Can we decolonize college?

Monday, October 19, 2020 - 6:57pm

Every October around Indigenous Peoples’ Day — formerly Columbus Day — discourse around colonialism, historical revisionism, colonization and decolonization re-surface momentarily on the Internet and in the classroom. This discourse usually starts and ends with the consensus that Christopher Columbus’ violent crusade against Indigenous peoples was in fact not something to celebrate. Very seldom, however do we discuss the ways in which neo-colonialism still manifests itself in our society every day through Western imperialism, globalization and foreign aid projects. Nor do we ever discuss the ways in which colonial thought has strategically indoctrinated itself into our inner psyche, thereby permeating into our culture and way of living. 

 

Pan-Africanist philosopher Frantz Fanon wrote extensively about this very issue. In his seminal piece The Wretched of the Earth, he argues that colonization has led to the internalization of colonial prejudice within the psyche of the colonized subject — essentially, the oppressed body themselves perpetuates their own subjugation by nurturing this colonial thought that has been so deeply and generationally indoctrinated. He later on describes the necessity for decolonization as a means to undo the burdens of colonialism’s violent legacy. 

 

But what does decolonization look like? To Fanon, decolonization entails the physical returning of land, native sovereignty, self-determination, and wealth redistribution to Indigenous and colonized people. More contemporary thinkers have reiterated this notion as well. Scholars Eve Tuck and K. Wayne Yang maintain in their piece Decolonization is not a metaphor, that “decolonization brings about the repatriation of Indigenous land and life; it is not a metaphor for other things we want to do to improve our societies and schools.” They neglect the calls for “decolonizing schools” or “decolonizing academia” considering them to be distractions, perversions and mere co-optations of the term. 

 

Nonetheless, many scholars such as Anibal Quijano view decolonization as an intellectual project, a more epistemological feat, in which the decolonization of knowledge, and the complete restructuring of our current knowledge systems occurs, de-centering itself from Western hegemony. 

 

The colonial institution of academia stands as the pinnacle of knowledge, making it the most critical of institutions in need of decolonization. Decolonization at the university level could help serve as a catalyst for the more literal decolonization that Fanon et al seek to take place. Both interpretations of the term are long, ongoing processes, but the end result is well worth the struggle. 

 

A decolonized college experience might look like the de-privatization and the subsequent democratization of access to higher education institutions. This means access to PDFs, resources, essays and bodies of work that are often hidden behind a firewall, restricted to subscribers or buried away in expensive textbooks. 

 

A decolonized college experience also might look like the removal of obsolete pedagogies which turn education and learning into an authoritative, punitive process where power dynamics between educators and students create hostile, unwelcoming and uninviting learning environments. This would create an opportunity for a new pedagogy, much like what Paulo Friere advocates for in his piece Pedagogy of Freedom in which educators center their teaching practice around a respect for the autonomy of the student over their learning, and engage with them through a more dialogical relationship rather than an authoritative one.

 

A decolonized college experience could also look like the administration taking decisive steps to dismantle inherently systemic racism. Such steps, like those outlined by sociologist Rodney Coates in a webinar on decolonizing academe, could include expanding pathways to students of color, investing and cultivating a stronger relationship with local communities, and restructuring curriculums that have been centered around Eurocentric canons to take into account knowledge systems from all cultures. 

 

This year, we’ve already seen coalitions of students on our campus take strides toward these steps. Last month, students in the School of Music, Theatre, and Dance, the Theatre and Drama department stood in solidarity with the GEO, all the while organizing their own list of demands for the faculty of the department. These demands included a “decolonized curriculum that focuses on a variety of techniques from around the world” as well as an increase in BIPOC representation at the student and faculty levels. The faculty responded with an affirming statement promising to take necessary and immediate action to meet the demands.

 

This particular instance is a prime example of what decolonization at the college level could look like. Additionally, many of these action steps, while critical at a collegiate level, could also have a tremendous impact in our public K-12 education system as well, which as we know, remains a highly inequitable system. Although a fully decolonized academic experience might take years and even decades to achieve, the cultural and intellectual benefits throughout the journey will be enriching for everyone. However, the process should not only occur when students themselves fight for it or demand it, the issue is systemic and the solution should be as well. Afro Carribean author and French poet Aimé Césaire once stated in his Discourse on Colonialism that, “the relationship between consciousness and reality are extremely complex … It is equally necessary to decolonize our minds, our inner life, at the same time that we decolonize society.” By opening ourselves to knowledge systems from all over the world, we gain the critical consciousness necessary to see reality, and once we recognize reality, we recognize the necessity to deconstruct the colonial barriers that prohibit societal uplift. 

 

Karis can be reached at kariscl@umich.edu.