The work of decolonising: developing awareness

By Catherine Gilbert

The launch of our new Decolonising Modern Languages and Cultures blog comes at a critical time for interrogating and understanding our histories, institutions and positionalities. While I have long thought of myself as a Postcolonial Studies scholar, it is only in recent years that my own research has taken a ‘decolonial turn’, and I want to use my first post for this blog to reflect on my individual trajectory and to make sense of the shifts in my own thinking. 

Trauma narratives

My background is in French and Francophone Studies and my research projects over the past 15 years have included analysing the work of Haitian migrant writers in Quebec, cultural translation in China–Africa relations and, most significantly, testimony bearing witness to the 1994 Genocide against the Tutsi in Rwanda.

Ultimately, my research is about storytelling. How do we tell stories about ourselves and about others? How do we use stories to make sense of the atrocities and traumas we experience? How do we interpret and engage with stories about difficult histories, and how do we understand our own implication in these histories? These questions are inevitably entangled with structures of power and privilege, and we need to be acutely aware of our own positionality in relation to the stories we listen to and the stories we tell. 

But how can we develop such an awareness, and how can we fully step into the process of decolonising in our own work?

With my first book, From Surviving to Living: Voice, Trauma and Witness in Rwandan Women’s Writing (2018), which examined the testimonial literature of Rwandan women genocide survivors, I was thinking and writing about decolonising without having the vocabulary for it, or without explicitly drawing on that vocabulary in a critical manner.

Cover of From Surviving to Living

My starting point was to look at the limits of trauma theory, which has been developed in Europe and the US. It seemed to me that the claim trauma theory makes to ‘universalism’ is flawed – indeed, the very notion of the ‘universal’ is one developed in the West – and there wasn’t sufficient acknowledgement of the specificity of experiences of trauma in different sites around the globe, of the experiences of people who have lived through very different traumatic historical events and whose voices were subsequently being marginalised.

I therefore wanted to analyse Rwandan women’s writing in order to show the challenges they pose to dominant understandings of trauma. A central premise of trauma theory is that trauma defies narrative, that it is ‘unspeakable’. But this wasn’t what I was seeing in Rwandan women’s writing. The women were finding both subtle and powerful strategies to ‘speak’ the trauma and suffering they had witnessed and experienced. The problem lay instead with the ‘unhearability’ of their stories, which is the case for so many marginalised voices who lack empathetic audiences willing to listen. 

Yet it was only after publication of the book that I became fully aware of the broader significance of this work, thanks to the perceptive reading of one reviewer who pointed to a ‘curious blind spot’ in the book – that the book was contributing to the project to decolonise trauma studies without explicitly acknowledging the advances in this area.

Cultivating an awareness

Cover of Decolonizing Methodologies

My conscious aim moving forward in my research is to engage head on with questions of decoloniality. As I shift from more literary-based research to anthropological and oral history methods, it is crucial for me to understand and maintain an awareness of the underlying power structures and my own position of privilege in this work. Indeed, as Linda Tuhiwai Smith reminds us in the opening sentence of her powerful book Decolonizing Methodologies, ‘the term “research” is inextricably linked to European imperialism and colonialism’ (2012 [1999], p. 1).

My current project, ‘Genocide Commemoration and Education in the Rwandan Diaspora’, examines commemoration from the perspective of storytelling, seeking to understand the myriad ways in which memory narratives are constructed, negotiated and transmitted in specific diasporic locations. Working with communities based in Belgium, France and the UK, this project explores how these communities grapple with the challenges of communicating their experiences of violence and exile to the host societies, who often want to ignore or even deny this history. 

An important strand of the project examines the educational tools being developed for use in Belgian and British schools. What I have found so far is that, if the genocide against the Tutsi is taught at all, it tends to be in history classes, linked to the study of war and genocide more broadly, particularly the Holocaust. There is not enough focus on the colonial dimensions of Rwandan history, and students are asked, rather, to reflect on the ‘universal’ human experiences of trauma. Teaching materials frequently gloss over or underplay the role of Belgian colonial administration, indicative of a continued refusal at an institutional level to confront the afterlives of colonialism in Rwanda and to critically interrogate Europe’s implication in this difficult history. 

