“So, transform yourself first. In doing so, you will begin transforming your little part of the world. It doesn’t matter what your major, minor, profession, or avocation is. […] Because you are young and have dreams and want to do something meaningful, that in itself makes you our future and our hope. Keep expanding your horizon, decolonize your mind, and cross over borders.”
(Yuri Kochiyama, 1996, para. 38)
Editor’s note: This is the next article in our new series “Decolonise Your Mind“. Ms Luana Ebert studies English and Home Economics at the University of Education Karlsruhe in the “Elementary Education with a specialization in Content and Language Integrated Learning (CLIL)” degree and is currently conducting a case study regarding the possibilities and limits of “Gamification in Content and Language Integrated Learning (CLIL)” for her Master thesis. In 2018, she studied at the Northern Arizona University in Arizona, USA, for two semesters.
She worked as a tutor for my lecture on TESOL (young learners) from 2020 to 2021 and enrolled in my “Global English(es), Global TEFL and Global Citizenship Education” seminar in our first digital semester (summer 2020). She chose the topic “Decolonise Your Mind, Language and Teaching” 1 as her study focus for a digital presentation in this seminar. She will spend one semester at the University of Malta in winter 2022/23 before she starts her pre-service teacher traineeship as from February next year. Until then, she aims to further deepen her understanding of what it means to decolonise one’s mind, one’s language, and one’s teaching, and this is one reason why she authored this article.
Table of contents
Decolonization is a matter of the utmost urgency. Just as civil rights activist Yuri Kochiyama demands in the quote cited above, more and more researchers and people all around the world strive to decolonize their minds, and urge us to do the same.
“Why do we have to decolonize our minds, and what from?”
There is no simple answer to this question, so let me start with the first time I personally came in touch with the concept of decoloniality. It was during my studies at the Northern Arizona University in Arizona, USA. In one of my lectures, we were talking about the upcoming Thanksgiving celebration, a national holiday in the United States. The lecturer then asked if we were aware of the “real” story of Thanksgiving, and urged us to read more into this topic.
There is a variety of theories about the origin of Thanksgiving, based on original documents from the 16th/17th centuries. The story best known today is that in November 1620, British colonists arrived in North America to escape religious persecution in their homeland. According to a letter from 1621, written by Edward Winslow, one of the British colonists, Native Americans of the Wampanoag tribe came to their aid by showing them important survival techniques, such as building houses, cultivating corn and other crops, and using them for their own benefit (Deetz, 2001). A treaty of friendship was negotiated, which included the assurance of peace and conceded nearly 50 million square feet of arable land to the colonists. After learning to fend for themselves from the Wampanoag, the colonists had a good harvest in the fall of 1621. To celebrate this harvest and friendship, they held a three-day feast to which they invited the Wampanoag. In the end, 90 members of the Wampanoag and 51 British hosted the first Thanksgiving in 1621 (Oklahoma City Public Schools Native American Student Services, 2015).
At this point, the traditional narrative of the first Thanksgiving feast often ends. In schools, moreover, the story is often shortened and generalized, so that it usually speaks only of Pilgrims who, in gratitude for the help of the Native Americans, held a feast at which turkey and cranberry sauce were served. However, these generalizations are incorrect. For example, it is often not mentioned that most of the food was provided by the Wampanoag themselves. In addition, the idea of a feast to give thanks for the harvest was not new – in Wampanoag culture, such a feast was held several times a year. Furthermore, it is often obscured how the story continued. In the years after 1621, more and more English colonists came to North America, suppressing the traditions and culture of the Native Americans in order to establish their own religion of Christianity and claim the land for themselves.
