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1This piece is motivated by the observation that conversations about decolonization in the academy often avoid any engagement with anti-colonial and decolonial ideas, literatures or movements. After sharing this concern on Twitter, I was contacted by colleagues asking for my views on what does or does not constitute decolonization. What follows is a collation of my responses.

Starting point

  1. Decolonization is necessary because colonial, settler-colonial and postcolonial systems of exploitation, extraction and violence continue to exist and are deeply embedded within the economic, political and societal institutions we inhabit, universities included.
  2. Decolonizing is unsettling because it demands that we identify ideological and material manifestations of colonialism, and support anti-colonial and decolonial movements and efforts seeking to abolish, dismantle or transform these.
  3. Decolonizing is difficult because ideologies and material manifestations that enable the persistence of colonialism are normalized (made to appear natural), aggressively protected by those in power, and tied to privileges that both enrol and render us complicit in systems of exclusion, extraction, oppression, and subjugation.
  4. Decolonizing is empowering because it ‘evokes the ethical obligation of citizens of the world to stand in solidarity with oppressed people and the understanding that injustice in other geographies is linked to domestic oppression’ (Barghouti, 2021, p. 109).

Geopolitics of ideation and action

3Different geopolitical settings of colonialism and colonial violence have shaped and continue to inform anti-colonial and decolonial ideas and action. I present four main traditions below based on my reading (see Abdelnour & Abu Moghli, 2021), but there will be others. Though listed separately, they are neither disconnected nor unrelated; just as colonial violence is enacted and maintained through global infrastructures and systems of actors, ideologies, industries and technologies, anti-colonial and decolonial movements and solidarities are necessarily global, interconnected and intersectional (Barghouti, 2021).

  1. Decolonizing as anti-settler colonial liberation (Africa, Asia, and Southwest Asia). Articulated by intellectuals and movements fighting to free their people from (European) settler colonialism, military imperialism, military occupation, and apartheid. Contemporary examples include Palestinian, Sahrawi, and Kashmiri movements.
  2. Decolonizing as anti-racism, Black liberation and reparation (United States and global). Articulated by Black liberation intellectuals and movements fighting for radical equality and freedom from white supremacy, anti-Black racism, and institutionalized anti-Black violence. Contemporary examples include Black Lives Matter and prison abolition movements.
  3. Decolonizing as anti-settler colonial, anti-genocide, anti-extractive capitalism, reparation and restitution (Americas, Oceania, and many other sites of indigenous resistance, survival and renewal). Articulated by First Nations and indigenous intellectuals and movements fighting for liberation and reparation, defending and protecting land, culture and language from white supremacy and violence, as well as corporate-state theft and desecration of lands and resources. Contemporary examples include Land Back, indigenous rights and recognition, and anti-pipeline anti-extraction movements and action.
  4. Decolonizing as radical transformation of modern, postcolonial systems of power and violence that produce, valorize and platform elite ‘knowledge’ at the expense of subjugated peoples, cultures, ideas, theories, and epistemologies (Americas and global). Articulated by postcolonial and decolonial intellectuals, scholars and movements to challenge systems of Anglo-Eurocentric hegemony, supremacy, and violence, with a goal to liberate, platform and achieve radical equality for colonized, marginalized, and indigenous peoples, cultures and knowledge. Contemporary examples include border thinking, First Nations and indigenous epistemological movements and methods.

Working definition

5Decolonizing involves actions that: (1) center the epistemic privilege* and political aspirations of colonized and subjugated peoples; (2) identify, dismantle and transform colonial systems and structures that marginalize; (3) advance and achieve the goals of liberation, repair, and radical equality.

6*In this context, epistemic privilege is the idea that victims of setter-colonial violence are best placed to ar ticulate their condition, lived experiences, and paths to realizing their political and liberatory ambitions (see Abdelnour & Abu Moghli, 2021).

What metaphors are not, decolonizing is

7Some of the ideas presented here were crowdsourced/vetted via Twitter.

  1. Decolonization is not a metaphor: ‘When we write about decolonization, we are not offering it as a metaphor; it is not an approximation of other experiences of oppression. Decolonization is not a swappable term for other things we want to do to improve our societies and schools. Decolonization doesn’t have a synonym’ (Tuck & Yang, 2012, p. 3).
  2. Efforts to increase inclusion and representation (‘centering marginal voices’) are not decolonization. Decolonizing involves actions to transform knowledge production in ways that enable radical equality for marginalized ideas and peoples within the marketplace of ideas as well as associated benefits and resources. Anything short of this is not decolonizing.
  3. Attempts to make technologies (particularly those imbued with racist logics and code) less harmful (‘decolonize tech’, ‘decolonize AI’) without disrupting the infrastructures, networks and actors (corporations, state agencies, and militaries) that produce and deploy them in ways that cause harm is whitewashing, not decolonization.
  4. Concepts rooted in feel-good notions of development or progress (‘sustainable development’, ‘social innovation’, ‘circular economy’, ‘green growth’) that seek to reduce the harms (or so-called externalities) associated with capitalism while serving to reaffirm its centrality as the dominant economic paradigm are not decolonization. Decolonizing demands an end to the extraction-consumption-growth paradigm that for centuries has enabled Western empires, corporations, countries, and elites to enslave, exploit, destroy, pollute, and profit to the detriment of colonized peoples and the commons.
  5. Land acknowledgements, apologies, and commemorations of settler-colonial dispossession and genocide are not decolonization. Decolonizing involves the disruption of colonial legacies through systemic transfers of political power, privilege, and control of lands and resources: Land Back, reparations, radical equality, freedom, justice, and return.


  • OnlineAbdelnour, S. & Abu Moghli, M. (2021). Researching violent contexts: A call for political reflexivity. Organization. Online First, 1–24. doi: 10.1177/13505084211030646
  • OnlineBarghouti, O. (2021). BDS: Nonviolent, globalized Palestinian resistance to Israel’s settler colonialism and apartheid. Journal of Palestine Studies, 50 (20), 108–125. doi: 10.1080/0377919X.2021.1906067
  • Tuck, E. & Yang, K.W. (2012). Decolonization is not a metaphor. Decolonization: Indigeneity, Education & Society, 1 (1), 1–40. Retrieved from
Samer Abdelnour
Strategy Group, University of Edinburgh Business School, Edinburgh, UK
This is the latest publication of the author on cairn.
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