The following is a transcript of a community-wide debriefing by participants for the online conference “Decoloniality and the Disintegration of Cognitive Empire – Rethinking Sovereignty and Territoriality in the 21st Century.” The conference was held April 14-16, 2021 and featured such international luminaries as Walter Mignolo, Catherine Walsh, and Tink Tinker. Because of the length of the conversation, it is in two parts.
Participants include Brian Kirn, Suhayb Yunus, Dianna Able, Rachel Foley, Alyssa Putzer, Jared Lacey (University of Denver); Kieryn Wurts (University of Bonn), Joshua Ramos (Houston Community College), Jennifer McCurdy (Iliff School of Theology), Jill Fleishman (Denver CO), Carlos Steinkamp Calandria (Areté Preparatory Academy, Los Angeles).
Brian Kirn: Alright, well I’ll go ahead and get this ball rolling here.
So I’ll kind of throw out the option of our first question is overall thoughts in the conference and the presentation so far – which you are more than welcome to answer. But if you would like to tag on to the conversation we’ve just been having feel free to do so as well. The floor is open.
Carl Raschke: This is about the conference in general, but we can certainly look back into what we were just doing in the last session.
Suhayb Yunus: And this is for non-panelists to respond to as well. You don’t have to have presented anything to discuss right now.
Carl Raschke: Right, we want you to talk. We professors don’t want to talk. I’m not going to say anything except procedurally.
Brian Kirn: Kieryn, I see you, do have any thoughts to share?
Kieryn Wurts: Me? Kieryn? or the – not – I’m reading the questions at the moment. I’ll say something if I need to or when it comes up, thanks.
Carl Raschke: Maybe we need to move on to number two.
Suhayb Yunus: Okay, another question. Don’t feel like you’ve got to read all of the questions at once. That might be actually more confusing than not.
Well, if we want to go to the the second question it’s “How would you define decoloniality in your own words?”
And the definition of things are important, because if we don’t define our terms, we won’t know what we’re talking about and we’ll be more across purposes than not.
Jared Lacy: Well, I guess I could say something about this. Kind of what I what I’ve been thinking since yesterday in hearing the interaction between Tink Tinker and Walter Mignolo and kind of the term decoloniality versus decolonization where Tink Tinker says that he’s not prepared to give up this term, decolonization, in favor of decoloniality, which I think is interesting in the sense that, as he was saying, they’ve been they’ve been fighting for decolonization, for, you know, hundreds of years.
And there’s a thing that I think like Quijano and Mignolo are responding to where the term decolonization becomes sort of appropriated by the process of making independent nation states in the mid-20th century and so Mignolo responding to that and needing a different concept, a different term, to distinguish it between that whereas Tink Tinker and maybe American Indian Movement in general is still maintaining their use of the term decolonization that precedes this appropriation of that term that comes about just basically from European powers deciding that that form of colonization is more trouble than it’s worth.
So those are my thoughts about that.
Alyssa Putzer: I can jump in as well.
And I’m kind of taking my analysis of it from Catherine Walsh’s talk yesterday and that concept of re-existence and re-learning and to me that really speaks to that concept of decoloniality, of reclaiming those cultural norms and those cultural traditions and language and land that has been removed and reappropriated.
Dianna Able: Yeah, I really liked Walsh’s definition or her interpretation of decoloniality, especially when she was talking about that it’s a lived reality and it’s not this linear concept that we have to track its progress. And that it’s a way to be on the outskirts of coloniality and I thought that that was a really interesting way to look at it, because, since it is, like Tink was saying, such an abstract noun and such an intangible concept that looking at it as a way to live and a way to conduct yourself and the way to think about things really helps clear up this huge random concept that we’re all talking about.
Brian Kirn: So maybe to move the conversation forward, we can move into the practicality of decoloniality and where do you see aspects of decoloniality happening around you.
And the question I’m more interested in is what does “doing” decoloniality look like to all of the people in this group who I’m sure have a vast, vast amount of expertise and experience in doing so.
