What does ‘decolonisation’ mean? A critique of the discourse of decolonisation in the Political, Social and International Studies department at UEA

Calls for ‘decolonisation’ has become stronger—or, to put it another way, “trendy” (Adebisi, 2019)—over the past few years within higher education in the UK and beyond, driven by student activism and campaigns such as ‘Rhodes Must Fall Oxford’ (ignited by the movement that began at the University of Cape Town, South Africa) and the National Union of Student’s ‘Why is My Curriculum White?’ campaign (Bhambra et al., 2018). The resurgence of the Black Lives Matter protests has added momentum to the movement that seeks to make visible and dismantle colonial structures, knowledges, and perspectives that shape higher education and society more broadly. In this post, we provide an overview of what ‘decolonisation’ means in the Political, Social and International Studies (PSI) department at the University of East Anglia (UEA) by analysing some of the discussions that have been taking place in the past year. Specifically, we focus on four central themes that have emerged from our analysis: (1) Diversity, inclusion, and decolonisation (2) ‘Safe’ spaces/ ‘decolonial’ spaces (3) ‘De’centring knowledges (4) Decolonisation and time.

As PhD researchers in the PSI department who have been involved in various initiatives related to ‘decolonisation’, and as racialised members in British society, we are keenly aware of the criticisms of the term and what the term entails, particularly in the neoliberal higher education context.

The concept of decolonisation in the context of the university, and education more widely, has been theorised variously, as well as challenged, and criticised. As Tuck and Yang (2012) pertinently argued, decolonisation is not a metaphor or an empty signifier as such, which can be grafted unto pre-existing discourses on human rights and social justice, irrespective of their critical orientations.  Recognising this ongoing vibrant debate, we approach decolonisation herein as fundamentally constituted by two co-ordinate referents. These include the recognition and challenge of coloniality, and the proposition of alternate epistemologies and political praxes. In other words, we employ a ‘decolonial’* approach to examine the ways in which the dynamics of power differences, social exclusion and discrimination along “colour line”, gender, economic and geographical inequality serve to constitute the contemporary world, of which the University is an integral part of and as such implicated in its (re)production. Furthermore, it moves beyond deconstructive practices to offer alternate ways of ‘knowing’ as well as political action(s) to encourage plurality and the positionality of knowledge.

Essentially, the above outline provides scaffolding for the examination of the discourse around decolonisation in PSI. We draw on three primary texts which includes the Decolonise PPL*working group minutes, as well as the PSI response to decolonise working group, and the Decolonise HUM* meeting minutes, particularly the PPL breakout group discussion. We also refer to the Decolonising HUM draft plan 2020 to articulate the discourses within PSI. That said, we critically examine four emerging themes outlined above and in so doing suggest alternate ways, to encourage clarity in the practices of decolonisation.   

Diversity, inclusion, and decolonisation

Decolonisation is often conflated with diversity and inclusion. For instance, ‘decolonising the curriculum’ may be taken to mean making the curriculum more ‘diverse’ or ‘inclusive’, which usually means adding scholars who are not white cisgender men or literature that focuses on regions outside of Europe and North America. Diversity here is attached to particular bodies (racially minoritised people) and specific spaces, and their inclusion is understood to be part of ‘decolonising the curriculum’. Many also consider diversity to be a management term that generates commercial value for the university by celebrating difference without enacting fundamental change (Ahmed, 2012). Drawing on feminist scholar Sandra Harding’s phrase ‘the “add women and stir” strategy’, something similar seems to be happening with decolonisation: an understanding that equates decolonisation to ‘add racially minoritised scholars and stir’. The idea of inclusion also elicits the question – who wants to be included in a colonial space? As feminist scholar Sara Ahmed notes, ‘…once the ‘‘to be included’’ or ‘‘not yet included’’ are the problem, those who are already given a place by the institution are not only not the problem but can become the solution to the problem.’ (Ahmed, 2012, p.185). In other words, once the problem is identified as whether a minoritised person is included into the institution, those who already have a place within the institution—comprising the very power structure that a decolonial approach seeks to critique—become the solution as the ones who have the power to let or welcome them in. This act of welcoming itself can be conditional upon meeting certain norms and conditionalities, therefore reproducing exclusions (Ahmed, 2012).

