Decolonization is NOT a metaphor
Updated: Nov 16, 2022
For the last archive of the year, we are discussing an essay written by Eve Tuck and K. Wayne Yang on the metaphorization of the term “decolonization”.
We hear phrases like “decolonizing universities” or “academia” very too often. This mostly entails making a more diverse syllabus. However, we never confront how unsettling decolonization actually means, and what decolonization means to the oppressed. In this essay, Tuck and Yang conceptualize decolonization as an action that brings about the repatriation of Indigenous land and life.
We intersect this essay with instances that we experience everyday. We use examples such as university buildings and economic reparations to show how institutions still fail to understand what decolonization means and entails.
We should not talk about “decolonizing universities”
“Decolonization brings about the repatriation of Indigenous land and life; it is not a metaphor for other things we want to do to improve our society and schools.”
When people speak of “decolonizing the university” or “decolonizing methods”, they are using decolonization as a metaphor. Tuck and Yang argue that while these goals (social justice, critical approaches, etc) may be admirable, we have to see them as separate from decolonization.
Decolonization as a metaphor allows non-indigenous people to make a “move to innocence.” We are not tackling the root of what decolonization is, but it allows for easier ways to alleviate our guilt. It’s about relieving responsibility “I am doing decolonization!” without giving up land/power/privilege. For example, in purportedly anti-racist settings, white people might (with good intentions) say to people of color “tell me what to do, you’re the experts here” or “I don’t experience the problems you do, so I don’t think about it”
This is a move to innocence as it allows white people to position themselves as being not a part of oppressive power structures.
This is what Tuck & Yang worry about when we use decolonization as a metaphor. It relieves “the guilt or responsibility without giving up land or privilege, without having to change much at all.”
The article mentions incommensurability: how decolonization “here” is connected to decolonization “elsewhere”. However, the struggles “here” and “there” are not parallel nor equal. It doesn’t bring closure to the struggles that the colonized have gone through for centuries.
“Decolonization is not equivocal to other anti-colonial struggles. It is incommensurable” (31)
At the university level: We are being taught in colonial buildings (literally and figuratively), and this legacy is never openly discussed (quote from Younes Saramifar).
UvA’s Bushuis/Oost-Indisch Huis: this building was the main office of the Dutch East Indies company (VOC), “a multinational corporation founded by a government-directed consolidation of several rival Dutch trading companies in the early 17th century”, the pinnacle of Dutch colonization and exploitation of South, Southeast, East Asia.
This legacy is extremely traumatic for the colonized, but has never been confronted by the institution.
On the state level: Haitian independence from France. The independence treaty required Haiti to pay an indemnity of 150 million francs in 5 years in compensation of slave owners’ loss of free labor.
Why? Because slaves were and are still considered as property, and not humans.
Therefore, we need to reconceptualize reparation. The current rhetoric on decolonization is not helping with this agenda. Conversely, it diverts attention by detaching the oppressors from their responsibility and accountability of their colonial pasts.
“The answers [of what will decolonization look like, what will happen after abolition, what will be the consequences of decolonization for the settler] will not emerge from friendly understanding, and indeed require a dangerous understanding of uncommonality that un-coalesces coalition politics - moves that may feel very unfriendly.” (35)
Mawhinney, J. (1998). 'Giving up the ghost': Disrupting the (re)production of white privilege in
anti-racist pedagogy and organizational change. Masters Thesis, Ontatio Institutue for
Studies in Education of the University of Toronto. Available at:
Tuck, E. and Yang, K.W., 2021. Decolonization is not a metaphor. Tabula Rasa, (38), pp.61-111.