Dianna Able: I really liked Mignolo’s idea of thinking is theory and theory is praxis, because thinking is an active way to work through all of these ideas and so on a personal level decoloniality, to me, looks like learning the correct version of histories and understanding that we do view everything through this colonial matrix of power and there are such simple steps that we can take to kind of decolonize our own heads and one thing that I’m going to try to do and that I’ve been trying to do is learn the indigenous names of landmarks and understanding the history of names and I think that language is going to be a really important tool for us to help us work through this and help colonized peoples reclaim their own identities and their own history.
Suhayb Yunus: How might that affect the history that began after colonization because there is a risk, I mean unless one considers it a positive outcome, of completely excising the history of peoples that have come after that aren’t necessarily out there enslaving people or oppressing people, but they have family that have been here a long time, they have relationships to certain landmarks that in an ideal situation wouldn’t have existed in the first place, but we’re past that now, so finding a way to not alienate people that don’t have the relationship that indigenous people have to this place that we’re in now but not to ignore the needs of decoloniality as well?
Jared Lacy: I have something to say to that, I think.
Several years ago, I had the chance to hear Tink Tinker speak for my first time at Metro State and he was he was saying something I’ve heard him say a number of times since: that he’s not interested in any apologies that don’t include land-back and somebody in the audience asked the question, “I hear you and I appreciate that but, what do I do if I don’t have any land to give back?” What does the person do who’s just in their own positionality without land to give back? And his answer, as far as I recall, was [that] the best thing you can do is educate yourself and know the history as thoroughly as possible and the answer, of course, is it’s not really going to work to just send all white people back to Europe.
So if you’re here, you need to educate yourself on that history as thoroughly as possible. And so I think that leads into, for me, how I see decoloniality playing out around me. And also taking on something that Walter Mignolo said, where he’s saying he’s doing much more important work outside of the academy in his real life, and attempting to use the academy, also to promote those goals.
And so, for me, though, I mean, especially in times of COVID, the academy at this point is like almost my entire life – because I’m not out engaging in the city that I live in, or community in those ways. I’m here attempting to educate myself and at this time in my life that’s how decoloniality is playing out around me is that I’m trying to familiarize myself as well as possible with the enunciations of the colonial matrix of power and how that functions.
Alyssa Putzer: And building off of Jared’s point, too, I want to go back to what Walter Mignolo said about recoding and recoding our relationships with the things that we give power to. So rather than that being modernity or cosmopolitanism or coloniality, recoding in a way that gives us a new relationship with the land that we’re on and the languages that we are using and the languages that other people are using. And our relationship with the cosmos and the earth and so just looking at that colonial matrix of power and saying “Okay, how can we shift that relationship onto something else that has not subjugated certain groups of people?”
Kieryn Wurts: I might want to throw in something that I think decoloniality isn’t which… white people might… be kind of into sometimes or might go in that direction and me being white as well, and that is, I think there’s a difference between… I was watching a YouTube video about the history of sugar the other day and sugar cane production – first in Europe and then in the Americas. And in the UK, during the abolition movement against slavery, there were all these boycotts and conflicts about sugar.
And what the British did, and people that were abolitionists, is they stopped buying sugar from the Americas and bought it from India instead. Because, then they wouldn’t be supporting slavery anymore. Problem is that, of course, the sugar in India was grown in a colonial context and also done under slave conditions just different slaves, different kind of methods of slavery, but I thought that was so typical and you see that today so much when people talk about dismantling white supremacy and decoloniality and all of these things is making it about a purity politics for people who are at the top of the socio-economic food chain, and I think that was illustrated so perfectly with the with the example out of the UK: it’s about my consumer choices and me making sure that it can’t be said of me that I’m the bad guy or I’m the guilty one. It’s all about a white politics of purification rather than actually doing justice, and so I would just like to promote that part or say that I think any kind of decoloniality has to come to terms or have a really highly developed concept of justice. Otherwise, I think you’re just kind of playing with signs and symbols like appearances.
Suhayb Yunus: I think parallel to that there’s also the potential fetishization of this whole concept right? So, if you look at commercials now it’s just – you know, the post-BLM protests and all that – it’s just black people dancing in commercials.
And so this is like the idea of “Okay, now we’re aware, but it’s still a sort of purgation. It’s sort of, “We feel better about ourselves because we’re highlighting this problem that has been put before us.” So, it’s more about showing awareness; it’s more about the self than the other.
