British Decolonisation in Africa (source: wikipedia) [Image: continent of Africa with decolonized regions labeled by shades of pink and purple and beige with the name at time of decolonization along with the year they gained freedom from imperial rule]

Making Meaning of “Decolonising”

What do we mean when we say “decolonize”?

A Native American friend of mine recently shared an academic article on social media that piqued my interest. Decolonization is not a metaphor (2012) is one of the few thoughtful discussions I’ve seen anywhere on the increasing popularity of the term “decolonization” in the American diversity discourse, and curiously, it predates the seemingly exponential deployment of the term during 2015 and 2016. This acceleration in use seems set to continue as people work out their responses to political upsets in colonial first world nations.

In their article, Tuck and Yang highlight the very real threat posed by co-optation of “social justice” language by a more establishment-oriented liberalism, and I think many of their fundamental concerns could be adapted and applied to the term “intersectionality” as well. For example, I’ve started to see people use the term “intersectionality” in journal articles about diversity in science, purporting to theorize in an intersectional manner, when all they mean is “we talked about women of color.” Theorizing about what an intersectional perspective does to our discourse and remembering that Black women exist are simply not the same thing. The former requires effort, and the latter should be your baseline.

Essentially, by not carefully considering the word’s meaning and its history, liberal adopters can end up stripping them of their value. I harp on liberalism here because I think too often liberals who believe we should seek to grow the status quo (“America is good, it just needs to be better!”) co-opt the language of those trying to destroy the status quo (“America is an imperial project built on genocide!”). This can in some ways be more insidious than outright critics of decolonization — those some of us might label as conservative, or even more extremely, fascist.

For getting us to think carefully about this, I am thankful to Tuck and Yang. However, even as I found myself nodding in agreement with much of what they say, I also found myself shaking my head in disagreement with a fundamental discursive choice that they made. From the abstract:

Our goal in this article is to remind readers what is unsettling about decolonization. Decolonization brings about the repatriation of Indigenous land and life; it is not a metaphor for other things we want to do to improve our societies and schools. The easy adoption of decolonizing discourse by educational advocacy and scholarship, evidenced by the increasing number of calls to “decolonize our schools,” or use “decolonizing methods,” or, “decolonize student thinking”, turns decolonization into a metaphor. As important as their goals may be, social justice, critical methodologies, or approaches that decenter settler perspectives have objectives that may be incommensurable with decolonization. Because settler colonialism is built upon an entangled triad structure of settler-native-slave, the decolonial desires of white, nonwhite, immigrant, postcolonial, and oppressed people, can similarly be entangled in resettlement, reoccupation, and reinhabitation that actually further settler colonialism.

As is likely clear above, I share their concerns that many are engaging in liberals abuse “decolonize” when they dress up “diversity” as a deep post-colonial project when in fact it is just a coloring in of colonialism. Yet, I was troubled by Tuck and Yang’s decision here to define North American colonialism as having such a limited scope, thus limiting how and when the term “decolonization” can be used and eliminating the possibility also of “decolonisation” as part of the American discourse. It is in some sense an isolationist standpoint that I think I cannot agree with.

What do I mean? I mean that while settler colonialism is the original and continuing sin of the American and Canadian projects, it isn’t the only colonialism that factors into the modern makeup of the populations of North America. There are other geopolitical considerations, as well as intellectual considerations.

To the geopolitical, both Canada and the United States have longstanding histories of engaging in colonial projects outside of their (colonially self-defined) borders, and both Canada and the United States are inextricably entangled with colonial histories that predate their existence as self-ruling nations (imperial economics in Asia, South America/the Caribbean come to mind). And while I appreciate that Tuck and Yang recognize the legacy of slavery in formulating the phenomenon they describe as a “settler-native-slave” process, I don’t think they properly reckon with the use of Black Africans (and on a smaller but very significant scale, Aboriginal Americans) as a form of wealth production. Wealth in the Americas is not only rooted in the land but is fundamentally dependent on the exploitation of human beings in order to convert the land into wealth. There is no economic might in North America without the three-way exploitation of the land, the people of it, and the people kidnapped from Africa to work it (as well as their descendants).

As a Black person of West Indian descent who knows that Black slaves were moved freely between the Caribbean and the United States especially after the trade with Africa was formally ended, I know I am American by birth but will forever be unsure if I am also American by heritage. My ancestors were certainly slaves in Barbados. It is impossible to know if they were also at one point slaves in the American south. But history teaches us that it is possible. Further, colonial forces shaped by complex dynamics between Europe and the United States are what eventually brought the family history that I do know out of the Caribbean and to North America. I could dig into similar examples that frame the presence of many Asian Americans in North America, which is complexly affected both by colonial aspirations and also by long-distance colonial forces.

As for intellectual considerations, which as many of you know has been a significant focus of mine, I possibly simply don’t agree with Tuck and Yang that settler colonialism can ever simply be reduced to land theft. Epistemic marginalization is part of how land theft is enforced and maintained. For example, the residential schools in the United States and Canada which kidnapped Aboriginal (First Nations, Métis, and Inuit) children and forcibly stripped them of the culture, language, and even hair while making many victims of violence (including sexual abuse/rape) were furthering a colonial project of violently attacking what was not European about Native Americans, which was pretty much everything. The denial of language and history is to me part of the colonial project — in part designed to minimize the possibility that people will feel empowered to push back against and end colonialism.

I want to be clear that me writing this (short) essay is not intended to be a definitive statement on all the ways I will ever think about this, nor is it intended to qualify the value of Tuck and Yang’s article. They make really important points and engage a conversation that we really need to have. If we are to talk about decolonization, we cannot be piecemeal about it, and they hit that point home well.

So let me be clear in my agreement with them: when we talk about decolonising/decolonizing science (as is often my habit), we need to be talking about it with the context of upending settler colonialism as part of that project. I cannot separate telling the truth about the history of Native Hawaiian astronomy from also not wanting Native Hawaiian astronomy to be used as an excuse to further colonize Hawaiian lands. I cannot separate wanting to tell the truth about Islamic contributions to physics from also having complex conversations about Native sovereignty and what that means for me as a descendent of one of the kidnapped ones. And while I’ve been having that conversation with members of my community (and sometimes talking about it on Twitter), I am aware that I should have been more explicit about my commitment to confronting settler colonialism and would like to correct that now.

Confronting/ending and engaging in restorative justice around settler colonialism has to be part of our decolonising science conversation, and in fact was for me from the very start, since I came to open discussion of decolonizing science because of the most recent controversy about the the uses and abuses of Mauna a Wakea. And notably, at least some of you may have noticed that I have been careful not to include the standard “diversity” fare on my Decolonising Science Reading List because much of that work isn’t about decolonization at all but rather about somewhat expanding the status quo. They aren’t the same, and Tuck and Yang are right to call our attention to that dangerous conflation.

I hope thus that I have made clear that even where I might disagree with Tuck and Yang from my standpoint as a different type of colonial subject than they are, I am in complete solidarity with their fundamental point that we need to oppose harmful and problematic deployments of “decolonization” without consideration for settler colonialism — whether it’s here in North America, in the Marshall Islands, around the African continent, or in for example, Korea, as the case may be.