Decolonizing Race and Religion: the text of a lecture given at Leibniz University Hannover, Monday 10 December 2018

Decolonizing Race and Religion, Malory Nye

Institut für Theologie und Religionswissenschaft, Leibniz Universität Hannover, Monday 10 December 2018


First of all, I would like to say many thanks to Dr Steffen Fuhrding, Prof Wanda Alberts and the Institute of Theology and Religion Studies, for inviting me to give this lecture. And also to the Faculty of Philosophy/Humanities for their admirable and very far sighted Visiting Scholar programme that has brought me here today (and for giving me the opportunity to develop my ideas with a class over this two week period)

There is a shockingly memorable scene in the 2004 film Hotel Rwanda, where the real life hotel manager Paul Rusesabagina (played by Don Cheadle) takes a diversion to avoid threats of attack during the horrific 1994 Hutu genocide of Tutsis. This diversion is along the ‘river road’, which he assumed would be clear and safe for travel. However, as he is driven along in the dark mist, without headlights, he finds the road bumpy and much harder to navigate than he expected.

This still is taken from (warning, this link shows extremely distressing scenes)

Eventually he stops and steps out from the van, to determine the problem, only to find the road is piled up deep with human bodies: hundreds of people that have been massacred and then dumped. The shock of the realisation of this horror is told simply and effectively, as we transition from the inconvenience of a difficult, bumpy drive to the discovery of the extent of human injustice, violence, and suffering.

[ref to this here: ]

This scene is just one small representation of the unthinkable scale of the Rwandan genocide. That genocide was an event which most people probably shrug off as both shocking and terrible, and also as having happened far away.

As WEB Du Bois, writing retrospectively in 1920 about the early twentieth century genocide in the nearby Belgian Congo, noted:

‘Yet the fields of Belgium laughed, the cities were gay, art and science flourished…’

The hotel manager’s overwhelming realisation on the river road is, for me, also a metaphor for how we find ourselves in the study of religion. What is often taken as a straightforward path — to gain knowledge, to understand, and to empathise — is in itself a path towards coming face to face with much more.

It is not so much about learning where the bodies are buried, but where they have been hidden in plain sight, and how our own road goes right across them.

The moment of such realisation has had a number of peak points in the last few years: the deaths of Trayvon Martin, Tamir Rice, Sandra Bland, Philandro Castile, and many more, Ferguson, the election of Trump, the Brexit vote, Farage’s ‘breaking point’ poster, Jo Cox’s assassination, Grenfell Tower, the rise of AfD, thousands of people drowned in the Mediterranean seeking refuge in fortress Europe, the North Dakota pipeline, the Charlottesville march, ICE incarceration of young children in cages, the firing of tear gas across borders at child refugees, the list goes on and on …

… you can choose your own point at which you stop the vehicle and see what is making the road so bumpy.

It is shocking, depressing, and of course presents challenges to all of us — to try to understand this frightening and potentially very dangerous world in which we find ourselves living.

So what in particular does this have to do with the study of religion?

This lecture

I have set myself a challenging and near impossible task to address in my lecture title — decolonizing race and religion. Of course, in the time I have available, and recognising the grandiosity (indeed hubris) of my ambition here, what I aim to do is set out pointers of how we can start to address some of the most obvious issues that the title is aiming towards.

To do this, I will first outline my particular methodology and assumptions for the study of religion — what is often referred to as ‘critical religion’, in particular the building blocks for then being able to discuss how we can explore this decolonizing project in the study of religion.

I will then outline how each of the terms in my title — that is decolonization, race, and religion — can be understood as concepts (or categories) that come to us from European colonial history. Thus, I will argue that the modern English language term ‘race’ is dependent on the structures of colonial rule — in the British empire and in the United States — and in the phrase of Patrick Wolfe, ‘race is colonialism speaking’.

However, alongside this, the modern concept of religion — as a universal, and also conceived as some ‘thing’ that can be found in various forms (like species) that in contemporary terminology are called ‘world religions’ — is likewise a product of colonialism. Indeed I would argue that all aspects of what we assume to be modernity — progress, secularity, civilisation, and so on — are also the discourses of colonialism (and the Protestant Reformations).

Behind all this, I will also raise and try to think through the centrality of the concept of ‘whiteness’, as a principal basis of the construction of colonial power and difference, and the terms, categories, and structures that are invested in how we think about and live out race and religion today.

