Notes on fake decolonization

What counts as “authentic” decolonization as the term takes over our social media and influencer bubbles? And how we can sharpen our activism.

Photo by Mohd Aram on Unsplash

Decolonization has taken over our social media timelines with a vengeance. With hundreds of thousands of “decolonize” hashtags, several articles, op-eds, and surveys on the subject—and plenty of Twitter fighting over the term—one thing is clear: decolonization is all kinds of trendy these days. So, we are naturally forced to ask: What counts as “authentic” decolonization in 2020? Much irritation is generated around how terms like “decolonization” or “decolonize” or “decolonizing” are used, and who is allowed to use them. Only this week, a writer was being flogged on Twitter for saying that it is time to “decolonize” the World Bank and IMF on Al Jazeera. No real attention was paid to the powerful institutions he was criticizing but to the fact that the writer used the term “decolonize.” With these debates getting so territorial and snarky, it’s time to break it down for the haters and the mockers so we can discern the fake from the feeble and the nefarious from the silly.

Brand decolonize

Let’s start with Rebby Kern, a US-based yoga instructor and brand ambassador for Lululemon clothing store who posted a series of workshops on her Instagram account. The tutorial titled “Decolonizing Gender Workshop” aims to show how colonialism has created “consumerism, gender stereotypes and misunderstanding of gender diverse communities.”

Social media went for the jugular in slamming her, and places like BBC, New York Post, The Daily Mail (UK) and The Guardian immediately found clickbait gold. Of course, her awkward decolonizing efforts were really problematic given her affiliation with Lululemon. This company does not only sell unaffordable yoga pants, but has a particularly disgusting founder, Chip Wilson, who is on record for saying things like “some women’s bodies just don’t actually work” for his yoga pants, or that breast cancer is on the rise due to “cigarette-smoking Power Women who were on the pill.”

This particular example of fake decolonization is an easy target, and you can go ahead and laugh. One) nothing was resisted; two) consumerism has continued unabated and Lululemon shares have soared by 55% recently; three) all it did was make the workshop participants feel good about themselves; and four) it also made those mocking Rebby Kern feel good about themselves. So full points for capitalism and narcissism, zero for decolonization.

But this is certainly not the most egregious or harmful example. Yoga pants are merely a distraction from the knights of fake decolonization.

Diversity university

Most of the decolonization discourse these days is not concentrated on questions of resources like land and water, or with abolishing police, or even with divestment from flows of capital steeped in centuries of colonialism. In the wake of South Africa’s Fees Must Fall movement and the simultaneous campus protests in the US and Europe against racism and microaggressions on campus, decolonization has really penetrated university and college spaces. Articles, talks, op-eds, and surveys about how to decolonize education abound. One aspect of these ends up as a call to prioritize decolonized knowledge production, which means dismantling Eurocentric educational practices and re-inventing a more universal and inclusive curricula from the ground up. A second aspect of decolonizing at universities focuses on calls for diversity in educational institutions. Sadly, from institution to institution, the project of decolonizing the university has been plagued with all manner of fakery.

A small number of faculty fight tooth and nail for miniscule changes in departmental structures often guarded fiercely by the gatekeepers of the old ways of doing things. Decolonizing the curriculum is often made out to be the domain of a few professors who have the individual choice to change their syllabi in order to reflect a wider range of texts written by writers of color. I remember the graduate student who told me I may not be able to understand her dissertation on William Blake, given my work in postcolonial studies. The sad truth is that I would probably understand it perfectly given my traditional literature education. More importantly, it is interesting to note that this student had not only clearly bypassed anything outside of the canon, but actually believed that our educational structure would somehow allow me to bypass it. There’s also the story about a colleague who asked me to be reasonable about my requests for African literature to be included more organically into the program. He instructed me to ask myself if there really are literary traditions in Sudan dating back to the 15th century. For those working in departments of literature, it is recommended that we complicate the same old European canon by drawing attention to dynamics of race and colonialism in those same texts. This is a win-win and the title of the Washington Post article from three years ago sums up what’s at stake: “Don’t worry. Yale still teaches Shakespeare.” Need I say more?

At the administrative level, there is now a proliferation of diversity initiatives. My collaborator, Gregory Pierrot, and I recently organized webinars on decolonization, and we discussed the tasteless tokenism that too often passes as progressivism. One of our guests, Anthony Alessandrini, pulled up flyers of workshops and teach-ins that often made no sense but to promote (often strictly through colorful visuals) a sort of post-racial harmony and childish messages of unity. In the name of decolonization, universities are now comfortable granting name changes to departments and promising to paint campuses Black and Brown with diverse new faculty hires without addressing issues structurally.