And I think a part of the source of that [is] related but it’s not a part of necessarily what Alyssa was talking about with decoding which I think is pretty integral as a propaedeutic process (like a prerequisite process) to the whole endeavor of decoloniality: there needs to be a can kenosis, an emptying out of the previous epistemology because when we think about decoloniality if we haven’t done that we’re going to think about it in a colonial mindset, so when we think about something like land-back are we thinking that that means giving property back to the indigenous people, because that can’t be what it means, because they don’t have that concept in the first place. So, it requires a sort of emptying out before a filling up with action points and agendas of what we can do, because without that then we’re just going to be kind of perpetuating a sort of wokeist version of the coloniality that’s not really accomplishing anything but just changing the accoutrement, the guise, that coloniality has taken on.
Kieryn Wurts: Yeah, just one more short thing on that is – I mean, Carl’s done good work on this tradition of white wokeness which isn’t that new. It’s kind of the fetishized image of the white liberal that doesn’t really – that purports to be doing something for social justice or something decolonial and really isn’t and I think that’s so all over the conversation that it’s really hard to even get at the problem from an authentic place. It makes it difficult for me anyway.
Brian Kirn: I’m gonna go ahead and rephrase the last question we’ve got because that kind of plays off pretty well. “Unlearning is a vital part of decolonial delinking. Meanwhile, as students” – however old a student you are – “we are constantly engaged in a pedagogical situation that seems rife with a tension between unlearning and its inverse, namely learning in a manner that tends to reinforce the dominant narratives of modernity and the colonial matrix of power. How do we balance learning and unlearning in an academic setting?”
Dianna Able: I’m not sure if unlearning sits well with me because no matter what we do whatever societal complex we’re in is still going to be in some way ingrained in our head, and so I kind of think of it more as taking a step back and being able to detach yourself from your own beliefs and everything that you think you know and stepping back looking with an objective eye and realizing that you may have learned all of these things, however, there’s two sides to every story. And so, while you know you you’re not going to forget how to ride a bike, there may be another way to ride a bike and then you can do both and kind of forget the other one but it’ll still be there.
So I think the best way to approach this kind of decoding and delinking is understanding your positionality and understanding that that has shaped your opinions and your own knowledge. But opening up space in your head for understanding that there are two sides to every story and understanding that they both have substance to them.
Alyssa Putzer: And I think, in addition to that, is that concept of relearning as well. You know there’s that phrase to forgive and forget, but it’s the forget part that’s the hard one.
But it’s a notion of a relearning all those things that we had originally learned and then attempted to unlearn. But I think it’s less about forgetting about them and more about reframing them within a different context, along with that recoding.
I think I completely agree with you, Dianna, that that’s something that you can’t really do. You can’t just pretend that you didn’t hear something. But it’s reframing that within a different colonial matrix of power within a different context.
Jared Lacy: That kind of goes along with the poker game that Mignolo was talking to us about in our class after the conference sessions yesterday, where working within the academic system is, he described it as a poker game where you have to play the game and know where you can push your boundaries in terms of if you’re in a situation where you’re having to learn in such a way that typically lends itself toward reinforcing those narratives, as a student, you have to do the thing to get the get the grade, but at the same time doing that in a decolonial way means always looking for ways to undermine that requirement.
Suhayb Yunus: Maybe a bit conservative perspectives on unlearning, I think, and you know what might be of interest in this effort is phenomenology. Which kind of deals with the… observing the observer and investigating one’s own internal… the infrastructure of one’s internal hermeneutics.
Which was really just the secular, sanitized version of early spiritual disciplines. If you read the books tasawwuf from the Muslim tradition, for example, or like some of the Gnostics in the Christian tradition. I mean, that’s what they were doing. Maybe resourcing that discipline – which is interesting because that’s also straight out of the Western tradition, phenomenology, of the modern western tradition – but utilizing that to actually kind of introspect and see how far this unlearning process can go. Maybe an interesting interdisciplinary effort.
But I’m not an expert on phenomenology by any means.
Maybe we should go backwards, Brian, and I’ll go to question nine:
“Since knowledge is a form of control and a tool of legitimacy and we speak the colonizer language, how do we decolonize the academy, what does that look like?” And I would add also, considering the fact that the colonizer language may also be your language.
