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What the heck is decolonization?

Updated: Jan 18

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In a March 2023 internal, unpublished survey of undergraduate students at Loughborough University, the concept of decolonization was met with a combination of interest and confusion in roughly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. But let's start with colonization. To colonize is to take over without consent; it can be anything. We may colonize a conversation, dominating it and not hearing the voices of others in our groups. Humans have colonized the animal kingdom - or tried to - for centuries. We have come to dominate and control beasts of burden for labour, service animals for support and food stocks for nutrition, all for human benefit. We have colonized the Earth and all its resources, bending them to our will, and now nature is fighting back to rebalance the equation. Men colonize women in the home and workplace, possessing and controlling women's right, their bodies and their sexuality. Book-banning, now or in the Nazi era, is the colonization of knowledge: one group assuming control of what books may be read and therefore what knowledge can be disseminated. That's very powerful indeed; empires were built on dominant knowledge that said People of Colour were racially inferior to White people. In clear terms, colonization is what coronavirus did: the viral cells colonized our own. We had no choice until we acquired the necessary understanding to fight back

Pathogen attacking white blood cell, Adobe Stock Licence

To colonize is to exert control and dominance over something or someone. To decolonize is to shift that equation, that balance of power, that formula, that dynamic, that structure.


Decolonization was of course a physical act in recent history; the empires letting go, to varying degrees, of those they had possessed. But decolonization is also broader, encompassing the means to change cognitive, political, cultural, economic, even spiritual domination. Shifting that dominance involves decolonization. Decolonization is about shifting the narrative away from those who control a conversation, to those in whose name the conversation is being held, and enabling such shifts where they have been prevented.

We might think of pharmaceutical giants controlling legislation on addiction, ensuring harmful drugs continue to 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. Or perhaps the cigarette industry colonizing the legislative process that might otherwise regulate a lethal product they tell us to consume. We might consider how the oil industry controls, or has colonized, the conversation about global climate heating, to their advantage and to humanity's detriment. An example of that is appointing an oil man to oversee climate change.

Earth being burned as a result of fossil fuel emissions. CC David Roberts

Decolonization is about more than the putative ending of a material act in a given moment, like France tragically resisting decolonization in Viet Nam until the bitter end. Instead, it seeks the end to a persistent state of power relations that prevail wherever dominion has been forced. 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. Decoloniality is a challenge to existing power structures and priorities that decide how just and equitable the world may be. It is a call to wrest - take away - power from those who decide the fate of others without their inclusion in that decision-making process, and from the institutions that manifest that power over others, and rebalance that system of power so it is more evenly distributed.

Corporate power's oppression, copyright David Roberts

The problem for those seeking to decolonize such diverse sources of power is that power will resist if decolonization looks set to harm its ambitions. France refused to let go in Viet Nam and Algeria because to do so would have compounded its humiliation at the hands of Germany in the Second World War. Big Oil will not relinquish its ownership of the fossil fuel industry because its profits will be harmed. They will only allow themselves to be divested of their power if it is in a way that does not harm their ambitions. This is why Ijeoma Nnodim Opara MD believes 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 [prevailing] internalized and systemic oppression

In a colonized setting, Derrick Bell foretold, change only happens if elite (White, in Bell's analysis) 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. We see daily how this unfolds: climate conferences are hijacked by the oil industry, gaslighting and greenwashing as it goes, supported by powerful lobbyists buying legislative influence. We see race equality laws undermined and gun, tobacco and food laws bent to corporate preference. We see the growth of new lobbying designed to maintain prejudice, sometimes even sanctioning book banning (which historically is frequently followed by book burning, then genocide). This is the power that colonizes, resisting decolonization.

Corporate power resisting social change. Copyright Adobe Stock Licence

This brings us to postcolonialism. Two riders: it's complex, contested and impenetrable at times, so I'm going to oversimplify it here since this post is really only a 'teaser'. Postcolonialism is a very broad church, embracing literature, economics, politics and psychology amongst more, but here I'm concerned with the paradox it identifies whereby a direct presence in former colonies is largely over (there are still military bases and other influences), but indirect influence is still the norm. This norm is enabled by extensions and upgrades of the same global actors (EU/US, World Bank, IMF, UN etc) and practices (WTO, Structural Adjustment, debt control, conditionality) that continue to transfer, as they did in the colonial past, in (neo)imperial fashion, southern riches to northern beneficiaries.

South to North wealth transfer, copyright Polyp

Because of this, some arms of postcolonial thought argue that the 'post' in this term is a misnomer. That which enabled imperialism to extract resources and wealth from colonies is still in effect: the means by which empires grew rich continues to enrich them, whilst the means that kept colonies poorer is still preventing their autonomous growth and prosperity. As some say, the 'past in the present'.

Postcolonialism then is about the persistence of asymmetrical power relations between North and South, whilst that persistence is denied by the implied departure of the empires from the colonies. Whilst they may have physically left in most cases, their imprint persists, the future of each hemisphere entwined still in the other. Banerjee puts it well: postcolonialism

seeks to understand how colonial legacies continue to cast their shadow on contemporary problems in developing countries through neocolonial structures and processes of political, economic and cultural control

Last words

Decolonization rejects the idea that decolonization happened completely. Empires still exert the same kind of economic control over former colonies that they did in the imperial era, and it is this that needs to change. This is decolonization, involving the extraction of former colonies from the social, economic, political and psychological yoke of Europe and North America and the global institutions and processes they continue to dominate. It is about forcing empires, institutions and attitudes to let go of the hold they deny they maintain over hundreds of millions of people and their autonomy. It is about concluding what is implied to have already ended. It is about completing the struggle to separate two worlds from their asymmetrically-intertwined past

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