Colonized Consciousness and Colonial Melancholia

The pathological conditions of colonized consciousness and colonial melancholia inherited through generations by Korean Americans


The trauma that accompanies the colonized consciousness in many Koreans is something often inherited by the following generations. For those who either migrate at a young age or are born into the Korean diasporas of the U.S., the pathological colonized consciousness often manifests in the form of internalized racial subordination or an inferiority complex formed out of racial marginalization. Looking at the concept of melancholia could be an effective way of assessing the symptoms of colonization, which Korean Americans actively seeking to understand family memories never expressed to us. We seek to remember something of which we have neither the recollection nor the reference for how to talk about it. The language to speak about the history of relatives who precede us is significantly limited or non-existent. Sarita See discusses the self-inflicted wounds or the violent process of self-degradation to be a significant part of colonial melancholia, a term adapted from Sigmund Freud’s concept of melancholia. She states that the traumatic process of being colonized is one of “[N]ot merely losing an object, or losing the right to own that object, but losing the right to own that loss” (See 379). The colonized consciousness in the state of colonial melancholia is often unable to wield the language required to make sense of that which has been stripped away.

Another way trauma can manifest in the consciousness of many Koreans is as the underlying trauma that exists within the inter-generational gaps. These gaps are especially noticeable among those who identify themselves to be a part of the Korean diasporas within the United States. The second-generation Korean Americans have difficulties having dialogue with their own parents (who are first-generation Korean immigrants) about the past 50 to 60 years of Korean history.

Kai Erikson claims that collective trauma can occur by similarly manifesting in the fragmentation of the bonds, which is supposed to bind the members of a community into a unified social organism.

By collective trauma… I mean a blow to the basic tissues of social life that damages the bonds attaching people together and impairs the prevailing sense of communality. The collective trauma works its way slowly and even insidiously into the awareness of those who suffer from it, so it does not have the quality of suddenness normally associated with ‘trauma’… But ‘we’ no longer exist as a connected pair or as linked cells in a larger communal body (Erikson 154).

Much like the sense of self and control over one’s own consciousness is dissociated through individual cases of trauma, collective trauma alienates the individual from the collective sense of belonging or the “we” that justifies the imaginary of community. Often we witness this sort of communal breakdown as a consequence or symptom of colonial violence. This collective trauma could be a source of the disconnect felt between the second generation Korean Americans (a category with which we, the coordinators of the collective oral history project, identify ourselves) and our relatives who have visible memories of living in the colonized peripheral territory.


Works Consulted:

Erikson, Kai. Everything in Its Path: Destruction of Community in the Buffalo Creek Flood. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1976.

Erikson, Kai. “Notes on Trauma and Community.” Trauma Explorations in Memory. Baltimore (London): Johns Hopkins UP, 1995. 183-99.

See, Sarita. “An Open Wound: Colonial Melancholia and Contemporary Filipino/American Texts.” Vestiges of War: The Philippine-American War and Aftermath of an Imperial Dream, 1899-1999. New York: New York UP, 2002. 377-98.

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