Facing Up to the Colonial Present of U.S. Higher Education

The Standing Rock Sioux’s ongoing efforts to halt the construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline through their lands have brought national attention to an issue that many would prefer to ignore: the past and present of U.S. settler colonization. Although colonial logics remain largely unexamined in the study of higher education, there is not one contemporary campus issue that isn’t significantly shaped by it: sexual assault; persistently Eurocentric curricula; institutional symbols; enrolment and graduation rates of Indigenous students; the normative white male-ness that orients many theories of student development; the de facto closure of the American Indian studies program at UIUC and the chronic underfunding of other Indigenous studies programs and of tribal colleges and universities; and, of course, the land itself upon which all of our institutions sit.

According to Rowe and Tuck (2016), “Settler colonialism is about the pursuit of land, not just labor or resources. Settler colonialism is a persistent societal structure, not just an historical event or origin story for a nation-state. Settler colonialism has meant genocide of Indigenous peoples, the reconfiguring of Indigenous land into settler property. In the United States and other slave estates, it has also meant the theft of people from their homelands (in Africa) to become property of settlers to labor on stolen land.” In this sense, settler colonization, alongside slavery and its afterlife, is not ancillary to but rather constitutive of the ongoing material structure and ordering logics of both the U.S. nation-state and global capitalism.

Institutions of U.S. higher education have also been implicated in these harmful systems since their very beginnings. As Wilder (2013) describes in Ebony and Ivy, “American colleges were not innocent or passive beneficiaries of conquest and colonial slavery. The European invasion of the Americas and the modern slave trade pulled peoples throughout the Atlantic world into each others’ lives, and colleges were among the colonial institutions that braided their histories and rendered their fates dependent and antagonistic” (p. 11). Yet, overall the field of higher education has yet to have a sustained conversation about the centrality of colonialism in the foundations of our scholarship and practice. In her book, Transit of Empire: Indigenous Critiques of Colonialism, Jodi Byrd (2011) asks, “How might the terms of current academic and political debates change if the responsibilities of that very real lived condition of colonialism were prioritized as a condition of possibility?” (p. xx). I suggest that it is time for those of us in the field of higher education to ask ourselves this question, and the many that follow from it.

The ‘Absent Presence’ of Colonialism in the HE Field-Imaginary

I am currently pursuing a doctorate at the University of British Columbia, which is located on the traditional, ancestral, and unceded territories of the Musqueam First Nation. I have learned that, when speaking publicly, it is a sign of respect to acknowledge and give thanks to the Indigenous peoples of that land (although, there is a lot more to it than that). In a few weeks, many of us will gather for the ASHE annual meeting in Columbus, Ohio, a city named after that most famous of conquistadors and enslavers. The eponym of our meeting place itself invites discussion about the relationship between our colonial past and present. According to the OSU American Indian Studies program, “Central Ohio [where Columbus is located] is a traditional homeland of the Shawnee Nation; Delaware, Wyandot, and other Indigenous nations also have strong ties to these lands.”

However, I will be perfectly honest that during my Masters program in higher education at a large university in central Ohio, I never learned the names, let alone the histories, of the peoples on whose ancestral lands said institution now sits. If I am not mistaken, I could have also gone through the whole program without having a substantive conversation about colonialism in higher education had I not taken courses outside of my department or had discussions with my advisor about my MA thesis. To point this out is not an attack on my program (for the record, I have great appreciation for all that I learned from my faculty and fellow students during my time there). Rather, it is an effort to face up to our collective complicity as a field.

In my second year as an MA student I co-taught a mini-seminar, as part of my grad assistantship, for first year students interested in international issues. One session, I decided to address the campaign to change Columbus Day to Indigenous Peoples Day. We showed a short film and then invited discussion with a few basic questions. I did not expect some of the students’ defensive reactions, and was inadequately prepared to respond to the civilizational supremacist arguments some used to justify colonization. This included one student who asked, “If Native Americans hate modern civilization so much, then why do they drive cars?” Granted, this was only a handful of students. Most of the others just stayed silent. But through my lack of preparation, I failed all of them in my ethical and educational duties. I do not know whether I had any Indigenous students in the course, but if so I can only imagine how hurtful and unsafe the entire episode felt.

