Are We Really Interested in ‘Decolonizing Global Health’ or Are We Rushing to Prove Our Wokeness?

Laura Mkumba
May 25 · 4 min read
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Photo from @decolonizethisplace/instagram

Over the past few months, I have asked myself this question over and over. Even after co-founding a working group at my own institution and organizing a conference on Decolonizing Global Health, I have taken several pauses to reflect on this question and my own answers to it.

Don’t get me wrong, I am thrilled to see more public and global health students being inspired to start decolonizing conversations at their respective institutions. It gives me so much encouragement to know that people globally are seeing what’s wrong with our current global health system. After all, change cannot happen if we do not have a domino effect where we, students, practitioners, and researchers alike, do not stand up and demand change in our systems. Change cannot happen if these conversations start and end at specific institutions. Yet, these conversations are only happening at certain institutions.

The ‘decolonization’ movement has been around for a long time, and many scholars have been writing about the effects of colonization and the processes we would all have to undergo to decolonize our minds, societies, and research from as early as the 1960s. This movement is not new. These thoughts are not new. This term is not new. People have been talking about this and actively working to dismantle these systems for decades.

But with the growing traction of the student movement, I fear that we are no longer decolonizing, but rushing to prove our ‘wokeness’. I fear that we are actually creating a new system of oppression that is the antithesis of the foundation and goals of the movement. I fear that the critical reflection piece is being overlooked and the movement is starting to take on a superficial lens.

So far all the ‘Decolonizing Global Health’ conferences have been held in high income countries and quite frankly at very elite institutions with very persistent histories and legacies of colonialism, slavery, and racism.These conferences and teach-ins have been led by students who had the privilege to speak out without fearing deadly repercussions. At Duke University, despite the initial push back we received, I never feared that I would be imprisoned for speaking out. The thought that Duke would withhold my degree if I spoke out, wasn’t a legitimate concern or worry. On the other side of the world/on the other hand, , there are students from the University of Cape Town, who started this movement, that are still incarcerated and still targeted for their participation in the #RhodesMustFall protests in 2015. The truth is students in countries that are facing the more aggressive fallout of colonialism, residing and studying in former colonial states, do not have the privilege to speak out like we do.

Are we really going to make progress if these conversations stay concentrated among HIC and students who occupy more global privilege? Are we really making progress when people in LMICs and former colonial states can’t even attend the events hosted in HICs? When are we going to have a decolonizing conference that is held in Sub-Saharan Africa or South Asia or Latin America? When are we going to have a conference that doesn’t require high internet bandwidth or visas and miles of paperwork to attend? When are we going to write pieces in languages that are accessible? When are we going to stop talking about it and do something about it? When are we going to actually lean out and start addressing the oppressive foundation of global health?

We all have to start somewhere, and I understand that having these conversations is just the first step. However, I fear that by rushing to speak on these topics, by rushing to hold events and conferences, by rushing to write pieces that are ALL concentrated in the “global North”, we are creating a new Neo-colonialist system. I am afraid of becoming the person that I am fighting against. I fear that the critical reflection, a central part of the movement, is not happening as frequently as it should. I fear that the work and sacrifice of the people who paved the way for these student movements is getting overshadowed and co-opted.

I do not have all the answers, and I know and own that part I have played in perpetuating colonial ideologies in this movement. I was not always ‘woke’, and, frankly, I have a long way to go. I know that. I own that. But are we all interested in owning that? Are we invested in sitting with the discomfort that despite our best intentions we might be causing more harm? Decolonizing is not fun. It is hard and, for those on the front lines, traumatizing work. It requires acknowledging the oppressive systems embedded in our societies and toiling to dismantle them.

Are we ready to do the work to dismantle these systems?

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