Decolonial Thought: A lecture for the Institute for Culture and Society Key Thinkers & Concepts series

I was kindly invited by the Institute for Culture and Society at Western Sydney University to give a talk on postcolonial and decolonial thought for its Key Thinkers & Concepts series.

I have posted in the slides and notes here.


I wish to acknowledgement the Darug people, their elders past and present and to remind that this lecture is taking place on stolen Darug land..

I also want to begin my lecture by positioning myself as a European West Asian Jewish woman living on stolen Gadigal land.

My work on race and racism over the last twenty years has been informed by my own experiences of migration and displacement caused by racialisation, war and genocide. 

However, it has also been informed by my own life history as a double settler-coloniser, a position which reveals the extent to which race and coloniality are in constant cycles of production and reproduction. As inherently unstable structures, they are, as Patrick Wolfe reminded us in constant need of being remade. This truth creates the crack into which we can work our chisels and chip away at their walls. 


And as yesterday was Columbus Day in the US/Turtle Island, I felt it apt to cite Black Jewish writer Rebecca Pierce who reminds us that, ‘the Spanish Inquisition and Reconquista’s ethnic cleansing of the Jewish and Muslim communities of Al-Andalus is deeply connected to the colonization of the Americas.’ 

I cite Santiago Slabodsky who in his book, ‘Decolonial Judaism’ recalls Jews’ barbarian history, this history that ties us to the other subjects of racial rule.

And so it is incumbent upon me to be in solidarity with Indigenous peoples here and worldwide.


The aim of this lecture is to explore the possibilities for social and political critique opened up by the decolonial approach.

In so doing, I shall examine the interconnections between postcolonial theory and the decolonial, uncovering the trajectory that began with Indian subaltern studies and Latin American autonomous social science, for example. 

I shall also examine the impact of a critical focus on race, gender and sexuality on the opening out of decolonial approaches. 

This work will go towards asking questions about the epistemological implications of taking a decolonial approach as well as examining the possibilities for transformative social and political action.


Postcolonial theory and postcolonial studies grew out of the anti-colonial movement which formally overthrew European colonial government in almost all of the states in which it had intervened.

The postcolonial is, therefore, as much the theorisation of an aspiration borne of struggle as it is an attempt to capture, as Couze Venn says, the legacy of European colonization. 

As Venn notes, postcolonialism is both a theorization of the interconnections between the “present and the past, the local and the global, the vernacular and the cosmopolitan, the postcolonial and the postmodern” and a tool for attempting to overcome what he calls the “underlying problem of opening critical spaces for new narratives of becoming and emancipation” (Venn 2006: 1). He calls this orientation both postcolonial and post-occidental, in the sense that it properly belongs to the theoretical critique and practical project of overturning the centrality of the West. 

There is some debate about when to date postcolonialism. 

As Ella Shohat asks, ‘When exactly… does the “post-colonial” begin?’ This question arises out of the overlap between postcolonialism as the description of a time – after colonialism – and postcolonialism as a discourse, a concept, and/or a set of theories.

As Venn notes, the ‘what and where’ of the postcolonial has shifted over time. During the cold war and at the height of decolonization, the 1955 Bandung Conference and the heyday of the non-aligned movement, the postcolonial had a particular meaning. Then, it was possible to imagine the Third World as a space within which post-independence countries could define their own destiny free from western imperialism. 

However, the wars which have afflicted many of these territories in the name of the cold war and the interventions of global institutions such as the IMF and the World Bank, according to Venn, have dispelled the myths of autonomy.

So, the postcolonial is no longer a geographical territory which exists – or seeks to exist – outside of or in opposition to colonialism – past or present. It has been realised that this is an impossibility.

Therefore, postcolonialism becomes an assemblage of critiques of what Venn calls Occidentalism – ‘the conceptual and historical space of the becoming-West of Europe and the becoming modern of the world.’ 

The role of critical postcolonialism is to challenge this space and to rethink the principles that lend it legitimation.

It is, in essence, a critique of how colonialism and western domination served to silence local knowledges and to institute a teleological reading of human history that assumes that western civilization is the pinnacle of progress, while all other cultures are in a process of becoming.

Inherent to this view is the notion that western culture is universal while all other cultures are localised and particular. However, the elision of the particularity in which western culture originates is not even necessarily acknowledged. Therefore, white, western culture becomes the norm or the standard bearer against which all other world cultures are judged and (often) found lacking, so as to create a civilizational hierarchy. 

Whereas naturalist racial theories (e.g. of the crude racial scientists of the 19th century) assumed that non-Europeans could never accede to the level of progress achieved by western ‘races’, the historicist assumptions that underpinned much colonial rule – incorporated by the notion of the ‘civilizing mission’ – saw the colonised as lower down the ladder of progress. The spread of modernization through colonization – and later development – would serve to rectify the situation over time.  

As against this, the role of postcolonial critique, according to Gyan Prakash, is to radically rethink and reformulate ‘the forms of knowledge and social identities authored and authorized by colonialism and western domination.’

Prakash’s argument is that the original responses to colonialism – nationalism and Marxism – both reproduced the master narratives of colonialism. Nationalism may have attributed agency to the oppressed nation, but it reproduced the claim to Reason and Progress – two key facets of nationalism and nation-states – at the heart of colonialism. 

Similarly, Marxist movements in decolonised countries railed against colonialism but nevertheless fell back on a universalist mode of production narrative that ignored the specificity of the non-western, pre-capitalist economic order, or indeed the specificity of capitalism outside of the West.

In Cedric Robinson’s magisterial work, ‘Black Marxism’, he takes European Marxists to task for their failure to understand the imbrication of race in European capitalism. So, for example, Marx’s notion of ‘primitive accumulation’ as a period preceding full capitalist development, excises slavery from the practices of capitalism, which he theorised as a more fully developed – and thus more efficient – mode of production.