Faced with these glaring inadequacies, it becomes impossible to do this research without acknowledging the imperative to decolonise existing education systems. 

It seems to me that our task as researchers and educators is to raise awareness of the stories produced at the peripheries and to work to construct multiple and more inclusive histories that help dismantle ongoing forms of inequality and injustice. For, as the wide-ranging contributions in Gurminder Bhambra, Dalia Gebrial and Kerem Nişancıoğlu’s edited volume Decolonising the University (2018) demonstrate, a curriculum centred on multiplicity is one of the central tenets of decolonising educational institutions. 

I believe that Modern Languages should be a natural home for these debates to take place, and I hope this blog will provide a forum for students and academics alike to share their experiences, exchange ideas and drive the work of decolonising forward.


Bhambra, Gurminder K., Dalia Gebrial, and Kerem Nişancıoğlu. (2018) Decolonising the University. London: Pluto Press.

Gilbert, Catherine. (2018) From Surviving to Living: Voice, Trauma and Witness in Rwandan Women’s Writing. Montpellier: Pulm.

Tuhiwai Smith, Linda. (2012 [1999]) Decolonizing Methodologies: Research and Indigenous Peoples. 2nd edn. London & New York: Zed Books.

[Catherine Gilbert is a Newcastle University Academic Track (NUAcT) Fellow in the School of Modern Languages. Her current research focuses on genocide commemoration and education in the Rwandan diaspora. She is the author of From Surviving to Living: Voice, Trauma and Witness in Rwandan Women’s Writing (2018), which received the Memory Studies Association Outstanding First Book Award in 2019. She is an administrator of this blog.]

Decolonial? Postcolonial? What does it mean to ‘decolonise ourselves’?

By Michael Tsang

I wish to use the first post of this blog series to offer some preliminary thoughts on the terminologies of the ‘decolonial’ (and ‘postcolonial’), in order to get the sharing and conversation started. As I will explain below, sharing, after all, lies at the heart of the project of decolonisation for me. If we need to decolonise ourselves, we cannot do so by keeping our thoughts in our mind; we need to say them out loud and start conversations based on them.

My involvement in the ‘decolonial’ is also informed by my role as a member of Newcastle University’s Postcolonial Research Group. As a sharp-eyed reader would notice, however, the word choice here is ‘postcolonial’. An important starting point for me, then, is to clarify the meanings of ‘the decolonial’ and ‘the postcolonial’, and to understand what convergences and divergences there are between these two terms. The following will be my current reflections on these questions: What does it mean to ‘decolonise ourselves’ in the current context and how can existing theories help us understand this movement better?

The postcolonial

At the outset, the difference between ‘postcolonial’ and ‘decolonial’ is one about academic discipline. As the South African postcolonial scholar Benita Parry (2004) insists, ‘postcolonial studies’ was first called ‘colonial discourse analysis’ and had its roots in the late 1970s, particularly with the publication of the Palestinian-American critic Edward Said’s seminal book, Orientalism (1978). The name ‘colonial discourse analysis’ shows clearly that postcolonial studies was first and foremost an analysis of discourse. Hence, the subsequent attention of the field has focused on the study of the political, economic, social, cultural, and historical impact of European colonialism as registered through texts such as literature. Postcolonial research often focuses on experiences in the Middle East, South Asia, and Africa, and notable critics in addition to Said and Parry include Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, Homi Bhabha, and others.

Through years of research and self-reflection, postcolonial scholars have identified that even after independence, structures of dominance and exploitation are often perpetuated by the new native elites. It is in this light that, since the 1990s, the prefix ‘post’ in ‘post(-)colonialism’ is understood not as a temporal marker for a clear-cut transition after independence, but as a marker of relationship that registers the ongoing effect of colonialism on a former colony (see Shohat 1992). To express this idea, postcolonial scholars have collapsed the hyphen between ‘post’ and ‘colonial’: today, the general interpretation is that the hyphenated ‘post-colonial’ specifically denotes the time period after a colony has gained independence, but the unhyphenated ‘postcolonial’ refers to a complex understanding of the post-independence period as being continuously constituted and affected by structures and institutions imposed during the colonial era.