While certainly there are exceptions, on the whole non-Indigenous higher education scholars, practitioners, and programs have been inadequately attentive to the experiences of Indigenous students, faculty, and communities, and insufficiently responsive to their needs and desires, despite the tireless efforts of Indigenous higher education scholars to bring their concerns to the fore, and to fight for more resources and respect (e.g. Ahenakew, 2016; Ahenakew, Andreotti, Cooper, & Hireme, 2014; Ahenakew & Naepi, 2015; Battiste, Bell & Findlay, 2002; Brayboy, 2005; Brayboy, Fann, Castagno, & Solyom, 2012; Brayboy, Solyom & Castagno, 2015; Fox, Jo, & McClellan, 2005; Freitas, Wright, Balutski, & Wu, 2013; Grande, 2015; Marker, 2004; Pidgeon, 2016; Shotton, Lowe & Waterman, 2013; Simpson, 2014; Tachine, Byrd & Cabrera, 2016; Waterman & Lindley, 2013; Willmott, Sands, Raucci, & Waterman, 2016). Perhaps things are changing. In 2016, Nicole Alia Salis Reyes and Amanda Tachine won the ASHE and AERA Division-J Dissertation of the Year awards, respectively. I believe that this is the first time that two Indigenous women scholars have won these awards in the same year. This is especially significant given that the ASHE dissertation of the year award was named in honour of an Indigenous scholar, the late Bobby Wright. In 2015, another Indigenous woman, Kaiwipunikauikawēkiu Lipe, won the AERA Division-J Dissertation of the Year.

The fact that Indigenous scholarship and students are receiving increased recognition hopefully signals an important shift. However, the celebration of Indigenous scholarship is not the same as addressing the coloniality of our field. First, Indigenous peoples are not defined by colonization (Tuck, 2009), and second, we have not yet addressed the foundational and ongoing ways that non-Indigenous people actively benefit from the colonial structure of the U.S. Within U.S. higher education, when colonialism is addressed at all it is usually framed in the past tense. In this framework, it may be possible to demand accountability and redress with regard to specific acts of colonial violence, as in the case of Northwestern University and the University of Denver’s treatment of the legacy of their shared founder, John Evans, in light of his involvement in the Sand Creek Massacre. However, even when these particular acts of violence are acknowledged, they are generally positioned as unfortunate but exceptional moments of U.S. history, rather than as instances that illustrate how ongoing processes of dispossession and white supremacy are built into the DNA of the U.S., and its institutions of higher education. On the rare occasion we discuss colonialism in the present, it is usually in relation to internationalization; it remains easier for most of us to talk about colonialism when it is ‘over there’ or ‘back then.’ Here I must note an important exception, another ASHE Dissertation of the Year Award winner (2014), Amalia Dache-Gerbino, who employed post-colonial theory in her study of college access and choice.

Two years ago I proposed a paper to ASHE with my advisor in which we sought to address the colonial history of land grant institutions. This is perhaps the most open of all colonial ‘secrets’ in the history of U.S. higher education — the truth is in the name! Established by the Morrill Act of 1862, land grant schools were funded through the sale of lands that had been accumulated by the US government during several prior intense decades of Indigenous removal. Known colloquially as ‘democracy’s colleges’, these schools serve as a powerful metonym for the populist promises and public good role of US higher education. And, perhaps more than any other institutional type, these schools embody the constitutive contradictions of a democracy that remains dependent on dispossession, and a public good that was produced through stolen lands (and stolen labor). Our reviewers thought that the premise was interesting as a matter of history, but they failed to see how it connected to the present. No doubt this was primarily due to our own failure to articulate our argument clearly. But I also wondered to what extent our challenge to higher education’s field-imaginary sealed our rejection. I was disappointed, if not surprised, and I couldn’t help but think about how many other papers asking similar questions had been similarly reviewed and rejected, particularly those proposed by our Indigenous colleagues. What might the field of higher education look like if all these papers had been accepted, and published?

Decolonization is/not…

Troubling a field’s foundations and presumed futurities holds enormous potential but it also presents the risk that critique will be incorporated in such a way that re-establishes firm footing, even as potentially important shifts are also enacted. Indeed, as critiques of settler colonialism have received growing attention, it has not been without complication, potential cooptation, or renewed erasures of entangled histories. That includes this blog; although I write in the hopes that the higher education field might collectively engage in more honest, self-implicated conversations about how U.S. colleges and universities are ordered by colonial logics and material conditions, I am aware that in doing so I risk reproducing white epistemological authority and ownership rather than unsettling it.