However, according to Nikhil Pal Singh (2017), Marx’s relegation of colonialism and slavery to ‘primitive accumulation’ is a major limitation because it cannot explain the ongoing production of racial categories and the ‘social reproduction of race through ongoing violence, domination, and dependency’ which is integral to racial-colonial rule. 

Robinson was not a postcolonial theorist. However, the criticism of Marxist tendencies towards universalising European experiences are shared with postcolonial theory.

Postcolonial criticism, according to Prakash, ‘seeks to undo the Eurocentrism produced by the institution of the west’s trajectory, its appropriation of the Other as history.’ 

However, crucially, it cannot do this as if postcoloniality were unrelated to coloniality. On the contrary, ‘the postcolonial exists as an aftermath, as an after – after being worked over by colonialism.’ So postcolonial criticism is neither inside nor outside of colonialism, rather it is in a tangential relation to it, occupying an in-between position, as Homi Bhabha puts it. 

The postcolonial is therefore relational and the postcolonial subject a hybrid. The role of the postcolonial, according to Gayatri Spivak, is to ‘reverse and displace’. I could add that it is also to unsettle by forcing us to reassess received wisdom as well as the privilege of not having to particularise western universalism.  


According to Arif Dirlik, the major contribution of postcolonial critique is the repudiation of all master narratives the most powerful of which are those constituted in and by post-Enlightenment Europe and which were fundamental to the establishing of colonial domination.

1. The most important narrative to be rejected is that of modernization. While Marxism rejects bourgeois modernization theories, it too must be critiqued because it works with the same teleological assumptions as those that motivate bourgeois theories. The narrative of modes of production sees colonialism as a transition to capitalism (rather than integral to it). This leads to the colony being seen merely as Europe’s other, as outside of history – a major factor in Orientalist thought.

2. Secondly, nationalism should also be debunked because it reproduces the essentialisms inherent to Orientalism and Eurocentrism by constructing an authentic and reified national subject. National identity does not take into account Bhabha’s hybridity or the notion that Stuart Hall introduces of the postcolonial subject as inherently split – the colonial exists within the colonised and, thus in the postcolonial, and vice versa.

3. Lastly, the idea of foundationalism has to be repudiated. Foundationalism assumes that it is possible to look at history as represented by an identity – a class, for example – that cannot be broken down further – that cannot be seen as heterogeneous; hence the universalisation of the ‘proletariat’, for example. However, taking this view means being unable to see past the particular ideal type being mobilised. 

According to postcolonial critics, the most important consequence of the rejection of foundationalism is the rejection of capitalism as a foundational category. Critics like Prakash argue that it is impossible to read the history of any Third World country in terms of the development of capitalism alone or to argue against the role played by capitalism in homogenizing the contemporary world. Doing so would reject out of hand the role played by other factors and actors that exist outside of these western logics.

This point however may obscure racial capitalism as theorised by Cedric Robinson and followers of his work such as Robin Kelley. For them capitalism is integral to colonialism  as it is to slavery. However, Robinson too wishes to draw on a Black or, as as Lewis Gordon or Paget Henry would out it, an ‘Africana’ philosophy that draws on ideas, traditions, knowledges and practices that precede the modern colonial-capitalist era.

It is impossible to see the Third World itself or Third World subjects as categories. Postcolonial critique unsettles the neat categorisation into East and West, First World and Third World, etc. Rather the point is to see all accounts – orientalist, nationalist, marxist, etc. – as ‘discursive attempts to constitute their objects of knowledge.’

Third World identities have to resist this attempt by foundationalism to be fixed. They must be constituted as relational and heterogeneous. Rejecting essentialisation, they suggest engagement not insularity. The Third World refuses to stay in its place. Rather, it has ‘penetrated the inner sanctum of the first world’ and has affiliated with other subordinated subjects in the first world. So, according to the postcolonial critics, there is a strong role to be played by postcolonial actors in alliance with other marginalised groups and activists such as socialists, radicals, feminists, and other minorities.

The Third World postcolonial subject is deterritorialised. Postcolonial politics are a politics of positionality – where I position myself and am positioned by others in an imbalanced power relation undergirded by a colonial logic – rather than a politics of location, grounded in a particular localised space.



The contributions of South Asian subaltern history have been vital to questioning the relationship between coloniality and history.

In Dipesh Chakrabarty’s ‘Provincializing Europe’, the author problematises history as a narrative of transition and examines the effects upon the understanding of formerly colonised countries such as India. 

In particular, Chakrabarty states, it is necessary to question the notions of progress, development and modernisation within historicist accounts. The subaltern historians are as critical of Indian nationalists as they are of colonialists. Nationalist historicist readings examine Indian progress since 1947 in terms of a lack, an absence or a failure. In this sense, these nationalist readings are often continuous with British colonialist interpretations of India as inadequate or incomplete in contrast to the achievements of the colonisers whose efforts notwithstanding failed to change the course of Indian destiny. 

Indian nationalism was complicit in the interpretation of India as lacking, a fact that Gandhi realised when he noted that nationalists’ demands for more railways, modern medicine, etc. were efforts to ‘make India English.’ However, from a nationalist perspective, the ambition was not to be English or European but but for Indians to become individuals by embracing the nation and citizenship – understood as universal principles. 

Paradoxically, Indian nationalists had internalised the universal presumptions underlying western ideas, such as the individual, equal subject. The problem was that, because of the unadmitted particularity of these principles, the West was not ready to accept Indians as individual subjects or the independent Indian state on equal terms. 


To see the colonised world as lacking or as a stage of history in transition towards something approximating that seen as already achieved by the West, is to privilege a process of modernization. In that the West is considered modern, everywhere else is seen as in the process of becoming modern. 

As Bhambra explains, modernisation theory rests upon a separation between ‘tradition’ and ‘modernity’. In the West, tradition is located in the past whereas, the Third World is seen as traditional co-temporally with western modernity. However, modernisation theory also sees tradition as gradually being superseded by modernity in all societies. Bhambra describes modernisation theory as a theory of convergence in which all difference is erased by the diffusion of western institutions.

