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Eve Tuck and K. Wayne Yang: “Decolonization Is Not A Metaphor”

Here at Turning Wheel Media, we’ve been thinking about Decolonizing Our Sanghas as a collective expression of the Fifth Precept of Buddhist ethics: avoiding intoxicants.  Dharma wisdom advises us to use sobriety, in part, to help ourselves observe the other four ethical guidelines that support a calm mind.

The Five Precepts

          1. Avoid killing.
          2. Avoid stealing.
          3. Avoid engaging in sexual misconduct.
          4. Avoid lying.
          5. Avoid intoxicants.

Along the same lines, we’re asking ourselves about the ways that colonization, as a process, facilitates the systemic forever-breaking of all the other Precepts: promoting institutional violence, systemic theft, forms of gender oppression (not that others don’t exist in non-colonial circumstances), and mass miseducation and outright lies erasing the existence of Native people.

These days it seems like just about anything can be decolonized.  Activists (some indigenous, and also a lot of settlers) want to Decolonize Our Diets; Decolonize the City; Decolonize Education; Decolonize Human Rights; Decolonize Yourself.  Sounds like an anti-oppression organizer’s dream — Decolonize Everything! — but when a term is applied so broadly, what happens to its meaning?  What, or who, might get lost, muddled, or minimized?

[W]e have been thinking about what decolonization means, what it wants and requires. One trend we have noticed, with growing apprehension, is the ease with which the language of decolonization has been superficially adopted into education and other social sciences, supplanting prior ways of talking about social justice, critical methodologies, or approaches which decenter settler perspectives. Decolonization, which we assert is a distinct project from other civil and human rights-based social justice projects, is far too often subsumed into the directives of these projects, with no regard for how decolonization wants something different than those forms of justice. Settler scholars swap out prior civil and human rights based terms, seemingly to signal both an awareness of the significance of Indigenous and decolonizing theorizations of schooling and educational research, and to include Indigenous peoples on the list of considerations — as an additional special (ethnic) group or class. At a conference on educational research, it is not uncommon to hear speakers refer, almost casually, to the need to “decolonize our schools,” or use “decolonizing methods,” or “decolonize student thinking.” Yet, we have observed a startling number of these discussions make no mention of Indigenous peoples, our/their struggles for the recognition of our/their sovereignty, or the contributions of Indigenous intellectuals and activists to theories and frameworks of decolonization. Further, there is often little recognition given to the immediate context of settler colonialism on the North American lands where many of these conferences take place.

Of course, dressing up in the language of decolonization is not as offensive as “Navajo print” underwear sold at a clothing chain store (Gaynor, 2012) and other appropriations of Indigenous cultures and materials that occur so frequently. Yet, this kind of inclusion is a form of enclosure, dangerous in how it domesticates decolonization. It is also a foreclosure, limiting in how it recapitulates dominant theories of social change. On the occasion of the inaugural issue of Decolonization: Indigeneity, Education, & Society, we want to be sure to clarify that decolonization is not a metaphor. When metaphor invades decolonization, it kills the very possibility of decolonization; it recenters whiteness, it resettles theory, it extends innocence to the settler, it entertains a settler future. Decolonize (a verb) and decolonization (a noun) cannot easily be grafted onto pre-existing discourses / frameworks, even if they are critical, even if they are anti-racist, even if they are justice frameworks. The easy absorption, adoption, and transposing of decolonization is yet another form of settler appropriation. When we write about decolonization, we are not offering it as a metaphor; it is not an approximation of other experiences of oppression. Decolonization is not a swappable term for other things we want to do to improve our societies and schools. Decolonization doesn’t have a synonym.

Our goal in this essay is to remind readers what is unsettling about decolonization — what is unsettling and what should be unsettling.

The Occupy movement for many economically marginalized people has been a welcome expression of resistance to the massive disparities in the distribution of wealth; for many Indigenous people, Occupy is another settler re-occupation on stolen land. The rhetoric of the movement relies upon problematic assumptions about social justice and is a prime example of the incommensurability between “re/occupy” and “decolonize” as political agendas. The pursuit of worker rights (and rights to work) and minoritized people’s rights in a settler colonial context can appear to be anti-capitalist, but this pursuit is nonetheless largely pro-colonial. That is, the ideal of “redistribution of wealth” camouflages how much of that wealth is land, Native land. In Occupy, the “99%” is invoked as a deserving supermajority, in contrast to the unearned wealth of the “1%”. It renders Indigenous peoples (a 0.9% ‘super-minority’) completely invisible and absorbed, just an asterisk group to be subsumed into the legion of occupiers.

