The term “third world” has com to refer to developing nations in our global community. But that wasn’t always the case. During the cold war, the political globe really was divided into three worlds– the capitalists, the communists, and everyone else. Many of the peoples and countries included in ‘everyone else’ were ex-colonies, still choosing how to politically, socially, and economically align themselves.
“Third World” became synonymous with the fight for liberation and justice in US for a few reasons. First, the Third World was made up of a lot of Africa and Asia, and African Americans and Asian Americans saw them as their brothers and sisters, bound together by their cultures and by their common oppression by larger powers. Second, the Third World had successfully decolonized in many cases, and that was encouraging to US activists who saw their struggle in the US as a mirror of the struggle in other countries. Third, and perhaps most loosely, the Third World offered an alternative. An alternative to the two political superpowers that seemed bent on taking over or destroying the world. Beyond capitalism and communism, activists used the Third World as a way to dream of a better world, one where people of color and their knowledge and their culture got equal respect. Where power and profit were not the end goals of a country’s institutions.
Clearly, the 60’s and 70’s did not see Third World countries, or their American counterparts remake the world into a utopian vision. But phrases like “third world college” and “third world thoughts”, among others, remain.