It must be reiterated that universities and academics themselves are extremely influential. Universities and the instructors they employ remain in charge of shaping entire generations and are in the big business of mind management. There is also the question of theory and the ways in which certain concepts get a big boost through funding and publications that eventually trickle down into mainstream conversations. Decolonization has recently found a home in theoretical writings, and while such intellectual work remains crucial, these powerhouse scholars are often kept circulating within ivory tower settings through prestigious grants and paywalled journals. This keeps the concept and its usages fairly disconnected from the work of ground-up resistance.

Decolonization for national interests

The most dangerous fake decolonization is when governments decide they will spearhead such efforts. Today, France is leading the way in this. Three years ago, President Emmanuel Macron fast-tracked a commission on the restitution of African art from various French museums. It was found that France has 90,000 objects from sub-Saharan Africa. Eventually, it was decided that 26 out of the 90,000 objects will be returned, a pathetic 0.02% of the existing looted treasures. But, in fact, only one item has been actually returned. Decolonizing museums in France promises to remain a project mired in colonial-style red tape while appearing to foster open debates in the media.

France under Macron is also seen at the forefront of radical representational practices in the cultural realm. Most recently, a two-hour documentary titled Décolonisations: du sang et des larmes (Decolonization: Blood and Tears) was aired on national television. It gave the impression of a reckoning with France’s wretched and brutally violent colonial history in Africa, Asia and the Caribbean. But the documentary was quite triggering due to its unmitigated approach to the archive. Images of people being murdered, lingering shots over injured bodies or abject footage of war-displaced populations were shown without appropriate commentary, and often in an almost pornographic way. An even bigger concern was that the filmmakers turned this documentary about decolonization into a rendition of French military history where modes of anti-colonial resistance were either erased or relegated to the background.

I was shocked to learn that this documentary was made by none other than Pascal Blanchard, known for his offensive book titled Sexe, race & colonies: La domination des corps du XVe siècle à nos jours (Sex, Race and the Colonies: Dominating Bodies from the 15th Century until the Present Day). Activist group Collectif Cases Rebelles accused the authors of “reproducing the violence by massively disseminating images of non-white women being humiliated, assaulted,” and said that these images were “profoundly detrimental to dignity.” The same indignity seeps through the documentary as well.

All this creates a buzz around decolonization while co-opting and diluting the term, and shrewdly integrating it into a mainstream narrative. We are witnessing a glib way of proclaiming all kinds of radical and progressive reckonings with colonialism while tightening the screws on a skewed, neoliberal, and necropolitical political systems. Of course, none of this is new, but rather a tried and tested way of doing politics and doing business on a planet ailing under hyper-capitalism. But such projects foreclose much needed resistant conversations and movements.

The last such term to similarly come apart at the seams and get co-opted for all kinds of branding and trendiness was “feminism.” Sheryl Sandberg’s “lean in” mantra for white women became all the rage in 2013. Women of color decided not to be left behind. It was also the year of Beyoncé’s feminist declarations and Chimamanda Adichie’s viral TED talk called “We should all be feminists.” Today we can buy feminism on every corner, whether it’s slogan t-shirts, Ruth Bader Ginsberg dolls, Gwyneth Paltrow’s vagina candles or Beyoncé’s “Ivy Park” athleisure clothes. You can even spend a night at a feminist hotel called Zena in Washington DC, where you can view a portrait of Ginsburg fashioned from 20,000 tampons while sipping on a cocktail called “Empowermint.”

But genuine commitment to feminism is showing no signs of fading away. The ones who keep doing the work continue to protest the patriarchy and to produce knowledge on the subject. The rest is all noise. We can complain about the noise, but we must not let it distract us from the real mission at hand.

Right now, we are seeing the same sort of scramble around decolonization. The hashtags popping up include #decolonizeyourdiet #decolonizebeauty, #decolonizetherapy, #decolonizefitness, #decolonizeyoursoul, #decolonizeparenting, and #decolonizelove. You can laugh at these, but you can also perceive a kind of desperation. People are fed up with racism, sexism, and with being culturally “othered.” There is a fatigue with daily struggles around health, beauty, food, therapy, and parenting, as well as aspects of self-care and spirituality, and a genuine eagerness to activate certain types of politics. We can mock their wokeness, which often comes off as confused and hypocritical. Yes, binging on quinoa from Bolivia or hoarding acai berries from Brazil because your diet needs to be more “indigenous” is definitely not cool. Producing hip t-shirts with “decolonize” logos isn’t helping anyone either.

But are overenthusiastic hashtaggers or influencers the real problem? No, they are just a decoy, a distraction, a deflection. Have your fun with it, but invest your energy in tackling the real culprits: greedy universities, mega-billionaire platforms that beam culture onto our screens, shameless corporations, and cunning governments pretending to come up with progressive initiatives. It is them we should be targeting, abolishing, dismantling and, of course, decolonizing.

Further Reading

Decolonizing the Lens

Because of the 1994 genocide, Rwanda occupies a complicated place in the world’s imagination. A new film, about the preceding 1973 pogrom, wants to demystify that view. Does it succeed?