Do Not Colonize Decolonization

By Pushpa Iyer

Decolonizing is a hot topic today. It is trendy for many to use the term when expressing frustration and desiring change with all things abhorrent in our neo-liberal capitalist world. When decolonizing becomes a buzzword, it implies we no longer need to undergo a rigorous transformation of mind and spirit to embody the term.

Decolonization, the term, is about deconstructing or dismantling colonial ideologies and challenging the superiority of western thought and approaches. Decolonization of knowledge is about questioning who has the power over knowledge production, dissemination and management and eventually decentering those sources of power by bringing in others who were marginalized by colonization. It short, it is about re-centering First nation peoples whose erasure was the number one project of colonization. And, finally, decolonization of the mind is what Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o referred to as the empowering of the languages and the cultures of those subjugated by colonial powers.

I study decolonization, and I also teach classes and conduct training on decolonizing knowledge, my focus is on institutions of higher learning. I am passionate about decolonizing everything around me – education, institutions, communities. In my work, I am struck by how quickly the decolonization challenge reduces to some simple solution. In classrooms, minutes into introducing the topic of decolonization, I hear people say, “Let us decolonize the classroom, the syllabus, the curriculum, the pedagogy.” So appealing is the term that we believe that every one of us, trained in western educational—colonized—institutions, somehow possess this ability to decolonize the world around us; but, this is a mistake. How could we end up so wrong?

The following presents 7 ways the process of decolonizing academia fails:

1. Conflate Diversity with Decolonized

We confuse promoting diversity with decolonizing. Efforts to add non-western scholars to a syllabus or hire more diverse faculty is just one small step in the long process of decolonizing academia. Such efforts, in the short term, promote diversity, but they do not always result in decolonization in the long run. Policy changes in hiring, recruitment, curriculum development, decentering individuals and sources of knowledge, and questioning overall educational values and goals must all happen for there to be decolonization. By overusing and incorrectly using the term, Tuck and Yang say that we turn decolonization into a metaphor. The resulting problem, as they say, is we try to fit decolonization goals within the frameworks for equity. Decolonization, however, they argue, is much more than diversity or equity. As a metaphor, it precludes conversations about who should lead and how power must be transformed in these educational institutions for there to be true decolonization. My suggestion would be to use appropriate words to describe the efforts you make and not label every step of initiating change in your institutions as decolonization.

2. Disconnect from Location

We continue to draw benefits from the westernized educational institutions, most of which are built on the land of indigenous populations, this implies hypocrisy. We do not answer fundamental questions: How much Indigenous knowledge is involved in the business of knowledge we engage in these institutions? Can we hire faculty from Indigenous communities and have them lead knowledge production? Can we actually work towards delivering rights to indigenous communities in our region by standing up against our own institutions? Activism, the kind that challenges powerful structures and institutions, should be an integral part of teaching and learning; if academia really is a vanguard for decolonizing knowledge, then it must address the local context and history.

3. Western Education Implies a Furthering of the Colonization Project

Westernized universities train students to secure jobs that further or are an integral part of neo-colonization (imperialistic and economic) project. Success in westernized universities is defined and measured by the job placements secured by students as clients. Decolonization will not be complete until we can challenge the very job market available to the students. We need to question the organizations that work with a savior complex and hire our students to participate in furthering inequality. We academics we must look critically at how we prepare and what we are preparing our students for in their careers.

4. Superficiality

As part of our training in westernized universities, we travel, learn, and encourage cultural expressions. We believe, in good faith, that we are promoting non-western cultures and bringing them to the mainstream. But, culture is more than symbols and traditions. It is about understanding and prioritizing the different ways that people think and make meaning of the world. Are we prepared for Indigenous traditions and knowledge of relating to the earth to take the lead and give these communities credit for leading discussions on the environment? Culture is not merely something you know and understand but something you accept and participate in through your actions.

5. Language for Teaching and Learning

We encourage others to speak their native language and reject colonial languages, but we benefit from the privilege we derive from operating in power structures that use the languages of the colonizers. In academia, we demand proficiency in reading, writing, and comprehension in colonized languages, and we continue to evaluate and judge those who possess less than “perfect” (read standards adopted by the dominant groups) skills in these languages. When we learn non-colonial languages, we must ask ourselves if we are trying to communicate with communities to learn from them or to teach them in their language? In all of these examples, there is a risk that we may be re-centering power in ourselves, and we may end up as colonizers. Decolonization would require us to work on establishing a new order in which particular languages and cultures are not considered the best or the ideal. We might find that we are no longer at the center. How comfortable are we with this idea?

6. Language for Dissent and Protest

In discussing decolonization, we continue to spout our outrage in English or other European languages used by our colonizers. My own piece is an example. We, who are colonized, and in positions to re-colonize others, continue to discuss amongst us, same-language speakers, ways to decolonize. Are we not in this process, keeping those who do not speak these languages out of the decolonization conversation? Why is there so much literature on decolonization in the language of the colonizers? How do we ensure that the decolonization conversation and strategies bring in others like the Indigenous communities, who think and speak a different “language”?

7. Appeal to Woke Authority

Another common feature when studying and teaching decolonization in academia is an almost default practice to reference work by non-western scholars. While this is an essential step in the decolonization process, it can default into a pursuit of academic excellence by seeking glory for how well-read we are. When citing scholars such as Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’ o or Franz Fanon, we must simultaneously reflect on our own role in sustaining the colonization process, something these scholars talk about extensively. Once aware, our first step must be to work on changing our colonized minds and all that we have internalized through being colonized ourselves. Thus begins the decolonization process and, hopefully, prevents us from using decolonization as a metaphor (including overusing the term).


Academia was used by the colonizers to further the colonization project, and our westernized universities (which include the higher education institutions in formerly colonized countries) are the ones most difficult to change when initiating decolonization. We may be anti-colonial or post-colonial in our approach, but we have a lot of groundwork to do before we can claim to be decolonizing our spaces and our work.

Decolonization can never be a simple process, and many decolonization scholars, like Fanon, have said, “Decolonization is a project of complete disorder, and it never takes place unnoticed.” Do we have the courage to create the disorder and the strength to question our own ego and power as we get deeper into this work? If not, and if we continue to use decolonization as a metaphor, we may colonize the decolonization process.



Pushpa Iyer is an Associate Professor of Conflict Resolution at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies in Monterey. She is the founding Director of the Center for Conflict Studies, a research-cum-practice space at the Institute. Since, June 2018, she has served the Institute’s first Chief Diversity Officer. Pushpa remains active in many social justices causes the foundations for which lies in her work with Hindu and Muslim communities in Gujarat, India. More recently, her work has focused on race-related conflicts in the United States, and she identifies colonization at the root of systemic racism that defines the country.