Postcolonial Pedagogy and the Task of Decolonisation

Blog post by Stephanie Newell, with an introduction by Neelam Srivastava


Neelam Srivastava

This blog post by Steph originated out of an event I organised in May 2021, hosted by the Newcastle Postcolonial Research Group. Entitled ‘Postcolonial Pedagogy and the Task of Decolonisation‘, it featured two globally eminent scholars of postcolonial studies and African literature: Stephanie Newell and Ato Quayson. Steph was recently Leverhulme Visiting Professor in the School of English at Newcastle University (2019–2021). I invited Steph and Ato to speak not only as pioneers in the field, but also as hugely experienced teachers of postcolonial literature and theory. Decolonisation and diversity are by now buzzwords in Higher Education: both at Newcastle University and at universities around the world, ‘decolonising the curriculum’ has become a mantra. In many ways, of course, this is an extremely welcome development; a global public conversation is finally taking place around the need to rethink the teaching and transmission of western cultural heritage. Its influential reach is an acknowledgement that there is work to be done on provincialising and decentring the supposed ‘universality’ of the human subject within and across the disciplinary formations of university education. At another level, though, ‘decolonising the curriculum’ partakes in the slightly hypnotic and uncritical (or acritical) aspect of all mantras: it thus risks morphing into an ideological party line rather than maintaining a dynamic consciousness of decolonisation as a constant work in progress. The risks inherent in the party line are linked to the uses it is put to: how do we make sure that decolonisation stays faithful to its stated objective, i.e., working towards a collective project of liberation, rather than merely becoming a way to pursue individualistic or identitarian claims within the academy?

The event aimed to examine the intersections and divergences between recent debates on curriculum diversity and the values and principles of postcolonial literary pedagogy, which has long been asking students to think critically about the racial and colonial assumptions structuring academic programmes in the Humanities. The conversation with Ato and Steph centred on their experience of teaching postcolonial literature, from a time when it was still quite marginal to mainstream syllabi, to the current moment, when Decolonising Education has become almost a policy at the institutional level. We wanted to ask these scholars whether the inclusion of postcolonial literature automatically achieves the decolonisation of the curriculum or whether new forms of cultural subalternity and canonicity enter into play. How can university teachers negotiate students’ demands for the recognition of gendered, racialised, and economic oppression with the need to emphasise that there are often competing notions of marginality? Subalternity is a relational, never an absolute identity, and thus the goalposts are ever mobile. The conversation on screen evolved in fascinating and unforeseen ways, with both scholars sharing anecdotes and insights about their pedagogic experiences. The participants also chimed in with their own observations and questions; many said they were there to learn, as decolonisation was still a recent word for them. After the event, some wrote to me asking for reading lists and tips on how to decolonise a research topic without an apparent point of entry (for example, someone wanted to know how they could research the use of building materials in Indonesia from a decolonising perspective). This awareness was of course the necessary starting point for the educational journey of decolonisation. As one participant remarked, decolonisation is always unfinished, never complete, a constant effort to uncover and dismantle the founding stereotypes and institutional biases at the heart of what we call knowledge.

The Task of Decolonisation

Stephanie Newell

I started my lecturing career in 1994, just as the first two major anthologies of postcolonial theory arrived on the scene.[1] Critical race theory, Pan-Africanism and theories of colonialism and anticolonialism had been growing in impact within universities in the Global North throughout the second half of the twentieth century, but the appearance of these two anthologies put postcolonial studies firmly on the syllabus as a mainstream, or at least unavoidable, sub-discipline in English departments.[2] In the UK, the old ‘Commonwealth Literature’ syllabus, with its canon of Anglophone literary texts, was rapidly reshaped into the new field of postcolonial studies.

Nearly 30 years later, as the field of postcolonial literature gives way to world literature, I wonder what that institutional moment in the mid-1990s – better phrased, perhaps, as that moment of institutionalisation – produced in terms of epistemological breaks and complicities? The anthologies gave teachers and students a wide range of tools for recognising how imperialist and racist power operate structurally, institutionally, archivally and historically. Through the anthologies, an awareness of postcolonial literature and theory slowly filtered into English literature courses, inspiring discussions about the necessity for the diversification of the curriculum and giving visibility to non-Eurocentric perspectives, albeit often parked in ‘postcolonial’ corners of the syllabus rather than on foundational courses.

But a question remains: to what extent has the mainstreaming of postcolonial literature and theory in universities from the mid-1990s onward, with all the critical ways of thinking these works inspired, helped to move our departments and our universities in the direction of ‘decolonisation’? Without a doubt, the discipline of postcolonial studies has helped to diversify the syllabus, but how has it contributed to the ‘task of decolonisation’, that is, the removal of Eurocentric power structures, the diversification of knowledge production and the creation of spaces to take action against systemic racism and other forms of prejudice (see Cleary 2021; Bhambra et al. 2018; Gopal 2021)?

