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Decolonization 101: Meaning, Facts and Examples

“Decolonization” is a term you may have heard in progressive spaces, especially during conversations about restorative justice, Indigenous rights, anti-racism, and so on. What does it mean? In this article, we’ll explore the two main definitions of decolonization, five important facts to know about it, and three examples of decolonization in action.

Decolonization can refer to a country achieving independence (like India did from the British Empire), but it can also refer to “decolonizing” spaces and institutions from the cultural and social impacts of colonization. The term is often used by Indigenous activists.

What is decolonization?

Decolonization is used in two ways: in reference to a country’s independence process or as a social, cultural, and psychological process.

Decolonization as a country’s independence process

For the original definition of decolonization, we first need to know what colonialism is. Colonialism is when one power takes over a people or area and enforces its culture and values. Ancient Egypt and Ancient Rome practiced colonialism, but Europe modernized the process into a centuries-long project. In the late 15th century, Europe found a sea route around southern Africa and to America. Countries like England, France, Spain, Portugal, and the Dutch Republic began “discovering” and colonizing places in South and North America, Africa, India, and Australia. Colonialism and the slave trade were closely tied as was the spread of diseases like smallpox. In North America, the mortality rate in some Native communities was almost 100%.

Between 1492-1914, European countries conquered more than 80% of the world’s land mass. By the early 20th century, many empires had lost their hold on colonies, and gradually, more and more countries achieved independence. The term “decolonization” was coined in the 1930s.

Decolonization as a social, cultural, and psychological process

Colonialism has social, cultural, and psychological effects. After centuries of colonization, colonized societies are world’s away from what they once were; countries can’t simply “go back.” The colonizer’s dominant values, practices, laws, culture, and more often remain in place. Indigenous people are still marginalized and discriminated against. The legacy of the slave trade, which brought colonized people to places around the world, also cannot be forgotten. In this context, decolonizing is about, as a piece from The Peace Chronicle defines it, “deconstructing or dismantling colonial ideologies and challenging the superiority of western thought and approaches.” Unlike decolonization as a process of formal independence, it digs into thought patterns, biases, policies, values, and more.

What five facts should everyone know?

Because decolonization has two meanings, there’s a lot to know about it. Here are five of the most important facts:

#1. WWII was a huge catalyst for decolonization

Many empires lost colonies through the 18th and 19th centuries, but Europe still had significant holdings. According to the Map As History, European dominance in Africa was especially strong in 1939. After WWII, however, European countries were less wealthy and less capable of controlling distant colonies. The war had shattered the illusion that European powers like Great Britain and France were indestructible, while Japan, which had colonized Korea, lost its power there after being defeated in 1945.

After 1945, a wave of decolonization spread across the world as countries like India, Pakistan, and Malaysia gained their independence. African colonies also gained independence from Great Britain, Italy, France, Belgium, Spain, and Portugal.

#2. Decolonization is often violent

Colonial powers rarely leave without a fight, so violence is inevitable. Rebellions are violently squashed, leaders are tortured and imprisoned, and even peaceful rebellion is punished. The Algerian War (1954-1962) was fought for Algerian independence from France, which had occupied the country in 1830. The movement began years earlier in 1914, but after France broke its promise to give the country more self-rule after WWII, things got violent. The National Liberation Front began a guerrilla war in 1945. France responded with the torture and rape of civilians. In 2018, France admitted it had systematically tortured people in the war that claimed as many as 1.5 million Algerian lives.

Even decolonization that’s allegedly “bloodless” really isn’t. India’s independence in 1947 from Great Britain is held up as an example of the power of nonviolent protest, but there were years of violent struggles leading up to Gandhi’s campaign. Revolutionaries planned assassinations and bombings. In 1919, British troops killed at least 379 unarmed pro-independence protesters (which included children) in Amritsar. One way or another, violence is always part of decolonization.