Just 10 years after the first Thanksgiving feast, fights took place between the Native Americans and the colonists, culminating in the so-called “King Phillip’s War” in 1675. It represents one of the bloodiest colonial wars in the history of North America. About 3,000 Native Americans and 800 colonists lost their lives. The war was a critical turning-point for the British colonies, destroying the interactions between colonists and Native Americans and bringing a new culture to the land in which Native Americans became marginal figures in the society of the dominant white settlers. Exclusion and discrimination against Native Americans are still evident in North America today (Coleman, 2008). For this reason, Thanksgiving does not represent a day of celebration for most Native Americans, but rather a day of mourning. In a speech from 1970, Frank James, member of the Wampanoag tribe, stated in reference to Thanksgiving:
“Today is a time of celebrating for you – a time of looking back to the first days of white people in America. But it is not a time of celebrating for me. It is with a heavy heart that I look back upon what happened to my people. When the Pilgrims arrived, we, the Wampanoags, welcomed them with open arms, little knowing that it was the beginning of the end. That before 50 years were to pass, the Wampanoag would no longer be a tribe. That we and other Indians living near the settlers would be killed by their guns or dead from diseases that we caught from them. Let us always remember, the Indian is and was just as human as the white people. Although our way of life is almost gone, we, the Wampanoags, still walk the lands of Massachusetts. What has happened cannot be changed. But today we work toward a better America, a more Indian America where people and nature once again are important” (James in Larsen 1986, para. 15).
The Thanksgiving story is just one example of the multiple ways colonialism is embedded in our society and our minds. It shows that colonialism did not end with the independence of individual peoples and countries, instead it is still anchored in the stories we tell and the ones we do not tell, in the ways we act and think. This struck me deeply and led me into reading more about decolonization and decoloniality.
As a white Westerner, I am aware that I myself have benefited from the system in place and want to acknowledge my privileged position from which I write this post. Therefore, I do not wish to prescribe what decoloniality is or should be, and neither make a claim to completeness. This blog post is merely meant to serve as an attempt to give an overview of the nature of the problem, in order to help in the understanding of what decoloniality means and what we are actually decolonizing from.
As a matter of fact, the map of the wealthiest countries of the world shows most of them are Western countries. This raises the question: How could the West develop the way it did, whereas many other countries could not reach a similar kind of wealth?
To answer this question, the so-called “Progress Narrative” (Andrews, 2020) is often used. It refers to the idea that the West has three pillars on which its development and status are based:
1. The Scientific Revolution
2. The Political Revolution
3. The Industrial Revolution
The Scientific Revolution refers to the development of new ideas and new technology over the centuries. The Industrial Revolution alludes to the innovation of new and faster ways of producing, whereas the Political Revolution means the movement away from monarchies to the establishment of democracies, changes in society as well as the enforcement of the human rights.
The “Progress Narrative” implies that these three revolutions are the reason for the status and the wealth of the West today. It also refers to the idea that if everyone else would just catch up in these areas, everyone would be prosperous at the same economic level. This is not entirely untrue, because these developments were and are very progressive and are partly the reason for the current status of the West. However, this idea leaves out a very important part of the story: None of these developments could have happened if the West had not used genocide, enslavement, and colonialism to acquire the material basis for this development (Andrews, 2020). At the same time, the colonized countries had little opportunity to further develop and advance their own science, industry or governments as long as they were subjugated.
In order to understand decoloniality and, in a next step, start to decolonize one’s mind, it is crucial to get an understanding of the concepts of colonialism and neocolonialism first.
Depending on the colonizers’ particular goals as well as the consequences for the concerned territory and its indigenous peoples, different forms of colonialism can be identified. Scholars usually differentiate between four types of colonialism, namely settler colonialism, exploitation colonialism, surrogate colonialism, and internal colonialism (Healy & Dal Lago, 2014).
- Settler colonialism: describes the large-scale migration by people from one country to another country to build permanent, self-sufficient settlements. This form of colonialism is often motivated by religious, political, or economic reasons and aims to replace indigenous populations and their culture with the one of the settlers. Examples of nations that arose from settler colonialism in their modern form include Australia, Canada, and the United States of America (Longley, 2021; Healy & Dal Lago, 2014).
- Exploitation colonialism: In comparison to settler colonialism, exploitation colonialism involves fewer colonists who emigrate. It describes the use of force to control another country, focusing on the exploitation of the indigenous population as labour and natural resources as raw material to the benefit of the colonizer’s country. Exploitation colonialism was conducted, for instance, during the European colonization of Africa and Asia (Longley, 2021; Murray, 1980).
