When I was in graduate school, the girlfriend of one of my fellow graduate students came to visit. She was from India, and while she had lived in the United States for quite a while (her accent was so thoroughly western U.S. in its flavor that had she not told me that she had grown up in India, I'd not have guessed), she was, nonetheless from India.
One evening, the lot of us went out to a bar near the university, where we spent several hours talking. Another grad student was there, a guy who we will call Stan, was quite fond of accusing the white students of trying to push our "western narratives" onto other people (in case you're hoping for a heaping dose of irony on that point, he he was of mixed Mexican and Korean ancestry himself, and so was at least not one white student making the accusation to a bunch of other white students...he was, however, from Orange County, and so his frequent claims that we were all affluent and from conservative areas was deliciously ironic). Indeed, most of us simply avoided any conversation that might turn to cultural differences and the assertion of cultural narratives (which was tough, as we were an anthropology department), and others (myself included) liked to play with him by throwing out bits of statements to see what we could get him to say or do.
Anyway, Stan began talking to our visitor, and in his usual way, he decided to buddy up with her by talking smack about "those evil colonialists." He was shocked when she didn't agree with him.
In summary, her view was this: The European colonial powers were basically a bunch of assholes who did some terrible things...but they left behind a physical and legal infrastructure that allowed India to begin excelling when left to its own devices, and the success of many Indian people, herself included, was a direct result of the colonial history. So, she didn't see colonialism as being an entirely bad thing, in the long run.
Now, you can argue with her position. I'm not sure that I entirely agree with it, myself. But she articulated it well (what I wrote up there does no justice to what she actually said, it's a very crude summary), and she was willing to stick with and defend her position.
Stan was perplexed, and then he was angry.
He would not accept that there might be any benefit from colonial activity. He had so internalized the notion that colonialism was a purely evil thing, that he could not bring himself to accept that someone whose own personal history derives directly and (given both her and her parent's age) recently from European colonialism might not view it as a strict black-and-white issue. She didn't say colonialsim was good, but she did say that it had beneficial long-term effects for many people in India. Again, you can argue against this position, but you can not do so by simply nay-saying it without considering what was being said.
Then, of course, came the thing that made this evening so delightfully and memorably ironic: Stan accused her of attempting to impose her "western narrative" on the people of India.
That's right, the affluent boy from Orange County, who was able to attend a graduate school in a prestigious university system in California, accused someone who was actually from India of imposing a "western narrative" onto India.
The problem is that the strict black-and-white, good vs. evil view of Europe's colonial history and it's modern results is as much a product of western culture and beliefs as were the notions of European exceptionalism, of "white man's burden", of the particular form of greed and avarice that fueled it. For all of his claims to being somehow non-western, Stan was as western as everyone else there, and he had bought into the late 20th/early 21st centuries western narrative of colonialism. And just as those he criticized were unwilling to consider native views of history*, he was unwilling to do that very same thing.
The reason that I bring this up is that there is a tendency among many people, often (though not limited to) the political left, to attempt to correct past de-humanization of various groups of people by engaging in activities that are equally dehumanizing, just in a different way. It is no less condescending to think of the people whose lands were colonized as hapless victims than it is to think that they should be grateful for having been made second-class citizens so that they might be "enlightened" by Europeans. Similarly, if you object to histories being written by the descendants of the European colonials, you are not improving matters by creating an alternate history that tries to be sympathetic to the colonized while simultaneously ignoring what their descendants have to say on the matter.
I have written in the past about the refusal of most modern people to really examine our histories as they concern colonialism and groups that we would not lump into the category of "minorities". We want to create simple narratives with evil, maniacle bad guy colonists and shining, virtuous natives fighting a valiant, if losing, battle against encroaching modernity. But the fact of the matter is that this is just false. History is messy, and even horrible events can have good consequences down the road...and, of course, events that we consider good can have horrible long-term consequences. But, ultimately, whether we are vilifying Europeans or Indians, we are applying a narrative to the situation...and Stan's narrative was just as much a product of his contemporary western political ideologies as the views of the colonial governments were products of theirs.
A quick note - while I was writing this, I discovered that another blogger by the name of Natlie Reed wrote an excellent post on why the "progressive" notions of "non-western" cultures are just as dehumanizing and harmful as the attitudes that they claim to be trying to correct. Read it here.
*For the record, most of us routinely worked with native consultants and informants and worked to make sure that we were accurately reflecting what they told us in our work. Such a method is not without it's own flaws and pitfalls, to be certain, but it is more than Stan was doing in his work. Again, the irony of it all was astounding.