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What the heck is decolonization?

Updated: Sep 3

Or, 'deconfusing' decoloniality.

Old weighing scales with weight (power) being rebalanced (redistributed)
Rebalancing power. Copyright of author


In a March 2023 internal, unpublished survey of undergraduate students at Loughborough University, the concept of decolonization was met with a combination of interest and confusion in roughly equal measure. We’d wanted to consult students on the idea of decolonizing the Business Studies degree. Further conversations with academic and professional colleagues revealed how widespread this combination of enthusiasm and concern was.

I am writing this post in the hope of ‘deconfusing’ decolonization. Short version? It's about shifting the narrative away from those who control the conversation, to those in whose name the conversation is being held, and enabling such narratives where they are prevented. It's about recognizing international governments, corporate actors and institutions, and their practices, that control and defy rights to others to their disadvantage. It is about decentring intransigent international power and bodies. This can apply in many situations at all levels across all the world in all sectors. The notion of decoloniality presents mainly in postcolonial literature, which is concerned with the ongoing effects of colonialism on political, economic, and social systems. Postcolonialism analyzes power dynamics, historical injustices, and the perpetuation of colonial legacies in contemporary contexts.

We might think, for example, about how the oil industry controls, or has colonized, the conversation about global heating, to their advantage and to humanity's detriment. Or perhaps the cigarette industry colonizing the legislative process that might otherwise regulate a lethal product they tell us to consume. We might think of pharmaceutical giants controlling legislation on addiction, ensuring harmful drugs make them money and make us sick. It might be about the World Bank being able to dictate imperviously economic and business policies in very poor countries in ways that benefit multinationals and impoverish and otherwise harm and kill the people in whose names the Bank's policies are made. It might be about extremist Western governments protecting masculine and feminized 'rights' at the expense of women's safety. It might be an institution teaching (non-decolonized) Business Studies almost exclusively from a Eurocentric perspective, promoting business practices that damage humanity's futures, especially beyond Europe's boundaries, so western businesses can continue to make profits, no matter what harm that has been proven to cause.

It is at heart about recognising how those who make and maintain the rules possess the means to ensure they are not challenged, no matter how egregious the consequences of those rules may be. It is about the sources of power that maintain, or change, policies that harm millions who are denied the power to change those circumstances themselves. It is about dominant forces possessing the means to preserve their dominance over others.

DB Roberts, 2023

Decoloniality, and decolonization, are about acknowledging, comprehending and changing relations of power and confected disadvantage in any form so power is more evenly and equitably distributed and representative. So decolonization, for Andreotti, must involve a commitment to centre and empower marginalized groups, in places where power to change resides. Power co-exists inevitably with inequality for now. And that requires those who prevail presently to recognise their power and surrender some of it. If this doesn't happen, the trajectory of policy remains largely the same. Regarding antiracism, what maintains White Power and Privilege now is what embedded it in the imperial era: false science, racial attitudes, elite values, corporate wealth, financial bodies, economic institutions, borrowing conditonality, technological domination, land ownership. The present comes from the past, and the past persists in the present. Kwame Nkrumah described the situation as neo-colonialism. This refers to

the continuity of the former coloniser’s power through economic, political, educational and other informal means.

The empires may have left, but they left behind the means to sustain their privileged places in the world. And the associated overt racism reflecting the underlying assumptions of racial superiority inherent in and intrinsic to imperialism may be less common, but the structures and rules and values that underpin the Empires persist, or a third of the UK and half the Netherlands wouldn't still be mourning the imperial era. The past is very much alive in the present.

A lightbulb starting to glow bright, indicating the moment when an idea is understood or comes into being
The past in the present. Copyright of author.


Sometimes people may struggle with the idea of asking for something (decolonization) they have come to understand from the history books has already happened. The Empires decolonized in the 1960s mostly, the books say. But decolonization is about more than the putative ending of a material act in a given moment. Instead, it seeks the end to a persistent state of power relations that prevail before and after physical decolonization, even if the physical act of imperial forces taking land and people has largely ended. Even if colonial forces have vacated the spaces they took.

Empire consisted of more than territorial occupation. It relied on the means of exchanging what was taken from those lands into wealth for countries, companies and citizens. The institutions of international trade, the mechanisms of international transport, the financial bodies that lent and paid interest and protected and concealed imperially-acquired wealth, are less obvious when we think of Empire. Similarly, the insurance industry, the banking system that benefitted so much from increased trade, the rules of trade that ensured profit maximisation for imperial benefit and payment minimisation for colonial servants, were all ties that bound and supported the western imperial project. They have remained largely in place, and have been built on ever since. Empire created an international system that facilitated and enhanced its position of strength in the lands it occupied. The colonies were the economic beachhead. The global capitalist system was the means by which the Empires blossomed. That system has changed little since decolonization. So when people talk about decolonization, it's those structures that are also under scrutiny.

That imperial, global, capitalist structure is the ‘world’ economy today. Capitalism continues to lock seemingly decolonized places into the old colonial relations. The means to change this situation are located in key western institutions like the World Bank, the IMG, the WTO, the UN and so on. These bodies were established by white men with white agendas at a time when the white empires were still largely intact. Business perpetuates that: it is after all the handmaid of capitalism, and business studies prepares more handmaids uncritically to sally forth and continue the old ways: maximise profit based on cheapest extraction and exploitation, advantaged by imperial and military dominance of the Western European nations, now joined by others like China. Decolonization was putative and physical for the most part. Full decolonization remains to be achieved. So, in its wider sense, decolonization refers to reordering and rebalancing power structures that persist in marginalizing one group and empowering another.