These for me are some of the basic principles of any decolonizing project. We are not simply in the game of adding a little extra diversity, to bring in (for our benefit) some ideas and people who previously were not there. (I will address in a minute who this ‘we’ most likely is.) We should instead view the decolonizing project as changing the game, which starts with reflecting on the powerful structures of whiteness within the academy and beyond.

And as this approach is ongoing, a process, if possible we should talk in the gerund — as decolonizing — rather than the more seemingly finalised perspective of decolonization.

Framing the study of religion: Critical Religion

And so to get started on this, for me, the study of religion requires us to pull apart any easy assumptions, and to relate our discomfort with the world today (and in the past) to the many presuppositions that we bring to our studies.

The study of religion, like most of the contemporary study of humanity, is about (or should be about) the student unlearning much of what they bring to their studies.

I argue that the study of religion is not about religion — that is, ‘religion’ is not a ‘thing’ to be studied. Religion does not have agency, it is not an ‘it’: when religion acts, it is because religion is a discourse (or a particular set of cultural formations), a way in which people (and their cultures) think about and act upon the world

And likewise, the concept of different, discrete ‘religions’ — broadly what are called ‘world religions’ — is also problematic. In contemporary studies of religion, there is a significant movement to develop ways of talking about (what we think of as) religions without relying on the ‘world religions paradigm’.

As Tomoko Masuzawa has shown, the framing of differences as ‘world religions’ has a particular history, which is largely rooted in late nineteenth-century European colonialism. And in the contemporary world, the term creates a sense of knowledge, and of a timeless ahistorical reality, that is at odds with the complexities of the traditions and cultures that become condensed within it.

And so, for me, the starting point in the study of religion is always about asking the right (or at least better) set of questions, to explore not only what is ‘out there’ (in ‘the world’), but also how students (and the wider public) have been taught to think.

It is, therefore, not helpful to start with seemingly simple questions, such as ‘what is religion’, ‘what are religion’s functions?’, or ‘how should we define religion’? I recommend we put these question aside, or at least (at some later stage) ask why we are asking them.

Instead, the starting point needs to be about unpacking much of the baggage that students bring with them unwittingly into the classroom.

One very important part of this is to not start with ‘religion’ as the object of study.

Instead, any particular context of (what we think of as) religion needs to be understood with reference to how our ideas of race and gender construct both that context and how we understand it.

We also need to explore how our expectations of religion (as being a ‘thing’) lead us to overlook these key issues of race and gender.

Race and gender are the central issues, first and foremost. Everything is gendered, everything is thought of and practised through the lens of a cultural binary division between men and women.

And everything is racialised — likewise through a lens of assumed biology-based divisions between humans (black, white, coloured, etc.).

And these two things — race and gender — overlap and intersect, all the time. The idea and practice of religion very often — perhaps always — operates within these intersections.

Both race and gender are presented as being simple and straightforward, very often based on the mechanics of biology. Whereas, of course, race, gender, and religion are all socially constructed concepts which are very powerful lived realities, and are each much more complicated and challenging than we assume.

And these are so often rooted in particular racial and gendered forms of whiteness, the unspoken ways in which people who think of themselves as white racialise and engender others (who they consider as ‘non-white’).

And as we progress in the study of religion and culture, so much else needs to be relearned and rethought too. That is what we are doing here, in the study of religion.

The purpose of the discipline is not to learn ‘what religion is’, or indeed to learn what Hindus believe or Sikhs do, and so on. Instead, the point of the discipline is to explore how such questions as these are in themselves part of the problem.

We are learning about humanity, and in particular how the corner of humanity that is Europe (along with societies that have been formed by Europeans outside of Europe) have created their own sense of knowledge, and how that has exerted so much power across the globe. And in doing so, how knowledge of others is framed within such structures of white knowledge.

The study of religion needs to acknowledge its historical location, that it has emerged out of the histories of European colonialism. The very concept of ‘religion’ that is taken for granted is part of this history, it did not emerge from nowhere as a human universal. Although we might think of it as a neutral, perhaps scientific, descriptive term, it is not. It is a word packed with political meaning.

There are many particular histories (often revolving around the Protestant reformations) that lead to the assumption that religion is a thing done by those who think of themselves as Christians, and that it is special to particular Christian groups, and that perhaps it is a thing that everyone else does too.

These histories are all complex and difficult narratives to unpack.