- Surrogate colonialism: In surrogate colonialism, the settlement of a non-native group on territory occupied by an indigenous population is supported by a colonial power. In contrast to settler colonialism, most of the settlers in surrogate colonialism do not come from the same ethnic group as the leading power. The support for this kind of colonialism can happen either openly or covertly, and might include diplomacy, financial aid, humanitarian materials, arms, and the similar. For instance, many historians consider the Zionist Jewish settlement inside the Islamic Middle Eastern state of Palestine to be an example of surrogate colonialism because it was established with the encouragement and support of the ruling British Empire in the 1870s (Atran, 1989; Longley, 2021).
- Internal colonialism: In contrast to the other types of colonialism, the source of exploitation in internal colonialism does not come from a foreign power, but instead it refers to the oppression of one ethnic group by another within the same country. As an example, the term internal colonialism is often used to refer to the discrimination of Mexicans in the United States of America after the Mexican-American War of 1846-1848. As a result of the war, many Mexicans, who had been living in what was back then regarded as the northern part of Mexico, became subjects of the U.S. government, but they were not granted the rights and freedoms associated with U.S. citizenship. They had to experience an ongoing inequality in political, social and economic treatment (Longley, 2021).
In the process of colonialism, colonizers imposed their religion, language, economics, and other cultural practices on indigenous peoples, most notably their own education systems, which cemented the underlying binary. As you can see in the interactive map above, colonization took place all over the globe, starting in 1492. By 1914, a large majority of the world’s nations had been colonized by Europeans at some point. In the aftermath of World War II, most colonial powers were forced to retreat. As the costs of war prevented the colonial powers from securing their control over the colonies financially, politically, or militarily, 50 colonies were able to officially regain their political independence in the two decades following World War II (Reinhard, 1996). However, the educational systems still remained in place, so colonialism has continued on a mental level.
Starting in 1945, the United Nations started a list of non-self-governing territories. By the end of the 1950s, there were still up to 100 territories on this list. Today, there are 16 territories left that have not gained or reclaimed their independence.2 You can see them in this map:
Ngúgí wa Thiong’o, who coined the expression “Decolonising the Mind” in his book with the same name (1968), asserts that during colonialism
“the most important area of domination was the mental universe of the colonised, the control, through culture of how people perceived themselves and their relationship to the world. Economic and political control can never be complete or effective without mental control. To control a people’s culture is to control their tools of self-definition in relationship to others. […] Colonialism detonated a cultural bomb that almost annihilated people’s belief in their language, heritage and environment and made them regard their own cultural background as a wasteland of non-achievement that had to be left behind as quickly as possible” (Ngúg’í wa Thiong’o, 1986, 16).
Ngúg’í Wa Thiong’o’s remarks give an idea of what colonialism meant for the people of the colonized country next to economic and political domination. According to Kgatla (2018, 147), “the purpose of colonization was to introduce new forms of seeing reality and unconsciously or consciously relinquishing one’s cultural norms and adopting new ones” as well as to take over the thought and actions of the colonized in a manner that was less violent than violence but would ensure that the new desired change would be enforced.
This is how Western cultural expressions and Western ways of knowing became and remain the default system, up to this day. This is due to but also leads to:
- White Supremacy
- Colonial Mentality
In the following, we will take a look at each of these concepts.
White supremacy refers to “the belief that the white race is inherently superior to other races and that white people should have control over people of other races” (Merriam-Webster, n.d.).
As the definition of Merriam-Webster shows, it presupposes the assumption of scientific racism, a pseudo-scientific belief which is nowadays discredited as it is irreconcilable with modern genetic research. However, ideas of scientific racism still influence society today. Let me give you an example: Although genetic research has shown that genetically it is not possible to divide humans into different races, most official forms in the U.S. require the person who fills out the form to assign themselves to one of the following races: White, Black or African American, American Indian or Alaska Native, Asian, Native Hawaiian or other Pacific Islander (U.S. Census Bureau, 2022).
