How can we practice decolonization? What makes an initiative decolonial?

Time commitment: 45-60 minutes

Why This Matters:

Decolonization, as we saw in our previous page, is not a metaphor. It is not a catch-all term that denotes any social justice movement. It is a living and breathing movement, aimed at ensuring Indigenous futurity and sovereignty through dismantling the broad structures of oppression that have and continue to prevent Indigenous people from striving. Decolonization requires action throughout all facets of society, deconstructing the prevailing power structures from academia to pop culture. 

Personal Reflection:

When did you start to consider decolonization and what brought you to this thought? What may have caused the delay in considering decolonization earlier in your life? How do you think colonialism plays a role in maintaining barriers to decolonial thinking — yours or possibly your community’s? Take a few minutes to write your answers to these questions.

Diving in Part 1: Decolonizing Education & Knowledge Production

Decolonization can start in many places. This is largely because colonialism’s influence spans across so many different aspects of our lives. Capitalism, racism, heteropatriarchy, white supremacy, and Eurocentric forms of knowledge production are all things that perpetuate colonial power dynamics and structures that determine the distribution of power among people. By deconstructing each of these aspects of colonialism — among others — we can begin to decolonize.

The very foundations of our written histories are colonized. School textbooks provide a selective retelling of what happened and why, often from the sole perspective of the powerholders throughout history: settlers, colonizers, and even academics. One dimension of decolonization is correcting these partial histories. In her book Connected Sociologies, Gurminder Bhambra, a professor of Postcolonial and Decolonial Studies at the University of Sussex, advocates for correcting partial histories with a deconstruct-reconnect-reconstruct approach to create a history that not only critically examines the role of enslavement and oppression, but also gives space to incorporate overlooked histories — the people written out of history, many of whom had expansive societies before colonization. The reconnect and reconstruct aspects make an effort to acknowledge marginalized cultures in their resilience and complexity beyond their classification as colonized subjects. Bhambra argues that the reworking of incomplete histories will help us destabilize Western/European exceptionalism and dominance and gain a better understanding of the world from multiple perspectives. Looking back to understand the globe and vastly different cultures on it is also key to creating space for those cultures to continue to exist and flourish.

image of Wendy Red Star, a person indigenous to Turtle Island, pictured in a satirical portrait.  Wendy is wearing a Halloween native american costume and is surrounded by an inflatable deer in front of an artificial background of a prairie.
Image: Wendy Red Star (Apsáalooke Crow) created the artwork titled “Fall” (2006) to poke fun at colonial misrepresentations of Indigenous history which often memorializes Indigenous people in the past without recognizing contemporary Indigeneity and ongoing resilience. Red Star uses an inflatable deer, Halloween store costume, and artificial backdrop to respond to the stereotypical depiction of Indigenous people in art and museum displays.

In our conversation on filling the historical gaps, it is important to understand that knowledge, science, and data are not “discovered” or “found,” but created and co-constructed. We can ask ourselves about the knowledge we encounter. Who created it? Who does it benefit? How is it prioritized (or not prioritized)? Colonial efforts from Western and European nations often work to manage what counts as knowledge and science, controlling and dominating knowledge production. In Using Southern Theory, sociologist Raewyn Connell argues that this monopoly results in knowledge that is homogenous, standardized, and limited in diversity. This power dynamic limits different cultures’ capabilities to contribute their unique and legitimate knowledges. By questioning the selective nature of academia we can reprioritize cultural and scientific knowledge, expanding its possibilities. 

In the following 7 minute video, Dr. Lwazi Lushaba breaks down what it means to decolonize education by using post-apartheid South Africa as an example. As a lecturer at the University of Cape Town, he studies decolonial thought and politics. In this video, he discusses the necessity of incorporating different cultural wealth into our teachings of knowledge and science in education. Note his call that “[t]here is no discipline that is immune from this task of decolonization.”

Decolonised Education Explained in Simple Terms

Personal Reflection:

Are you aware of how colonial thinking intersects with and informs your field of study? How might you learn more about that topic?  

Diving in Part 2: Is removing Indigenous imagery decolonization?

In recent years, there has been a cultural reckoning around the use of Native American imagery in society. Sports teams, consumer brands, universities and more have made several high-profile moves to remove Indigenous names, images, and references from their logos, packaging, buildings and marketing. 

Not Your Mascot: Native Americans and Team Mascots

The initiatives to remove Indigenous imagery have been undertaken by Indigenous activists and students and in many cases have been years in the making. That these images were (and still are) used is indicative of the colonial project to erase Indigenous people and replace them with racialized, imaginative depictions for exploitative means. However, while the removal of this imagery is perceived by many as progress, others, such as prominent Comanche author Paul Chaat Smith comments: “one wishes for an alternative besides stereotype or erasure.” Indeed – many of the brands which have changed or dropped objectifying Indigenous language from their brandings have only done so under threat of financial loss. Seen from this lens, these initiatives have failed the decolonization movement by focusing on settler moves to innocence — the action of removing imagery not to benefit Indigenous people, but to affect the settler’s financial bottom line. Put simply — these efforts are not enough. All control of Indigenous identity should come directly from Indigenous communities. 