The decolonial

Decolonial thoughts may come from a different disciplinary tradition and have a different geographical focus, but coincidentally, many ideas in the decolonial school echo those in the postcolonial stream. The Peruvian sociologist Aníbal Quijano is said to have come up with the concept of the ‘coloniality of power’, having studied Latin America extensively since the 1970s. Quijano’s thoughts later came to be circulated in Anglophone academia thanks to his work being translated into English (see e.g. Quijano 2000) and taken up by the Argentine critic Walter D. Mignolo.      

Cover of On Decoloniality

One key understanding of the ‘decolonial’ is that decolonisation does not equal decoloniality. As Mignolo puts it, decolonisation was a project in the second half of the 20th century for native people in regions of Asia, Africa, and South America to take back control of the state. This project was half a success and half a failure, because they also found that native elites who replaced the colonisers still clung on to and perpetuated the exact same structures of privilege and institutions of exploitation. In comes decoloniality, which seeks to understand the close-knit relationship between the colonial condition and the imposition of a Western logic of ‘modernity’ as a consequence of colonialism. Hence, ‘decoloniality’ is not so much a political project than it is an epistemological one: to ‘delink’ ourselves from the structure of knowledge imposed by the West, and then to ‘reconstitute’ our ways of thinking, speaking, and living. We may be tempted to think that, being a sociologist, Quijano’s ideas were more suited to social science research, but Mignolo and many scholars have tried applying the decolonial to literary research on Latin and South Americas. The gist, as Walter Mignolo writes in On Decoloniality, is to understand decoloniality as a ‘praxis’ of ‘undoing and redoing’ (Walsh and Mignolo 2018, p. 120).

The postcolonial and the decolonial

One text that discusses the conceptual interaction between the postcolonial and the decolonial is the sociologist Gurminder Bhambra’s essay, ‘Postcolonial and Decolonial Dialogues’ (2014). Bhambra points out that both the postcolonial and the decolonial are concerned with the troubling notion of ‘modernity’, or, to be precise, with the way the West imposed a ‘universal’ model of ‘modernity’ on other parts of the world through imperial invasion and colonial governance.  

Although there are minute differences between these two words, a more productive understanding of these differences is to see them as different perspectives that could be used as tools to facilitate our analyses. While it may be the case that you are more familiar with one theory than the other depending on the discipline and context you study, there is no reason to propose that either is superior to the other. Instead, it will be helpful to realise that both theoretical strands have evolved over a long period of self-reflection and constructive debates among scholars. Unfortunate it is, then, that in an interview a few years ago Walter Mignolo was still seeing the ‘postcolonial’ as a purely temporal category when he says ‘what comes after X has to be conceptualised as post-X’ – much postcolonial research has long argued against a facile temporal understanding of the prefix. The lesson to take away here is that whichever theoretical school one is trained in, it is always more fruitful to learn from the rich debates in different fields and to discover common ground to work on, rather than to make assumptions about each other that may eventually cause divergences.

To de-colon-ise

But if postcolonial and decolonial theories have already been in development for decades, why are we still talking about the project of ‘decolonising the curriculum’ today? In what ways are these theories relevant to the current context in which we talk about ‘decolonising’?

Linguistically, whether the word is postcolonialism, decolonisation, or modernity, it is always the noun that was used to name these theoretical or conceptual strands. The word we are using now, however, is a verb form that suggests action – ‘decolonise/decolonising’ – highlighted both by the prefix ‘de-’ and the verb suffix ‘-ise’. Informed by these morphological features, we ought to notice also that this time we are not only focusing on decolonising the colonies, but we are also decolonsing ‘ourselves’ as students, researchers, and teachers based in higher education institutions in the former colonial empire of the UK, the US, or Euro-America (the West) for that matter. This entails a critical questioning of the very power relations in which we are embedded and the often privileged positions from which we are able to speak. Specifically, I propose three main guiding actions for the project of decolonising ourselves: to act, to reflect, to learn. Three happenings last year in 2020 can illustrate what I mean.