If anything, this has been exacerbated and accelerated since the proliferation of globalization – which, in one sense can be understood as a speeding up of the drive to Euro-American modernization.

As Arturo Escobar points out, key theorists of modernization, like Anthony Giddens, explicitly state that globalization entails the universalisation of modernity. 

The assumption that modernity is synonymous with the West has been refuted by theorists of multiple modernities, or ‘varieties of modernity’ who point out that non-western societies are not stagnant, but that they develop their own institutional and cultural contexts prior to western modernity. The exposure to western modernity led to the emergence of multiple modernities within societies where western institutions converged with local cultural practices. 

However, Bhambra critiques the multiple modernities approach for being rooted nonetheless in a Eurocentric vision: modernities of various kinds emerged first in Europe and only later with the expansion of modernity in the Americas, Africa and Asia. The multiple modernities approach sets itself up as non-Orientalist, but by saying that multiple modernities emerge only through the encounter with European modernities (which themselves are construed as multiple), scholars such as Eisenstadt or Wittrock are actually saying that the West is ‘both the origin of modernity and…of multiple modernities.’

In contrast to this approach, which assumes that there are civilizational ideal types that can be compared with each other, Bhambra argues that the West is not already modern before its encounter with the rest of the world. Rather, it is through the colonial relationship that modernity is formed: ‘colonisation was not simply an outcome of modernity, but, rather, modernity itself, the modern world, developed out of colonial encounters.’

For Escobar, the power of what he calls ‘Eurocentred modernity’ – which he says is a ‘particular local history’ – lies in the fact that it has subalternised other local histories. Modernisation appears teleological and universal, but it is only one of a number of possible stories still waiting to be played out. 


Contra the idea of modernisation as a linear universalising process, Bhambra contends that “there are no entities that are not hybrid, that are not always and already hybrid.”

Everything has already in some way been influenced by something else. For example, while we talk about the importance of the Industrial Revolution in facilitating the growth of capitalism and locate the milling industry in places like Manchester, we do not always remember that cotton milling were only made possible because cotton was brought from India where it was grown. In other words, the industrial revolution and the growth of capitalism was only made possible through the connection between India and Europe.

Instead of seeing the global as an extension of western modernity, we should focus, according to Bhambra, on the interconnectedness of the world, or the ‘common world’. 

European social theory has explained the evolution of the modern world in terms of a series of separate processes taking place independently in different parts of the world. Therefore, capitalism for example is seen as a western process that is then extended to the rest of the world through colonialism firstly, and globalization more recently.

However, to see things from this perspective would be to ignore the example of the cotton mills. Modernity, and today globalization, should be seen as a series of ‘conjunctions and connected and entangled histories’. Doing so deprivileges the West as the origin, the vanguard, the norm and sheds light both on the other, untold and silenced histories that need to be told for a full picture of the contemporary world to be revealed and on the ways in which the interdependence between the First and the Third World is central rather than incidental. 



Arif Dirlik opens his critique of contemporary postcolonialism by arguing that postcolonial critique, by becoming disconnected from a particular space, has made the postcolonial subject more important than the world which exists around her. 

For Dirlik, in his scathing critique, a lot of the problems with postcolonial theory is in the fact that it only becomes significant once certain academics from Third World countries make it in the western academy. He says that ‘postcolonial, rather than a description of anything, is a discourse that seeks to constitute the world in the self-image  of intellectuals who view themselves… as postcolonial intellectuals… postcolonial discourse is an expression not so much of agony over identity… but of newfound power.’

Dirlik, basing much of his critique on the subaltern historians – originating mainly from India – who are considered to be the instigators of postcolonial studies, is irritated by what he sees as the projection of certain local problems as global concerns. He says that the problems raised for Indian historiography by the subaltern historians has led to them being generalised because of the centrality of Indian subaltern history to postcolonialism in general.

The problem that Dirlik sees as central to postcolonial critique is that while, on the one hand, its proponents are calling for attention to heterogeneity, difference and historicity, they are, on the other hand, generalizing from the local context to the global while denying that there are any global forces which have an impact on the forming of the local in the first place. 

Anne McClintock, for example, notes that a central problem in this is that while postcolonial theory promises to decentre history by privileging hybridity, it nonetheless ends up re-centering global history around singular European time by privileging the colonial moment over all others.

Furthermore, the focus on hybridity and subjectivity leads to what O’Hanlon and Washbrook call a ‘depoliticising insulation of social from material domains’. According to them, this makes postcolonialism a conservative, rather than a radical, project, because it doesn’t seek to subvert any of the macro structures, especially capitalism. There is no way of looking at the impact of these structures on different localities because the direction postcolonialism is interested in is that from the local to the global, but in so doing it generalises local experiences so that they lose meaningfulness.

Dirlik also finds problematic the language of postcolonial discourse which is the language of Western post-structuralism. Prakash admits that the language used by third world scholars is often familiar to the West, but he doesn’t characterise this as a problem. For Dirlik, this is a problem because the choice of language means that postcolonial critique remains a conversation between the postcolonial and the First World rather than between postcolonial intellectuals. 

We might think about the hegemony of publishing in the English language for example. The acclaimed Kenyan author, Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o, has written and spoke about this extensively, for example in his 1986 exposition of cultural imperialism

‘Decolonising the Mind’. Speaking of the unquestioning ubiquity of English language education and literature in Africa, he remarked, 

The language of power is English and that becomes internalized… You normalize the abnormal and the absurdities of colonialism, and turn them into a norm from which you operate. Then you don’t even think about it.

