Things We Wish We Knew: Decolonisation

Decolonisation has become, as of these last few years, a buzz word! It is currently used in the context of popular anti-racist activism to mean the process of removing racist and hierarchical notions, vestiges of European colonialism, from all thought and action. This shift away from Eurocentric thinking and towards an anarchic, cosmopolitan, multi-centred view of the world and a respect for the perspectives and self-determination of its people, is to decolonise. But what does it mean to be Eurocentric?

To be Eurocentric means to embrace, consciously or not, a worldview centred and biased towards White European civilisation, with a general assumption of the authority, entitlement and superiority of White Europeans (Hobson 2012). See Imogen’s excellent exploration of the analogous notion of ethnocentrism, and anthropocentrism, here! This might seem a far-fetched notion that only White Supremacists would hold to, but it is a worldview that successfully dominated the planet for half a millennia, so there is reason enough to deduce (and evidence abounds) that it lingers, covertly, in much of our thought and discourse. But, how and why?

If Imperialism was the practice of building empire at home in Europe, Colonialism was the practice by those Imperial powers of invading and settling the peoples and lands beyond its borders, transforming Indigenous spaces into ‘colonies’ geared towards the extraction of wealth, and transforming Indigenous populations into subservient subjects (Howe 2002). To be colonial in thought and action is therefore to think and act in those terms; as if non-European life and culture is something lesser, to be dominated, colonised and extracted for wealth. On an intellectual level, the general theory of decolonisation is a legacy of Postcolonial studies, the literary, poetic and academic movement of mostly African, Caribbean and Asian writers from the 1950s onwards, which saw a wide-reaching and critical appraisal of the cultural legacy of European colonisation in all its forms and manifestations (Laurie et al 2019).

Firstly, a recollection of the context. White European domination of the world was long, violent and unparalleled in human history (Mignolo 2011). After some 500 years, colonial power variously weakened, and ideas of emancipation and freedom rose up in colonial spaces. Nationalist movements gained strength, mostly as a result of the miraculous and heroic struggle of the people and their leaders who endured immense suffering, and who fought, died and survived at incredible odds. From the late 19th century onward and particularly following the Second World War, European powers subsequently retreated and new nations were forged independent from colonial rule.

The process of decolonisation had thus begun; the governmental and social adaptation to self-determination, with the implementation of large-scale changes in economy, infrastructure, industry, legislation, and so on. Many of these nationalist projects were smooth and successful, many resulted in unimaginable bloodshed, but the result of it all was our contemporary world today (Glassner 1980).

One could say that with the collapse of European empires and their colonial control, the decolonisation of the world has thus been completed – but the type of decolonisation we are talking about refers to something different. Even in our post-colonial age, colonisation persists as a haunting psychological force; a habit of superiority and domination, and of trauma of subjugation, influencing the thoughts, behaviours and general culture of both former colonisers, and the formerly colonised (Pushkala 2015).

Frantz Fanon

One of the first major literary and theoretical demonstrations of this was by Frantz Fanon, a trained psychiatrist from Martinique, whose writings gave an account of the lingering psychopathology of oppression, and the necessity for an ‘inner’ decolonisation (Fanon 1961). The essays and poetry of Aimé Césaire (1955) expressed similar sentiments, while Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o, in Decolonising the Mind (1986), called explicitly for the realisation that despite the retreat of European colonial power, colonisation continued to dominate the mental universe of the formerly-colonised through reification in thought and language.

Then, in the late 1970s, Edward Said wrote Orientalism (1978), and changed the face of Western scholarship forever. He demonstrated in great detail the patronising and racialised way in which Europeans had always represented non-Europeans, suggesting that European selfhood and the basis of its scholastic thought, like its historical economic base being in colonial extraction, had always been dependent upon the subjugation of the non-White other. He suggested, therefore, that Western scholarship wise up to this deeply-ingrained cultural habit, and eradicate orientalism from its thinking. To eradicate orientalism from thinking, in this context, is thus an aspect of how an intellectual discipline might engage in decolonisation.

That decolonisation as a term and discourse has been successful in entering popular parlance suggests that the anti-racist struggle has moved beyond the influence of the overt struggle of Civil Rights-era equity, and into the covert space of linguistic and ontological critique referenced in Postcolonial literature. This suggests that it isn’t just personal, conscious behaviour that creates racism and division, but the subconscious structures of thought, habit and tradition.

Colonisation, like trauma, haunts from the past; but everyone is a winner when it is addressed intelligently. Of recent years, many writers (Harrison, 1993; Tuhiwai-Smith, 1999; Land, 2016) all reference, in the titles of their respective works also, the earlier calls by Fanon, Césaire, Thiong’o and others to decolonise their respective scholarly disciplines – to engage in processes to identify the attitudes, sentiments and modes of thinking and existence, conscious or not, that perpetuate colonialist domination in thought, language and action. To decolonise is therefore to engage in those practices as an object of discovery; how and why the notion of domination and disrespect of the self-determination of the Other might pervade and limit our thinking. So, decolonise now!


References:

Césaire, Aimé (1955) Discourse on Colonialism. New York: Monthly Review Press.

Fanon, F. (1963) The Wretched of the Earth. New York: Grove Press.

Glassner, M. I. (1980) Systematic Political Geography 2nd Edition. New York: John Wiley & Sons.

Harrison, F (1993) Decolonizing Anthropology: Moving Further Toward an Anthropology for Liberation. Washington D.C.: Association of Black Anthropologists – American Anthropological Association.

Hobson, J. (2012). The Eurocentric conception of world politics: western international theory, 1760-2010. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Howe, S. (2002) Empire: A Very Short Introduction. United States: Oxford University Press.

Land, C. (2015) Decolonizing Solidarity. London: Zed Books.

Laurie, T.; Stark, H.; Walker, B. (2019) ‘Critical Approaches to Continental Philosophy: Intellectual Community, Disciplinary Identity, and the Politics of Inclusion’, in Parrhesia: A Journal of Critical Philosophy, 30 (1-17).

Mignolo, W. (2011) The darker side of Western modernity : global futures, decolonial options. Durham: Duke University Press.

Pushkala, P. (2015) Crafting qualitative research : working in the postpositivist traditions. London: Routledge. 

Said, E. (1978) Orientalism. New York: Pantheon Books.

Thiong’o, N. (1986) Decolonising the Mind: the Politics of Language in African Literature. New Hampshire: Heinemann Educational.

Tuhiwai-Smith, L. (1999) Decolonizing Methodologies: Research and Indigenous Peoples (2nd ed). London: Zed Books.

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