The main objective of white supremacy is the maintenance of power of white people over people of other races, and thereby constitutes the foundation of racism and colonialism.
To explain Eurocentrism, let us take a look at the world map again. The maps shown before are all centering Europe. Nevertheless, depending on where you live, you might have a different map in mind when you picture the globe. It might look like one of these:
In Europe, however, mainly the Eurocentric world map is used. This can be seen as an implication of Eurocentrism, which denotes a worldview, which – implicitly or explicitly – posits Europe and European values as central, therefore “normal”, and, thus, implicitly, as superior or more important to others.
The term “Colonial Mentality” refers to an internalized attitude of ethnic or cultural inferiority felt by people as a result of colonization. It corresponds with the belief that the cultural values of the colonizer are inherently superior to one’s own. Thereby, it constitutes a form of internalized racial oppression.
There are many different ways of how a colonial mentality can be manifested. David & Okazaki (2006) noted the following:
- Change of physical characteristics (e.g. the avoidance of getting a tan and the usage of bleaching cream, as a white(r) skin is a manifested beauty ideal of European colonizers in many countries that were once colonized)
- Cultural shame (e.g. being ashamed of your first language or your family’s mother tongue or accents as well as the avoidance of one’s heritage culture)
- Within-group discrimination (e.g. the rejection of people as their mentality is judged to be too white or too Western by their own group)
The term “Neocolonialism” refers to the practice of using economics, globalization, cultural imperialism, and conditional aid to influence a country, instead of the previous colonial methods of direct military or political control. It differs from standard globalization and development aid in that it typically results in a relationship of dependence or financial obligation towards the neocolonialist nation (Prashad, 2007). The main difference between colonialism and neocolonialism is that in the latter, dominance is still present (e.g. in economics) but there is no direct political leadership anymore. Therefore, neocolonialism functionally imitates the relationship of traditional colonialism, thereby perpetuating it.
Let me give you an example here: Between 1970 and 2002, the continent of Africa received $540 billion in loans from Western nations through the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund. Nowadays, African countries have paid back a high amount but they still owe up to around $300 billion. As they are constantly paying off debt, many formerly colonized countries cannot focus on their own economic or human development (Rodney, 1973). (If you are interested to learn more about this topic, read into “Dependency Theory.”)
As you can see, colonial influence transcends historical boundaries. As a result, much of the language we speak,3 the actions we take, and the patterns we think in are still under colonial influence.
There are two main aspects that build the cause of the urgency of decolonization. On the one hand there is colonialism and its long-term consequences, such as White Supremacy, Eurocentrism and Colonial Mentality. On the other hand, we live in a world dominated by neocolonialism as the continuation of colonialism. These two factors build the basis for most of the discrimination and oppression that happens towards people of (former) colonized countries, Black and Indigenous Peoples, as well as people who do not speak standardized English.
Hence, it is crucial for aspiring teachers to become aware of the ways our personal perspectives are shaped and underpinned by colonialist or neocolonialist thought. In this regard, white people in particular need to recognize and relinquish their privileges, and understand that with it comes a responsibility to unlearn habitual patterns of thought and action (“delinking”). On this basis, neocolonialist practices can be critically questioned and challenged.
For English language teachers, this means a change in our teaching, as education is the key for change. When you think, for instance, about the Thanksgiving story introduced in the beginning of this article, the importance of incorporating more than one cultural and historical perspective when teaching a topic in our classrooms becomes clear. A start of doing this would be to critically review our teaching materials and textbooks.4
Also, English language teachers have a particular responsibility, as the English language itself encodes colonialist mentalities. One example would be the terms “First World” and “Third World,” which I still hear being used in everyday conversations, by politicians and on the news. Ngozi Erondu (in Silver, 2021, para. 4) draws attention to the fact that the terms connote superiority and inferiority, as it is implied that “people outside of the ‘First World’ lived really different lives […] As if we don’t have the same value as humans.” The differentiation between “first world” and “third world” thereby alienates entire nations and contributes to the hierarchization in favor of the Western world. The same holds true for the expression “developed” and “developing” countries.5 As can be seen through these examples, the change of the language we use, away from colonialist speech to an inclusive, decolonizing vocabulary is of the utmost importance, as language and thinking are deeply intertwined.
