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Student Voices: What Does “Decolonization” Really Mean?

By Featured, SAIC

Illustration by Audrea Wah.

When I first heard of the word “decolonization,” the first words that came to mind were “impossible,” “unrealistic,” and “idealistic.” As much as I liked the concept behind it, my first impression was that it was an idea and movement to achieve something that could never be done: undoing centuries of colonization, reversing the effects of time, and going back, in a sense, to cultural ground zero. 

As someone who is of a South American background, specifically Colombian, I understood the complexity of what would be required in order for this notion of decolonization to take place. Like Colombia, many countries in “Latin” America witnessed a history of racial and cultural mixture between various ethnic groups during Spanish colonization, resulting in the mixed cultures and identities that exist today. With this understanding, I knew how impossible it would be to “undo” all the creole cultures born from this era.

However, I quickly realized that the term “decolonization” was not meant to describe undoing past events or invalidating mixed identities. “Decolonization,” to me, is less a tangible thing, more of a mindset. Decolonization is more about dismantling the very real remnants of colonialism: the concept of changing that which can be changed.

To decolonize one’s mindset is to recognize that even though colonization happened centuries ago, there is contemporary colonialism happening between the colonial entity that is the U.S. and the numerous Indigenous communities that exist on the same land. Using Indigenous people as mascots, as in the cases of the Chicago Blackhawks and Washington Redskins, is just one of many ways that the settler society imposes its “dominance” over Native Americans, and yet pretends to be an ally in other situations. To decolonize a mindset is to recognize that we are existing and using spaces that are actually not part of a unified country but are instead part of an entity that still exists on land that was stolen.

The same could be said of “Latin” American identities and cultures such as mine, which exist as “colonized” while also exerting dominance over contemporary Indigenous people. Recognizing and challenging one’s own privileges is how decolonization can begin to take place within oneself and in the world.

To decolonize is to change systems of education in settler societies by letting go of sugar-coated histories that favor European standards, ideas, or art. As much as Europe has influenced the world in terms of art and culture, there is no reason why it should be so prominent in education while ignoring the contributions of other societies. Children should not grow up feeling that they are less-than because their ancestors were exploited centuries ago. Children should be taught that their ancestors were not “uncivilized” or “less developed” than Europe was. They should instead be taught about how the cultures of the “colonized” still exist today, have evolved, and have stayed strong despite ongoing colonialism. 

The Afrocuban religion Santería is one example of how culture has survived and evolved in the colonial era. Santería originated from the Yoruba culture of enslaved West Africans. Since they were forced to convert to Catholicism by the Spaniards, they combined their beliefs with Catholic iconography in order to maintain their culture without any suspicion. Other well-known examples of culture surviving through cultural syncretism is the idol of La Santa Muerte (the personification of death) and Día de Muertos, both of which have their origins in Indigenous religious beliefs mixed with Catholicism.

These days, with society restructuring itself due to COVID-19, we have seen evidence of the colonial mindset’s continued existence. Anti-Asian and anti-Asian-American sentiment has grown in the U.S. This reeks of colonial ideologies, as it relates to racial categorization. Those who discriminate against people of Asian descent use the colonial mindset of perceiving an entire ethnic group as a “disease-ridden” group. This mirrors the ideologies that arose during the colonization of the Americas when Europeans sought to justify the enslavement of West Africans and Indigenous people.

To this day, the U.S. still clings to the notion of the “uncivilized” Indigenous person. And just how that ideology has lingered through the centuries, the poisonous anti-Asian sentiment has the potential to linger for a long time if we as a global community do not act against it. 

Identifying entire races, cultures, or ethnicities by a single concept is dangerous; it incites violences, and eventually evolves into normalized concepts. One such colonial method is poverty. Just as the colonists put systems in place to keep the majority of non-Europeans from gaining too much power, our modern society has managed to maintain a racialized class system of a sort. A decolonized society would be one in which people would not immediately associate a catastrophic event with a particular ethnic group. Instead, people would recognize the shared struggle in combating a natural phenomenon and learn to get through it together.

As individuals existing in colonized spaces, we can recognize where we stand in history and accept what cannot be changed. From there, we can move forward by making positive changes and countering the history of this country and of the world. To me, “decolonization” means challenging Eurocentric norms that are nothing but social constructs. It means fighting back against the history of silencing those who do not conform. I believe that decolonization will finally be taking place when children no longer grow up thinking that Western society is the pinnacle of human advancement, but is instead a small part of the large story of humankind. With that, new generations will learn to value the contributions of every culture on the planet.

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