N-gram for ‘decolonisation’ from Oxford Languages data

The Oxford dictionary definition of decolonisation is ‘the action or process of a state withdrawing from a former colony, leaving it independent’ (Oxford Languages, OUP). The Oxford Languages data graph shows no usage of the word up to about 1940, and then a steady rise from 1955 onward (see figure). The real increase in usage occurred long after ‘the actions or processes of states withdrawing from former colonies’ between the late 1940s and early 1960s. Usage of the word climbed exponentially in the 2000s and continues on an upward trajectory. This is a term that has gained popularity as a consequence of its metamorphosis from the definition of a specific political process involving foreign territories into a powerful metaphor for recognising and transforming power relations in metropolitan institutions. In its contemporary usage, decolonisation still means ‘actions or processes’ involving the reconfiguration of institutional spaces, but what is being ‘withdrawn’ is more difficult to identify than in dictionary-definition decolonisations. Contemporary decolonisation processes involve critical, deliberative, space-clearing gestures within institutions by and on behalf of historically excluded groups, as well as the recognition of how racism and other exclusionary forms of power operate through multiple institutional spaces – ranging from schools to police forces – as well as through implicit and unconscious prejudices (see Bhambra et al. 2018).

In a recent article on ‘The English Department as Imperial Commonwealth’, Joe Cleary points out that English departments have tended to respond to calls for diversification by expanding their scope and provision rather than by questioning their power structures and histories. As a consequence, he argues, they adopt ‘additive strategies’ by which they ‘retain as much as possible of the core curriculum while opening new subject options and degree pathways’ (2021, p. 166).

While the ‘additive’ type of expansion is a good example of diversification, it falls short of decolonisation. To illustrate some of the problems with the diversification of the curriculum without an accompanying institutional decolonisation, I want to recount a teaching experience that illustrates some of the ways in which the diversification of the syllabus may produce the opposite of what it sets out to promote unless it is accompanied by an explicit critique of broader problems of structural racism and Eurocentrism.

In the autumn of 2017, the English Department at Yale introduced a new foundational course, ‘Readings in Comparative World English Literatures’. The initial course blurb read:

An introduction to the literary traditions of the Anglophone world in a variety of poetic and narrative forms and historical contexts. Emphasis on: developing skills of literary interpretation and critical writing; diverse linguistic, cultural and racial histories; the politics of empire and liberation struggles. Authors may include Daniel Defoe, Mary Prince, J. M. Synge, James Joyce, Claude McKay, Jean Rhys, Yvonne Vera, Chinua Achebe, Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o, J. M. Coetzee, Amitav Ghosh, Salman Rushdie, Alice Munro, Derek Walcott, and Patrick White, among others.

By the standards of postcolonial literary study in the UK, our reading list was conservative and contained too few writers of colour. Within a few weeks of the start of semester, however, a reporter for the right-wing student media outlet, the College Fix, ran a highly critical piece on the ‘decolonization’ of the Yale English degree programme, arguing that this course enabled undergraduates to complete an English major without having to study Chaucer or Shakespeare.

On the same morning as the College Fix piece appeared, I received an unsolicited email, also on the theme of decolonisation (the senders’ names and email address have been removed):

Subject: Prospective student

Dear Ms. Newell,

Just a short note to thank you for ‘decolonizing’ your English department.  My brilliant high school sophomore daughter was, god knows why, actually considering Yale as one of her college picks next year. However, your recent actions concerning the English Department’s curriculum eliminated that choice for her, and my wife and I are eternally grateful. Our daughter, who reads (and treasures) all those hate-filled white demon writers, still understands and values the inestimable contributions those dead white men made to Western civilization, so there’s no need now for us to lose her to your Soviet-style cultural genocide—a manner of self-righteous, self-hating lunacy that we know is echoed throughout Yale’s various educational departments.

Sincerely:  we couldn’t be more grateful to you.

The man and woman who signed this email also contacted the Press Office, and one of them phoned the Yale English Department administrator to communicate the sentiments expressed in the mail. As I was not permitted to reply directly to the correspondents, I passed their message to the student-run Yale Daily News, which included it in an article on decolonisation debates in the English Department.

With all this going on, the eighteen undergraduates enrolled in ‘Readings in Comparative World English Literatures’ certainly felt as if a spotlight was focused on them. This may have contributed to an incident toward the end of semester, when a group of four or five white American women, one of whom had been especially vocal on the topic of global women’s rights, intervened in the discussion of Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children to argue that the novel was evidence of Rushdie’s patronising and stereotypical ideas about Indian women, who he deprived of agency and depicted as inferior to men.