For Dirlik, the focus on subjectivities also prominent in poststructuralist approaches means too that postcolonial studies risk causing a dislocation between these subjective standpoints and the ideology and institutions that produce them. Indeed, the drive in much postcolonial studies and cultural studies towards a focus on identity and affect – especially within literature and psychoanalysis – may have contributed to a dilution of the political aim of postcolonialism. As the late David Macey noted in his biography of Fanon, 

‘The Third Worldist Fanon was an apocalyptic creature; the post-colonial Fanon worries about identity politics, and often about his own sexual identity, but he is no longer angry… The wretched of the earth are still there, but not in the seminar rooms where the talk is of post-colonial theory. They came out on the streets of Algiers in 1988, and the Algerian army shot them dead. […] Had he lived, Fanon would still be angry. His readers should be angry too.’ (Macey 2000: 29).

It is interesting to re-read Macey’s remarks today from the standpoint of the right and centre-left wing backlash against identity politics which do not take into account the subtleties of Dirlik’s criticisms for example. 

While, as I argue in my forthcoming book, the backlash against identity politics wilfully fails to see that what is named identity politics are more correctly, merely struggles against injustice, it is undoubted that strands within these movements that foreground claims to essentialised identities over material intersectional struggles fail to be grounded in a solid sociohistorical understanding of the structures of colonialism, capitalism and race as the technology of power shaped in and through these structures of Euro-modernity.  

Part of what we may want to think about is how to reclaim the angry Fanon for an evaluation of the contribution postcolonial theory can make today. 


In The White Possessive, Aileen Moreton-Robinson writes about the problematic situation of postcolonial approaches vis-a-vis the theorisation of Australia as a multicultural society, a view which elides its ongoing coloniality. 

Quoting Graham Huggan, Moreton-Robinson refers to the ‘metaphorization of migration’ in postcolonial studies, which remains the overarching reference for much work on the meaning of displacement and movement for racialised people from the Global South to the Global North, or in the case of Australia to the South that thinks of itself as North (Huggan 2001: 119). 

Moreton-Robinson writes that while postcolonial studies are useful in the ‘ability to reveal the operations of counterhegemonic discourses as produced by the dispersed or diasporic subject,’ they privilege a ‘metaphor of migrancy’ that centres the experiences of migrants to the detriment of that of Indigenous people (The White Possessive p. 8). 

This would not matter if Indigenous approaches were placed on an equal footing with postcolonialism. However, Moreton-Robinson is clear that the problem appears not only because Indigenous knowledges are deemed illegitimate from a white perspective, but also because they are either subsumed under postcolonial studies, and other studies of ‘difference’, and treated as suspect by them also.

There are two problems according to Moreton-Robinson:

The first is more direct: postcolonial studies in Australia largely fail to place the Indigenous experience of dispossession as central in their accounts, and they also fail to learn from an Indigenous way of knowing that would be necessary to have a complete account of the particular experience of migration to a colonial space such as Australia. 

These two parts of the criticism are co-dependent: not only are the accounts partial in that they fail to elucidate a complete narrative of what migration and its aftermath mean for the ongoing colonial project, but they further compound the degradation of Indigenous knowledges (cultural genocide) by failing to place an Indigenous reading at their core.

Moreton-Robinson explains this with regards the postcolonial criticism of Aboriginal ontologies as essentialist. She describes the ontological relationship to country that ‘occurs through the intersubstantiation of ancestral beings, humans and land’ (p. 12) that is at the core of Indigenous thought systems and which grounds law and cultural protocols. 

From a postcolonial perspective founded on the deconstruction of certainties, this may appear as a form of (strategic) essentialism ‘because I am imputing an essence from belonging’ (p. 12). However, Moreton-Robinson argues that it is the premise from which such a critique is derived which is essentialist because it depends on the ‘Western definition of the self as not unitary or fixed’ and Aboriginal people do not define the self in the same way’ (ibid.). Ultimately, it is western structures of knowledge that undergird these assertions of essentialism with the effect of degrading Indigenous ways of knowing.

However, it is important to note that Moreton-Robinson’s view of postcolonial studies differs from Dirlik’s which indeed associates it with a tendency towards essentialism.

Be that as it may, what is central to Moreton-Robinson’s critique is that questioning the integrity and legitimacy of Indigenous ways of knowing and being has more to do with who has the power to be a knower and whether their knowledge is commensurate with the West’s “rational” belief system. The anti- essentialist critique is commendable, but it is premised on a contradiction embedded within the Western construction of essentialism; it is applied as a universal despite its epistemological recognition of difference (p. 12-13).

In sum, much postcolonial studies have, in Moreton-Robinson’s analysis, paradoxically failed to centre what Huggan calls the ‘imperial legacy’ that birthed the conditions of ‘migration and other patterns of human movement in the modern era’ (Huggan 2001: 119). 

In other words often the actual workings of colonial systems of rule are lost in these accounts that privilege ‘voguish academic categories of nomadism, migrancy and displacement’ (ibid.). At least this part of her criticism seem to echo some of Dirlik’s concerns.

As Moreton-Robinson puts it in relation to postcolonial studies that centre migration and the diasporic experience,

social constructions of home, place, and belonging depend not just on ethnicity and ties to an imagined homeland. They are conditional upon a legal and social status as well as the economic and political relations in the new country and its imperial legacy (2015: 9). 

Non-Anglo migrants to Australia, she says can belong but not possess. Although, whiteness remains the marker of who can claim possession due to the history of colonial invasion, ‘nonwhite migrants’ sense of belonging is tied to the fiction of terra nullius and the logic of capital because their legal right to belong is sanctioned by the law that enabled dispossession’ (p. 6). 

A postcolonial framework that doesn’t work through the ramifications of this for living on colonised Aboriginal land will not only be unethical, it is suggested, but runs the risk of being partial and less founded on what Africana Philosopher Lewis Gordon refers to as ‘committed to truth and reality’ (2014: 96).

