Coloniality in the classroom

A reflection on the experiences of encountering coloniality in the classroom. Presented at IWD 2022 roundtable organised by Gender.Ed.


So, in some ways, this is a pretty straightforward issue for me. I teach in a Business School where, for the most part, although not exclusively, the curriculum tends to train students to be in service of capital. And insofar as capital is an instrument of coloniality, students are trained to abide by a colonial logic. I’ll come to what I mean by colonial logic shortly - but to give an e.g., when students are taught about cultural difference, it is assumed that culture is an expression of an innate human difference – which is why cultural sensitivity training is such a big thing still in businesses, the assumption being that one can be taught to “understand” the other by knowing their culture. This may be a slight over simplification of things, but I don’t need to say how the very notion of cultural difference relies on colonial classifications and understandings of difference.


This is just one example. But I would say that by and large when students come into my class, much of their learning is founded on a colonial logic. So, I teach an undergraduate course on the future of work and the primary framework that I introduce to them in the course is coloniality. I have the say, that the lecture in which I introduce this concept – most often around Week 2 or 3, is the one that makes me the most nervous, even though it is the one that I am most prepared for. I guess you could say that this is another way that I encounter coloniality in the classroom – insofar as I know to anticipate resistance or even backlash to what I am about to say, because it can be perceived as threatening.


I have to say two things here: first, in the 3 years that I have been teaching this course, I have never experienced what I’ve anticipated. On the contrary, for the most part, students have really latched onto this framework. They don’t always get it right, but they are willing to grapple with it. There is something here that seems to resonate with them – and I suspect it is fact that coloniality brings the epistemic and material together. In other words, they may have learnt in other courses about, for e.g., the gender pay gap and what organisations do, or should do, to address it. But what coloniality enables them to understand is how this pay gap gets ethically legitimised – how it gets naturalised and normalised – because of how gender is understood in modernity as a way of being. So, I suspect that they gravitate towards the concept because it helps them make sense of things, and in some case – especially for women and students of color – it helps them decipher their own realities.


The second thing to note – and I guess this is the 3rd encounter with coloniality – is that, I also suspect that, the lack of backlash thus far is a consequence of how I look and sound. Even though I introduce myself as Indian at the start of each term, it is not something that seems to stay with them. In fact, I sometimes think that people, in general, have a hard time reconciling how I look and sound with my Indianness, and so it is something that often gets lost and forgotten. But, in any case, I know that were I to carry more evident markers of otherness – especially a threatening otherness – the backlash that I anticipate would likely materialise.


In the foreground to left, Amerigo Vespucci is holding an astrolabe and staff with a banner of the cross. He addresses a naked female representing America, who is seated on a hammock and wearing a feathered hat. In the background to the left is a sailing ship and another ship is just visible by the shore. In the far distance there is a group of cannibals and exotic wild animals roam in the surrounding landscape.  Inscriptions in Latin. On image: In margin: '1. AMERICA. Americen Americus retexit, Semel vocauit inde semper excitam.' On image: 'Ioan. Stradanus invent.' 'Theodor Galle sculp.'
"The discovery of America" From: rmg.co.uk/collections/objects/rmgc-object-101921

Ok, that said: I introduce coloniality to my students as a logic – or an ethical principle – that tells us what it is to be human. Because coloniality establishes the priority of mind over matter, to be human is to form an image of world based on rational principles and to act upon the world and oneself in accordance with these principles. In other words, we talk about coloniality as the ethical principle which says that to be human one must exercise domination and mastery over oneself and the world. Because of this, coloniality also creates spaces of otherness that are marked by “irrationality” – and this is the context in which we speak about race, gender and ability, as ontological effects of coloniality – where existence that appears as Other is not merely different but also degraded, is devalued. So, if under coloniality capital becomes the expression of and the tool through which to exercise domination and mastery over the world, it is also the tool of dominating and subjugating all forms of life that exist in excess of rational principles. This is how the epistemic has material effects – because how we know the racial, gendered and abled Other impacts their relation to capital, specifically their necessary, or their authorised, subjugation to capital.


The thing that I really want to get across to students is how coloniality institutes value, so that the work of coloniality is to hold the line between what must be valued – that is, everything associated with rationality – and what is null-value – all that appears in excess of rationality, and is associated with the body/affect. And in this context, the work of capital is to create more and more forms of degradation, or devalue, in order to be able to extract more and more value.


So, if I could just say one more thing about how we are currently confronted by this entanglement of coloniality and capital. The academy, as an ethical site, is associated with value – because of its association with knowledge. As an economic site – meaning a site where labour is performed – it is often assumed to be protected precisely because of its ethical value. But what we have been seeing for decades, through the neoliberalisation of the academy, and what we are seeing in the current industrial disputes, is the aim of management – or capital – to devalue labour so that more and more value can be extracted for capital. So precariatisation follows the colonial logic of manufacturing certain activity as not requiring rational capacity, as being physical and affect oriented, so that it can be ethically and economically degraded.


This is why it is so galling when universities “celebrate” IWD or proclaim their commitment to EDI – when their ongoing practices of devaluing labour – whether through increased workloads, casualisation, pay depletion, whatever it may be – are fundamentally colonial, when they follow a strict colonial logic. This is the irony and tragedy of coloniality that we have to confront in this moment.

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