Reflection Activity:

Did you know that there is a long history of using Indigenous imagery for the profit motive, a prevailing notion that “Big Chief can Sell Anything”? In addition to the contemporary uses that we covered above, you can learn about settlers’ historical monetization of Indigenous identity and imagery through this Smithsonian museum virtual exhibit: “Americans”. Take a few moments to click around the different examples and view the articles at the bottom of the page.

Diving in Part 3: Critiquing Action

Decolonial action requires discomfort. It requires settlers to truly come to terms with our shared colonial history and how we continue to benefit from it. It requires settlers to realize that we will need to give up some of our own comforts in the name of creating more just, sustainable and equitable communities. Not all decolonial action is equal or helpful. Land acknowledgements, which are meant to pay tribute to the Indigenous people traditionally from the region (and often carried out before a public event), can easily become performative, empty acts if not done in a thoughtful way or followed up with tangible action such as supporting Indigenous communities with financial donations. Other movements that lack Indigenous representation, fail to center Indigenous people, or result in no tangible change serve as poor attempts at decolonization. Such acts of fake decolonization abound to the detriment of the movement’s goals. When considering the merits of a proposed decolonial action, examine it in the light of this non-exhaustive list of questions:

  • Does the decolonization effort, initiative, or movement involve input and continued representation from Indigenous people?
  • Does the effort provide resources to Indigenous people?
  • Does the effort replicate colonial relationships and power structures?
  • Is the effort a one-time, short-term initiative? If so, is there a plan for new or continued efforts beyond this initial step?

In response to the protests against the Dakota Access Pipeline in Standing Rock, North Dakota in 2016, writers Berkley Carnine and Liza Minno Bloom created a list of actions that one can start with in working towards decolonization. Read through their list and approach it with the above questions: How to Support Standing Rock and confront what it means to live on stolen land.

Page completion – outcomes 

Now that you have completed this page and the readings, videos, and activities within it, you should have strengthened your understanding of: 

  • What it means to decolonize education, knowledge, and academia.
  • The limitations of decolonizing initiatives.
  • The importance of critiquing movements so that their true and original purposes are met. 

Next page  

What does land restitution mean and how does it relate to the Land Back movement? How does it work in practice?

Citations

Bhambra, Gurminder K. 2014. Connected Sociologies. London: Bloomsbury Academic.

Carnine, Berkley and Liza Minno Bloom. “How to support Standing Rock and confront what it means to live on stolen land.” Waging Nonviolence, 13 Oct. 2016, https://wagingnonviolence.org/2016/10/support-standing-rock-confront-means-live-stolen-land/

Connell, Raewyn. 2014. “Using Southern Theory: Decolonizing Social Thought in Theory, Research, and Application.” Planning Theory 13 (2): 210–23.

Lushaba, Lwazi Dr.. “Decolonised Education Explained in Simple Terms.” Youtube, uploaded by Real Talk, 19 Sep. 2020, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xestqqmz600

Shringarpure, Bhakti. “Notes on Fake Decolonization.” Africa Is a Country, africasacountry.com/2020/12/notes-on-fake-decolonization.

Waldstein, David, and Michael S. Schmidt. “Cleveland’s Baseball Team Will Drop Its Indians Team Name.” The New York Times, The New York Times, 14 Dec. 2020, www.nytimes.com/2020/12/13/sports/baseball/cleveland-indians-baseball-name-change.html.

Wilkie, Summer. “So you want to acknowledge the land?” High Country News, 22 April 2021, https://www.hcn.org/issues/53.5/indigenous-affairs-perspective-so-you-want-to-acknowledge-the-land

Wu, Katherine J. “Land O’Lakes Drops the Iconic Logo of an Indigenous Woman From Its Branding.” Smithsonian.com, Smithsonian Institution, 28 Apr. 2020, www.smithsonianmag.com/smart-news/mia-land-olakes-iconic-indigenous-woman-departs-packaging-mixed-reactions-180974760/#:~:text=In%20a%20company%20statement%20released,’Lakes’%20dairy%20products.%E2%80%9D.

Author / co-authors Belfi, E. & Sandiford, N. (2021). Decolonization Series Part 2: Contemporary Approaches. In S. Brandauer and E. Hartman (Eds.). Interdependence: Global Solidarity and Local Actions. The Community-based Global Learning Collaborative. Retrieved from: http://globalsolidaritylocalaction.sites.haverford.edu/how-can-we-practice-decolonization/