There were four students of colour in the class, one of whom, who identified as Southeast Asian, argued vociferously against the way these students appeared to be ‘speaking for’ Indian women in their critique of Rushdie. This student was later called a ‘misogynist’ by the most outspoken of the critics, although not in my hearing. Meanwhile, one of the other students of colour, who identified as Southeast Asian-American, interjected to say that Indian women did not have gender equality either at independence in the late 1940s, when Midnight’s Children is set, or in the early 1980s, when Midnight’s Children was published, so Rushdie should not be obliged to represent them as equal. She was shouted down. I attempted to problematise both sides of the argument: should Rushdie’s female characters be regarded sociologically at all? What were the problems with a reflectionist view of literary texts? Were there ways we could think about gender stereotypes, representation, postcolonial masculinities and discursive power without requiring ‘real’ Indian women as referents? But the students who identified as liberal feminists became increasingly vociferous for the remainder of the session while the students of colour became silent.

Four years on, I have some unresolved questions about this classroom altercation. Is it an example of the ways in which the diversification of the syllabus does not equate to institutional decolonisation (in spite of the claims of conservative commentators)? In terms of the problematics of identity politics, how significant is race compared with class, political persuasion, national identity and gender to understanding what happened? A handful of white liberal American women seemed to have taken the diversified foundational syllabus and filled the space it had cleared in the curriculum with what they understood to be universal truth–claims articulated on behalf of women globally. I wonder how different the encounter would be now, in the wake of the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement?

The following week was the final week of semester, giving very little time to address the fall-out from the Rushdie class. I gave students Achebe’s essay from Morning Yet on Creation Day (1975) in which western readers are urged to ‘cultivate the habit of humility appropriate to [their…] limited experience’ (1975, p. 9). I also brought Chandra Talpade Mohante’s ‘Under Western Eyes: Feminist Scholarship and Colonial Discourses’ (1988) and Sara Suleri’s ‘Woman Skin Deep: Feminism and the Postcolonial Condition’ (1992) to everyone’s attention. (Both of these essays are reproduced in the postcolonial studies anthologies of 1993 and 1995.) In a minilecture on these materials, I highlighted Achebe’s call for western readers to exercise humility, and offered a critique of liberal universalism that concluded with Frantz Fanon’s final appeal, in Black Skin White Masks, to become a person ‘who always questions’ (1967, p. 232). But as the course ended, it seemed to me that the vocal students had not experienced much self-doubt about the validity of their positions.

Clearly, the role of the teacher is crucial in maintaining an environment of individual safety and collective mutual respect where students can question their own and others’ preconceptions reflexively and non-aggressively. Consensus need not – indeed, should not – be a teacher’s objective in seminar discussions within arts and humanities subjects. Many scholars have written about how to create learning climates where individual discomfort can be safely expressed in the context of institutional power hierarchies and structural biases, ranging from Spivak’s powerful arguments for teaching as a decolonial intervention in classrooms in the Global North through to the many publications on anti-racist pedagogy and broader theories calling for agonistic pluralism in the western public sphere (Spivak 1993, Bhambra et al. 2018, Shim 2012, Mouffe 1999).

But in addition to the need for carefully facilitated discussions inside the classroom, the student interventions described above need to be positioned within a cluster of external, institutionally framed conditions arising out of the status of Yale English as a liberal arts department in an elite private university, a department dominated until recently by an adherence to New Criticism and an Old World literary canon, and regarded by many Americans as a bastion of tradition. In this context, the moment of diversification of the foundational syllabus in 2017 can be seen as both an ‘additive strategy’ that expanded the syllabus without addressing the systemic problems that accompany the ‘task of decolonisation’, and also as a ‘decolonising’ challenge to the methods and parameters of English Literature in elite American universities, especially as perceived by people outside the department who disapproved of the wider debates about curricular diversification.

Six weeks after the end of the course, the student who had been shouted down wrote an article for the Yale Daily News. I was intensely uncomfortable reading her account of our class on Midnight’s Children. In it, she indicated that institutional Eurocentrism had prevented a diversified syllabus from becoming much more than a tool for American liberals’ assertions of moral superiority over the rest of the world. I felt deeply implicated in the problems she identified.

A large number of further questions come out of this classroom experience, from the practical to the pedagogical, from ‘lived experiences of race’ (to borrow Fanon’s phrase) among students of colour at predominantly white institutions to white liberals’ unreflexive displays of what Emily Apter calls the ‘translatability assumption’: that is, an investment in the idea of a comprehensive world literature that is accessible to all, regardless of linguistic, political, cultural and institutional histories (Apter 2013, p. 347). As Apter argues, the belief system that gives rise to the concept of ‘translatability’ risks ignoring the ways cultural differences cannotalways be made explicit, nor conveyed cross-culturally through the medium of texts. Yet, as Priyamvada Gopal points out in her brilliant recent article, ‘On Decolonisation and the University’ (2021), the idea of cultural incommensurability should be treated with caution because of its danger of reiterating segregationist ideas that work against the articulation of global solidarities and shared anticolonial political agendas. In place of incommensurability, Gopal’s template for decolonising actions involves ‘mutually transformative engagement – between different cultures, traditions, and approaches to knowledge, bearing in mind structural disadvantages and historic power differentials. We might even call this process “relinking”’ (Gopal 2021, p. 20).