In the rest of this lecture, I want to look at how a simultaneous reading of postcolonialism alongside other, allied, traditions in subaltern studies, race critical theory, critical Indigenous studies, and and Chicana feminism for example can help in the construction of a decolonial reading that would radically decentre Occidentalist thinking and power. 

Doing this helps us consider the impact of what Boaventura De Sousa Santos calls western ‘abyssal thinking’ on thought in general and how the colonial project and the allied colonization of knowledge brought about an erasure of precolonial philosophy, science and art. Part of what we do when we heed the call to decolonize knowledge is both to uncover the processes by which these erasures occurred and return to these traditions in the effort to embed a more global understanding of the social world.


The decolonial approach to the discussion of the relationship between modernity and coloniality and how this continues to impact upon global power relations represents an advance in thinking about the condition of coloniality in a way which may avoid some of the problems set out by Dirlik. 

It goes towards engaging deeply with the theme of interrelatedness which Bhambra suggests is fundamental for deprivileging western historicism and (re)writing more inclusive histories.

Decolonial thinking originates mainly with Latin American scholars such as Ramon Grosfoguel, Walter Mignolo, Enrique Dussel, Arturo Escobar, Maria Lugones and Gloria Anzaldua. Decolonizing approaches are useful because they focus not only on theoretical deconstructions of the colonial structures which many critics argue continue to shape relationships between states and peoples across the globe, but also on the proposition of alternatives to them, sometimes through an appeal to the precolonial.

Scholars looking at the links between modernity and coloniality work with critical theories of modernity and postmodernity, South asian subaltern studies, Chicana feminist theory, postcolonial theory, and African philosophy. According to Arturo Escobar, the genealogy of the modernity/coloniality research programme associated with decolonial thinking can be traced back through liberation theology of the 1960s and 70s, debates in Latin American social science about liberation theology and autonomous social science, dependency theory, debates on hybridity in anthropology, and communications and cultural studies of the 1990s.

Understanding the relationship between modernity and coloniality is crucial if we are to go towards decolonising knowledge and the resultant power structures.

According to Mignolo, ‘the rhetoric of modernity is that of salvation, whereas the logic of coloniality is a logic of imperial oppression. They go hand in hand, and you cannot have modernity without coloniality; the unfinished project of modernity carries over its shoulders the unfinished project of coloniality.’

The reason for this interrelationship is in the fact that naturalised beliefs about the world order are imperial-colonial, and continue to be so. The beliefs about the inherent differences between the West and the majority world, established by the discourse of modernity, which were mobilised both by Christianity and by capitalism, have shaped hegemonic understandings of the world for the last 500 years. These need to be debunked by an epistemic decolonial shift. 

Therefore, unlike postcolonialism, decolonial thinkers like Mignolo are not calling for an analysis in terms of  ‘neo’, ‘post’ or deconstructive colonialism which he says are ‘all changes within the same modern colonial epistemology’. Rather the decolonial entails a delinking from the rules of the game, a decolonising of the mind (we could call this unlearning although I note how this has become a buzzword for example in Sydney Uni advertising!).

This process of delinking doesn’t mean attempting to exist outside of modernity or indeed Christian, liberal, capitalist or marxist hegemony. Rather, the aim is to reject the naturalising assumptions made by these four macro-narratives (in this sense, the aim is similar to postcolonialism’s repudiation of master narratives). 

As Mignolo puts it bluntly, the aim of decolonial thought is to show that the majority of people (who are oppressed and racialised) in the world do not think in terms of and neither do they care about things like human rights which are based on an imperial view of humanity. Instead, we should privilege human dignity which is based on a decolonial view of humanity, but which is constantly denied by the rhetoric of modernity in which basic dignity takes second place to progress and the participation in formal structures and institutions such as citizenship, the rule of law, etc. 

So, the challenge for the decolonial is to be committed to a decolonizing of knowledge. If we decolonize knowledge we cannot continue to privilege western modernization because we would have to privilege the work of historical and contemporary thinkers from the Global South instead.

Ramon Grosfoguel points out that doing this does not mean becoming inward looking, anti-European or fundamentalist. On the contrary, a decolonial approach would be based in a truly universal outlook which looks, as Bhambra says, at how ideas are always arrived at from a variety of sources – there is no one truth out there, but many truths.

At its very core, the decolonial approach challenges us to look at the world from the perspective of a poor Latin American woman, a process which would reveal the organisation of power globally in terms of what Anibal Quijano calls the ‘colonial power matrix’.


Arturo Escobar in his discussion of the modernity/coloniality research programme which has given rise to decolonial thought sets out the five main points around which the linking of modernity and coloniality are based.

These are:

1. An emphasis on the conquest of the Americas as the starting point of modernity, rather than the Enlightenment or the end of the 18th century as is more commonly accepted. Doing this would immediately reveal the relationship between the advent of modernity and colonial domination and uncover the dependence of the western project of modernity upon European domination over the majority world. One is unthinkable without the other.

Therefore, modernity should be decentred from its alleged linear progression from Greece to Rome, through Christianity and modern Europe. Instead, a new spatial and temporal conception of modernity should consider the role of Spain and Portugal in the conquest of the Americas as fundamental. Dussel calls this the first modernity which he contrasts to the second modernity which occurred in Northern Europe with the industrial revolution and the Enlightenment. 

Nevertheless, this conflicts with Cedric Robinson’s analysis in Black Marxism in which, while not locating modernity in Europe or outside of colonialism, wishes to theorise race – which is a fundamental technology of modern rule – as pre-existing modernity and as primarily an intra-European affair, before being expanded to the colonial context, and coming to full fruition in the anti blackness of the tyranstlanric slave trade which he sees as integral to capitalist modernity.

