Estimated reading time: 9 minutes, 59 seconds

How Do You Decolonize?

Estimated reading time: 9 minutes, 59 seconds

Let me tell you straight off – this blogpost is not going to answer that question. Not even close. It’s not a list of actions you can take in order to decolonize… It may have a few don’ts but it’s more of a question to myself, really, on so many fronts. It’s inspired by a heck of a lot of recent reading and listening. 
I have this strange (?) habit of binge reading that doesn’t necessarily involve reading one thing from beginning to end but reading multiple things not necessarily linearly. It’s voracious reading of a strange kind. It’s highly engaged because the reason I don’t read the things in one go is that I am annotating in some way…taking notes somewhere, tweeting parts, connecting one thing to another in some way…which leads me to open a different thing…it’s a…process. Messy, chaotic. And when it’s something so close to home…like the decolonize topic…it makes me want to go back to stuff I read from postcolonial theory when I was doing my PhD. But I sort of hold myself back from that sometimes because I want to unpack the new stuff I am reading and not get sucked back into that.


So today a faculty member shared something her students said after a cross-cultural encounter with American students..about how the Egyptian students felt self-conscious and inferior by their English language and their intellectual capacity to discuss. The teacher reassured them that they should not worry – they were to be applauded for discussing in their second language altogether. 

It made me remember and realize that when we constantly express ourselves in the dominant/colonizer’s language, their terms, we compare ourselves to them and keep finding ourselves wanting. 

It’s a mere coincidence that earlier today I was finishing up an article I had started a while ago entitled “Decolonize, not Diversify”. Here’s some stuff from that article:

The concept of diversity only exists if there is an assumed neutral point from which ‘others’ are ‘diverse.’ Putting aside for now the straight, male, middle-classness of that ‘neutral’ space, its dominant aspect is whiteness. Constructed by a white establishment, the idea of ‘diversity’ is neo-liberal speak. It is the new corporatized version of multiculturalism. It is about management, efficiency, box-ticking. As writers of colour, we parrot this idea back, reminding white institutions that they need to increase their diversity; appealing to them to let us in, to give some of us a seat at the table too. To help convince them, institutions are reminded that ‘diversity’ is actually good for them too, that it will help them to make more money.

I think about my writing on amplifying Global South scholarship (addressing those scholars themselves by asking them to find ways into global scholarship domimated by the West) and making academia more permeable (appealing to Western scholars to open up and welcome us in) and I wonder to what extent I am myself playing into this. By performing for the West.

That article above, by an Asian author (not academic) called Kavita Bhanot, is a reminder of how the “diverse” voices the white people embrace are those that sort of write FOR them. I am reminded again and again of how the postcolonial theorists like Edward Said and Homi Bhabha were the Westernized elites of their culture. As am I. As am I. As am I.

But also like Bhabha and Said, I am a cultural hybrid. And this is important. The combination of my cultural hybridity and intersectionality makes me wonder this: how do you decolonize when your identity is inextricably linked with your colonizer? There is no pure Egyptianity for me. I never was that, nor can I relate to it. I may be more or less Egyptian than others, according to some definition. But I belong to some other culture that’s an intersection between Egyptian, Kuwait (not Kuwaiti as nationality but as child of expats in Kuwait), British and American cultures. With other angles related to gender and class and other power I hold or lack. Hold? Do we hold power? Anyway.

Bhanot writes about the westernized upper-class BAME authors (I am guessing BAME = black, Asian, Middle Eastern – an acronym for black and brown and yellow?) and how, often,  “Their representations of ‘difference’ often feed racism and stereotypes”.

This makes me wonder about how I represent myself to others. It’s a difficult question to ask myself. I see that other women of color (including Americans, Arab-Americans but also just Arabs in the region) or minorities also appreciate my writing. But the majority of my audience is just white and Western because that’s what my niche field looks like. For some reason. And I am looking around myself trying to figure out how I got here. How I ended up here. 

Bhanot cites Ellen Berry’s article ‘Diversity is for white people: The big lie behind a well-intended word’ – she says “Diversity is how we talk about race when we can’t talk about race”

But right now I am less interested in race as it doesn’t directly affect me because I live here where my race isn’t an issue. I want to turn to language. And Lina Mounzir (thanks to Paul Prinsloo for pointing me to her article). Her article is about Syrian refugees (heart-wrenching article – I am just picking parts related to language, as it reminds me of the students I heard about today).  Language, Lina says, is

“as available to raw beauty as it is to hegemonic violence. And I know the only way to redeem it for all of us who it marginalises is to fight our way out of those margins and insist on being part of the text. But my English is a war wound. It is the result of the roughshod amputation of my mother tongue.

