Decolonization: Re-Colonization or Transformation?

The most common meaning of decolonization lies in the processes by which imperial nations cede political control over their onetime colonies — often as the result of an independence movement or warfare — thus allowing those nations to govern themselves. While decolonization as a political project dominated the postwar years, Israeli professor Marcelo Dascal argues  that the most enduring legacy of colonialism still remains — that of the “epistemic violence” by which colonialism has imposed itself on the minds of the colonized, such that the structures, values, culture and world view of the colonizer remains and is reproduced in the new, independent society.

Dascal’s observations are particularly relevant for this project. What is of concern here is not so much the politics of imperial nation states, but the extent to which the worldviews that made such dominance possible still affect our knowledge structures, social relations and cultures, and which are reproduced through our institutions of learning — which as Soenke Biermann  argues in his chapter in Indigenous Philosophies and Critical Education are the means by which “the state generates, legitimates and disseminates officially sanctioned knowledges” (394). These forms of order have been especially destructive to the colonized. As Linda Tuhiwai Smith notes in her Decolonizing Methodologies,

Imperialism and colonialism brought complete disorder to colonized peoples…a process of systematic fragmentation which can still be seen in the disciplinary carve-up of of the indigenous world: bones, mummies and skulls to the museums, art work to private collectors, languages to linguistics, ‘customs’ to anthropologists, beliefs and behaviors to psychologists. To discover how fragmented this process was one needs only to stand in a museum, a library, a bookshop and ask where indigenous peoples are located” (p. 28).

Addressing these deeply rooted — almost culturally genetic — predispositions in our society requires a profound re-orientation, which of necessity must include education and enculturation. What Dascal points out, however, is that traditional strategies for intellectual decolonization — namely, re-education — can be as equally ruthless as was the case under colonial rule, which in his view amounts to re-colonization. Frantz Fanon, writing in his classic The Wretched of the Earth, concurs, noting that “Decolonization which sets out to change the order of the world, is, obviously, a programme of complete disorder” (p. 2).

The problem then becomes, how to accomplish what Fanon refers to as the “the decolonization of the mind” in a way that is not “re-colonizing” or completely disordered? Is there a pathway that is more integrative and transformative?

The process of acknowledging and deconstructing white privilege and colonial assumptions, thereby reversing traditionally Eurocentric knowledge structures (or what Blaut refers to as the Colonizer’s Model of the World), requires resurrecting Indigenous histories and recognizing their contributions to global history; replacing historical narratives of colonialism with those that demonstrate its contributions to poverty and oppression, not just modernist notions of “progress”; and challenging our internalized colonialism by acknowledging the validity of other worldviews. Following the classic writings of Aime Cesaire, Biermann believes that

Turning the tables on the supposed advantages of dominance means viewing colonialism itself through a deficit prism and bringing to light that whatever the short-term benefits supremacy bestows over others, oppression ultimately works to diminish and dehumanize everyone, including and especially the oppressor……we might understand decolonization as the active unraveling of assumed certainties and the re-imagining and re-negotiation of common futures. Importantly, this has to work from a position of equality, not dominance, and thus involves a reflective peeling back of various layers of privilege and the ignorance that comes with it” (p. 394).

The challenge and opportunity then, is to “peel back” privilege, to collectively re-imagine and re-negotiate, to undo the mutually dehumanizing processes of colonization, and therefore be capable of mapping out a common future. Recognizing the ways in which all of us become dehumanized by colonialism (and its principal rationale, racism), is especially important in nations such as Canada and the United States, in which it is settler colonialists, rather than an external imperial power, that has taken the lands of indigenous populations, making “post colonial” conditions impossible.

There is, however, a danger in thinking that “decolonizing the mind” is an end in itself, that it is a substitute for reversing the injustices wrought by centuries of dispossession. As Tuck and Yang caution, decolonization is not a metaphor:

Yet we wonder whether [if] to focus on decolonizing the mind, or the cultivation of critical consciousness, as if it were the sole activity of decolonization [is] to allow conscientization to stand in for the more uncomfortable task of relinquishing stolen land. We agree that curricula, literature, and pedagogy can be crafted to aid people in learning to see settler colonialism, to articulate critiques of settler epistemology, and set aside settler histories and values in search of ethics that reject domination and exploitation; this is not unimportant work. However, the front-loading of critical consciousness building can waylay decolonization, even though the experience of teaching and learning to be critical of settler colonialism can be so powerful it can feel like it is indeed making change. Until stolen land is relinquished, critical consciousness does not translate into action that disrupts settler colonialism” (p. 19).

Tuhiwai Smith charts a course towards just such a “Decolonizing Methodology” , showing that decolonization is but one component of a pathway towards holistic social restoration, which also involves processes of healing, transforming and mobilizing. She stresses that these are not end goals but processes, and that they comprise a social justice agenda that connects the local to the global. To contribute in this way, decolonization processes are not only political and social, but also psychological and spiritual, thus freeing indigenous peoples of the “colonizer’s model of the world” so as to move beyond survival and recovery towards development and, finally, to genuine self-determination (p. 117).

In subsequent posts, we will engage with the specific ways in which libraries can contribute to such a project.

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