So how do we do colonize the academy?
Joshua Ramos: I think the first thing we can do to decolonize the academy, speaking of control mechanisms and power – and the American academy is what I have my target on right now – is the student loan crisis which is going to blow up. And so saturating the entire generations beginning from the millennials and on down to gen Z and so forth, with easily six figures of debts.
That’s slavery. That’s called “slavery.” That’s […] capitalism. You look at other nations [and they] don’t quite have that same problem that we have so it’s a particularly American phenomenon. So how precise does this lead to knowledge? I guess we’re aiming to gain knowledge and indebeting ourselves for this, but I think that that’s probably the most practical thing we can do right now in the US is to kill the whole student loan thing. It’s gotten way out of hand, and it will be our albatross around the neck probably within the next 10 years.
Kieryn Wurts: Thanks for that, Joshua. I remember, I think Walter Mignolo when he gave his New Polis talk that wasn’t tied to this conference a few months ago, had a nice little one-liner that stuck with me like “Good luck trying to decolonize the academy, like decolonizing the state,” which I thought was a good one-liner. But Joshua’s absolutely right. I mean, if you’re going to decolonize the academy I think it’s like you need to talk about student debt and also accessibility. Because these high tuition rates lock so many people out of higher education and the people that – it’s absolutely a class issue.
We could talk about the epistemic ways in which knowledge is structured in the academy and that’s a really good conversation, but also just [the] question of access. If most of the world can’t access the academy,then I don’t think there’s any hope to decolonize it if they can’t access it if they wanted.
Joshua Ramos: Yeah, exactly. Accessibility and issues of class are at hand here with this whole student loan thing and, in particular, because if I’m going to talk about my perspective, I’m Mexican-American. My grandmother was an undocumented who crossed the Rio Grande some time in the 1940s and was shot at by border security and had a horrifying trauma, PTSD, over the whole issue because she had lost – people next to her had perished. So, part of my whole narrative – because my mother had never finished high school; my dad has a high school diploma – but part of narrative was become educated, become educated. And so I grew up with this narrative that English is my first language because my mother experienced racism going to school – they would slap her on the hand whenever she spoke Spanish, so she had this sort of trauma about that too, and I had to know English as my first language. And so I did. Of my family, I have the highest education credentials. By the grace of God, I have a PhD and I’m very thankful for it.
But that did come with a steep price. I’m not quite saturated with debt, unlike some of my other colleagues are, but still it does raise questions of what I had to do in order to get my education, the accessibility, the class issues and stuff like that.
know, it was sort of a faustian bargain here, like signing this bond. Sign on the dotted line your whole future in order for you to fulfill the dreams of your parents who have all this trauma from all of this narrative they had to experience of being Mexican and undocumented so, yes, there is plenty to bring up as Kieryn said with accessibility and class.
Suhayb Yunus: Well, upstream of that – I’m always going upstream because I want to deal with, I see that their core issues that are like the genesis of other issues – there needs to be a conversation about what we understand as knowledge. What is knowledge? How do we value that; and also in terms of just the academy, what is its purpose – is it for information, is it for knowledge, are those the same thing? Do we think of it in economic terms, is it an investment for you to get a job, and so, then you can you know kind of pay – that’s your ROI or your return on investment.
And it’s the whole framing of our concepts of what the purposes of these things are and what their meaning is. Traditional civilizations, many of them, their education systems, there was no cost of that because the idea is knowledge is free.
Similar to that is also how we frame our responses to what we see as an issue. Because if we think of it as a fight, for me that’s just falling right into the bellicose epistemology of the modern West: everything is competition, natural selection, survival of the fittest – it’s all a very bellicose – it’s a war-based perspective on the world,a bellicose Weltenshuangg. So the idea of needing to fight everything when you know that’s not actually how it works in… the environment, for example. I mean, now we’re seeing that trees whose roots are in the same area of the soil, instead of competing for the sunlight they actually grow around each other so each can get enough sunlight to grow. But our way of looking at the world is very different from that sort of cooperative, growing with, ‘going with’ worldview. So when we see problems, how do we respond to them? Do we pick up arms and go to war, as we do with everything else: the war on terror, the war on drugs, the war on obesity, war on fill in the blank, war on war.