And yet… like me, she communicates in English:

“it is the best form of resistance I can imagine for a world scarred with forbidding, categorical borders. … The only way to make borders meaningless is to keep insisting on crossing them.

Her writing is infinitely more profound in context. And I am taking it out of context to make a separate point. But it’s kind of related. Just. Not as much suffering for me personally as I use it.

The end of Bhanot’s article doesn’t tell us exactly how to decolonize. But it does suggest… What? She says

Decolonisation does not airbrush colonial history, decolonisation takes continuing white supremacy head-on.

Errr yes? I am unsure what to do about this. She also says, though, that minorities should organize their own events, for example, rather than wait for spaces to open at the table of white lists of diverse writers. Err yes?

This is back to the dilemma I mentioned in my amplifying Global south article. If global south scholars made their own journals, how do they also ensure the quality standards are on their own terms while also getting international recognition? Should we not care about the latter since it is set in colonizer terms?

There’s a different article I was trying to cite here but I can’t find it. I did find this one and this quote:

until marginalized communities are the storytellers of their experiences, history will be rendered partially complete but wholly privilege the knowledges and perspectives of colonizers. 

In this context, diversity agendas are hindrances rather than stepping stones to justice and equity

Right. Because diversity should not be in and of itself a goal. But social justice and equity should be. Ruha Benjamin’s ISTE keynote:

“how can we make our schools laboratories of democratic participation, rather than sites where inequality is reproduced? Where not only is the potential of each individual realized, but where we experiment with technologies of love, reciprocity, and justice?”

She also says:

“To do nothing, is to choose the default settings of this failing system. And we should acknowledge from the outset that engaging these issues is not for the faint of heart. It is life long work, with no magic fixes.”

Ok. Finally found the article I was looking for. It’s about how decolonizing psychology may be recolonizing it! (had taken notes on WP but lost em; now recovering). So the author Wahba says (he speaks from South African context so this was definitely shared by Paul Prinsloo then):

As a generation of critical psychologists did before them, postcolonial psychologists continue to decry the dominance of an asocial, Euro-American scientism – now identified as “colonial” in character – in South African psychology.

An important point I did not make early on is “decolonize WHAT?”. I mean I am asking how we decolonize but I don’t specify what. I was thinking of how to decolonize myself or my discourses or my behavior. But I am reminded of something a professor said today: sexism and gender isn’t a woman’s problem. It’s the problem of men. And they have to stop doing what they do to oppress and they have to call out oppression when they see them and be allies to women. So in a sense, decolonizing is the work of colonizers? But that’s just weird. Because it would entail them allying themselves with the colonized, and listening to them and what they think needs to be done. So it’s back on the shoulder of the colonized. I mean, kind of. There’s some behavior from the colonized that can be changed. Like making efforts to learn and speak other languages. Like not assuming theirs is the default. Like noticing gaps. Etc. 

This article about decolonizing psychology focuses on that discipline. Examples include how critical approaches to psych “investigate relations of power between groups in society. They treat people’s identities as diverse, fluid and intersecting. People are viewed as historical beings whose minds have been constructed by and through their social, economic and political environment” and also “question traditional relationships between researchers and participants in ways that mitigate the epistemological violence often exercised against those who are researched”.

That last point is very important to me. And what follows from it:

How would we know what needs to change to achieve a just society without knowing about the lives of those who are most marginalised by social systems, and how to engage them in collective struggles?

So…back to the recolonizing article:

The very nature of disciplinarity – the process of becoming a discipline – suggests that the decolonisation of psychology cannot succeed without the decolonisation of the entire knowledge-making apparatus, nor can it succeed for as long as various forms of social oppression persist.

That is basically my argument from the amplifying global south article – how do you create your own academic journals on your own terms if the profession/discipline standards of quality are set by the west? Then your only way in is to have a seat at the table in the western journals. On their terms. Then you morph and you’re a hybrid and it is so hard to unpack yourself back to a pure anything even if you step back somehow.

