June 24, 2024

What is Decolonization?

Alyssa Lyons author photoBy Alyssa Lyons

The word “decolonization” is a word frequently mentioned on college campuses. As administrators and professors attempt to decolonize their institutions, their teaching, their curriculum, and their very classrooms—at least in the metaphorical sense. Courses at City College of CUNY promise to teach students to “decolonize mental health” while the University of Portland looks for ways to “decolonize the curriculum.” In addition to course offerings, foundations have incentivized decolonization efforts at the university level by offering competitive grants to decolonize course content or teaching practices.

When it comes to decolonization, there is a chasm between theory and practice. While colleges like the University of Portland often conceptually acknowledge decolonization as “as the identification, interrogation, and dismantling of power structures that carry legacies of racism, imperialism, and colonialism in the production of knowledge,” colleges often subsequently interpret decolonization to mean diversifying the scholars represented on their syllabi and enhancing multicultural inclusion in the classroom. This allows the university to say it’s doing the work of decolonization—without doing the work of decolonization and risk threatening its own power, profit, and continuity.

There is a strategic fracture at the university level between conceptualizing decolonization and enacting decolonization as practice. To do the latter, the university would have to be complicit in at least considering its own destruction and destabilization as a neoliberal settler colonial institution.  

In 2012, scholars Eve Tuck and Wayne Yang warned us that decolonization is not a metaphor. They implored us to understand decolonization as an intricate process of reflection and action to undo and remove vestiges of violent settler colonial legacies and processes. Ultimately, the reflection and action of decolonization wouldn’t merely reform settler colonial institutions like colleges. Rather, decolonization would destabilize and abolish institutions that had settler colonialism in their DNA. In the spirit of Frantz Fanon and Aime Cesaire, decolonization was to be a violent and apocalyptic event--dystopian to those in power.

As a doctoral lecturer of sociology in a large public university, I have wrestled with my own belief in the feasibility of decolonizing higher education and within my own classrooms. At one point, I explored how hashtag syllabi, or crowd-sourced knowledge collective, “might be a move towards the decolonization of knowledge production” that was traditionally monopolized by the mostly white, male, and middle-class academe. And there are others like me. In Decolonizing the Classroom: Lessons in A Multicultural Education, educator Wayne Au suggests that creating a multicultural classroom is decolonization. I have contemplated what it means to teach about decolonization and anti-coloniality in my classroom—and what role I play in all of this. And I’m still unsure of what to make of it.

With Starbucks and Target selling rainbow pride merchandise and Walmart selling Black Lives Matter t-shirts and sweaters, diversity and inclusion has become highly profitable in today’s social justice capitalist consumer market. Diversity, representation, and inclusion has been commodified within a broader apparatus of social justice capitalism. In short, decolonization has become big bucks in higher education.

The problem with social justice capitalism is that it is superficial and lacks the substantive systemic and structural transformation that is truly needed to transform our oppressive society. This isn’t to suggest that decolonization and diversity, representation, and inclusion are mutually exclusive—or that diversity, inclusion, and representation isn’t important. Rather, caution remains necessary when decolonization not only becomes both a metaphor and a veneer to sustain and perpetuate oppressive structures under the guise of social justice capitalism.

Corporations, and colleges, can pay lip service to social justice causes without doing anything substantive to destabilize the power systems that perpetuate and sustain anti-blackness, classism, sexism, and queerantagonism. In this context, colleges risk reducing decolonization to superficial diversity and inclusion measures.

Not all hope is lost for decolonization at the university level. Many decolonization centered courses are taught by instructors who seek to do necessary work decentering and addressing the white elite masculinist norms that pervade the academe. Some colleges are even actively attempting to reconcile with their position as historical and contemporary settler colonial institutions that have made immense profit, and continue to do, by exploiting the bodies, labor, and experiences of Black, Brown, queer, poor, femme, and disabled peoples.

Dawson College in Quebec offers a certificate program for Indigenous people to learn more about “topics that explore Canada’s settler-colonial relationship to the wide diversity of Indigenous peoples who have been on these lands for millennia, while also learning about the many ways that Indigenous peoples have continued to strengthen their cultures amidst the challenges of settler-colonialism.”

How can we truly decolonize higher education when universities sit on stolen land? When canonical foundational theorists and thinkers are still disproportionately acknowledged as white rich men and Black and Brown, queer, fat, poor, and disabled women and femmes are included as obligatory footnotes in syllabi? In a cultural, political, social, and economic moment where student debt is insurmountably high, public investment in the belief of a college degree is diminishing, and college enrollments are declining, the neoliberal university is going to be looking for new ways to recruit and retain students and make money. And as colleges continue to come under siege for their legacy of white supremacy and settler colonialism, they have to find new ways to engender profit. And right now, social justice capitalism is in. And ironically, decolonization is where the big bucks are at.  

 While decolonization is necessary and worth addressing, colleges across the country must tread carefully in their efforts or risk misappropriating and distorting the meaning of decolonization in the interest of self-preservation and profitability. How soon until college campuses start brandishing “decolonize this” stickers on cafe windows at universities sitting on Indigenous land? And what meaning might we make of that as sociologists?


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