Decolonisation is not about ticking a box: It must disrupt

As academics in a post-truth world, I believe we have an urgent and important task. In a world where emotional appeals and emotive decision-making are seemingly the norm, academia should be in the business of truth. Rather than lament reality, we should be revealing the reasons for the possibility of our reality and charting a path that unveils the possibility for change.

I believe that, as academics, we have a responsibility to shine a light into the darkness of post-truth, to reveal the illusions and historical erasures that have enabled post-factuality. Thus, decolonisation continues to be urgent, timely and necessary. But how can we decolonise anything, if we do not know what decolonisation means?

Tshepo Madlingozi, Chair for Critical Studies in Higher Education Transformation at Nelson Mandela University in South Africa, describes decolonisation as “always a disruptive phenomenon”. In other words, decolonising the university requires deep and radical changes, not only to the content of what we teach, but also the character of higher education institutions and the driving logics of education systems and structures.

Decolonisation entails identifying, unveiling and interrupting, within our academic practice and structures, the persisting remnants of Empire – what exponents of Latin American decolonial thought such as Walter Mignolo and Nelson Maldonado-Torres call ‘coloniality’.

Knowledge and power

According to Gurminder Bhambra, co-editor of Decolonising the University, decolonisation repositions colonialism, empire and racism as foundational to the current state and study of the world, making what has been rendered invisible, visible, ie the historical and geographical meanings of our epistemologies and their representations.

By acknowledging these epistemic absences and violences, decolonisation offers to the university, and the world, alternative ways of thinking about the effects of power differentials in knowledge production, transmission and exchange. Decolonisation offers an avenue to disrupt historically and geographically racialised and hierarchised epistemic hegemonies.

Over the past few years within United Kingdom higher education, there have been increasing demands for decolonisation. These demands have often come from academic staff and students who belong to poorly represented racialised and gendered populations.

In response to these demands, universities have adopted measures such as: ‘internationalising the curriculum’, ‘inclusive curricula’ or schemes that promote ‘student voice’.

There has also been more focus on widening participation; adding authors from racialised populations to reading lists; recruiting staff from underrepresented populations etc.

Furthermore, increasing attention is being paid to equality, diversity, inclusion and representation. Yet these measures are often inaccurately conflated with decolonisation – without critical thought, representation can become toxic and tokenistic, people could be included into spaces that are not safe for them, spaces historically and repeatedly designed to harm and exclude them.

Diversity is a fact of life that cannot be promoted without explaining why it has been demoted. General statements of equality often ignore the process of othering and set an unequal normative standard of equality. Therefore, in all these schemes we focus on what we are fighting for, rather than what we should be fighting against – colonial logics of commodification of space, nature, humanity and variably valued labour.

Tick-box exercises

Consequently, within a neoliberal university, lazy attempts at decolonisation run a considerable risk of being co-opted for tick-boxing and numbers-based diversity schemes that maintain and entrench the status quo.

In fact, most ‘decolonisation’ efforts in UK higher education fall short of actual decolonisation and are driven by these colonial logics. In other words, decolonisation is becoming a metaphor for ahistorical and performative attempts at social justice that do the opposite of the aims of decolonisation, ie rather than disrupt, these attempts preserve the university structure and reify Whiteness at the academy.

This is because the ontology of the neoliberal university operates to obscure its own complicity in creating and maintaining its own colonial knowledge hierarchies.

This neoliberal university is signified by: regular inspections and auditing according to un-decolonised criteria; fees and migratory structures that keep out citizens of the Global South except for the extremely advantaged; empty promises of social mobility to internal disadvantaged populations; competitive research frameworks that privilege research ratings over the actual global value of the research; treating students as consumers and degrees as individual investments etc.

Decolonisation seeks to disrupt the colonial logics of commodification of space, nature, humanity and variably valued labour. Yet the neoliberal university can only survive through the colonial logics of commodification of space, nature, humanity and variably valued labour.

The potential for decolonisation

What then can the decolonial scholar within the neoliberal university do? One suggestion is to look for alternatives to hegemonical knowledge practices outside or within the neoliberal university.

Thus, the decolonial scholar can create spaces for decolonial thought cultivation within the university. But these must be understood as not being decolonisation itself but generating the potential for decolonisation.

Furthermore, this process cannot be engaged in without understanding that not only our universities but also our disciplines are conceptually ill-equipped to centre unrepresented populations, as the university and her disciplines have been complicit in making those populations unrepresented.

As Audre Lorde says: “The master’s tools cannot dismantle the master’s house.” Therefore, the process of decolonisation and creating the possibility of decolonisation requires decolonial scholars with decolonised minds.

Because even if the structure within which to decolonise does not yet exist, it can be built… by decolonial scholars with decolonised minds, ready to abandon the safety and privilege of the master’s house to build new structures of knowledge within which we can imagine and bring to life new worlds constructed to include all of us.

Dr Foluke Adebisi is senior lecturer in law at the University of Bristol, United Kingdom.