The author argues that a decolonized education should not merely focus on the postcolonial learner learning about themselves and their oppression and culture, but also of learning of those less privileged, neither academics nor students who cannot even be part of the conversation usually. The article mentions how clinical psychology usually focuses on individual responsibility for mental illness when a decolonized alternative may require accounting for things like poverty, racism, violence, etc. An adaptation of Western and middle-class perspectives. 

And I find myself lost here. I don’t know where to go from here.

So I better stop before I get more frustrated. Step back. Go read some more. Maybe some longer articles that are hopefully accessibly readable.

17 thoughts on “How Do You Decolonize?

  1. Maha I always remember the words of someone I spent 15+ years with, untangling story from those stories of generations of others:

    “You never change people (systems) you change your relationship with them.”

    If one is serious about creating new relationships then that implies breaking away from dependence on oppressive power relationships/systems.

    I would absolutely agree that academia/education is one of those means of oppression and of protecting privilege.

    Surely we need to engage in different forms of dialogue with those around us.

    I remember a director of research saying that “research” as played out in academia (in France) was in no way a means to change society. I mostly agree with that.

    I am indeed terribly sceptical about academic play cf:

    Isn’t postcolonialism a variant of colonialism – forever referring back to colonialism?

    Narrative (psycho)historical analysis might be a means to more clearly perceive those histories which belong to others and which make us belong to those others.

    I know of no other way.

    From my perspective you don’t conduct such work within the very framework which you perceive as oppressive – as you are forever oppressed.

    If I choose personally to write as I write – there are good reasons.

    I know that the labels which others pin on us are used to silence us.

    Sod that. (Excuse my language)

    I may hate reading what I have written after about 30 seconds but that is one good reason to openly write it.

    Salut de Clermont Ferrand tard le soir.

    Merci à toi.


    1. Exactly. Postcolonial keeps referring to colonial.. Defining the self against that. Which is historically important.. But also reductionist? But also a way of being as who I am in the west… Without erasing the important power differences. If i just referred to my diversity i would alleviate the justice issues at hand

    2. Each time i request a visa for US/UK i am postcolonial. Each time i get checked for a “random” check i am postcolonial. Each time a UK border patrol person gives me a body check by putting her fingers inside my underwear… I am postcolonial. It’s not like I am doing this to myself 🙂

        1. But that’s exactly the point. It’s colonial of the US/UK, but it then makes me define myself as postcolonial in response to this violence. Does that make sense? It is kind of like saying that black people should not identify themselves as black in reference to a default white. But every time they are discriminated against they are black against that whiteness. When black people sit together they are either not seeing color, or they’re seeing shades of their own color (in countries where people are dark, there is often discrimination based on lightness or darkness of color – I don’t know if white people know this is the case… in the same way that white-blondeness is often privileged over white-brunetteness, I guess).

          1. “When black people sit together they are either not seeing color, or they’re seeing shades of their own color” that depends – black people may be seen as white by other black people – as being assimilated to white elite.

    3. Well i do it to myself by even attempting to go to England. How dare I?

      (not angry with you…just following a line of thought here)

      1. You have every right to be angry with “me”. I am angry that people are treated so badly and that I am part of/seen as part of the colonising group. Neither you nor I chose our births. The question is what can I or you do about a profoundly unjust/obnoxious system?

        1. yup. But I really wasn’t angry w u last night as I was writing these… I’ve been angry with you before. Precisely for doing what you’re now saying you shouldn’t do. For not questioning someone else for treating me in colonizing ways. Because that other person, a white person, or at least, a not-me, was trying to explain to me colonialism, from a distance. And when people defended me, you and others supported that person because the others were “bullies”. When, really, that person was bullying ME and the others were white male allies supporting me and defending me against him and protecting others in the group. And when I told you about this privately, that I wasn’t happy with what you did (even though I don’t think you’re a malicious person at all and I love you), you didn’t see it.

          This reminds me of when I tell someone I experience sexism or racism and they try to tell me that “no, little girl, you didn’t experience it”. Well no one can tell my story for me. The very least someone else can do is listen when I tell them something is going on. Including you.

          And these discussions last night was not that moment. But there are other moments. It’s not enough to be an ally in theory or when you feel like it or when you like what I’m saying. You need to also be an ally when you are complicit. You need to be an ally when I call you on it and when I call others on it. Not because I am always right. But because you always need to try to listen better. And you don’t always listen better. Even when I point out to you that you’re not listening.

          That was me recalling a time when I was angry.