To sum it up with the words of Ritskes (2012, para. 9):
“We’re all implicated in and through colonialism and how we decolonize is connected to how exactly we are implicated.”
As an English language teacher to be, I am implicated in the colonialist system myself, as anyone who teaches English outside of England is intertwined in a colonial project, even if it is not conscious. This particularly holds true if the teaching takes place in a sanctioned institution and if the English being taught is standardized, without much room for diversity (NCTE, 2019). So at the end of this article, I have to admit to myself that I am part of the problem, but I want to become part of the solution as well. In order to fully decolonize our classrooms, we must start with questioning ourselves and our position, as well as committing to political change.
If you would like to read further into this topic and learn how to work towards decolonization, I can recommend the following sources:
- James Baldwin, in particular “A Talk to Teachers” (1963)
- Ngū’g’ī wa Thiong’o, in particular “Decolonizing the Mind: The Politics of Language in African Literature” (1986)
- Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, in particular “The Danger of a Single Story” (2009)
- Wayne Au (2009): Decolonizing the Classroom – Lessons in Multicultural Education
- National Council of Teachers of English (2019): Decolonizing the Classroom – Step 1
- Mills University (2021): “Challenging Classroom Colonialism and the Problem with ‘Decolonizing Education'”
Editor’s note: We will continue to share our discoveries and insights on our journey to decoloniality as well as our doubts and open questions with you in this series. Guest-authors are welcome.
Text by L. Ebert
Editor’s notes by I. Martin
1 “Decolonization” vs. “decolonisation”: The author follows American spelling rules. The editor follows British spelling and also Kenyan writer Ngū’g’ī wa Thiong’o, who coined the expression “Decolonising the Mind” in the title of his pioneering book (1968) and applied the deconstruction of Western colonial thought to English language and literature.
2 This number does not take countries into account that were once colonized and are now regarded as part of a country, e.g. Hawaii as the 50th State of the USA.
3 The Western binary runs through the English and all other ex-colonial languages (e.g. ethnophaulisms). An article on this subject will follow later in this series.
4 An article investigating neocolonialism in English secondary course books used in German classrooms will follow later in this series. Example of the day: A teaching unit about British Colonialism or the British Monarchy can be augmented by news reports of 21 March 2022 about the Jamaican protests against the Royal visit demanding slavery reparations (“Seh Yuh Sorry!” and “Apologize now!”).
5 “The common usage of the word developed implies that there is a gold-standard for ‘development’ overall, with a desirable (refined, superior) state of development at one end of the scale and an undesirable (‘raw’, unrefined, primitive, inferior) one at the other. The binary of ‘developed countries’ and ‘undeveloped’ or ‘underdeveloped countries’ is a value statement rooted in eurocentricism and colonialism; the criteria by which a country is deemed developed are chosen by those who deem themselves to be developed” (note 1 by I. Martin in a previous post).
National Council of Teachers for English (2019). “Decolonizing the Classroom: Step 1”. https://ncte.org/blog/2019/04/decolonizing-the-classroom/
Andrews, K. (8 June 2020). “How to Decolonise Your Mind – Improving Conversations Surrounding Race”. Iai Player. https://iai.tv/video/how-to-decolonise-your-mind-kehinde-andrews-racism?utm_source=YouTube&%20utm_medium=description
Atran, S. (1989). “The Surrogate Colonization of Palestine 1917-1939”. American Ethnologist, 16(4), 719–744. doi:10.1525/ae.1989.16.4.02a00070
Coleman, P. (2008). Thanksgiving: The True Story. New York City: Henry Holt and Company.
Crossman, A. (27 August 2020). “Dependency Theory”. https://www.thoughtco.com/dependency-theory-definition-3026251
Dascal, M. (2007). Colonizing and Decolonizing Minds. Tel Aviv: Tel Aviv University.
