Editor’s note: This article by Ms Carlotta Ehrenzeller is the second post in our NEW SERIES “Decolonise Your Mind (& language & teaching)”, except that the first introductory post – mine – is regrettably missing at this point. Since mid-October, it has been management of departmental affairs, staffing, safety, and students coming back from the void into classrooms with real people. I will therefore write post #1, which will explain the background and goals of this series, after Christmas. Meanwhile, Ms Ehrenzeller’s article serves very well as an introduction to the new series in its own right, and it was finished just in time for me to wish our readers Merry Christmas!
Ms Carlotta Ehrenzeller is a second-year doctoral researcher at the University of Cambridge. Her research interests are peacebuilding, holistic education, school reforms, comparative education and participatory methodologies. Ms Ehrenzeller has been an sdw scholar (Stiftung der Deutschen Wirtschaft) since 2016, and I first met her at an sdw conference about “Digitality in Schools” that Ms Shirin Ud-Din organized virtually in autumn 2020.
Ms Ehrenzeller previously studied in Lausanne (Switzerland) and Montréal (Canada). She holds an MPhil (2019) in “Education, Globalisation, and International Development” from the Faculty of Education at the University of Cambridge. Her MPhil research focussed on teacher motivation and teacher retention in rural Bangladesh.
After her Master’s Degree, Ms Ehrenzeller absolved a diplomatic traineeship in Sri Lanka and Switzerland before returning to academia. She is currently chairing the sdw UK group, and holds the position as Vice-Chair of the Cambridge Peace and Education Research Group. She has just completed fieldwork in Berlin (Germany) in which she collected data for analysing the contextualisation of Montessori Education in a forest school as well as Montessori pupils’ conceptualisation of peace.
In her podcast “Footnotes – My PhD in the Making”, Mrs Ehrenzeller critically shares questions, doubts, and personal experiences throughout her PhD journey and explores alternative ways of knowledge-making in a critical manner. You can connect with her on Linkedin: Carlotta Ehrenzeller or reach out to our guest author via firstname.lastname@example.org.
The Performance of Decoloniality: A Journey Through Power
“Emancipate yourselves from mental slavery
None but ourselves can free our minds.“
We are at a point in history where striving towards peace, social justice, and environmental sustainability at every level is no longer a vision of dreamers, but a global necessity calling for immediate action (Rincón-Gallardo, 2020). The United Nation’s 2030 Agenda sets out a vision of a more just world in terms of economic, social, and environmental equality across and within countries. Nonetheless, capitalism, patriarchy, and colonisation persist in prevailing regimes of inequality worldwide (de Sousa Santos, 2007).
My Positionality: Whiteness
Let me start this blog post by disclosing my own positionality. As a white Western researcher, I want to acknowledge from the beginning that I am aware that I am speaking from a privileged position (see my positionality in the visualisation below). I myself have benefited from the systems in place and am aware that the process of “learning to learn from below” (Spivak, 2004) implies to start learning in new ways, as well as in new relationships and to ultimately unlearn privilege. In addition to this, I am in the process of learning how to express my allyship as part of the decolonisation1 and decoloniality2 in and of higher education and in no ways wish to prescribe what decolonisation is or should be.
Importantly, in this introductory post to the new blog series on decolonisation and decoloniality from the University of Education Karlsruhe,3 I take the questions of whether or why to decolonise as a given, focusing on how to decolonise within higher education. In the following contribution I reflect on both decolonisation and decoloniality, from a personal perspective as a researcher and early-career academic.
Decolonisation vs. Decoloniality
In my field, education and peacebuilding, decolonisation is seen as “a messy, dynamic, and contradictory process” (Sium, Desai, & Ritskes, 2012, p. II). It starts with the challenge that decolonisation and decoloniality are often used interchangeably in general discussion about colonial legacies. The words we use and what we intend to communicate shape our world and understanding thereof. Therefore, for reasons of clarity, I aim to distinguish between the two concepts based on the definitions of futurelearn in the visualisation below.
Therefore, colonisation refers to the systemic exploitation of land and resources. Decolonisation describes the undoing thereof. This means the time-bound process of liberation from colonisation. On the other hand, decoloniality refers to continuous actions based on recognizing the real-world impact that coloniality has on today’s world systems (based much on capitalism, nationalism and modernity). Decoloniality intends to move away from dominant Eurocentric knowledge systems and “ways of knowing” towards alternative and pluralistic ways of knowledges.
Namely, Shahjahan and Ramirez (2017, 52) define decoloniality as the “epistemic,4 political, and pedagogical project that involves the unpacking of modern civilisational worldview and the inclusion of non-modern systems of knowledge and categories of thought as legitimate ways of knowing in higher education”.