So I see that as part of the control of knowledge.
Kieryn Wurts: Since you want us to talk, I’m just going to add something. I don’t know that it’s my most fully thought through thought, but I have a book recommendation. I’ll put a link just to the Wikipedia because I don’t want to give an Amazon link.
I’ll put it in the chat in a moment, but it’s from Jacques Ranciere, The Ignorant Schoolmaster.And I think it’s quite a radical take on pedagogy and teaching and learning and it has a frame story which is
true, apparently. I can’t remember the name of a of a scholar, a professor, but he was French and then in the 19th century, he was exiled from France and started teaching in Belgium.
He couldn’t speak Flemish and his students couldn’t speak French and yet he taught them a novel that had both languages. It had a Flemish and a French translation.
And the students within like a semester were able to write in French about the topic of the novel. So, they basically learned French without him teaching. They were able to communicate and they were able to overcome this big language barrier.
And so Ranciere takes this and this original professor took this really far and tried to develop a method of illiterate parents teaching their children how to read because it’s not about – and the idea was that it was breaking down the hierarchy of knowledge. A knowledge bearer, a teacher, giving a knowledge to another person.
There are concepts of this like in Montessori and all these kinds of things, too. Teaching isn’t about really content but it’s about teaching someone to learn. And that’s not just critical thinking or what we do in the academy, there’s also a phenomenological aspect to that and a problem-solving, very tactile aspect. But really it was radical in that, in this case, in that language was so accessible to people if they just engaged it. Something that you always think of through this hierarchy, but these students learned enough French to write about a French novel within a few weeks, and it was partially from the method and partially from this radical or what he would call liberated approach to knowledge.
I don’t know how much you can verify that. I think it’s a good frame story in any case, just kind of to start thinking about teaching and learning and the hierarchies of knowledge that are produced in the academy, too, because you see people that, like so many of us pursuing advanced degrees, are just neurotic people, and I think that’s produced on purpose within the academy. This deep insecurity about knowledge and intelligence and this book tries to find a radical argument against that, and I think it’s an interesting take.
Suhayb Yunus: Have you heard of john Taylor Gatto? Very similar sort of story about […] undermining the standard pedagogical ideas over here. He was a teacher of the year in New York state a couple times.
One of the things that he did, and I guess, this was decades ago now, but in Harlem he went to basically the worst school in Harlem and students that everybody had given up on. And one of the most fascinating things that people began to study after the fact was when he went in there, he went in with the expectation that all of them could get A’s in everything that they were doing. And he treated them with that expectation and what happened is from all of these students failing they easily got A’s. And it seemed it was just because of the expectation of the teacher of his students. But some of the other things that he did that differentiated him from the regular classroom curriculum or curricula were to take these students out, and these were you know junior high, maybe freshman in high school, and he would sneak them into university lectures and he would have them sit at Columbia, NYU, and law school lectures and things like that, and you know his students – I think there was a 13 year old that ended up suing a pizza place for racism or something like that right, and he did the whole process himself at 13. He went to the courts and everything and argued his case.
But it was from the education that he received and taking it out of the classroom, seeing that these students can learn in a different way and also expecting that they were at a level that they didn’t. That they could access what’s supposed to be higher level university education.
Jennifer McCurdy: I’d actually like to jump in here and ask a question.
I’m curious if anybody here thinks that white people can actually decolonize, and I say white people meaning like actually most of us here, even if we’re not white, we have this Euro-Christian worldview, you know, we are all colonized to some extent. Can we actually decolonize or do we need another alternative worldview or tradition to turn to in order to finish, complete that decolonization? I don’t have an answer, but I would like to say that I have had that exact same question since I finished Mignolo’s book
Alyssa Putzer: on whether or not a Westerner trying to act on this concept of decoloniality is just perpetuating that cultural matrix of power. And my opinion is that offering other people the chance to speak and acknowledging our positionality is a really good step towards that. And I think that that’s our role as white people and as Westerners so I’m hoping somebody else has a better answer than I do.
Rachel Foley: I don’t have a better answer but I agree that stepping aside as a white person and letting other people speak to something that they know better about than I do is mostly the work that I’ve found that I can do in trying to decolonize, but I have no idea if we can decolonize ourselves because, like we’re from the colony.