The importance of this history — doing what we could call the historicisation of our assumptions about the concept of religion — is in particular about how we came to think and talk about things in the ways we have (for example, by using terms such as ‘religion’, which we think help us understand the world that we see)

That history is difficult to engage with, it is bloody, violent, and oppressive. It involved European colonialism, plunder, and in particular the systematic, industrial violence of chattel enslavement of millions of people from western Africa. It involved deliberate and systematic attempts at genocide by white Europeans, to eliminate indigenous people from north America and Australia. It involved policies of starvation and displacement, of using trauma and death as the means for social and economic engineering across a global empire.

It involved the creation of a world that is racialized, from top to bottom, and which embodies much of that violence in structures that no longer blatantly manifest enslavement and colonialism. And it entails a recognition that this ‘postcolonial’ world retains gross inequalities due to the structures of capitalism and the world systems as we know them (and which we often assume to be ‘just how things are’).

And so, I must reiterate that what we are doing here is not simply looking at ‘things’. We are not looking at specifics of particular religions (world religions or other forms of religion at local level).

We can and should look at context, at people in a particular time and place such as in India, Malaysia, Malawi, and so on. And we can try to understand how in those particular contexts they talk about and practice their worlds — with references to our categories of religion, or their own categories which we (and they) might translate as ‘religion’.

We can look at all this, but we must also look at something else.

That is, our studies require us to look at the lenses through which we are looking.

We don’t just ‘see’ things. Whether as students and scholars, everything comes to us through a particular process and history — that is, through a particular lens.

That is, we experience what we are told is ‘religion’ (and religions) through a series of lenses — in some cases, quite literally the camera lens, but also the recording, the editor, the producer, the writer, the presenter, the professor.

Studying religion and religions is about studying the many different lenses that bring all this to us. We need to study these as much as studying the ‘thing’ at the end, which we are trying to look at.

We are not only looking down a figurative microscope (or through a telescope) to see something. We are also asking what that viewing apparatus is, and how we use it to try to understand what we did not understand before.

And we assume that in the end the reality might not be simple and straightforward to ‘know’, since what we are studying are humans (just like us and also different) — people in groups who may also come to be changed by looking through their own particular lenses.

Whiteness and the goldfish bowl

In her Feminist Killjoy blog, Sara Ahmed writes about the topic of ‘White Men’. It is a difficult point to address, as she says:

‘walls come up when we talk about walls. A wall can be a defence mechanism’

I agree with Ahmed, that sometimes, some walls do need to be talked about. In particular the overwhelming whiteness that academia swims within.

Thus, to quote her at length:

‘It has become old-fashioned to mention that only white men are speaking at an event but not old-fashioned to have only white men speaking at an event.
‘We are supposed not to notice a restriction in who gathers… when you make points like this you are told that you are doing “identity politics.” You point out structure; they hear you as talking about identity. They think you are just concerned with being missing yourself; that you are making this about yourself.
‘You say: the event has a structure. They say: this is an event not a structure. And then: you are judged as imposing a structure on the event.
‘This is why it is important to say that “white men” is an institution.’

To underline this point, an event is a structure. Every event is structured by these structures.

Ahmed notes a challenge she set for herself, in the writing of her most recent book Living a Feminist Life — to not cite any white men. She describes this as an experiment, not an absolute,

‘I will cite white men again, just as I have cited them before.’

Her reason for doing so, and for talking about doing so, is because of the structures of the academy, the hard wiring that is so often taken for granted in the politics of discipline and citation:

‘White men cite other white men: it is what they have always done; it is what they will do; what they teach each other to do when they teach each other. They cite; how bright he is; what a big theory he has. He’s the next such-and-such male philosopher: don’t you think; see him think. The relation is often paternal: the father brings up the son who will eventually take his place. Patriarchy: it’s quite a system. It works.
‘Whiteness too: it works; it is a system that works… I have read “critical” work on race that primarily cites white men. I see it when they do it, very quickly. I see whiteness spilled all over the pages. Whiteness is invisible to those who inhabit it. For those who don’t inhabit it, whiteness appears as a solid: a body with mass.’

This system — this structure that oozes and seeps into events — that is both whiteness and patriarchy is the starting point for understanding how to think about and act on decolonizing.

This is not the whiteness we are used to thinking about — as the extremes of white identity and violence, exemplified by the Ku Klux Klan, Anders Breivik, and the AfD. This is the everyday whiteness that underpins so much of what we all do.