I am also wary of the possibility that the mantle of decolonization in higher education might be taken up without being accompanied by a thorough examination of how deeply rooted colonialism is in many of the basic assumptions, investments, and structures of U.S. colleges and universities as a whole, as well as the specific foundations of higher education as a field of study and practice. This risk is heightened given that often once we realize the extent to which we are implicated in harm, the reactive pursuit of justice is accompanied by the pursuit of redemption (from those one has harmed), affirmation (of one’s benevolence), or dis-identification (with those who have yet to recognize their complicity). These presumed entitlements, exceptionalisms, and desired immunizations from critique are themselves embedded within the same colonial system of harmful social relations and subjectivities. This suggests that we have yet to come to terms with the fact that, as harmful as colonialism is, we don’t know how to live without it.

As Patel (2015) suggests, “it is premature, impulsive, and counterproductive to demand the details, blueprint, and figured world alter-realities of decolonization when our current context is so deeply embedded and enlived by colonial logics” (p. 88). We may therefore know more about what decolonization is not than what it is. Decolonization is not a metaphor (Tuck & Yang, 2012). Decolonization is not the same thing as diversity (Samudzi, 2016). Decolonization does not mean just one thing. Decolonization is not just about dismantling, but also creating (King, 2015). Decolonization is not the responsibility of Indigenous peoples, it is everyone’s responsibility.

However, just because there is no formula for decolonization in higher education doesn’t mean that we have to start from scratch. We might learn from the successes and the failures of some fields, like anthropology and literature, that have for decades been addressing their colonial roots, with varying results, and others, like sociology, that are increasingly starting to have these conversations. What’s more, many scholars outside our field have already started to think about what it might mean to decolonize higher education. I note in particular that many people, programs and institutions in Canada have done this work. While I am very wary of reifying the false exceptionalist image of Canada as a kinder, gentler version of the U.S., there is much to learn from how things are unfolding there — again, in terms of both successes and problems. (See, for instance, the Interim report of the steering committee for the University of Toronto response to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada, 2016.) It is of course important to recognize that the reason that decolonization and associated but irreducible projects (e.g. Indigenization) in Canadian educational institutions are on the table at all is due to the tireless work of Indigenous activists, students, and scholars. And although existing institutional efforts still leave much to be desired, important work has nonetheless been done, and when it hasn’t, people have pointed this out. Again, this is an ongoing, and contested process. It is also a lot of work, and it is up to us all to share in this labor.

So what/now what?

Many questions will arise in any effort to address how colonial relations order our daily lives. For instance, how does settler colonialism relate to other iterations of U.S. imperial power? What is the relationship between enslavement and conquest? What is the relationship between racialization and colonization? How can we ethically and accountably denaturalize colonial logics in our research, teaching, and relationships? What is decolonization? How does decolonization relate to other forms of social justice and visions for social change? What are everyone’s different roles in decolonization? What would a decolonized university even look like? And so on. In fact, many people have already thought and written a great deal about these issues. In particular, Indigenous peoples have not only been theorizing but also enacting critiques of colonization for over 500 years.

Non-Indigenous people cannot expect Indigenous people to ‘do the work’ for us, but we would be wise to listen to their insights. This includes listening to the Indigenous university students who are demanding institutional change. But the act of listening is a lot more difficult than it sounds, because colonial imaginaries are structured to invalidate, distort, or appropriate difference without ever really hearing it — especially when it challenges the listener’s benevolence or epistemological authority (Ahenakew, 2016; Ahenakew & Naepi, 2015; Kuokkanen, 2007). Thus, addressing higher education’s colonial entanglements will not be a simple matter of learning more about the histories of the U.S., our public institutions, or even our families, though it is that, too. It is also about unlearning and denaturalizing the logics of carcerality, separability, and colonial hierarchy, and rearranging existing desires toward the dismantling of this world and the creation and resurgence of other worlds. Further, as part of this process of undoing colonialism’s intellectual, affective, and material dimensions, non-Indigenous people will likely make mistakes and say and do the wrong thing, and search fruitlessly (but harmfully) for ways to transcend our complicity in harm without giving anything up (Jefferess, 2012). To grapple with the extent to which we are made by and contribute to colonial violence necessitates approaching these efforts with self-reflexivity and humility, and even then there are no guarantees. At times, we will make things worse in our effort to make things better, in part because of the imperial arrogance embedded in the very idea that we already know how to make things better. Decolonization will not be a simple, linear, feel-good, one-time task, but rather an ongoing, uncomfortable, complex process of cleaning up the messes we have collectively made.

For more information and resources about settler colonialism and Indigenous resistance, see the excellent Standing Rock Syllabus.

Many thanks to Dallas Hunt for his suggestions on an earlier draft of this blog.

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Written by

assistant professor of higher education http://ubc.academia.edu/SharonStein

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