2. Where Robinson and the decolonial theorists agree is that colonialism needs to be seen as fundamental to the making of the capitalist world system and therefore as constitutive of modernity. This is encapsulated by Anibal Quijano’s concept of ‘coloniality of power’, which he sees as a hegemonic model of power in place since the Conquest of the Americas. Under coloniality of power, race and labour, space and peoples are articulated according to the needs of capital and to the benefit of white European people. So, colonialism is not about the inclusion of non-Europeans in processes of modernisation. Rather, it is about their exploitation for the demands of capital and the benefit of people construed as superior all under the guise of progress and civilisation. 

Coloniality of power means the persistence of colonial logics after the end of colonialism. 

So, the lingering colonial mentality on a world scale explains why global capital is based upon the exploitation of poor workers in the Global South who are still considered racially/ethnically inferior to those in the richer North. This also explains the exploitation of migrant workers in the West/North. 

This also happens at the level of states, with nations that are considered peripheral (e.g. non powerful/western) being forced to live under a regime imposed on them by the IMF, World Bank, etc.

For Grosfogeul, “Peripheral zones remain in a colonial situation even though they are no longer under colonial administration.”

3. As a result of seeing colonialism as constitutive of modernity, it is necessary to see modernity as a world-wide process rather than an intra-European phenomenon which is then rolled out across the rest of the world. Enrique Dussel proposes the notion of trans-modernity as a way of encapsulating this. Most critiques of modernity (including postcolonialism if we accept Dirlik’s critique) are in fact eurocentred critiques of eurocentrism. In other words, they accept the terms of reference established by European conceptualisations of modernity (such as marxism). 

What needs to happen in contrast is for colonial difference to be brought to the fore by privileging the relationship between modernity and coloniality. Transmodernity refuses the idea that critical discourse is uniquely European (something often heard in contemporary discussions of Islam in the West, for example). The aim is to give voice to the negated Other by what Dussel calls ‘the negation of the negation’ – that is unveiling the subjugation to which subalterns have been subjected to and listening to the silenced counter-discourses of the oppressed. 

This is similar to what is proposed by the subaltern historians who uncovered the unauthorised and silenced histories of peasants and other subaltern people in the Indian subcontinent. So, for example, Escobar talks about giving value to some of the landmark experiences of decolonisation in the teaching of history including the Tupac Amaru rebellion, the Haitian revolution or the more recent anticolonial movements. Instead, what we are seeing is a revaluing of hegemonic colonial history through the institutionalisation of revisionist historians such as Niall Ferguson and Linda Collier in the UK or the reentrenchment of the mythical legacies of Cook for Australia, resulting in polarised debates about the meaning of Australia Day which largely distract from ongoing practices of colonial domination over Aboriginal peoples and lands. 

In today’s time, it would be listening to the accounts of poor people of their lives and allowing them to conceptualise their lives in terms of their own experience and being led by them, rather than vice versa.

According to Dussel, transmodernity cannot be brought about from within modernity – or from within a logic that privileges modernity. Rather, in that it is what Escobar calls ‘the expression of an ethics of liberation’. It needs to be brought about through the action of subalternised groups (examples include Aboriginal people fighting against mining companies or against water contamination, for the protection of the Djab Wurring birthing trees, the Zapatistas, the landless people of Brazil, or the Indian tribal people currently fighting the government in the forests of India).

4. It is fundamental to see the domination of non-Europeans as integral to modernity. This process of domination also led to the silencing of other knowledges and cultures which are then expressed as a lack in comparison to European knowledge and culture. Mignolo’s project of colonial difference and global coloniality which insists on attending to the knowledge buried by the process of colonial domination will be discussed in the next slide in relation to the epistemological concerns of the decolonial project.

5. Eurocentrism has to be seen as the knowledge form of modernity/coloniality. This again is also fundamental to the postcolonial critique and involves unveiling the way in which particularised European knowledge constitutes itself as universal to the exclusion and repudiation of other knowledges. 


Chicana feminists scholars Gloria Anzaldua and Maria Lugones have introduced a particular focus on gender as a further power divide. It is not enough to understand global inequalities as dividing between the rich North and the poor South. But, gender divides also reproduce these inequalities within and across all societies. 

Part of the decolonising project, according to Arturo Escobar, is to decolonise these uneven power relations between men and women.

As Maria Lugones has written, we cannot understand the colonial imposition of a gender system on non-European societies without understanding Quijano’s ‘coloniality of power’.

Lugones’ foregrounding of heterosexism as ‘a key part of how gender fuses with race in the operations of colonial power’ (Lugones 2007: 186), is not dissimilar to theorisations of intersectionality by Black feminist scholars such as Patricia Hill Collins and Kimberle Crenshaw.

Lugones argues that focusing on the patriarchy alone obscures how oppressive gender formation is not solely the result of male supremacy, but of heterosexuality, capitalism and racial classification in conjunction with each other. We cannot fully understand what she calls ‘the present organisation of life’ without theorising the relationship between the colonial/modern gender system and the birth of global colonial capitalism.

Here Lugones joins Indigenous feminists, such as Aileen Moreton-Robinson famously in her book ’Talking Up to the White Woman’, in critiquing the role of white feminism in omitting the ‘deep imbrication of race’ from an analysis which foregrounds gender and sexuality alone.

As Moreton-Robinson writes in a piece reflecting on ‘Talking Up to The White Woman’:

For Indigenous women all white feminists benefit from colonisation; they are overwhelmingly represented and disproportionately predominant, have the key roles, and constitute the norm, the ordinary and the standard of womanhood in Australia. White women are not represented to themselves as being white; instead they position themselves as variously classed, sexualised, aged and abled. The disjuncture between representation and self-presentation of both Indigenous women and white feminists means that the involvement of Indigenous women in Australian feminism is, and will remain, partial. (Moreton-Robinson 2006: 246).

But, for Lugones, it is not only white feminism that has ignored race, but decolonial approaches that have sidelined gender and sexuality. Her approach is to examine the workings of the ‘coloniality of power’ from a perspective that sees gender and sexuality as central to ongoing colonial practices.

