What is decoloniality, actually?

Once in a while, I do a Google search with the word ‘decoloniality’. I learned the word one and a half years ago when I studied at the Maria Lugones Decolonial Summer School for three weeks. I believe it was Walter Mignolo who explained to us in one of his lectures why they – they as a group of academics focusing on this topic and organizing the summer school together – use ‘decoloniality’ and not just ‘decolonization’. Short and simply put: decolonization is often used to describe the moment just after colonies got their independence. Colonizers were sent back to their countries and now the process of ‘decolonization’ could start. In many cases, it implied a similar hierarchy and power structure as during colonial times, and therefore a continuation of the system that oppresses minorities increases the wealth gap and ruins the eco-system.


When I tell people that I focus in my work on ‘decoloniality’ they often raise their eyebrows and some even say I should come up with a better word. One woman a few months ago told me after I introduced myself: “Look, I worked hard for everything in my life. Why would I want to give that up?”. White people who need to give something up is often the mantra of the inclusion conversations: white people need to make space, white people need to give power away, white people should stop centering themselves. It’s all true but the goal is not to put a different group in the white people’s position. And also, white people aren’t a homogenous group. So the first step to understanding what decoloniality is is looking at your own position along the lines of race, class, gender, education, ableism, religion, etc. Where do you intersect with your characteristics and in which fields are you more privileged than others?
For example, you can be an educated white woman from a high social class with both parents educated as well and a family that has gained certain wealth over generations. Or you can be a single white mom, coming from a poor background and not having had the chance to educate yourself in the way you wanted to.
Positionality is important in journalism as well. Even though journalists aim to write or produce a story objectively, you can’t deny the influence your position in society has on how you view the world. And therefore the topics you choose to cover, and the sources you will use. I’ve noticed that journalists sometimes think they’re positioned outside of society, as neutral observers of what is happening on this crazy planet earth. It’s not common for journalists to talk about themselves, obviously, but the conversation of how one’s position might influence a story should definitely happen in a newsroom. And it sometimes does.

Europe as center of the world

It is since colonialism that Europe has become the center of the world, before that, there were several different ‘centers’. This is one of the premises of decoloniality: Europe as center of the world and the start of what is called ‘modernity’. Modernity is called modernity because of the same reason why decoloniality is called decoloniality. Some people might hate me for it, but the language around this topic is sometimes quite academic. And that takes away from the message. Modernity is the start of our modern world, where capitalism became the leading system. The stock markets were set up to support trade in the colonies, and the philosophers and scientists were focusing on progress, rationality, and humans higher in the hierarchy than nature.
The flip side, or actually the other side of the same coin is ‘coloniality’: our modern times never come without a dark side. When we focus on modernity, it will always exist with coloniality. And this makes sense in colonial times when profits were made with the trade of goods but where the dark side was there too: slavery, exploitation of people, and destruction of nature. In our current time, this dark side can be found in modern slavery and climate destruction. It’s one example of how the system built in colonial times still has its effect today.

Learning to unlearn

How do we then unlearn what we learned about life so far? If the modernity-coloniality coin isn’t really working anymore, how do we break that pattern? Decoloniality is very much about unlearning. It’s not about going back to pre-colonial times, it is more about looking into aspects of our lives that have been wiped out by the idea of modernity. The ancient wisdom of how we should treat nature, for example. But also valuing people, cultures, customs, and ways of doing that have been undervalued by the monoculture of The West and imperialism. It’s too much to mention here, but unlearning starts with you becoming self-aware about your position and privilege and then making a conscious decision to adjust certain aspects of your life. Not buying the clothes anymore in the fancy shops that run on modern slavery, looking critically at the lack of diversity of people in your workplace and becoming vocal about it, adjusting the sources list you use for your stories and making it inclusive, looking at your private life and do an effort to see how you can get in touch with other ethnicities living in your country, to name just a few suggestions.

Law of nature

One of the main things that changed in my life when I came to understand decoloniality better, is the focus on nature and the appreciation for every living creature on this earth. We have lost the connection with nature in many ways. Mainly through our focus on progress and the idea that humans can and should control nature. I see the difference between living in Bali, Indonesia, where geckos run around the walls in my house, and Europe where people freak out when a spider is walking over their back. It became already clear during Buddhist meditation retreats a few years ago that you’re often asked to not kill living beings during your stay. You will start to appreciate ants, flies, mosquitos, and spiders differently. And from not killing energy that is moving around you, you will slowly start to reflect on the other things humans do without thinking: killing other people and destroying nature on a much bigger scale. In Vipassana mediation, the Law of Nature is the core of the theory and you learn how to deal with the fact that everything is constantly changing.
Decoloniality is also about embracing change, it doesn’t have a clear outcome. It respects different realities next to each other and leaves the idea of one monoculture behind. It makes you reflect on who you are – also in relation to nature – and how to live an ethical life without suffering. It makes you humble and lets you listen more and speak less. It moves away from what we’ve learned so far, not because it doesn’t value the lessons, but because it creates space for more to learn.

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