Decolonisation on a T-shirt : On cooptation and academic careers

by Julia Schöneberg

Before I share some observations on how I feel ‘decolonising’ is coopted in academia, I want to start by situating the position from which I am arguing. I am a white, well-educated, middle-class, able-bodied woman living in Germany and working in a Western university. Inevitably, my approach to decolonisation is shaped by this positionality. Also, when I talk of ‘we’, I think of people holding similar privileges like myself, living and working in similar spaces, especially in institutions of Higher Education (HE) in the global North.

Just recently I saw a call for contributions on colonialism and coloniality published by the Berlin Humboldt Forum (if you are interested: here is some context and some decolonial objections raised towards the Forum generally). The call is illustrated with a yellow T-Shirt with the slogan ‘decolonise’ printed on it. Years ago, Tuck and Yang cautioned that decolonisation is not and cannot be a metaphor. Yet now, even worse, it is becoming an instagramable fashion item. Even as the residues of coloniality form an intrinsic part of the lived experience for millions of people, a struggle that they navigate through on a daily basis. To me, this T-Shirt is a signifier of how a deeply political and empowering process and practice, one that requires positioning and activism, one that must confront and deconstruct the roots of structural injustices, oppression and racism, and one that has a clear material dimension, has become co-opted into a simple fashionable fad.

In the Western academic space, this is not the only instance. For the last couple of years plenty of conferences, committees and projects have been organised claiming to decolonise. But how far do these claims really go? Are they worth the paper on which they are written if scholars read as Black or Brown are forced to serve as examples of symbolic diversity without real structural change? What about the formation of decolonisation committees while neither the circumstances of labour (casualisation, racial discrimination, precarity) nor the structures of institutional whiteness are confronted? How far do claims of decolonising reach in research projects that uphold a division of labour in knowledge creation with colleagues from the global South being reduced to the collectors of data and Western researchers the ones publicising findings in paywalled articles and books? How much legitimacy has a ‘decolonising’ project predominantely made up of white Europeans? Are epistemic injustices and power relations in knowledge creation and teaching really addressed? Who are the experts? Whose knowledges count?

I am part of third-party funded projects on decolonisation and I have submitted project applications with ‘decolonise’ in the title, knowing that the zeitgeist is favourable for such framing and that dropping the right buzzwords helps in the evaluation process. However, being and working in such funded environments has left me somewhat disillusioned. Claiming to work in a decolonial way for me means horizontality, collectivity, equity, relationships of trust and mutual respect, openness and kindness, care, solidarity, commitment to continuous un-/learning and a pluriversity of voices. Thinking about institutions and logics of Higher Education in Western Europe/North America, there is a fundamental mismatch. Ethics of decolonial scholarship are extremely difficult to practice and defend in academic spaces that favour and award competition, individual merits and the survival of the fittest, all the while promoting those individuals that can deliver outputs fast, regardless of context of their creation. As a result, what claims to be decolonial scholarship can easily end up being as extractive and violent as the subject it is claiming to confront. An environment shaped by rankings, impact factors, citation numbers and third party funding figures; is this really also the space where care and kindness, radicality and boldness, and radical uprooting of structures that maintain inequality and exclusion is meant to flourish?

It makes me wonder if there is a place at all for funding ‘decolonising’ in global North academia, and, whether it is legitimate to engage in these projects knowing full well the drawbacks? As a global North scholar, piggy-backing on a struggle that is fundamentally existential and ending up with no more than one’s own polished CV (and a T-shirt) seems utterly and morally wrong. It turns a genuine struggle coming from the lived experiences of the underrepresented into an epistemology that forms a life of its own, one, where ‘decolonial scholar’ becomes some kind of identity marker furthering careers and remaining strangely detached from day-to-day injustices.

Very obviously, as Western academics ‘we’ need to clear up structures and institutions of which we are part and that are sexist, racist, capitalist, patriarchal and colonial. On the other hand, if we claim to ‘decolonise’ do we really closely scrutinize that we are in a position and have a legitimate voice to pursue it? The call for decolonisation is a call for justice and I doubt more and more whether the seeds for this will be planted in a third-party funded project. Maybe, as long as we are working in an academia that is neoliberal and marketized, what is first and foremost required is activism beyond the desk.

As ever, I am thankful to Sayan Dey, Aftab Nasir and Lata Narayanaswamy for being fellow travellers, and for their insightful comments on an earlier draft. Of course, all short-comings remain my own.

Julia Schöneberg is a co-founder of Convivial Thinking. She tweets as J_Schoeneberg.