress, chronic stress, or toxic stress, and eventually to what Dr. Perry refers to as “big ‘T’ trauma.”

Turn on the news and observe who is more likely to get positive attention – even in face of tragedy.

Here’s another way to think of this: Imagine oppressed peoples and communities inside the box. They are more likely to experience any given form of bias, discrimination, oppression, and othering, and are therefore more likely to experience microaggressions from multiple sources on any given day. Over time, this can cause significant harm to their psyche and well-being.

While we may not intentionally wish to harm others, we may do so because of our own “absence” and not being in the present moment (remember the “conserve energy mode” of the brain?). In this way, we may end up unintentionally contributing to the dynamics that unfold within the box.

How can we improve?

One might wonder, how do we mitigate and avoid this kind of transgression on others? There are a lot of voices speaking on the importance of finding ways to proactively improve in this area. Tools like the Johari window model and sources like Harvard’s Implicit-Bias Test definitely help as they align with one of the most resounding messages that consistently resurfaces over time – the need to do our own work and the importance of creating change from an inside-out approach.

Some of the most effective Indigenous Elders like late Blackfoot Mark Wolfleg have taught us that knowing the self is essential to being a true human being. From him and his son Butch Wolfleg (my former teacher and mentor), I learned that a true human being is one who lives from their highest sense of self. When we live from a higher place, it breaks with the box since we are now getting at a higher, better paradigm that practices critical thinking. We are also applying key principles, values, and skills identified as essential for 21st century success. When we do this, we equip ourselves with tools that will not only help us disrupt the box, but dismantle the box for good.


For more FREE RESOURCES on this topic and others, visit our free resources page.

Author: Cindy Deschenes (MSW, RSW)
Trainer, Crisis & Trauma Resource Institute

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