The American writer Toni Morrison talks about this as a ‘goldfish bowl’, with the fish swimming around, unaware of the water that makes it what it is. I see our initial task is to think about the water, and to become aware of the system and structures that are largely both invisible and hidden in plain sight.

So, when Ahmed says that

‘When we talk of “white men” we are describing an institution’,

and in particular

‘the mechanisms that ensure the persistence of that structure’,

I am aware that she is talking about me.

If whiteness is about the racialization of people who are white, then of course that is how I am racialized. There is no post-racial space to live within, we all live within the structures of a world that insists on the boundaries of race and gender. Whether we see the water around us or not, we are all contained within our own particular goldfish bowl.

But at the same time, the critique of that institution should not only come from those who are structured outside of it. This is a complex issue, and of course I do not presume to speak for others. But I can and should engage with other perspectives and experiences than my own, and recognize that race and the power and privileges of whiteness do not end at the front door of the university.

And if the aim is for a process of decolonizing our categories of race and religion — and the societies in which they have such a fundamental impact — the process should and must also involve in some way those such as me, who are racialized as white.


On one level, decolonization was an event — a particular series of events which were the historic moments of the end of European empires — roughly during the period from the late 1940s to the end of the 1960s. These events were supposed to be the end point of an era of European colonization which lasted more than 500 years, roughly from 1492.

However, although the formal end of such colonization happened with the British withdrawing from India, Malaya, and much of Africa, the Dutch from the East Indies, and the French from North Africa — this was not the end of the much deeper process of colonization. For example, one form of colonialism — that is settler colonialism — is still at the heart of very powerful modern states such as the USA, Canada, and Australia.

Thus, Anibal Quijano has argued that colonization should be seen as a continuing process in the twenty first century:

‘in spite of the fact that political colonialism has been eliminated, the relationship between the European — also called ‘Western’ — culture, and the others, continues to be one of colonial domination.
‘It is not only a matter of the subordination of the other cultures to the European, in an external relation; we have also to do with a colonization of the other cultures, albeit in differing intensities and depths.
‘This relationship consists, in the first place, of a colonization of the imagination of the dominated; that is, it acts in the interior of that imagination, in a sense, it is a part of it.’ (Quijano 2007, 169)

Thus the study of decolonization is about the need for political decolonization (unravelling 500 years, if possible), and also the decolonization of knowledge.

And this relates back to Sara Ahmed’s point about academic citation and the body of knowledge built on the white male body.

And thus also with the wider decolonizing movement under the header/hashtag, ‘why is my curriculum white?’.

Why is it that when we teach philosophy, what we are actually teaching is European (male) philosophy, and English literature is so often white (male) English literature.

Decolonizing the curriculum can mean many things — often it is about adding writers and thinkers of colour, as an immediate response to the glaring whiteness of so many subject areas. This is a start, but it is not merely about ‘diversifying’ or about adding a ‘bit of colour’. I find that Ahmed’s challenge is to ask us what changes happen when we put our focus not on the ‘usual suspects’ (that is, the canon of white men), but on other voices — the ones that have been (and often still are) left at the margins.

For me this has been an exploration of what happens when we rethink the fundamental issues of theory and method in the study of religion.

In terms of theorists and practitioners of intersectionality, such as Kimberele Crenshaw, Patricia Hill Collins, and bell hooks.

In terms of theorists of colonialism, violence, and modernity such as WEB Du Bois and Aime Cesaire.

On methods, such as Indigenous research methods, emerging from Linda Tuhiwai Smith and Eve Tuck.

And on decolonization theory, such as Achille Mbembe, Anibal Qiujano, Gurminder Bhambra and many more.

(My first attempt at a syllabus for teaching such a methodological approach in the study of religion can be found here.)

Once we go down this road, we find that decolonization is not about ‘making room at the table’ it is about changing the whole room. The metaphors that Ahmed uses for this include Audre Lorde’s much used phrase of ‘rebuilding the master’s house’, and also of exploding, blowing up the cosy stability of current disciplines.

And here is the question I am wondering about. If we recognise the colonial creation of the place where we are working — both the university in general and the discipline of the study of religion — then where will decolonizing lead? What do we want it to do?

Decolonization requires scholars to recognize their own structural location within the disciplinary history and structures where they teach and research. No matter how innovative we may feel we are, our bodies, our sources, our privileges are all structures — they are not merely events.