          1. No. Nobody can tell your story – I wholly agree. I think that the case you are referring to is tied up with the specific nature of who the person is and his manner of communicating which is exasperatingly confrontational. However I think that as far as I understand what he was trying to get at that one cannot view colonialism/racism outside a capitalist system which drives it. In other words it converges with what you mention here that it is necessary to deconstruct systems of privilege – wealth – poverty etc.

            1. Not really Simon. You’re focusing on the intellectual pursuit, i am talking about something completely different

              A European man was mansplaining me about colonialism/coloniality

              The man was aggressive in doing so and referring to an actual real life event which he knows nothing about and which happened to me

              I tried to engage him in conversation and explain it was not so. And he kept pushing back. He even later called me anti-intellectual

              Other white men in the group found his behavior unacceptable. And when they called him out on his approach you supported him and called them bullies

              That’s not allyship and it’s not an acceptable form of discourse. Imho

              If you still don’t see it, I can do nothing but shrug and tell you you’re much better at talking the talk 🙂 which all of us are, to be honest…but sometimes you’re given a chance to walk it and you instead walk away

              1. Well.

                That is reductionist.

                I am not concentrating purely on the intellectual pursuit.

                I do not.

                We are unreliable witnesses.

                It is not true that I did not attempt to address the manner of Torn Halves – because this is who we are talking about.

                Not at the moment you are referring to.

                I found the whole episode frustrating.

                I do not remember using the term “bully”. I am an unreliable witness.

                I do not “talk the talk” that is just the problem. It is much easier to “talk the talk”

                I find the “you have been given the chance to walk it” …. “it” er surprising.

                I may walk away at times.

                I see you as Maha.

                I See Torn as Torn.

                I think there is suffering on both sides.

                I see myself as sadly torn too.

                Others will label us as they will.

                I am an undesirable in many parts.

  2. So hopefully I am not being colonialist by commenting on this 🙂

    A lot of this reminds me of Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak (especially “Can the Subaltern Speak”), which I keep coming back to in educational contexts because I think we could learn a lot from her.

    I do wonder (and I don’t have an answer to this) – what does it mean when various other groupings use “diversity” within their own sociocultural context? Traditionally black colleges in the U.S., Hispanic-serving institutions, women’s universities, etc tend to have “diversity initiatives” where they set the “assumed neutral point” as one that is unique for their institution and then look at how to get in more people that are different from their unique sociocultural context. For instance, Paul Quinn college in Texas is a HBCU (Historically Black College or University) and they have various “diversity” programs on campus to raise the number of white students above 2%. I wonder how that fits in a de-colonizing mindset? Or are there times with “diversity” is a sociocultural construct that changes with each context? I don’t know.

    The other thing that sticks out to me is how much Western academia has convinced the rest of the world that we came up with everything that is labeled “Western” 🙂 We pretty much stole a lot of it from Eastern and Middle-Eastern cultures, especially in the area of academia. So some societies might go to try and decolonize themselves and find out “hey, those white dudes stole this from us in the first place!” 🙂

  3. Maha, thanks again for your post and sharing your reflections and your thinking as a work-in-progress.

    I writing this to you in a settler language that is also, at the same time “… is a war wound. It is the result of the roughshod amputation of my mother tongue” (Mounzir) in a context that still reverberate with the legacy of colonialism and apartheid. My home language is Afrikaans, an integral part of a the identity of a settler community that later became colonised and our tongue was for a long time, amputated. When the Afrikaner came into power in 1948 and Apartheid realised crudely the dream of the/another empire, the tongues, epistemologies and ontologies of the indigenous populations were amputated.

    My whiteness and maleness shape the font and the words as I type and even my best intentions once they land on paper will change colour and represent privilege and whiteness.

    So for me to participate in the debates on decolonisation in a settler language which, at least for now, allows us to communicate in a shared vocabulary, is very difficult as I stumble and read and stutter. When you quote “decolonisation takes continuing white supremacy head-on” – I nod and confess ‘I am on the inside’.

    I don’t publish in my mother tongue – and yes, there is one or two journals in the South African context that still publishes articles in Afrikaans. But I choose not to. I want to share my thoughts and my thinking with as wide a possible audience. And only when I write in English can they become aware of my otherness, their complicity in maintaining North Atlantic epistemologies as the only way of knowing and seeing the world.

    For now. This is where I am.

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