So how do we separate ourselves from that? I don’t know. It’s a hard question to answer. I don’t know if there is an answer. And if anyone finds one, I would really like to hear it.
Dianna Able: Yeah, I agree, I don’t think, especially with what some of the panelists were talking about with living in between and colonized people fitting into the colonial matrix of power, but also trying to hold on to their history. We don’t have a history to hold on to. You know, “white,” there’s not much culture or anything for me to fall back on. And so I think it is like what Rachel and Alyssa were saying: it’s recognizing our place in it, recognizing that we have privilege and then to use that privilege in ways that lift other people up to our level and making sure that their voices are heard, and we take our cues and take our directions from them and use ourselves as a conduit for service for whatever group we’re working with to use our privilege to help them.
Kieryn Wurts: I’m going to try to jump in here on that. I think that that’s a difficult one. When white people talk about white privilege… I’ll put it this way: there’s always like that, not always, but you often get the sense that it just keeps self-perpetuating like a myth of superiority. And isn’t that the whole history of colonization? There is like a socio-economic and political power that’s implemented through colonization which is bad and real and brutal.
But there’s also that’s fed by a myth of white superiority. That’s kind of how it’s made possible that white people believe themselves, or people who consider themselves white. And I think there are a lot of great works I can’t name right now – it’s late here in Germany. But that talk about how the lines of whiteness are continually moved and changed throughout history.
Just to take an example from the US, Italian Americans 100 years ago wouldn’t have been considered white by a lot of people. There would have been a lot of racist attacks against them and now they’re often considered part of white America, whatever that is.
That’s just one very simple concrete example to illustrate that the lines of whiteness are moved and have moved throughout history, a lot. And, of course, whiteness hasn’t always existed. Being a white European as opposed to other people is also racially constructed. A myth, you know, and so I think, maybe if white people can decolonize, I think one of the best things white people can do is just like – or people who consider themselves white, people who count as white people, who pass as white – is just to not believe this myth of superiority because, even when people talk about privilege they’re still believing that myth, “I have this privilege, I have this level.” And so, I think that just maybe that’s the unlearning they’re getting at in the questions.
Suhayb Yunus: It’s unusual, but I think I have a better answer. Although, that’s because it’s not mine.
Religious traditions would say yes, because the whole principle of the metanoia that comes at conversion is about that.
It’s baptismal in a way. You’re washed off of what came before. Although, now have the desiccated traditions retained enough of the spiritual pedagogy that enable that, I don’t know.
In terms of what white people can do, if you want to go the Malcolm X route, he would say talk to your own community, but don’t get involved with the rest of us.
And you know, a part of that is the danger of tokenism because if you’re saying, “well, we’ll just follow the lead of whoever’s up there,” but then, if you are in institutions and you happen to be in positions of authority and able to select these people, then you know, can you be sure… if you’re not running in meritocratic way or if you’re not able to see through the color -because choosing people to lead because of their color is the same thing as choosing them not [to]. Putting them down, it’s the same as putting them up.
In order to avoid tokenism, there is that opinion in the ether that you should stick with your own community, these communities stay with themselves or work together. Mignolo talked about the Bandung Conference, which I think is pretty helpful example of that line of thinking because that was just all the weak countries, basically, you know all the major nations in the Third World coming together and talking about how they can – basically it was like a cooperative effort from all these non-white, non-European, non-American communities and traditions. So you know that opinion is there and then there’s the other opinion that everybody needs to work together and then kind of figure out where everybody’s place in the effort. Which way it’s going to go, though, I don’t know. I don’t have any position on that.
Jennifer McCurdy: I will add, though, I thought about this about this question a lot too.
And just as it’s not up to me to indigenize something, I feel like in a lot of ways as a white person it’s not up to me to decolonize something. But I do think that what is colonialism at its base: it’s capitalism, profit, it’s inequality, it’s Christiandom [sic], it’s this moral and ethical exceptionalism or epistemological dominance. And so I feel like as anybody if we’re rejecting those things, in a lot of ways we’re rejecting colonialism.
And so we can even do these things in our basic, personal, individual lives.
But I know it’s a hard question to answer.