In this sense, it is perfectly possible to have a diverse and inclusive curriculum or departmental composition and keep colonial structures intact. By reducing the question of decolonisation to purely adding or including those to whom the idea of ‘diversity’ is attached, diversity and inclusion can externalise the locus of change from the existing structure of the department or the university to racially minoritised others. In contrast, decolonisation concerns the structure of academia, university, and the department in a fundamental way. It asks difficult and necessary questions such as: how does coloniality affect who is (not) in this space? How does violence rooted in colonial racial hierarchy manifest at the university? Who is considered to be part of ‘the canon’ or essential reading? What counts as knowledge or scholarship? How do we challenge extractive research practices? Who is cited? Here, we recall Métis scholar Zoe Todd (2016) and Ahmed’s (2017) calls to attend to the politics of citation.

To be clear, there may be overlap between what kind of change is envisioned and implemented under the banner of ‘diversity’ and ‘inclusion’, and ‘decolonisation’. However, as an inherently political endeavour that seeks structural change, decolonisation cannot be reduced to diversity and inclusion.

‘De’centring knowledges

Another tableau in this emerging discourse of decolonisation in PSI, is the ‘centring’ of the voices and experiences of racialised groups to reflect diversity with regard to the frameworks and pedagogical practices within PSI. Chiefly, this discourse is constituted primarily by the idea of a ‘diversified reading lists’ and the need to move beyond the so-called canonical texts within various modules. In a sense, the diversification of reading lists is often described as a reaction to the demand by students (and staff) to replace certain literatures, particularly by white (mostly men, both dead and alive) scholars, with those from, or about, the Global South. 

In general, the above interpretation of ‘decolonising the curriculum’ is limiting and therefore encourages a ‘one-faced’ approach, which ultimately leaves coloniality untouched. We argue that centring and de-centring practices must be approached as complementary and mutually reinforcing, rather than separate approaches. In essence, decolonisation as the positionality of knowledge, and plurality, suggests a robust framework for ‘decolonising the curriculum’ through various practices of inclusion, exclusion, updating, and relationality. This implies that the reading lists should not only reflect the plurality within PSI and beyond, but the so-called canonical texts must be understood as situated knowledges, rather than universal. For example, the complexity of Kant’s thoughts must be examined, including his racist ideas which invariably encouraged oppression. At the same time, the contributions of scholars and activists such as Frantz Fanon, Claudia Jones, Sylvia Wynter, Glen Coulthard and many others to political thought should be adequately embedded in the curriculum. This would invariably promote a dignified learning experience for students and staff.

Safe spaces/decolonial spaces

The notion of ‘safe’ spaces typically entails providing various avenues for students and staff of colour, and their allies, to express their experiences, and to build and consolidate solidarity. This may include promoting inclusive classrooms to encourage students who are normally not heard due to systemic structures of epistemic violence, as well as staff or student-led societies, and working or reading groups on diversity and inclusion. Specifically, references to ‘regular’ spaces for ‘open’ conversations about a wide range of issues built into the discourse of decolonisation in PSI, serve to frame the notions of ‘safe’ spaces.

At any rate, discourses of ‘safe’ spaces reproduce coloniality which validates the essence of the so-called ‘safe’ spaces. To be precise, the recognition of difference and plurality should be clearly distinguished from discursive practices that essentially ‘exhibit’ difference, leaving Eurocentrism effectively intact (Icaza and Vazquez, 2018). In a broader sense, ‘decolonial’ spaces rejects the tokenistic moves exuded by the notions of ‘safe’ spaces, along with its diversity and inclusion connotations. Rather, the idea of decolonial spaces, constituted by references to positionality of knowledge, relationality and plurality, opens the department of PSI, and the university, into vast spaces of circulation of diverse experiences, bodies, and traditions of thoughts. All of this, to be sure, effectively contextualised and equally recognised as making valid contribution to the department, as well as the university and the broader society. Decolonial spaces goes beyond the notion of ‘regular’ spaces for ‘open’ conversations about the impacts of epistemic violence on racialised communities. It encourages the relational (re)production of ‘spaces’, where diverse epistemes and bodies interact in dignified ways for the learning of all. For instance, practices of decolonisation should not be restricted to working groups, staff-student led societies, public lectures, and so on. Rather, it should be central to the department’s ethos and should reflect in the classroom, along the department’s corridor, as well as in recruitment, research, and pedagogy.       

