anti/de/colonial?

So this week I had a piece in the Spectator which is a review of two books looking at the histories of the British Empire, it got me thinking of the ways in which “decolonization” has become a part of the narrative in academia.

I’ve found that this is often presented in ways that seem somewhat trite, particularly given the people often trumpeting the idea of decolonization in the curriculum are the winners of settler legacies (a truly “decolonized” curriculum would be one they weren’t teaching….). One of the books I reviewed details the ways in which abolitionism became itself a model for excusing all kinds of other exploitation because after all, we're the good guys.

And it feels like that for academics. The idea of “decolonizing the curriculum” seems a way to brandish anti-racist bonafides while ignoring (or benefiting from) other structural inequalities or injustices. Like a conjuring trick, keep the eyes on the books by long-dead men being expunged from reading lists: don’t let them see the university branch campus in some despotic nation.

In Australia one of the main ways to show anticolonial righteousness is through acknowledgment of country (a trend now picking up in the US and Canada). A speaker will “acknowledge” the traditional owners of the land where they are speaking. When this is done by white people to other white people it often comes off as performative and smug (the indigenous group being “acknowledged” are not within earshot).

But I always found a little more disturbing the versions at large events where a representative of the local indigenous community would be engaged to welcome all the participants in the meeting or conference. It’s meant to be a feel-good moment, but it always made me squirm, because the local elder performing the welcome was never a participant in the meeting or conference to come. They performed their role at the start, and then were quickly ushered off the stage. So the real events can take place. Like a really on-the-nose reenactment of the entire colonisation experience.

This person has performed the ritualized guiltwashing of white settlers and moved out of the way so they can get on with what they want to do. And one is struck by the entirely artificial, one-way nature of the engagement. It's not a voluntary welcome, because there is no situation in which the indigenous person has the option of saying “no, you're not welcome. Get off my land.”

I liked this TEDx talk about the Welcome to Country, which discusses some of these issues - including the welcome followed by someone saying “now let’s turn to what we’re really here for”. Watch.