In short, the role of coloniality is constructing the assumption of Western cultural hegemony in every possible aspect. Can we, then, state that the goal of decoloniality is deconstructing the assumption of Western supremacy in ontological (ways we perceive) and epistemological (ways we know) terms? The violences of colonisation and coloniality affect nearly every dimension of being (Mignolo, 2011).
Decoloniality can thus refer to a
• particular version of postcolonial political theory,
• historical narrative after the end of empire,
• way of knowing that resists the Eurocentrism of the West,
• an ethical attitude towards social justice and human rights for Indigenous peoples, and
• moral attempt at righting the wrong of colonial domination, stolen land, and enslavement (Mackinlay & Barney, 2014).
Knowledge Production: Controlling the Narrative
Knowledge production (this can mean doing and publishing research) can be seen as a form of labour, done by specific groups of workers in specific social contexts with specific goals in mind (Connell, 2014). Moreover, this labour process was and is influenced by colonialism, and is now being re-structured and redefined by neoliberal5 globalisation. De Sousa Santos (2007) reminds us of the need to compare knowledge that is being learned with knowledge that is being forgotten in order better understand whose stories are being told and whose goals a particular production of knowledge serves. A defining feature of the extensive duration of colonial modernity is the concealment of historical and systemic violence against oppressed populations (Andreotti, 2016).6
Could we imagine a form of knowledge production that aims to provide epistemological alternatives for more intentional, pluralistic thinking?7 If the dark sides of modernity are concealed in the narratives of local and global histories, the result is an uncritical celebration of progress and development. Consequently, this leads to the belief in neutrality and innocence in current and past global injustices. Post-colonial and decolonial literature is trying to critically illuminate this celebrated idea of progress and development.
Decoloniality in Higher Education
I wonder: What then is our role and obligation as academics and researchers in the project of decolonisation? How do knowing and being combine themselves in the moment of learning to create the very world we are studying, and how do we wish to participate in this world (Bayley, 2018)? Whose knowledge do we consider worthy, and what do we actually consider as knowledge? Spivak’s thinking reminds me of Foucault, who highlights the relationship between power and knowledge. Researching and knowing more about ‘the other’, about people in cultures other than our own, comes with the power to control the narrative. Furthermore, from the position of a Western researcher in particular, it remains crucial to critically question myself: To whom does decolonisation belong? And whose vision of a more just world is decolonisation working towards? After all, at the foundation of this lies the need to go one step further and to question the relationship between knowledge, power, and politics in order to realise calls for more diverse ways of knowing (Santos, 2018), as well as more reflexive and embodied praxis for scholars (Cremin, 2018). The following diagram suggests some concrete actions that academics can take, in order to address colonial practices and work towards more pluralistic and inclusive implementations (Golding, 2017; Kurian & Kester, 2019; Law & Bretherton, 2016):
With this in mind, concrete actions in academia as demonstrated on the visualisation above, could be, to publish not solely in English, but to increasingly include a diverse range of languages (for example Arabic, Mandarin, Spanish ) in dominant journals. A further concrete step is to ensure that core curriculums of Universities include diverse literature and articles produced by Southern academics. This ensures that various narratives are being demonstrated and shifts the power from western-centred knowledge domination. Consequently, when doing literature reviews, or publishing texts (like for example for this blog post), I pay particular attention to build on research from authors with diverse backgrounds, including authors from the global South. Additionally to the above-made points, as academics it is important to reflect on our own fields of study. It is crucial to interrogate the development of our disciplines, to unpack how our fields came to be and what logics underpin its development. From there, transformation can happen. In this vein, Kester et al. (2019) argue for a practice of glocalised,8 decolonial thinking across fields, and a continual reflection and dialogue about why and for whom certain knowledge productions and prevailing colonial practices persist.
Concluding, I embrace the idea that behind all these complex and messy structures, what remains unquestionable is the responsibility on a personal level. I agree with Hajir et al. (2021) and Scully et al. (2017) that dismantling colonialism within the field of higher education ultimately calls to mobilise the privileged to push against their own interests. However, this call to mobilise those in power positions (also within higher education itself) to advocate with the oppressed and needs patience and persistence.
Altogether, decolonisation (a noun) and decolonise (a verb) cannot easily be explained, defined, or grafted onto pre-existing social justice frameworks. Tuck and Yang (2012, 3) helped me realise the importance of not seeing decolonisation as a metaphor;9 they argue: “When metaphors invade 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”. The authors critique that creating a white narrative around decolonization without concrete actions of returning indigenous land, reinforces a Western-centred domination and an apparent innocence to the white settler.