English Departments in the Global North have rapidly diversified their curricula in the last three decades, and demands for decolonisation have challenged university management in the wake of BLM. Institutionally, however, we need to think more deeply about the structural transformations we have yet to achieve, and who speaks for whom in this discourse of decolonisation. Gopal insists that decolonisation should not hold the status of a metaphor: it is not ‘a metaphor for social justice’, she argues, because it involves the dismantling of colonial orders through anticolonial critique and activism (2021, p. 15, pp. 13–14). She invites us to conceptualise ‘an anticolonial university … rather than a “decolonized” one’, in order to make visible and repair the gaps in understanding that accompany knowledge production in the Global North (ibid.). In short, Gopal’s proposal for the decolonisation of universities is for a ‘reparative’ project that acknowledges and transforms the ‘harmful conditions’ out of which so much knowledge has emerged in our institutions (17).

Given the contributions of postcolonial writers and theorists over the decades to make visible these ‘colonial’ conditions, some practical questions remain: who constitutes the ‘colonised’ in this more-than-metaphorical discourse of institutional decolonisation, and who is the ‘coloniser’? What are the next steps we should take to achieve a broad, reparative project of decolonisation at our different institutions, and how shall we go about collectively articulating our goals?


Achebe, Chinua. (1975) Morning Yet on Creation Day. London: Heinemann Educational.

Apter, Emily. (2013) Against Translation: On the Politics of Untranslatability. New York: Verso.

Ashcroft, Bill, Gareth Griffiths, and Helen Tiffin, eds. (1995) The Postcolonial Studies Reader. London and New York: Routledge.

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

Cleary, Joe. (2021) The English Department as Imperial Commonwealth, or The Global Past and Global Future of English Studies. boundary 2 48 (1): pp. 139–176.

Fanon, Frantz. (1986 [1967]) Black Skin White Masks. London: Pluto Press.

Gopal, Priyamvada. (2021) On Decolonisation and the University. Textual Practice. DOI: 10.1080/0950236X.2021.1929561

Mohante, Chandra Talpade. (1993 [1988]) Under Western Eyes: Feminist Scholarship and Colonial Discourses. In: Williams and Chrisman, eds. Colonial Discourse and Post-Colonial Theory: A Reader.New York and London: Harvester Wheatsheaf, pp. 196–220.

Mouffe, Chantal. (1999) Deliberative Democracy or Agonistic Pluralism? Social Research 66 (3), pp. 745–758.

Shim, Jenna Min. (2012) Exploring How Teachers’ Emotions Interact with Intercultural Texts: A Psychoanalytic Perspective. Curriculum Inquiry 42 (4), pp. 472–496.

Spivak, Gayatri Chakravorty. (1993) Outside in the Teaching Machine. London & NY: Routledge.

Suleri, Sara. (1993 [1992]) Woman Skin Deep: Feminism and the Postcolonial Condition. In: Williams and Chrisman, eds. Colonial Discourse and Post-Colonial Theory: A Reader.New York and London: Harvester Wheatsheaf, pp. 244–256.

Williams, Patrick, and Laura Chrisman, eds. (1993) Colonial Discourse and Postcolonial Theory: A Reader. New York and London: Harvester Wheatsheaf.

[Stephanie Newell is Professor of English and Acting Chair of the Council on African Studies at Yale University. Her research focuses on the cultural histories of printing and reading in West Africa, including spaces of local creativity and resistance in colonial-era newspapers. The book project she started while being a Leverhulme Visiting Professor at Newcastle University between 2019–2020 is entitled Newsprint Worlds: Local Literary Creativity in Colonial West Africa.]

[1] Patrick Williams’ and Laura Chrisman’s Colonial Discourse and Postcolonial Theory: A Reader (1993) was swiftly followed by The Postcolonial Studies Reader (1995), edited by Bill Ashcroft, Gareth Griffiths and Helen Tiffin. Williams’ and Chrisman’s volume had fewer, but longer, extracts from major works of theory; Ashcroft et al.’s volume contained a multitude of shorter extracts from diverse sources and genres, several of which overlapped with the first volume.

[2] Noticeably, Routledge (Taylor & Francis) published the majority of new works of postcolonial theory in the 1990s and played a critical role in defining the field.

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.]