David, E. J. R., & Okazaki, S. (2006). “The Colonial Mentality Scale (CMS) for Filipino Americans: Scale Construction and Psychological Implications”. Journal of Counseling Psychology, 53(2), 241–252. https://doi.org/10.1037/0022-0220.127.116.11
Deetz, P. S. (2001). “The True Story of the First Thanksgiving”. Muse, 5(9), 8–14. http://www.histarch.illinois.edu/plymouth/Musearticle.pdf
Healy, R. & Dal Lago, E. (2014). The Shadow of Colonialism on Europe’s Modern Past. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.
Kgatla, S. T. (2018). “The Decolonisation of the Mind and Black Consciousness Community Projects by the Limpopo Council of Churches”. Missionalia, 46(1), 146–162. https://doi.org/10.7832/46-1-270
Kochiyama, Y. (1996). “Expand our Horizons: Decolonize Our Minds, Cross Our Borders”. http://www.walterlippmann.com/yuri-horizons.html
Larsen, C. (1986). “The Plymouth Thanksgiving Story”. https://www.commonlit.org/en/texts/the-plymouth-thanksgiving-story
Longley, R. (2021). “What Is Colonialism? Definition and Examples”. https://www.thoughtco.com/colonialism-definition-and-examples-5112779
Merriam-Webster. “White Supremacy”. https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/white%20supremacy (last accessed 26 January 2022).
Murray, M. J. (1980). The Development of Capitalism in Colonial Indochina (1870–1940). Berkeley: University of California Press.
Ngū’g’ī wa Thiong’o (1986). Decolonizing the Mind: The Politics of Language in African Literature. Nairobi: East African Educational Publishers.
Oklahoma City Public Schools Native American Student Services. (2015). “A Story of Survival: The Wampanoag and the English”. https://www.okcps.org/cms/lib/OK01913268/Centricity/Domain/130/NASS%20Thanksgiving%20Lesson%20Plan%20Booklet.pdf
Prashad, V. (2008). The Darker Nations: A People’s History of the Third World. New York: The New Press.
Reinhard, W. (1996). Kleine Geschichte des Kolonialismus. Stuttgart: Kröner.
Ritskes, E. (2012, September 21). What Is Decolonization and Why Does It Matter? https://intercontinentalcry.org/what-is-decolonization-and-why-does-it-matter/
Silver, M. (2021). “Memo to People of Earth: ‘Third World’ is an Offensive Term!” https://www.npr.org/sections/goatsandsoda/2021/01/08/954820328/memo-to-people-of-earth-third-world-is-an-offensive-term?t=1647678478003
United States Census Bureau (2022). “About the Topic of Race”. https://www.census.gov/topics/population/race/about.html
List of Figures
Figure 1. A Meme by The Betoota Advocate (@betootaadvocate) on Instagram.
Image in Hussey, W. (n.d.). Did You Know? Most Countries Don’t Celebrate the Day They Were Invaded by Colonial Settlers. Retrieved from https://www.betootaadvocate.com/breaking-news/did-you-know-most-countries-dont-celebrate-the-day-they-were-invaded-by-colonial-superpowers/
(original oil painting ”The Founding of Australia by Captain Arthur Phillip RN Sydney Cove, January 26th 1788” by Algernon Talmage, 1939)
Figure 2. Colonised Territories 1492-2008.
GIF by Nacu, A. (2008). Map Indicating the Territories Colonized by European Powers, the United States and Japan. Retrieved from https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Colonisation2.gif
Figure 3. Non-Self-Governing Territories in 2020.
Map by the United Nations Office of Information and Communications Technology (2021, August 17). Non-Self-Governing Territories. Retrieved from https://www.un.org/dppa/decolonization/en/nsgt
Figure 4. Map Centering Asia.
Map data ©2022 Google, INEGI retrieved from https://firstname.lastname@example.org,-176.989374,3z
Figure 5. Map Centering the United States of America.
Map retrieved from https://www.freeworldmaps.net