#3. Colonialism isn’t over

Some people talk about colonialism as a thing of the past, but experts say that dismisses the reality of colonialism’s ongoing impact. A piece on The Conversation discusses how Canadian leaders talk about Canada as if it was a non-colonial power. Rather than take responsibility, these leaders shift blame (often to England) and keep centering settlers and their interests. Canada also continues to violate the rights of First Nations people through actions like harassing, removing, and prosecuting members of the Wet’suwet’en Nation who protested gas pipeline construction. This is despite the fact that the pipelines were being built on unceded ancestral territory. Building things like pipelines on the land of First Nations people – in violation of their sovereignty – is just colonialism all over again.

#4. Colonialism affects climate change

Past (and current) colonial attitudes are even affecting climate change. In the 1700s, British colonizers in Australia banned controlled burning, which Indigenous groups had been practicing for centuries. Studies prove what Indigenous people have known for years; controlled burning is essential for good fire management and biodiversity. Many experts also draw a connection between colonial attitudes and how countries like the U.S. and Canada handle waste. If you’re Black, Indigenous, or Hispanic, the odds of your county being used as a dumping ground are much higher than if you were white. Colonialism may look different than in the past, but colonizing nations are still exerting control over others.

#5. Decolonization can become colonized

Perhaps not shockingly, decolonization as a cultural and psychological process can itself become colonized. This often takes the form of the “white savior” mentality. Well-meaning white people all too often get caught up in wanting to do the “right thing,” but they speak over and dominate groups who should be leading. In the piece “It’s Time to Decolonize The Decolonization Movement,” a colonized decolonization process has several traits, including the use of language that “reinforces the hegemony of Europe and North America over the rest of the world” and “the absence of a commitment to justice and engagement with community-led justice and liberation movements.” A colonized decolonization process also conflates “diversity” with decolonization and fails to critically examine how power works. As decolonization becomes a more common buzzword, it will be co-opted by organizations (and individuals) who haven’t done the work to understand what it really means. This is just another form of colonialism.

What does decolonization look like in action?

Decolonization as an independence process for nations often takes the form of warfare, but what about the other definition? What does decolonization look like as a social, cultural, and psychological process? Here are three examples:

Decolonizing food systems

When countries colonize other countries, they try to change everything, including the food systems. Take North America as an example. For thousands of years, Indigenous people farmed and hunted. According to a piece on the Food Revolution Network, these were complex systems that protected biodiversity, let crops grow even in extreme weather, and made plants more resilient against pests. When colonists arrived, they disrupted everything by forcing Indigenous people off their land and banning them from farming or hunting. The U.S. government also forced Indigenous people to live off foods like canned meats, dairy products, sugar, and other items not part of a traditional diet. Food insecurity is still prevalent today, as are health issues related to unhealthy diets. Decolonizing the food system looks like preserving knowledge about traditional agriculture systems, lobbying for food sovereignty, working to recover stolen land, and more.

Decolonizing mental healthcare

Isn’t mental healthcare based on science? How can that be “colonized?” It’s colonized just like anything else: a colonial power occupies a nation and imposes its views on psychology, mental health, and treatment. Today, that means most people don’t know psychologists or experts who aren’t white, or that many non-Western cultures see many mental health issues differently. The mental healthcare field has also been the cause of horrific pain through the promotion of racism and eugenics. Decolonizing involves reckoning with mental healthcare’s history, examining collective healing models, and understanding the impact of generational racism and colonialism.

Decolonizing education

In countries harmed by colonial powers, education has been colonized beginning in preschool and spreading through graduate school. Not so long ago, education wasn’t even available to everyone, and despite progress in areas like gender equality, access issues persist today. Once someone is at school, most curriculum is packed with books, methods, and ideas from Western writers and academics. Pre-colonist knowledge and thinkers from other cultures are ignored or added as an afterthought. Changing the curriculum is a good start, but “decolonizing your bookshelf” (a popular phrase on social media) isn’t the end goal. Decolonizing the education system also means examining power structures, what (and who) is valued in the classroom, how conflict is addressed, how students and staff are supported, and more.

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About the author

Emmaline Soken-Huberty

Emmaline Soken-Huberty is a freelance writer based in Portland, Oregon. She started to become interested in human rights while attending college, eventually getting a concentration in human rights and humanitarianism. LGBTQ+ rights, women’s rights, and climate change are of special concern to her. In her spare time, she can be found reading or enjoying Oregon’s natural beauty with her husband and dog.