“Decolonization is Not a Metaphor”


Guest post by Brandon Kerfoot and Katherine Meloche

An ethic of incommensurability, which guides moves that unsettle innocence, stands in contrast to aims of reconciliation, which motivate settler moves to innocence. Reconciliation is about rescuing settler normalcy, about rescuing a settler future. Reconciliation is concerned with questions of what will decolonization look like? What will happen after abolition? What will be the consequences of decolonization for the settler? Incommensurability acknowledges that these questions need not, and perhaps cannot, be answered in order for decolonization to exist as a framework.

We want to say, first, that decolonization is not obliged to answer those questions – decolonization is not accountable to settlers, or settler futurity. Decolonization is accountable to Indigenous sovereignty and futurity. (Tuck and Yang 35)

For a group of primarily settler academics, a group that emerged from attending The Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s final national event with questions of how to act responsibly in the academy and on the land on which we live, Tuck and Yang’s statement that reconciliation is “about rescuing a settler future” is a stark reminder of the tenuous terrain that settlers must tread. In what ways have we been guilty of performing “settler moves to innocence” and where are the possibilities to take decolonizing steps in the academy and in our communities? We agree with the article that when decolonization is made a metaphor, an empty signifier for other social justice issues, necessary steps for actual decolonization are obscured (8). Within our own institution, we have been guilty of this when we locate ourselves on Treaty 6 territory and recognize Cree, Saulteaux, Nakota Sioux, Dene, Blackfoot, and Métis peoples at the start of each semester without the actual repatriation of land. Tuck and Yang state:

decolonization in the settler colonial context must involve the repatriation of land simultaneous to the recognition of how land and relations to land have always already been differently understood and enacted; that is, all of the land, and not just symbolically. This is precisely why decolonization is necessarily unsettling, especially across lines of solidarity. (8)

We recognize that our institution, the University of Alberta, aggressively situated on Papaschase land, is not involved in decolonization because it has not repatriated any land. None. As we situate ourselves as allies within a colonial institution, we recognize that our group, “Decolonizing Pedagogy,” is guilty of two primary moves to innocence: settler adoption fantasies and conscientization.The first is because our group has had debates about attempting to bring Indigenous practices into our classrooms and research. This is problematic because as settler academics, we become guilty of co-opting languages and teachings that have not been given to us, and may not be appropriate within a classroom setting. It creates the illusion that we are actively doing decolonizing work when we are not actually returning land and may in fact be perpetuating colonial violence. Even more damaging perhaps, it creates the illusion that settlers can replace Indigenous peoples as experts in Indigenous knowledge systems if they just study hard enough. Settler allies have obligations and responsibilities in the classroom to make space for Indigenous peoples and knowledge keepers themselves and not try to mimic them in a quest to decolonize the classroom.

These actions simply continue to secure a settler future.

We are forced to question our group’s decolonizing practices and urge ourselves to be more self-reflexive on our “moves to innocence.” Even the name “Decolonizing Pedagogy” is troubling because it emphasizes pedagogy as the site of decolonization and implies that the academy, with its perpetuation of land dispossession, can somehow continue intact in a decolonized future. We hear an oxymoronic ring to our group name and wonder if it should be read with a question mark. Decolonizing Pedagogy?

The second move to innocence is related. “Conscientization” seems like a logical action to take as academics and researchers. Because we imagine that our primary function is to raise awareness in classrooms with our students, we fail to realize that this function is not decolonization in action. Land is not being returned and we continue to be implicated in an institution that perpetuates the divestment of Indigenous peoples. “Conscientization” should not be the sole action of educators who wish to decolonize but should be one step in a long communal process.

While we agree that conscientization cannot be the sole task of decolonization, we wonder if synecdoche could be another useful tool to think about our role in decolonization. Synecdoche is understanding an object as a part of the whole, and so we can understand conscientization practices as one part of the decolonization movement. If we undertake conscientization with the understanding that it is not the accomplished task of decolonization, that it is simply one part of a much larger whole, is it a move to innocence? Or is it perhaps taking our part in a larger decolonial movement?

Our turn to synecdoche does not, however, alleviate Tuck and Yang’s concern about metaphor. We agree with Tuck and Yang that decolonization is often addressed in abstract terms, thereby making it a metaphor rather than a concrete action; however, we see potential pathways in thinking through the power of metaphor. Perhaps it is our training as literary scholars, but we see great power in metaphor as a site of solidarity. Metaphor runs the risk of collapsing differences between unlike things, and so, we can critique metaphor as a tool that conflates decolonization with other social justice issues. However, metaphor always suggests that there are similarities and differences. Metaphor is not doomed to create synonyms, and we believe there is something productive in the affiliations between social justice movements and decolonization. Metaphor is useful to think through the complexities of relationships between decolonization and other social justice issues because it draws parallels between the various components of capitalist, white supremacist, patriarchal settler-colonialism.

We should, however, always ask “who is creating the metaphor?” and “for what purpose?” When settlers use decolonization as a metaphor to ensure their own futurity, they become complicit in ongoing colonial violence. But when settlers use metaphor to create alliances between decolonization and other social justice issues, with the full knowledge that they are connected in some ways and irreconcilably different in others, they launch a unified resistance to a state that is oppressive in multifaceted ways. We are optimistic that there is something productive in such alliances, though they should be carefully and constantly negotiated.

To conclude our brief reflection on our reading, we want to emphasize that our group is a process and that we continue to question how we take responsibility for our own decolonization. We know our actions are limited, and we know that acknowledging our limits does not discount our complicity in colonization, but we also feel that we must take the immediate steps that are available to us as allies and educators. We understand that being a willing ally does not discount any future conflict: our actions will come in conflict with decolonization practices in the present and in the future in ways that will necessitate that we as settlers reassess our decolonial practices.





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