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
- Avoid killing.
- Avoid stealing.
- Avoid engaging in sexual misconduct.
- Avoid lying.
- 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!