We could talk here about race, enslavement, and the creation of the modern university — with for example the recent project at the University of Glasgow that has shown a significant portion of the funding received by the university at a time of its expansion and redevelopment in the late 1700s and 1800s came directly from slavery related sources (

This is just one place, where the research has been conducted. Research in a number of US universities has highlighted the universities themselves ‘owning’ slaves, and being funded from slave holders.

But if we turn to the present day, there are also some basic facts about how the contemporary university is structured along race.

A very recent study by the British Royal Historical Society (the RHS) found that this year, in Britain in 2018:


· 93.7% of all History academic staff are White and 6.3% are BME, with just 0.5% Black.

· (History staff are less ‘diverse’ than UK university staff as a whole, of whom the ratio is 85% White and 15% BME).

· 89% of students in Historical & Philosophical Studies are White, with 11% BME
· It is worth noting here that this figure is not exclusively measuring history. It also includes students in programmes on Theology and/or Religious Studies (and of course philosophy)
· (this compares to 77.3% White and 22.7% BME for all subject cohorts)

There is not yet any comparable report or data for research and teaching in the study of religion. But this report does raise questions about how disciplines exclude people and perspectives.

We should also put this alongside the racial pay gap in British universities, where average salaries are:

· £52,000 for white academics
· £38,000 for ‘black’ academics
· £37,000 for academics from an Arab background

This is an average pay difference of 26% less for academics of colour.

And in addition, female academics fare even worse, due to this intersecting with the gender pay gap.


This is largely summed up by Kalwant Bhopal, who argues that in Britain:

Black and minority ethnic academics working in universities remain marginalised and regularly describe experiencing subtle, covert, and nuanced racism.
At senior levels, they are less likely than their white colleagues to be professors or occupy decision-making roles.
The white space of the academy perpetuates and reinforces white middle class privilege; consequently our higher education continues to be dominated by a white elite. (Bhopal 2017b)

This is of course not only in higher education, but at all levels of the education system.

As Eve Tuck has argued, ‘decolonization is not a metaphor’ — and should not be reduced to a simple slogan.

Decolonization is a call for very real changes at many different levels.

Decolonizing race

It is commonly accepted that race is ‘not real’, that it is a social construction, and there is no longer any good reason to perpetuate the idea of biological race in the contemporary world.

To reflect this, there has been the late twentieth century academic move from talking of race to ‘ethnicity’ and ‘culture’.

Despite these best intentions, this has not stopped the idea and practice of race remaining a significant part of popular discourse and culture. In Britain, across much of Europe and North America and Australia, the concept of race (whether we gloss over it as ethnicity of not) still has an extremely powerful dominant role.

We do not have to go far to see this in practice: such as, in discussions of relative ‘IQ’ levels (which rely in themselves on tests which are heavily racialized).

And in the much broader and pernicious racialization of blackness; and in the endemic racialization of Muslims (as ethnically, racially, and religiously different/other).

As Richard Dyer noted two decades ago,

‘racial imagery is central to the organisation of the modern world’ (Dyer 1997, 1).

Social constructions are very real; race in particular is very real, even when it is not rooted in the ‘reality’ of biology and genetics. Race can very often mean a matter of life and death — even in something as seemingly straightforward as a routine encounter with a police officer.

This is why there has been a critical academic movement back to talking of ‘race’, to address the issue rather than gloss over it in the euphemism of ‘ethnicity’. This has largely been described as the growth of critical race studies, focusing not on the neutrality of seemingly equalised ethnicities — but in the harsh political structures of white racialization of selves and others.

In this context, it is necessary to talk not so much of ‘race’ but rather of racialization — that is, how this process of the concept and category of race is put into practice and made very real. How it is written onto bodies and policed — quite literally.

In this sense, race and racialization are a structure, not an event. The purpose of analysing race is not about calling out individual ‘racism’ or deciding whether a particular person is or is not a racist.

The critical analysis of race is about how societies and power structures discriminate systematically, whether that be through mass incarceration, institutional discrimination and Islamophobia, or policies on housing, education, and

As Sylvester Johnson argues,

race is a state practice of ruling people within a political order that perpetually places some within and others outside of the political community through which the constitution of the state is conceived. (Johnson 2015, 394)

In a recent book, the late Patrick Wolfe summarised this approach, recognising that (as a number of others such as Stuart Hall have argued) discourses of racial difference (e.g., skin culture, a sense of cultural difference, or of differences of civilization) are a part of the framing and practice of power relations — involving the exertion of power by one group over another.

