Editorial: You’re Not Decolonizing, Stop

In Collaboration with Chesline Pierre-Paul

Graphic by Adam Gibbard

Historically, white supremacy culture has ongoingly instrumentalized academia’s systems to strategically co-opt social change in a context of institutional oppression.

The danger here is that, as concepts like decolonization, anti-oppression, and Justice, Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion (JEDI) trend higher and higher, we need to be wary of them being subverted and re-appropriated by gatekeepers disguised as allies through initiatives that only pay lip service to the revolution. Thus, policies are systemically formalized and language is aesthetically revised to be performatively “inclusive.”

Meanwhile, we aren’t expected nor empowered to extensively and properly learn Indigenous languages, cultures, and knowledge systems of the stolen lands on which we stand. Racialized and marginalized students are set up to fail and incur poorer and underperforming educational outcomes than their privileged counterparts stemming from racial disparities like underrepresentation in STEM and the highest-profile and highest-paying career tracks, language barriers, lower salaries and higher unemployment rates, the highest dropout rates, the highest borrowing rates and largest debt burden. The institutional structure of student leadership is predicated on white privilege. Alongside this, non-STEM disciplines and humanities departments are significantly underfunded. 

As a result, systemic biases pass off as methodologies and sciences in how data, history, research, and knowledge systems are framed and re-appropriated. Thus, research acts as the de facto institutional echo chamber of systemic privilege by failing to concern itself with practice-based models that engage the root cause of real-life systemic problems that affect the most and benefit the few. 

Decolonizing the institution isn’t about performatively publicizing poorly funded, one-and-done, episodic JEDI and anti-oppression trainings led by underpaid, marginalized, and racialized bodies and thinkers, especially during Black History Month or National Indigenous Month.

Decolonizing the institution isn’t about issuing a findings report and disinterestedly reverting back to our institutional modus operandi with no accountability towards demonstrable sustainable institutional change. It is about making sure change becomes long-lasting beyond low-scale JEDI programming which should not have an expiry date.

Decolonizing the institution is not a one-off or time-bound initiative, it is organization-wide and should aim to be far-reaching. It means that no department, program, body, office, or faculty can evade responsibility by opting out. At an operational level, it means that JEDI, anti-oppression, and decolonization are structurally embedded within standards of operation and procedures.

When applied holistically with due integrity, decolonizing the academia stands for:

Instituting internships with minority-owned local businesses and organizations. Increasing student enrollment within marginalized communities and instituting mentoring support programs to assist them in their educational development and mitigate the racial disparities of academia. It stands for focusing on research led by meaningful and ongoing consultation with local marginalized groups and communities on their real-life systemic problems. It stands for making sure that these groups and communities inform and shape the entirety of the research process; and strategically enforce the institutionalization of anti-colonial and decolonial frameworks.  

This means centering anti-colonial and decolonial knowledge systems, discourses, and reading lists, across all disciplines, including STEM. Not just through hypothetical discourses, but through relevant actionable case studies directly sourced from local marginalized communities or working with vetted local community leaders in direct partnership with the professors and their students. 

It means changing the face of student leadership and forcing it to take into account and act in the best interest of the members it represents. Promoting a multilingual higher education system where we go beyond French and English and honor Indigenous languages as a valid and mandatory language of instruction. It means normalizing land-based pedagogy across all fields of study as a means to tribute institutional sovereignty of Indigeneity as a leading institutional approach to teaching, learning, and research. 

It is also to generate outstanding educational and professional outcomes for marginalized students by producing entrepreneurial and intrapreneurial paths that creates viable and sustainable economic empowerment for those who are historically and institutionally excluded from the culture of systemic privilege.  

That is what real decolonization looks like; it isn’t a gimmick, a PR stunt, or a manipulatively performative re-languaging of institutional messaging and policies. It is an inescapably integral systemic commitment enforced through action and pragmatics programmed to make sure privilege isn’t the gateway to access.

What’s more, real decolonization means committing to generating sustainable solutions to systemic problems by addressing the root-cause issue rather than its periphery. In order to do so, we need to  be leveraging research, student leadership, inclusive hiring, and meaningful consultation and partnerships with local marginalized communities.

Real decolonization means not hiding behind slacktivistic intellectualism to mimic institutional change. Instead, it ensures that there be a consequential economic contribution to the reality of struggle for those born into systemic disprivilege. 

Too often as minorities we are expected and conditioned to content ourselves with having enough to survive but never enough to thrive. A real decolonial standard of success is for us to dare thrive where we are expected to survive. 

Decolonization is not about empowering disenfranchised Peoples into a level of survivorship that makes white supremacy content. It is about enforcing the most paradoxical level of joyfulness, bountifulness, and happiness for and by our Peoples in spaces where we are expected to die not survive, and survive not thrive.

That is what actual decolonial action needs to look like in academia. 

More often than not, what happens is that a metric of JEDI success is set up by gatekeepers and once it is reached, we settle as an institution; this is because the minimum is the attainment, instead of what is truly needed. We look to other struggling institutions to justify our standard and find contentment in the comparison, rather than go beyond it to create new and better standards and metrics that compel us to do more than conform. We rather have biased data to comfort us in justifying that we are “decolonial” enough, instead of morally and sociopolitically challenging our norms to be more than our system. 

That’s why I say decolonization is more than our complacency has made it out to be. 

That’s why I say decolonization is the opposite of what our institutions were created for.

That is why when the system chooses the privilege of its own complacency over its accountability towards justice for all, we have to be the daring voices in the room that make social change the one thing the system can’t escape from.


This article originally appeared in Volume 43, Issue 13, published March 7, 2023.