She argues for placing the theorisation of intersectionality by majority world and Black feminist scholars alongside the ‘coloniality of power’ theory to suggest the framework of the ‘modern/colonial gender system’.

According to Lugones, while Quijano understands that ‘all power is structured in relations of domination, exploitation and conflict’, including over sex and gender, he nonetheless accepts the ‘global, Eurocentred, capitalist understanding of what gender is about.’

He does not foreground the fact that the arrangement of gender around patriarchy and heterosexism is historical, not natural. They emerged from the modern/colonial system. 

Quijano’s model stresses race as the ‘basic and universal social classification of the population of the planet’ consolidated by European domination in the colonial era.

However, the significance of colonial rule for birthing this system, means that coloniality goes further than racial classification and its attendant social domination because it ‘permeates all control of sexual access, collective authority, labour, subjectivity/intersubjectivity and the production of knowledge.’

Modernity, for Quijano, fuses ‘the experiences of colonialism and coloniality with the necessities of capitalism’ and is the other axis – along with coloniality – of global Eurocentred capitalist power.

For Lugones, Quijano’s model of different structural axes does not stress enough the intersecting nature of these power dimensions. She draws on Crenshaw’s theorisation of intersectionality which emphasises the co-constitutive nature of race and gender, which goes against the tendency to see them as separate and homogenous.

Seeing these dimensions as separate lends itself to ignoring violence against women of colour for example. 

For Lugones, Quijano’s understanding of gender reduces it to a question of ‘the organisation of sex, its resources, and products,’ which is a dispute among men. This does not take into account the role of women and variably gendered people, and their specific articulation under colonialism.

She refers to intersexuality as an example of the way in which heterosexism played a significant role in colonialism. Intersex people were ‘recognised in many tribal societies prior to colonisation without assimilation to the sexual binary.’ However, under colonialism, they were imagined as evidence of the sexual threat posed by Indigenous peoples, requiring their conformity to Eurocentred gender norms.

So, the naturalising of sexual differences is as significant for colonial domination as the naturalisation of difference as race, instituted through the imposition of modern science. 

Lugones cites research by Yoruban scholar Oyeronké Oyewumi, for example, that demonstrates that colonial rule had a direct effect on the organisation of reproduction. Native American scholars, such as Paula Gunn, have demonstrated the acceptability of third gendering and homosexuality within their cultures prior to colonisation.

Colonialism constructed non-white women as existing outside gender, while white bourgeois women were the only ones to have ‘counted as women.’ Lugones demonstrates this by pointing to the consistent identification of colonised radicalised women with animals; they were sexually marked as female but ‘without the characteristics of femininity,’ giving rise both to sexual abuse and enslavement. The mass disappearances of First Nations women to this day in Canada, as well as the disportioncate rates of incarceration of Aboriginal women and the theft of their children far beyond the official end of the ‘stolen generations’ is testament to this ongoing attitude.

The colonial gender system has both a light and a dark side.

The light side constructs gender relations for Europeans hegemonically, ordering gender into the binary of men and women along bourgeois norms.

The dark side is thoroughly violent. It forces majority world women and third gendered people into relations of sexual and labour exploitation, often resulting in their death.

This ‘coloniality of gender’ has been obscured in male accounts of coloniality of power, instigated by Quijano.

As Lugones shows, centring the role of gender domination does not sideline the significance of race, but rather demonstrates how the theorisation of one in the absence of the other obscures the workings of colonialism which relied equally on the radical alteration of reproduction and gender relations in precolonial societies as much as it did on the understanding of the meaning of human difference via the imposition of race as a system of power on a planetary scale. 

‘Race is no more mythical and fictional than gender,’ she writes, ‘both are powerful fictions.’


Where perhaps decoloniality has been taken furthest is in discussions about knowledge and education, particularly within the university. 

Decoloniality aims to have an impact on the academy. The aim of the modernity/coloniality research group, for example, has also been to decolonise the humanities (if not the university). To a limited extent within Latin America, the proliferation of ideas from liberation theology to autonomous social science through the work of pioneers such as Dussel, going back to the 1970s has has an impact in this direction.

Efforts to decolonise the university have exploded over the last decade. They have crystallised around campaigns such as Rhodes Must Fall in South Africa and the UK, and the campaign by students at UK and US universities to decolonise the white curriculum. These campaigns have often been maligned in the media and by politicians and conservative academics as opposed to ‘free speech’. 

However, a close look at the demands of these campaigns reveal that, in addition to material demands, for example about the rights of access of Black students in South Africa to higher education, or the low numbers of Black and Indigenous students and academics in the academy, they have been focused on adding to the existing curriculum rather than taking anything away from it. 

The fundamental question being asked is why the western academy thinks it can adequately teach any subject while looking at it uniquely from an epistemically western – and most frequently male – perspective. 

One of the areas in which inroads have been made has been in research methodologies in the humanities and social sciences. Maori scholar Linda Tuhiwai Smith’s ‘Decolonising Methodologies’, first published in 1999, has been one of the most important contributions.

As she famously remarks in the opening to her book, ‘research is probably one of the dirtiest words in the Indigenous vocabulary.’ Indigenous people have been among the most researched people in the world, and that research has often been used to further oppress them.

In the context of a colonial academy, it has been difficult for Indigenous researchers to argue for the necessity of research that is grounded in the experiences and knowledges of Indigenous people themselves because they meet resistance not only within universities, but from society in general. There is a strong belief ‘out there’ that research that is good is research that is ‘scientific’ and we have come to see ‘scientific’ as aligned with ‘objective’ – research that is agnostic on the outcome and that is not ‘biased’ by being led by those who might be personally invested in the topic being studied. 

For Tuhiwai Smith, this belief makes it doubly difficult for Maori researchers who must do battle both with positivistic researchers ‘whose regard for Maori is not sympathetic’ (ibid. 189) and with society in general.