Decolonisation and time

The question of time appears in the discussions regarding decolonisation in four main ways. Firstly, decolonisation within higher education is a process, not an event. Particularly in a space like the Faculty of Humanities where whiteness is pervasive—not simply in terms of student and staff composition but also in terms of the kinds of knowledges that are (re)produced, as pointed out by many students—this process requires careful and long-term engagement. Taking action is clearly paramount, but change also requires building understanding and solidarity on the grassroots level beyond the siloed departmental structures. In this sense, spaces that are within UEA but not part of the institution, such as student societies and informal groups, are important avenues for building connections and laying the groundwork. Secondly, there are discussions about how much time can be devoted to specific topics in the modules, with no consensus on how fundamental the changes should be. Thirdly, there are difficulties in keeping the momentum going due to the high turnover of students but also staff. This is related to how the immediate socio-political context influences the levels of interest in and commitment to decolonisation.

All of these issues are also related to institutional pressures of the neoliberal university that focuses on competition and productivity, with the pandemic only exacerbating the situation. What gives us hope, however, is that there are increasingly more people committed to decolonisation, who are connecting and working together thanks to various networks set up by students and staff.

Conclusion

In sum, this intervention examined four emerging motifs in the discourse of decolonisation within PSI, to identify important caveats for further reflection and cogent action with regard to the practices of decolonising the department, and the university. In the main, we argued that a clearer understanding of what constitutes decolonisation, which is different from diversity and inclusion, but also overlap somewhat, will properly position the various decolonising initiatives. We also argued for further consideration about some of the ways in which decolonisation is framed and being put into practice, such as the notion of ‘safe’ spaces, as well as the temporal dimensions of these initiatives. We hope some of the points raised in this blog post will provide clarity for future discussions and decisions.

References

Foluke Ifejola Adebisi. ‘Why I Say ‘Decolonisation is Impossible’’, Foluke Africa, 17 December 2019, https://folukeafrica.com/why-i-say-decolonisation-is-impossible/

Zoe Todd. ‘An Indigenous Feminist’s Take On The Ontological Turn: ‘Ontology’ Is Just Another Word For Colonialism’, Journal of Historical Sociology, Vol.29, No.1, March 2016. https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1111/johs.12124

For those without institutional access, this blog post is open access: Zoe Todd. ‘An Indigenous Feminist’s take on the Ontological Turn: ‘ontology’ is just another word for colonialism (Urbane Adventurer: Amiskwacî)’, Uma (in)certa antropologia,26th October 2014.

Sara Ahmed. Living a Feminist Life, (Duke University Press, 2017)

Sara Ahmed. On Being Included : Racism and Diversity in Institutional Life, ProQuest Ebook Central, http://ebookcentral.proquest.com/lib/uea/detail.action?docID=1173269. (Duke University Press, 2012)

Walter D. Mignolo and Catherine E. Walsh. On Decoloniality: concepts, analytics, praxis. (Durham NC: Duke University Press, 2018)

Rosalba Icaza and Rolando Vazquez, ‘Diversity or decolonisation? Researching diversity at the University of Amsterdam.’ in Gurminder K. Bhambra, Kerem Nişancıoğlu and Dalia Gebrial. Decolonising the University. (London: Pluto Press, 2018)

Gurminder K. Bhambra, Kerem Nişancıoğlu and Dalia Gebrial. ‘Introduction: Decolonising the University?’ in Gurminder K. Bhambra, Kerem Nişancıoğlu and Dalia Gebrial. Decolonising the University. (London: Pluto Press, 2018)

Footnotes

Decolonial: The decolonial approach was introduced by authors from the Global South, especially from South America, as well as Africa and Asia. Also, what constitutes ‘decolonial approach’ is contested. In a broad sense, it is a challenge to Euro-American-centric modes of knowledge and its claim to universality. Hence, coloniality articulates the ways in which these epistemologies shape the contemporary world.

PPL: Politics, Philosophy, Language and Communication Studies

HUM: Faculty of arts and humanities

Kodili Chukwuma and Moe Suzuki are Ph.D. candidates in the School of Politics, Philosophy, Language and Communications at the University of East Anglia.

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