A see-saw perched on the top of the world, with white outbalancing black
Asymmetrical power and race. Copyright of author.

It is about all groups of people whose lives are categorized, reduced and colonized - taken over, usurped and redirected - by greater forces of ideology that relegate us. That means white, heteronormative, ableist, phobic dominance has to change to accommodate the legitimacy and value of difference. Decoloniality, and decolonization, are about changing relations of power and confected disadvantage in any form so power is more evenly and equitably distributed and representative.

Chess pieces no longer black and white but reflecting diversity and a more even distribution of power
Chess pieces that are diverse, rather than all one colour. Copyright of author

So decolonization can be thought of as

a commitment to centre and empower marginalized groups, address epistemological dominance (i.e. Eurocentrism), and redistribute and re-appropriate material resources

Decoloniality is a challenge to existing power structures and priorities that decide how just and equitable the world may be, for those least able to change their circumstances. It is a call to wrest power from those who exert prejudice over millions of Others and control them according to those prejudices and assumptions, and whose institutions and actors are both unable and unwilling to see their institutionalized exertion of prejudice as oppressive. What does this mean for Higher Education as an institution?

Higher Education and Decoloniality

Higher Education has adopted the decolonizing mantra. But some critics contend that, in so doing, elites have recolonized the process because HE is concerned primarily with managing impressions and reputations. This is because the reality would require the institutional structures that oppress publicly to be revealed, acknowledged and reformed. This reality means, according to Ijeoma Nnodim Opara MD, that the only versions of decoloniality that are permitted are those that lack the necessary

critical introspective analysis of power, hegemony, and the historical and continuing dynamics of internalized and systemic oppression in contemporary … higher education structures.

The decolonization authorised by university elites is a watered-down version that protects them from the consequences of accountability and decoloniality. It is form, not function, and it will not unpick a century of institutional Foucauldian webs and Gordian knots.

A multicoloured, complex knot which a sharp knife is failing to cut
The Gordian knot of the international system. Copyright of author

In a colonized setting, as Derrick Bell foretold, change only happens if White objectives ‘converge’ with the objectives of those challenging it. If the dominant force sees challenge that might undo it, it will act to stop that resistance, ‘by any means necessary’, as Malcom X said of our own resistance. The system is constructed to ensure that any such change is stopped in its tracks because it exposes the oppressions of the institution. It is ‘self-sealing’ and systemic change is against elite interests. Power resides at the top, so permission to change is ‘locked in’.

A giant boot marked as 'management' is about to crush small people
The legacy of empire in the modern university

Why a PVC in Decoloniality might be good

For these reasons, critics might contend that appointing a PVC-Decoloniality (for example) would be pointless, because the structure would not allow even an elite postholder to pursue an agenda that could challenge the university to acknowledge its oppression and transform its values and priorities publicly and accountably. That’s almost certainly true.

But it doesn’t mean a PVC-Decoloniality, possessing a critical understanding of power, structure, agency, reform and resistance (as opposed to an HR appointment, perhaps), could not make some conditions better. At the very least, such leadership would likely be seen as more legitimate and trustworthy by those seeking authentic decolonization. As long as the most senior figures were not trenchantly resistant to at least considering and ceding some change, such a savvy postholder could unpick existing, limiting communications and reporting structures and processes to make them more apposite, reactive, efficient, safe, accessible and confidential. It could render more coherent the results of historical institutional knee-jerkism to the pressure of external fiat (equality legislation, social norms etc) normally ‘managed’ by ill-informed HR bodies that are not equipped to see the nuance of decoloniality, institutional power and social marginalization. It could replace ‘training’ with conscientization - the former being rote reinforcement of institutional prerogatives, the latter meaning a deeper and more honest introspection and transformation. That's already ‘a thing’ in Management Studies.

A brain, with a world map privileging parts of the global south, stores the power dynamics of empire
The institutional memory of empire and oppression. Copyright of author

This savvy postcolonial postholder could present conscientized, structured leadership drawing from a century of postcolonial scholarship which could create a less oppressive, less dangerous, more sensitised work environment, acting within the institution without betraying decoloniality. It could sanction and protect, without breaching colonial will, the ‘subversive educational use of spaces and resources’ of the kind identified latterly by Helena Liu et al, and earlier by JC Scott (among many others before them). And it could encourage engagement with social spaces outside the university from where institutional transformation can be pressured. There will always be limits imposed by the institution, but an intellectual postcolonial inspirer will have centuries of the institutional memory of decolonization and postcolonial scholarship to help guide sustainable resistance and transformation.

In the end…

Better to have a conscientized leader in place who comprehends the structures oppressing them and can mobilize, inspire and transform within those boundaries, than have no-one at the very top and no leadership in any constructive direction. That leader may not be able to change the power structure itself, but they can strengthen consciousness of and challenge to it. Decolonizing is about rebalancing the uneven share of power, wealth and resources that our institutions continue to protect as a legacy of empire. It's an argument for balance and symmetry, is all.

* I was lucky enough to have invaluable help from Lucy Potter at York St. John with this piece. Lucy is an authentic White Ally who has scrutinised, intellectually and socially, the reasons why White Allies within and between institutions are so important. She collaborated with me over several weeks and has been instrumental in ensuring that the piece is intellectually comprehensive and at the same time widely accessible.

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