What does decolonisation mean?

Listen to podcast at: Teaching Matters, Decolonising the Curriculum


I have to first say that my answer comes from thinking with anti-colonial and decolonial thinkers like Aimé Césaire, Franz Fanon, Audre Lorde, James Baldwin, Sylvia Wyter, Denise da Silva and Katherine McKittrick.


Decolonisation is the end of the world as we know it. In other words, it is the abolition of coloniality.


I would describe coloniality as the logic that tells us what it is to be human in this world, and therefore how we should understand and act in it. Specifically, coloniality tells us that to be human is to master, is to exercise mastery or dominion, over all that is not human. This is why the practice of colonialism necessarily entailed dehumanisation, in order to legitimise the process of establishing dominion over certain forms of life.


Of course, to exercise mastery over something, it needs to be 'known' and 'understood' so that it can be made useful to the human. Césaire calls this thingification – he describes colonialism as the process of thingification. Or we could think of it as the process of making life and the world into an object; to bring certainty and predictability and order and utility to everything around us, including ourselves. That is coloniality.


Because of this need for predictability and order and utility, coloniality also produces differentiation. Or what quantum feminists call separability. It produces a separation between mind and body, and between human and plant and animal beings. It creates separations between bodies and forms of living by categorising them as different races and gender, giving thereby some knowability and order to them, making them differentially usable.



Statue of Edward Colston being dropped into the river
Image from Sky News (news.sky.com/story/sky-news-research-finds-quarter-of-controversial-statues-removed-due-to-be-removed-or-under-review-since-edward-colston-monument-toppled-12326278)

It’s easy, then, to see how coloniality is a deeply wounding situation. And why we are all – the earth and all its beings – why we are all living with this wound. Coloniality cuts away or abandons anything that is not knowable or usable; or otherwise insists on making everything knowable and usable, which is of course an impossibility – but it doesn’t stop coloniality from trying.


Decolonisation therefore means to heal from this wound; to abolish coloniality, and thereby repair the world and ourselves.


So, when I think of writers, like Césaire, Fanon, Lorde, Silva – they do not provide us a step-by-step guide to decolonisation. What I think they are trying to say – or what I feel they are trying to say – is: this world cannot be; and for anything else to be possible, we have to find our way back to all that we have been told is disordered and useless and other; and in finding our way back, we heal from coloniality. Cesaire speaks of poetry, Lorde of emotion and the erotic, Silva about disorder.


So, most importantly, for me, decolonisation is about finding ways to heal, starting with a recognition of the wound. Again, I want to say, with thinkers like Baldwin and Lorde and others, that coloniality is a common or universal wound. The wound may appear and be experienced differently – e.g. whiteness is the normalisation of the wound as the description of what it is to be human, whereas for racial others the wound is the experience of dehumanisation; the same can be said for sex, gender, ability, even class.


I’ve been thinking a lot about decolonisation as grief work. What does it mean to be able to hold and share and work with the grief that coloniality has caused? And that we all feel but don’t quite know how to articulate or even locate. How can we each help ourselves and each other to work with our wounds and our grief to be human otherwise, to be in relationship with each other otherwise?



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