The point of posting this essay isn’t to dictate what counts, or doesn’t, under the mantle of decolonization.  Rather, we’re eager to pass it on (hat tip to Li Morales for first sharing it with us!) so that together, we can all reflect more deeply on this social justice buzzword du jour.  Whether or not we agree with Tuck and Yang’s arguments, they’re essential to consider!

Read the whole thing here and let us know your thoughts!  We’d especially love to hear from any of y’all who may have been involved with anti-colonial movements, or Decolonize-themed efforts in your town.

Thanks, BPFers!  See you tomorrow!

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Comments (5)

  • Jeff

    As I understand it, the term “decolonization,” as it has been used on this site and in much contemporary political discourse, is usually metaphorical, signifying that sanghas, schools, ghettos, workplaces, and even progressive movements are “like” colonies in that people within them have lost sovereignty, as if they were inhabitants of occupied territories. Instead of having a voice in what happens, they are subject to an external administrative power or an internalized oppressive cultural feature such as racism or patriarchy.

    Tuck and Yang, identifying themselves as “an Indigenous scholar and a settler/trespasser/scholar writing together,” unconditionally reject any such use of the term, as the title of their article implies. In this view, “decolonization” should mean nothing less than restoring ownership and control of all stolen lands to Indigenous populations. To appropriate the word to describe other processes of ending subjugation, whether by non-native peoples of color, labor, or anti-imperialist coalitions, reinforces settler colonialism. After all, these movements generally demand a “fair share” of wealth and power within a system whose very existence is predicated on invasion of this continent, genocide of its natives, and ongoing marginalization of the survivors. Asking for a bigger slice of stolen pie makes one complicit in the original theft.

    “For social justice movements, like Occupy, to truly aspire to decolonization non-metaphorically, they would impoverish, not enrich, the 99%+ settler population of the United States. Decolonization eliminates settler property rights” and “is not obliged to answer questions” such as, “What will happen after?” Wow, pretty strong stuff.

    Of course, there are numerous problems with Tuck and Yang’s argument, not the least of which is labeling African-Americans and Mexican-Americans as “settlers” (“Now you folks just go on back where you came from”). Nevertheless, I find their objection to the easy use of the D-word as a template to deconstruct any and all social ills to be quite compelling. Their essay brought home to me how strongly Indigenous people feel about the Occupation they still live under, how powerful words are, and how fresh the wounds. I will be using this term very narrowly in the future, but, like Katie, I would like to hear others’ thoughts as we write on Decolonizing Our Sanghas.

  • Bob


  • Jeff

    Touché, Bob! Nice analogy ;-)

  • david

    What revolution?

  • Steven Tucker

    I read this piece, and can only wonder why it was written. What was the point, the goal? If the goal was to further the possibility of decolonization of North America, it was a monumental waste of time and resources. If it was to make a linguistic point, ditto. If it was to advocate for Native control over land and resources, it was likely counterproductive. After reading this, I wouldn’t support the return of an acre of land or an ounce of political power to anyone who was at all affiliated with such a decolonization initiative. This coming from a person who has always believed in the inherent evil of any form of colonizing, resource exploitation, etc. I now see that there is a possible future far more evil than the past in North America, an evil than could out-do the hellish past of colonization: It is called decolonization.

    As a Jew, I could not help but forget I was reading about the views of some Native Americans and, at many points in the article, imagine I was reading something from the ancient books of my own people – the books, like Judges, which told of the reasons that Israel fell and the People were sent into exile and persecuted. The decolonialists are in exile, no doubt. And they want Zion returned to them. But just like the ancient Hebrews, their militant belief in their own primacy and their distinct and overtly stated lack of concern for the fate of others makes it unlikely that anyone would take the risk of allowing them to become sovereign and have power over others.

    The evils of the past do not justify evils to come. The tyranny visited upon a people in the past should be recognized, repaired as much as possible, and never again committed. It does not justify a tyranny visited upon the ancestors of those tyrants by the ancestors of those who were victimized. It also does not magically create a world where 300,000,000 people can be forcibly removed from a continent, or made to enter a covenant where their fate is not to be known until the covenant is in place. The people advocating such a thing are either insane, have a hidden agenda, or are just bombasts who like to hear themselves talk. They are not possibly rational people who think such a thing could happen.

    I own nothing. Most of the people who would be willing to cede property to Natives own nothing. The folks who own it all would kill me as quick as they’d kill anyone if we tried to take away their wealth. And yet, I’m supposed to feel so guilty that I devote my life to helping a group of people who care so little for me that they refuse to tell me what will happen to me if/when they achieve their goals??

    Temporal primacy does not make someone the owners of this land, and replacing an empire with a racist, exclusionary tribal oligarchy does not represent justice.

    What was their point???

© 2017 Buddhist Peace Fellowship

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