To act: The first is the outrageous killing of George Floyd in May 2020, which sparked mass protests against police brutality and racism in the United States. These protests, which can be seen as part of the larger Black Lives Matter movement going on since 2013, underline the ever-important need to speak up against unjust and unequal treatments we see in society. These inequalities are not limited to race, but also to social class and mobility, gender and sexuality, and language and culture, because these issues always intersect each other. Nothing will change if we don’t act or speak up.   

Statue of Cecil Rhodes in Oxford
source: Wikimedia Commons

To reflect: The proposal from Oxford University’s Oriel College to remove the statue of Cecil Rhodes in June 2020 has caused much controversy. In fact, it was part of a larger wave of campaigns to remove statues of historical figures like Rhodes who had supported or were involved in slavery, racism, and colonialism. It also tied in to an earlier ‘Rhodes Must Fall’ movement in South Africa in 2015 to remove another Rhodes statue in the University of Cape Town. While voices opposing the removal argue that figures like Rhodes had made substantial contribution to Britain and that removing statues means ‘hiding’ history, Oriel College’s statement on the matter clearly shows that the proposal was the result of ‘a thoughtful period of debate and reflection’ demonstrating ‘the college’s 21st Century commitment to diversity’. Far from ‘hiding’ history, the removal of the statue – which is commemorative by nature – was an acknowledgement of how our intellectual understanding has evolved and improved from flawed perceptions of racial superiority in previous centuries. This is a clear example of how reflecting on our own histories and current positionings could yield productive actions that better demonstrate a commitment to values we cherish, such as equality, diversity, inclusivity, and social justice.

To learn: Amidst the Covid-19 pandemic, many Asian people living in the West have been discriminated against, often facing physical assaults for being lumped together as ‘Chinese’ due to the racist nickname given to Covid as the ‘Chinese virus’, or for wearing face masks long before Western governments and medical institutions conceded to including face coverings in their coronavirus strategies. The ‘maskophobia’, as it has come to be called, reveals the West’s haughtiness in refusing to learn from existing knowledge and previous experiences that East Asian regions have consolidated after facing the SARS coronavirus epidemic in 2003. In the era of fake news and conspiracy theories, doctors have even had to debunk unscientific myths about oxygen deprivation from face masks. Judging from the success stories of controlling the pandemic in high-density Asian places like Taiwan and Japan, it cannot be stressed enough how important it is to learn from and about each other.

In the span of a single year, we witness three happenings – the death of George Floyd, the removal of the Rhodes Statue, and maskphobia against Asians amidst Covid – that together reflect the urgency to decolonise ourselves. The point of decolonising for me is to never see them as isolated incidents that happened in a vacuum or only concern some of us. Instead, it is imperative to understand them as reflective of the way all our histories (histories of colonisation, gender oppression, social class exploitation, etc.) are yoked together and affect each other in the present moment. The important thing to do is to build solidarities and communicate with each other as much and as truthfully as possible, because as Asian American Studies scholar Jennifer Ho (2020) says powerfully: ‘anti-racism requires all of us to be in this together’.


Bhambra, Gurminder K. (2014) Postcolonial and decolonial dialogues. Postcolonial Studies 17 (2), pp. 115–121.

Ho, Jennifer. (2020) Anti-Asian racism, Black Lives Matter, and COVID-19. Japan Forum, 33 (1), pp. 148–159. doi: 10.1080/09555803.2020.1821749.

Parry, Benita. (2004) The institutionalization of postcolonial studies. In: Neil Lazarus, ed. The Cambridge Companion to Postcolonial Literary Studies. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, pp. 66–80.

Quijano, Aníbal. (2000) Coloniality of power, Eurocentrism, and Latin America. Nepantla: Views from South, 1 (3), pp. 533–580.

Shohat, Ella. (1992) Notes on the ‘post-colonial’. Social Text, 31/32, pp. 99–113.

Walsh, Catherine E., and Walter D. Mignolo. (2018) On Decoloniality: Concepts, Analytics, Praxis. Durham and London: Duke University Press.

[Michael Tsang is Leverhulme Postdoctoral Fellow based in the School of Modern Languages, Newcastle University, working on a project on 20th-century book circulation between the West and East Asia (China/Japan). He is an administrator of this blog.]