This is the basis of Wolfe’s pithy comment, that:

‘race is colonialism speaking’ (Wolfe 2016, 117).

The idea of race is not only the product of colonial power, it is in itself a significant part of the structure of empire and the modern state.

Which is of course very close to the conclusion reached by Hannah Arendt more than 70 years ago:

The fact that racism is the main ideological weapon of imperialistic politics is so obvious that it seems as though many students prefer to avoid the beaten track of a truism. (Arendt 1944, 41)

What this indicates, therefore, is both very simple and very challenging.

If race is the product and producer of empire, then a decolonizing process is always going to be about race.

And hence my choice to bring Sara Ahmed’s critique of the institution of white men into the earlier discussion. Race — that is the ideology and discourse of race and racialization — is about how the colonial powers racialize themselves, and in doing so disempower those who are different and other.

And so we cannot talk about race without analysing the power of whiteness — not only at the level of government and security, but also within the places where we work and teach.

Decolonizing religion

There has been much recent critical discussion about the idea of religion — largely going back to JZ Smith and Talal Asad, but also coming to us through figures who have themselves stood within this spot at Leibniz University Hannover, such as Russell McCutcheon and Richard King.

In a recent book, Brent Nongbri has summed much of this up very effectively:

the idea of religion is not as natural or universal as it is often assumed to be. Religion has a history. It was born out of a mix of Christian disputes about truth, European colonial exploits, and the formation of nation states.
Yet the study of religion as an academic discipline has proceeded largely on the assumption that religion is simply a fact of human life and always has been.
(Brent Nongbri, 2013. Before Religion: A History of a Modern Concept. Yale University Press, p154)

And as I mentioned at the start, this also brings into question the idea of religions — in plural — as well as the universalising concept of religion. Tomoko Masuzawa’s archival research on the nineteenth strands of colonial academic thinking has highlighted the particular emergence of the ‘world religion’ concept that is now such a taken for granted part of the discipline

As Masuzawa asks:

On what moral or ideological grounds is the pluralist doctrine, as exemplified by the world religions discourse, predicated? What interests and concerns animate this doctrine and keep it viable?
Tomoko Masuzawa. 2005. The Invention of World Religions, Or, How European Universalism Was Preserved in the Language of Pluralism. London: University of Chicago Press. p13

The answer (or more correctly answers) to this question are not simple. Although colonial powers — administrators, missionaries, and scholars — played a very significant role in these processes, this was not simply a ‘one way street’. As Chidester and others have explored, the ideas of religion emerged in different ways across the empires, and were formed by various people who were colonised, as well as the colonisers.

Thus the aim of decolonizing religion needs to start with recognising and analysing this history. The study of religion is not simply a matter of learning about religions — out there, in the field, ready for us to read into and observe — sacred texts, rituals, systems of belief. That may be an easy starting point for teaching first year students, but it is a system that obfuscates and misrepresents — as well as perpetuating the discourses of colonial power.

Which means we need to go back to the idea of the lens that I mentioned earlier. We need to follow Masuzawa and others in asking these wide ranging questions about how did such concepts and approaches, and forms of academic orthodoxy get constructed. How did the many levels of colonialism form the lens through which the contemporary student engages with what we think of as ‘lived religions’, such as Hinduism and Buddhism, etc.?

And also, we need to explore how these powerful modernist ideas have been taken up and practised within the contexts we are observing, with Hindu and Buddhist nationalist movements, reconstructions and modernist interpretations. If the concepts of ‘religion’ and ‘Hinduism’ were not present in pre-colonial Asia, they certainly are now.

And again this is not only looking outwards. The focus also needs to pay attention to the practice of whiteness in the scholarship and teaching of these categories of religion and religions.

Because whiteness is not solely a form of racialization. Race is not solely about skin and bodies, it is about the culture and power formations that become associated with and act on such bodies. In short, whiteness is a religious formation as well as a form of racialization (if we can indeed separate race and religion in such a way, cf Nye 2018).