And as Patricia Hill-Collins remarks,

Because elite White men control Western structures of knowledge validation, their interests pervade the themes, paradigms, and epistemologies of traditional scholarship. As a result, U.S. Black women’s experiences as well as those of women of African descent transnationally have been routinely distorted within or excluded from what counts as knowledge. (Hill Collins 2000: 268).

So, the bases on which research is conducted – or what frames our thinking before we carry out research on a given topic – is of vital importance. This is what we think of as ‘epistemology’, or the framework for our knowledge, the structures in which it develops, including school and home, but also the overarching political context which frames our world view.

The formation of Critical Indigenous Studies has been one way to ‘challenge the power/knowledge structures and discourses through which Indigenous peoples have been framed and known,’ as Aileen Moreton-Robinson writes.

So, looking at the world from the perspective of those who have traditionally been left out as competent ‘knowers’, even of their own lives, will contribute to more complete analyses of a particular topic. Furthermore, Black scholars have argued that being marginalised also gives people the possibility of making more complex analyses because they have exposure both to their own perspective and to that of those in power. This is what the African-American sociologist W.E.B. Du Bois referred to as ‘double consciousness’, which enables the dominated an insight not only into their own experiences but into the workings of power.

The Kaupapa Maori research framework described by Tuhiwai-Smith is ‘research for, by and with Maori’ (Tuhiwai Smith 2012: 183). It is ‘research which is ‘culturally safe’, which involves the ‘mentorship’ of elders, which is culturally relevant and appropriate while satisfying the rigour of research, and which is undertaken by a Maori researcher, not a researcher who happens to be Maori’ (ibid. 184). Therefore, it is vital that research that is carried out within the Kaupapa Maori framework is done in the interests and under the guidance of the community concerned. Here there is no notion that the academy or ‘science’ knows best. 

‘Maori people should regain control of investigations into Maori people’s lives’ (ibid.). So the ‘whanau‘, or the extended family, has a major role to play in deciding on what to research, how to research it and in carrying out the research.

The whanau acts as the research supervisors. Smith says that, in this way, research is part of the overall struggle for Maori self-determination. In that Indigenous people struggle to regain control over their lands, their culture and their languages, they are also engaged in a struggle over how knowledge about them is created and to what ends. 

Because knowledge about racialised and colonised peoples has been traditionally developed in order to better control them, and this continues in many ways (particularly in so-called problem areas such as crime, health and education), it is absolutely vital that minoritised people can determine what and how knowledge is produced about them.

Nevertheless, Indigenous and Black epistemologies and methodologies meet resistance from within the academy. Or where they are taken up, this is done in the absence of the actual people who are affected by ongoing coloniality.

First nations scholars, such as Eve Tuck, have warned against the indigenising agenda in Canadian universities, for example. And the recent discursive uptake of decolonisation in academic circles should also come accompanied by a klaxon.

In their 2012 paper, ‘Decolonisation is not a metaphor’, Eve Tuck and Wane Yang discuss the rising popularisation of decolonisation as a paradigm.

They remind readers that ‘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 societies and schools.’ 

In other words, while these aims may be important, decolonization has to entail giving up material privileges. They argue that the metaphorization of decolonization enables “settler moves to innocence” that problematically attempt to reconcile settler guilt and complicity, and rescue settler futurity’ (p. 1). 

Decolonising research methodologies, therefore, run the risk of allowing non-Indigenous scholars and students who employ them to overlook other ways in which they are complicit in upholding and maintaining coloniality.

So, as William Jamal Richardson notes, in the edited volume ‘Decolonising the University’, while it is important to challenge Eurocentric epistemologies in texts, it is insufficient to do so if ‘structural and physical factors of the colonial world help create and maintain the same epistemology that scholars are currently trying to decolonise’ (p. 231). So, while the radical decolonising ideas exist in great supply, they are not given the space and context in which time emerge and have impact. As he notes,

‘We have to consider how marginalised communities and decolonial scholars need not only to intervene in epistemic debates but also to intervene politically in the physical spaces in which these debates often take place.’

He suggests we need to pay more attention to what Frickel calls ‘undone science’ – ‘areas of research that are left unfunded, incomplete, or generally ignored but that social movements or civil society organizations often identify as worthy of more research.’

In a context today in which there is growing interest in decolonising knowledges and in settler colonies such as Australia and Canada, for example, to ‘indigenise’ the curriculum and research, it is vital to hold together the structural and the epistemological. 

In his chapter in Decolonising the University, Professor Kehinde Andrews who heads Black Studies at Birmingham City University, remarks that ‘if you decolonize your knowledge base you will quickly decolonize your staffing’ (Andrews 2018: 132). 

To create the conditions for greater racial and colonial literacy, he argues, we have to work within the means available to us, in spaces educators can carve out within the often unforgiving setting of the neoliberal academy, in community spaces created by Black, Indigenous and people of colour along with white antiracists, using publications of various kinds including websites, blogs, social media platforms, and so on beyond the narrowly academic. 


Being committed to a decolonisation of knowledge, and hence of social realities, requires an engagement with border thinking, according to Walter Mignolo.

Critical Border thinking, a concept often attributed to Chicana poet and feminist Gloria Anzaldua, is based on the understanding that European culture and thought has been imposed upon the whole world not only through colonialism in the past but through the persistence of western models of ‘democracy’, ‘human rights’, etc.

Critical border thinking rejects both Eurocentrism and the fundamentalist retreat into anti-western third world identities.

Anzaldua’s concept of border thinking challenges us to go beyond simple divisions into north and south, rich and poor, us and them, citizen and foreigner, men and woman, straight and queer, etc. The challenge – like for an interconnected understanding of globalisation – is how we contain all of these elements in ourselves and, using this, to overcome (at least in theory) the resultant inequality. 

As a bilingual queer migrant woman of colour, she wrote that we must live at the borderlands:

‘To survive the Borderlands you must live sin fronteras be a crossroads.”

Gloria Anzaldua (1996).

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