I have spent – and indeed continue to spend – much time grappling with the challenges of decolonization and decoloniality and with the act of decolonizing (in) higher education as a white, Northern researcher.
Therefore, I choose to share some of my personal reflections on my Podcast Footnotes – My PhD in the Making. In short episodes I explore alternative ways of knowledge-making, and aim to break away from purely textual knowledge. My aim is to honestly share questions, doubts, and learnings throughout my PhD journey. All in all, I strive to genuinely understand history; hose histories told and those concealed. In short, I commit to holding marginalised voices at the forefront in my own research, disclosing my positionality, to reflect on power and to voice my allyship.
Finally, I would like to share the following personal reflections: For me, decolonisation and decoloniality cannot be achieved by solely engaging with the topic on a theoretical level within a bound timeline. It is both a personal and a structural process that is lifelong and calls for personal and structural confrontation of the world we have known to be. Firstly, on a personal level, it requires me to reflect on my own privileges, structures, opportunities, research methods, publications etc. and to adapt my behaviour accordingly. This process is lifelong, and I continue to learn and change when it comes to decoloniality. Secondly, on a structural level, it remains indispensable to be an ally when it comes to questions of returning indigenous land, colonial art or other artefacts that are in western possession due to settler colonialism.
Therefore, decoloniality calls to critically question hegemonic structures, our institutional practices, and our personal privileges within and outside higher education. Who has access to our universities? Who receives funding and scholarships? Who is able to go through bureaucratic processes and receives study visas? Who is published? And what kind of knowledge is considered worth publishing and therefore letting be part of the current knowledge production? These questions are only partially rhetorical. Think to yourself, in what ways your positionally (your gender, race, sexuality, skin color, accent, family background) has brought you to where you are today. Which opportunities do you have or not have, because of who you are?
To circle back to the beginning of this blog post, as Bob Marley expressed in his redemption song (see motto above), and as Frantz Fanon echoed in 1963 (The Wretched of the Earth), I argue that each of us is responsible for decolonising our own minds as a first step. We are responsible for de-linking our epistemic assumptions established in the Western World, to stop the silencing as an active act of erasure and misinterpretation with the goal to challenge our own “epistemologies of ignorance” (Sriprakash et al., 2020).10 Concluding, in light of these “epistemologies of ignorance”, self-reflexivity in the global North must be focussed not only on the value of diversity but also recognise the different ways of knowing and of being, which I hope we will find in this blog series.
Text by C. Ehrenzeller
Illustrations by S. Bieger
Editor’s notes by I. Martin
1Decolonisation: “the process in which a country that was previously a colony” (= controlled by another country) becomes politically independent” (cambridgedictionary.com)
2 Deoloniality: “ways of thinking, knowing, being, and doing that began with, but also precede, the colonial enterprise and invasion. It implies the recognition and undoing of the hierarchical structures of race, gender, heteropatriarchy, and class that continue to control life, knowledge, spirituality, and thought, structures that are clearly intertwined with and constitutive of global capitalism and Western modernity.” (urbandictionary.com)
3 Editor’s note: The new series will be inaugurated with my introductory post “Changing the Matrix”. It will then develop with articles by Luana Ebert, Chelsea Hog, Felicitas Katharina Siwik, Jonas Nonnenmacher, Selina Stegmeier, Nico Eckhardt, and Carolin Callahan. We are also interested in contributions by potential guest authors (contact the editor).
4 Epistemology: “the study or theory of the nature of knowledge, especially with reference to its limits and validity” (merriam-webster.com). Epistemology explores the ways in which we understand and perceive the world.
5 Neoliberalism = ” ideology and policy model that emphasizes the value of free market competition” (britannica.com).
6 In recent times, there are individual examples of institutions (e.g. museums) and states (e.g. Canada) recognising the continued systemic violence against oppressed populations who choose to repay and return what belongs to ex-colonised nations. Although these acts may be taken as a positive signal, in the larger context they remain isolated as yet, as the majority of institutions in ex-colonising countries are still not recognising the issue.
7 To see a concrete example cf. diagram “Concrete Action in Academia”
8 “Glocal”: a merge of the words “global” and “local
9 Tuck and Young argue in their 2012 article (cf. references), that decolonisation is not a metaphor for ways to improve our education system and society. They highlight the importance that at the heart of decolonisation should be concrete actions of returning stolen land, rather than just “thinking differently”.
10“Epistemology of ignorance”: Sriprakash, Tikly and Walker (cf. references) argue that being silent about a specific topic, in their case racism and racial domination, is an active act to erase a part of history that is the base of todays economic, political and social systems worldwide. This silence around racism in the field of education and international development, produces and normalises racism as a political system and this is what Mills (cf. references) calls the “epistemology of ignorance”.
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