The Decolonial Project of Teaching Decolonization: Or Why Miami University Is Not in Florida

By Michael Loadenthal

Teaching about colonialism and advancing a decolonial framework within an undergraduate institution is never easy. Ask most residents where Miami University is, and you’ll likely hear Florida, as famously mocked in the TV series, The Office.

Toby: Kelly Kapoor is gone. Her fiancé Ravi was hired as a pediatrics professor at Miami University.
Kelly: [tossing out winter coats] I don’t need ’em anymore! I am going to Miami biotches [sic] to hang with Lebron James and Gloria Estefan!
Toby: Miami University in Ohio. On her last day, Kelly was still a little confused about it.
Kelly: Enjoy the snow losers!

Though laughable for sure, the joke dies quickly in the banality of having to so frequently remind people that Oxford is in Ohio. Local Oxfordians are likely to tell you that the university is named for the Miami River, as the school resides in the Miami Valley of Ohio. The university, founded in 1809, predated the US “purchase” of the state of Florida by ten years. For those who forgot, Florida was acquired in 1819 via the Adams-Onis Treaty with Spain. I would venture to guess that only a few of my students are aware of this timeline. Nonetheless, colonial awareness seems to be ascending. More “progressive” and left-leaning spaces and events are including land acknowledgements, though as many have remarked (mostly in Canada where the discourse is more active), this is simply not adequate. The university itself is riding a trend of trying to preserve and perpetuate languages at risk of dying out, and digital platforms such as Native Lands (shown below) help situate travelers and residents about whose land they are residing upon. Using their maps, through even a cursory review, one can see that Oxford, Ohio occupies lands of the Hopewell, Adena, Shawnee, Osage and Miami Indians.

I find that in simply sharing this map and offering students an opportunity to explore it, cracks begin to form in their own thinking. When I used to begin that class by asking students to think of where they were born, and to name the pre-colonial inhabitants (and their watershed), the results were less than encouraging.

With a university bearing the name of the people it displaced, why is this particular form of early State terrorism so far from students’ minds?

Certainly I try to do my part to talk about it. In our global sociology course, I lean heavily on decolonial, post-colonial, and other critical theorists, typically assigning Eve Tuck and K. Wayne Yang’s “Decolonization Is Not a Metaphor,” Charles C. Mann’s 1491, and Edward Said’s Orientalism, before discussing its responses through Franz Fanon’s The Wretched of the Earth, and Achille Mbembe’s On the Postcolony—all amazing texts. What I have always found so odd, is that through these texts, students are often open to (even sympathetic to) the arguments presented. But it is when those same logics are thrust upon their own subjectivities that they recede.

The violence inherent in settler colonialism, land expropriation, and its resulting ethnic cleansing is a hard reality to accept. It is dislocating, disheartening, and suffocating to think of one’s existence as denying the same to others. When in the abstract, colonial and imperial projects are loathsome, when I use this basis to discuss the Miami, and the loss of their territory, language, and sovereignty, the room feels decidedly less on board. In trying to untangle and unpack these complex intersections for the students, I adopt Fanon’s “forms” of violence: colonial violence (directed at the colonized), emancipatory violence (directed at the colonizer), and that which resides in the venue of international relations. This triad speaks to the interplay between oppressed and oppressor, colonizer and colonized, and helps further the decolonial framework I try to foster. It is this transactional relationship—colonizers produce violence which produces the colonizer’s violent response—that seems to make sense to them.

My goal in teaching decolonial theory in a 100-level General Education course is three-fold: first, to introduce the destabilizing notion that the land they reside on was established through violence; to critically interrogate space, place, and power. Secondly, to advance the argument that violence as a response to colonialism is expected and just. Finally, to challenge them to rethink what constitutes a country, or as Jasbir Puar argues, to engage in “queering the nation.” I claim, as many have in decolonial studies, that the process of colonialism is not an incidental occurrence of the act of being European, but rather a “particular one of engagement” between the continental powers and First Nations. This to me is key. Colonialism did not just happen. It was planned, orchestrated, strategized, and carried out by governments, militaries, technocrats, and the settler populations that filled foreign lands. This last point, the intentionality of such violence, is maybe the hardest pill for the students to swallow.

So does any of this stick to a room occupied by fifty, largely white, Anglo-Saxon, US-born, Midwestern teenagers?

I try and scaffold the learning through clarifying terms, showing points of congruence, and points of distinction, beginning with the question of colonialism versus imperialism. I teach that colonialism is the subjugation of a territory and/or people by an external force, as well as the imposition of new forms of political, social, and economic life. Imperialism is the domination of territories and people by a powerful State, though not necessarily with the accompanying imposition of new forms of life. While imperialism is meant to establish dominance through the fostering of empire and projection of power, colonialism is more physical, the taking of another’s territory for the purpose of exploiting its assets and population transfer.

Both require the construction and suppression of an other—what Mbembe calls entanglement—yet while imperialism seeks to control markets, political systems, and other resources, colonialism is the forced replication of one’s own society elsewhere, often for the purposes of engaging in systematic resource theft (i.e., extraction colonialism), population transfer (i.e., settler colonialism), and/or the projection of power outwards through military expansion (i.e. garrison colonialism). While imperialism extends national influence, colonialism extends similar controls for the purpose of and extractive exploitation. While imperialism does include some forms of colonialism, colonialism does not automatically involve imperialism, as the latter lacks an explicitly-political focus.

Sometimes in trying to make sense of this for my students, I discuss more modern periods of violent socio-political reorganization—the Nazi Holocaust as a period of modernity’s reordering, the rapid reorganization of economies and politics following disasters, or the construction of some lives as simply less grievable or “mattering less.” Of these approaches, Naomi Klein’s “shock doctrine” always seems to stick. As Klein defines it, the “shock doctrine” involves “orchestrated raids on the public sphere in the wake of catastrophic events, combined with the treatment of disasters as exciting market opportunities.” Though not a perfect case study, colonial projects rely on similar means as they seek to remake societies during the upheaval of occupation, population transfer, foreign domination, expropriation, and forced assimilation. For students who have been raised through a rapid series of emblematic systemic “shocks”—9/11, Hurricanes Katrina and Sandy, the 2008 financial crash, the Corona virus global pandemic—this approach allows them to make a bit of order from the chaos. While the trans-Atlantic slave trade, colonial expansion, and imperial rule may feel as irrelevant crimes of history, showing these as articulations of structural violence amid capitalism’s drive towards market regularity is a place to begin; a shared bedrock to analyze from.

For a way forward, we can begin from Judith Butler’s notion of a shared “global obligation”, a post-national configuration of interdependence beyond the historic “‘dependency’ of the colonized.” Instead of creating additional relationships of control, Butler proposes interdependencies rooted in nonviolence and a “new egalitarian imaginary,” situated in a redistributed power, which seem like the beginnings of a way forward.

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Michael Loadenthal, Ph.D. is the Executive Director of the Peace and Justice Studies Association, and the Executive Director of the Prosecution Project, a long-term data science collaborative examining how political violence, terrorism, and extremism are prosecuted in US courts. He has taught at a variety of universities including Miami
University, the University of Cincinnati, George Mason University, and Georgetown
University, and is currently focused on providing digital defense training for social
movements under threat, and conducting investigations targeting the far-right. His latest books include The Politics of Attack (Manchester University Press, 2017), The
Routledge History of World Peace Since 1750 (2018), and From Environmental Loss to
Resistance (UMass Press, 2020).