Decolonising your mind - what does it mean?
Updated: Dec 31, 2020
Decolonisation is often talked about in historical tones. Ask a 14 year old what it means, and likely the answer will be along the lines of "the process through which countries removed their colonisers/oppressors and could then rule themselves". They will probably point to India as a popular example, or to the fight for independence in the USA in the 18th century. Very few, if any, will recognise that decolonisation is an active and ongoing process, taking place today through the millions of us whose ancestors were once colonised.
Our thoughts are in part ours but are also in part the product of centuries of colonisation. In order to survive, and in limited cases, thrive, our ancestors had to accept certain “norms” brought to their countries by their colonisers. These “norms” then were passed on generation to generation until they became a part of our subconscious. This has manifested in many ways, most commonly an acceptance of (and preference for) the domination of Western ideals of beauty, lifestyle choices, academia and language.
"Decolonising the mind" was a phrase coined by Kenyan author Ngũgĩ wa Thiong'o in his famous collection of essays by the same name, but has now become the moniker for the movement championed by writers across Africa and Asia which looks to encourage our generation to recognise and unlearn assumptions that we hold.
Our thoughts are in part ours but are also in part the product of centuries of colonisation
Franz Fanon wrote extensively about the effects of colonialism, but there was one specific point that always stood out to me. He argued that colonisation, and by extension subjugation, was not just of the physical body, but of the mind and spirit as well. He believed that violence against the oppressor was the only way to free the oppressed from their chains and repair the spirit.
Here, I contend, alongside the movement of decolonisers, that this violent battle is not over. Rather than taking arms, the violence involved in decolonising your mind takes the form of active resistance to Eurocentric ideology. There is nothing passive or pacifistic about decolonising your thoughts, for it involves the violent actions of unpacking and deconstructing everything we hold to be true. Our most basic assumptions are in part the thoughts of our colonisers, and this ideology has infiltrated our lives to the extent that unless we are violently confronted with it, we can live our whole lives contributing to the suppression of our peoples.
It is not enough to be passive and disregard this movement. By accepting these assumptions and concepts, we are contributing to the ongoing spiritual and physical subjugation of our peoples.
In our everyday life, there are many examples of assumptions we have, or notions we facilitate which have stemmed from Eurocentric beliefs. I am not trying to list all of them but aim to highlight some of the key ones so that you become aware and can join the resistance against these conceptions.
The first is that literacy in English is used as a measure of worth. In many countries, how well you read or speak English is still considered to be an indicator of true intelligence. English is not only a language but a vehicle to lift you out of poverty and allow you to contribute to a higher level of engagement with society. Literacy, though generally defined as the ability to read, write, speak and listen in a way which allows us to make sense of the world, is often equated globally to proficiency in English. The scientist who can speak English is automatically assumed to be smarter than the one who can speak the native non-english tongue.
English is not only a language but a vehicle to lift you out of poverty
In this way, research papers and literature also tend not to contribute to global academic debate unless they are originally written in one of the Western European languages of English, French, Spanish, Dutch or German. When I was writing an essay on the perspectives of decolonisation in my second year of university, I also found my resources limited to those which have been written originally in English. Translation of South and East Asian languages and African languages is not a new phenomenon yet still it appears that the majority of resources we have access to globally have been originally written in a European language.
Another key facet of this is that Eurocentric standards of beauty have infiltrated all races. Slender noses, fair skin, light eyes and light hair are all features which come from Europe, but which are now seen as highly desirable globally. We hear of countless stories of girls wishing they had blonde hair and blue eyes in order to be seen as “pretty”, with Live Tinted CEO (and girlboss!) Deepica Mutyala openly admitting on many occasions she used to wish the same before she learned to celebrate herself. On a deeper level, this desire to look “whiter” has created the widespread social issue of colourism. I will not discuss this topic in this post at length, as we will be launching a campaign to raise awareness about colourism on the 13th of September, but colourism is one of the greatest social issues our generation faces. Colourism is the discrimination of people with darker complexion by others within the same race. People (usually women) are ostracised and prevented from gaining opportunities due to the colour of their skin and are pressured into applying toxic chemicals in order to bleach their complexions and gain the longed-for ivory skin.
Actively taking part in the movement against colourism is a form of decolonisation and will allow the next generation to live without the generational trauma that we have experienced. Colourism on a global scale manifests as anti-blackness, and we must truly become acquainted with the fact that for us to be liberated, we must all be liberated, even from the prejudices within our own race. This means dismantling your own racial and colourist prejudices and standing up for, and with, the victims.
On wider scale, decolonisation means rejecting the binary of “developing” and “developed” and understanding the why of the economic positions of the so-called “developing” countries. It is about understanding that these countries had to build whole industries and economies within the framework set out by the Capitalist world, which disproportionality favours the ex-colonisers, and that modern foreign policy is designed to maintain the unequal status quo.
Countries had to build whole industries and economies within the framework set out by the Capitalist world, which disproportionality favours the ex-colonisers, and modern foreign policy is designed to maintain the unequal status quo.
When we accept the Western media’s narrative and portrayal of other countries, some of which we may call our ethnic homeland(s), we are also accepting the Westernised narrative. This is compounded with the fact that very few of us are taught about the realities of colonialism in our education, and so are willingly absorbing the stories given to us by the media, whilst lacking the historical knowledge to be able to challenge it. As Shashi Tharoor eloquently put it, the British have "amnesia" when it comes to their colonial history. It is an important element of decolonising our minds to understand the truth behind colonisation, and decolonising our education system, as Jeremy Corbyn has advocated for, is an important step in this movement. In this way, it is vital for our generation to engage with the letters and petitions which are calling for a reformed education system so that we can equip ourselves and future generations with the toolkit to challenge colonialist narratives.
Challenging the narrative also includes challenging the widespread notion that west = best. There is widespread aspiration to be more "western", which presents itself in many ways, including rejection of ethnic language, ethnic dress and ethnic traditions. This desire also manifests by holding the American and British accents to be superior and undermining whole races and nationalities (notably Indians) by mocking their accents. Our generation is very quick to mock our parents’ accents and mannerisms, but by doing this we are feeding into the idea that their way of speaking, and by extension their lifestyle, is inferior and should be repressed in favour of a Western lifestyle.
Many of the traumas we experience today – racism, colourism, sexism, homophobia – are intergenerational, and have been imported and continued from the colonial era. It is time to start actively unlearning the prejudices we have and begin re-learning what it means to be truly liberated and decolonised. Start questioning the status quo and start becoming aware of your history pre-colonisation. It is only then can we truly begin to free our minds and ourselves from colonisation.
Decolonising your mind is a lifelong process, but it is incredibly powerful and liberating. By dismantling archaic conceptions, we are lifting our races and ourselves out of subjugation and into a more equal world. It will involve critically analysing many of the things we just assume to be true, which can be a jarring experience, but by taking part in this movement we are creating a better world for the future generations.
Resources on decolonisation:
University of Warwick: What is decolonising methodology?
Meridian: The Legacy of Franz Fanon
Sharing Culture: Healing historical trauma
Please let us know if you have any other resources you have found useful.
Kaneeka Kapur is a 20 year old Law student at the University of Warwick, and the Founder of Pardesi. She is British Indian and is a passionate intersectional feminist, with a specific interest in understanding how we can decolonise traditional Western feminist narratives and make it more inclusive for the South Asian community.