“Decolonisation means different things to different people. While this diversity is often to be celebrated, I suggest that not all forms of decolonisation are to be welcomed because some approaches can be inconsequential, some can be problematic and others can even reinscribe the very coloniality that is supposed to be dismantled.”, said Dr Leon Moosavi (Senior Lecturer at the University of Liverpool) at the roundtable on ‘Decolonising Higher Education‘, organised by LSE Saw Swee Hock Southeast Asia Centre on 30th September 2020
There’s been a lot of webinars recently and we all know why.
One of the best webinars that I participated in took place in September 2020 when the LSE hosted a roundtable discussion on decolonising higher education.
The event involved esteemed scholars and a lively audience who discussed what is probably the hottest topic in academia these days: decolonisation.
Okay, okay, so 90 minutes isn’t enough to do justice to such a complex and important topic, but we still had a good crack at it.
My contribution to the discussion was largely based upon an article that I have recently published which has generated quite a bit of discussion in decolonial circles. The article is entitled The Decolonial Bandwagon and the Dangers of Intellectual Decolonisation.
In my brief remarks, I tried to say something slightly original and somewhat interesting but you will have to ask the audience if I succeeded.
I tried to provoke “the decolonial community” into thinking about decolonisation in more sceptical terms than is often the case. I attempted this because decolonisation is often enthusiastically celebrated with the repetition of popular slogans without sufficient interrogation about the potential limitations and pitfalls of the decolonial project.
My desire is not to oppose decolonisation because I’m actually a fan of it. Neither is my desire to say that I know how it can best be done. After all, it’s easier to offer criticisms than solutions. Rather, I just want to say that if we claim to be decolonial scholars we must try to ensure that we are not merely jumping on the decolonial bandwagon, and instead, we should aim for a type of decolonisation that is meaningful, impactful and genuinely faithful to the principles of undoing the harms of the colonial legacy.
My argument is premised upon recognising that decolonisation means different things to different people. While this diversity is often to be celebrated, I suggest that not all forms of decolonisation are to be welcomed because some approaches can be inconsequential, some can be problematic and others can even reinscribe the very coloniality that is supposed to be dismantled.
For instance, some discussions about decolonisation are Northerncentric in the sense that they ignore or silence decolonial scholars/activists from the Global South. Not only should decolonial scholars ensure that we are not making the same ironic mistake of enacting coloniality by marginalising peripheral voices, but those of us from the Global North or privileged backgrounds may need to step aside more regularly to create space for those who do not have the same opportunities to be heard.
Moreover, it is rarely recognised that university structures and their curricula may already be so heavily imbued with a legacy of colonialism that it may not even be possible to decolonise them. I’m currently reflecting more on this issue and increasingly coming to a cynical realisation that perhaps we should be talking about abolishing the university rather than decolonising it. I get it, it sounds unrealistic and it probably is, but decolonial thinking is supposed to take us to these uncomfortable spaces. Watch this space for further theorising on whether we should abandon decolonisation in favour of dismantling. How pessimistic, right?
In some instances, efforts at decolonisation may not only essentialise the Global South in orientalist ways, but may even be guilty of appropriating knowledge from the Global South in a questionable manner. This may be for self-gratification or even for more instrumental means such as career progression. Thus, one must ask oneself if one is willing to promote decolonisation even if it could result in personal setbacks, else one must concede that decolonisation is inseparable from self-centred agendas, which seems to contradict its ethos.
To make matters more complicated, decolonial commentators don’t always agree upon who has suffered and benefited from colonialism, or where our priorities must lie in decolonising. Building on this point, one of the audience members mentioned that in some Global South contexts, the contemporary colonisers are not from the West but from local or regional elites which is tantamount to what we may call “domestic colonisation” or “internal colonisation”. So far, those who call for the decolonisation of higher education have given insufficient attention to the multifaceted forms of coloniality in which those who appear to be marginalised are actually more powerful than may be apparent at first glance.
Moreover, in some instances, those who advocate decolonisation may engage in a nativistic rejection of Northern scholarship, or an unwarranted romanticisation of that which is said to be Southern. Such nativism and romanticism serve only to undermine decolonisation rather than strengthen its potential because it transforms the decolonial project into a simplistic rendering of “us” and “them”. I know what you’re thinking and that’s because you’re right: it’s a similar reductivism to that which the colonisers enacted.
Lastly, decolonisation can be merely tokenistic. This may manifest in a superficial scratching-of-the-surface but it can just as well be present in instances of over-theorising where decolonisation is made so inaccessible that it does nothing to further the cause of decolonising anything. Thus, decolonisation must go some way toward rectifying the portrayal of some people, their being and their knowledge as “wretched”, otherwise it is not decolonisation.
Two of the audience members raised a valid concern that policing the boundaries of decolonisation too rigidly may result in having a narrow definition of decolonisation even though decolonisation is supposed to be about plurality. They are absolutely right. My point is not to say that decolonisation must be one thing, but to say that it cannot be all things. That is because, and I am hoping that you may find this contentious, some manifestations of decolonisation are not only redundant but also dangerous.
Let’s continue the conversation. Until then, may we keep dreaming of decolonial horizons.
* This post is based on Dr Leon Moosavi’s roundtable intervention delivered on 30th September 2020 as part of SEAC Seminar Series. You can access a podcast of the roundtable here.
* Please also check out Dr Emma Colven’s reflections on the roundtable event here.
* The views expressed in the blog are those of the authors alone. They do not reflect the position of the Saw Swee Hock Southeast Asia Centre, nor that of the London School of Economics and Political Science.