This is summed up well by Barnor Hesse, writing on the idea of historic, colonial ‘white mythologies’, who argues:

Whiteness, Christian, the West, Europeanness [all and together] comprise a series of racial tropes intimately connected with organicist and universalist metaphors so frequently assumed in various canonical accounts of modernity.
Barnor Hesse. 2007. ‘Racialized Modernity: An Analytics of White Mythologies.’ Ethnic & Racial Studies 30 (4). pp.643–44

I would put this simply: whiteness is both a racial and a religious practice. It is Christian (predominantly Protestant) normativity. Whiteness is a conceptualisation of many aspects spinning off from this, of modernity, secularism, progress, and the civilizing mission that is (as Kipling so famously said) ‘the white man’s burden’.

And thus the process of othering from whiteness — non-white (black, coloured, etc) — is likewise reliant on both race and religion.

And so the discourse of world religions came into being as a means of trying to classify and control non-white alternatives (and ‘deviants’) to (white) Christianity. It was not just theological curiosity and classification (to place and categorise systems that were seen as antithetical to Christian doctrine and practice). It was a tool of empire.

What this means in practice is that the study of religion did not just simply derive from colonial power. What we are talking about, how we understand the core of what we are doing in the study of religion, is — as with race — based on the praxis that (the concept and categorisation of) religion is also a form of colonialism speaking (and acting).

To those of my generation, who may remember the famous quote from the 1975 film Jaws:

‘we are gonna need a bigger boat’.


To sum this up, if we wish to pursue a process of decolonizing, then the starting point is that decolonization it is not a ‘solid state’ or a one-off event. Decolonization is an ongoing process. The end of formal empires did not end the processes of decolonization (nor did it end colonization). Hence it is preferable to talk of decolonizing, as an active process — and in particular, with respect to teaching and research, the decolonizing of knowledge.

Thus decolonization is not the same as ‘inclusion’ or ‘diversification’ — it is not about a paternalistic offering of inclusion to outsiders. Decolonization is about challenging and changing the sense of white entitlement (and white supremacism) that sets up the structures of power that carefully ‘allow’ (and control) the inclusion of certain forms of diversity (DiAngelo 2011). The metaphor of the ‘seat at the table’ (or the space on the syllabus) for such diversity is part of such white paternalism. In contrast, decolonization is a challenge to these assumptions of power and the structures that are formed to maintain them.

Decolonization is not about identifying and employing ‘measurables’ or metrics. It is not about tick boxes, that are checked with a ‘yep we’ve done that, now we get our medal to put on the website’. There is no managerial ‘reward’ for decolonization

Decolonizing is not about a reluctant addition of an extra reading; it requires a wholesale change (perhaps even the ‘hard’ decolonization of pulling apart the discipline). Who we cite is extremely important, as is who is on the curriculum, and who we read and interact with in our research.

And having started with this, we need to continue to ask questions about race, gender, whiteness, and colonial history. Why do we think what we do and how has it emerged from where we have come from? This involves recognizing the concept of whiteness and how it has framed the normative assumptions of the discipline — in particular, the racialized other as subject. This also involves asking difficult and often awkward questions about the researcher’s own individual investment in whiteness, in how that articulates within the institution where they work, and in the students they teach.

This is not only a theoretical exercise or debate. Decolonization is about taking action both within and outside the academy. In particular, for those who are racialized as white (that is, the dominating majority of academics in Britain and north America), where should the process of decolonization start, and where should it be heading?

The most obvious place — as noted above — is with the authors that we engage with in our research and teaching. If the question ‘why is my curriculum white’ provokes a response (either of indignation or guilt), then the point is to address this. And this is not about finding a particular author of colour to fit into an otherwise unchanged syllabus.

It is about asking the questions of how that syllabus needs to be decolonized, decentred, and challenged as a whole. How does the syllabus reflect the gendered and racialized structures of power that are central to the university?

And what new theory and understanding can be gained when we move beyond the institutional body of solely ‘white men’.

If the modern concept of religion is in fact another aspect of colonialism speaking, then how does our research and teaching change to reflect this realisation?

Religion Bites is edited by Malory Nye, an academic and writer who currently teaches on part-time courses at the Universities of Glasgow and Stirling. He can be found on Twitter (@malorynye) and on his website,

He produces two podcasts: Religion Bites and History’s Ink.

Malory Nye is also the author of the books Religion the Basics (2008) and There Shall be an Independent Scotland (2015). He is currently working on a new edition of the Religion the Basics book, together with a new book on Race and Religion, which will be published by Bloomsbury Academic.

He is the editor of the Routledge journal Culture and Religion.