June 2017's Teaching Resistance column in MaximumRockNRoll deals with the educational imperative, at ALL levels, of decolonization and how we can facilitate this process as teachers in a world where literally no one is exempt from the structures and processes that have kept colonialism and oppression intact. The column is by Natalie Avalos, an ethnographer of religion whose research and teaching focus on Native American and Indigenous religions in diaspora, healing historical trauma, decolonization, and social justice. She is currently a Visiting Assistant Professor at Connecticut College. She was born and raised in the Bay Area and cut her radical consciousness teeth in its underground music scene.
Insurgent Pedagogies: Decolonization is For All of Us
We hear the word decolonization often in resistance circles but what does it mean? Some of you may dismiss it as irrelevant by thinking “I’m not a POC, I haven’t been affected or constrained by colonialism?” Bad news, buddy. We are ALL affected and constrained by colonialism, not just in the U.S. but around the globe. The parallel logics of modern colonialism can be seen more readily in 20th c. U.S. interventionism such as in El Salvador or Vietnam, but its contemporary expression, contingent on racial hierarchies (where whiteness sits atop as the ideal locus of humanity), religious persecution, and “economic development,” have been replicated in places like Tibet, by China. The strains of empire that transformed the Americas hundreds of years ago have morphed into a global, multi-national system of neocolonial players that subjugate less powerful nations through economic bullying. We are still in the throes of colonization. Whiteness does not preclude you from decolonizing projects. If you are descended from European settlers, the social and economic privileges of whiteness contribute to your individual social capital. My constraint and dispossession have directly supported your access to wealth and prosperity. We are deeply linked through these overlapping histories and so share their legacy. Although they shape and constrain us in different ways, the ideological and material structures (racialization, patriarchy, heteronormativity, neoliberalism, the objectification of the earth) produced in their wake act as the foundation of our social life. And thus, we have a collective responsibility to undo them. Together.
We can think of decolonization most simply as the undoing of colonialism, not only its structures (see above) but also the amelioration of its affects, like historical trauma and internalized colonialism. For instance, in a material context, it can mean deconstructing settler states and redistributing lands back to Indigenous peoples or even organizing against racist policies. In an affective context, it can mean personal empowerment, healing, and cultural regeneration. These two contexts are contingent—one necessitates and supports the other. Decolonization is the driving theme for many of my classes, meaning my primary pedagogical objective is for students to not only understand specific histories of colonialism, whether in the Americas, Oceania, or Asia and their correlating structures, but also learn about the many paths of resistance, material (boots on the ground organizing) and immaterial (developing a radical consciousness). As a religious studies scholar, I emphasize that we cannot decouple the material and immaterial dimensions of life because they shape one another. Ideas, ethics, and belief are a major component of this resistance. We cannot transform our material conditions without deconstructing the ideologies and affective drives that have forged them. We cannot transform our material conditions without naming the multiple forms of our dispossession and claiming our existential rights to live in our full humanity. We are whole beings that have been subject to ideological/structural violence for generations. Even those of us who have benefited the most from these injustices are still affected and disfigured by their horror. It will take time and effort to undo this doing. First we have to understand what we’re resisting, why were resisting it, what forms of resistance have been effective and why.
My approach to teaching decolonization projects, since they are multiple and diverse, is exploring how at heart they are about transforming our relationships to power. Franz Fanon noted that colonization estranges the colonized from their own metaphysical worlds—their cosmologies, knowledges, and ways of being. Multiple forces of power (institutional, epistemological, religious) collude over time to produce this estrangement. Decolonial scholar, Nelson Maldonado-Torres, describes coloniality as a matrix of knowledge, power, and being. Naturally, a decoloniality that addresses these three dimensions of human experience is necessary. I agree with Fanon and Maldonado-Torres that understanding the nature of coloniality is critical to its intervention. However, we can’t stop there. We need to consider (and celebrate) real and existing solutions. The exploration of power is a generative starting place for understanding how to decolonize projects because it is often a catalyst for resistance. Although colonial dispossession of power (material and immaterial) has appeared totalizing, the dispossessed have found creative entry points to take back power. For example, individuals and communities may begin to take back their power by regenerating their ways of being through revitalized religious traditions and other forms of traditional lifeways or by researching their own institutional histories and forming a new locus of governance. The simple but powerful refusal to be complicit in racism or homophobia is a tacit way to take back power. Thinking through these possibilities de-naturalizes hierarchies of power, forcing us to consider what more lateral forms of power look like. A framework of decolonization also forces us to see social life as deeply interconnected. When a constellation of social change in line with decolonization is taking place, whether through movements for Native sovereignty or Black Lives Matter, our web of relations is forced to continually shift and accommodate these new rules for living and being. We are forced to consider our relationship to unjust expressions of power and respond in kind. You may think “well thas cool, but how do we negotiate decolonization in our everyday lives?”
Many of us in the underground music scene were intuitively resistant to normative social structures and expressions. For me, and likely many of you, I remember feeling distrustful of social norms that appeared to be rooted in unjust relations of power, whether this was traditional gender roles, racial hierarchies, or even normative beauty standards. I found myself reveling in social critique. It was a way for me to take back power. This critique motivated me to learn more about these structures of oppression and eventually understand them as complex expressions of empire. But after awhile (years) of criticizing these structures, I found myself longing to believe in something, for a kind of social analysis that could both deconstruct and construct and maybe even instruct. I was drawn to working as a scholar because it provided me with unique opportunities to be critical but also generative. As an educator, I am invested in helping students develop their critical voices, which is fundamental, but also explore solutions to social problems. Why is this important? Because we need direction. Colonization has stripped many of us of our ethical and political systems and left us with a hollowed out social world that has exchanged consumerism for ethics and meaning. We need alternative visions for living and being. And we need to remind ourselves it is possible to live in a different kind of world. To remind ourselves that we have so much more power than we realize. To remind ourselves of the possibilities beyond all those oppressive structures shaping our lives, such as misogyny and racism, when they seem totalizing. To recognize that we have internalized these structures in ways that may take us a lifetime to unravel and to be gentle with ourselves when we feel defeated by our own shortcomings (not being “aware enough” “having the right analysis” etc.). To recognize that needing community (and direction) doesn’t make us flawed, it makes us human.
Yes. I love me some good social critique. Here, here, y’all woke boo boos around the world. But we can get stuck there. Our love of critique may be rooted in our natural inclination to scratch beneath the surface, to act as dialecticians, seeking the antithesis of the thesis. But we often struggle with synthesizing our new insights into a coherent worldview that allows us to step into a better future. One of the problems we face teaching radical forms of resistance is that we can never come up with perfectly objective solutions. One community’s decolonization is going to look different than another’s. One individuals’ relationship to power, depending on their social position will determine how they decolonize. We often have to feel our way through particular scenarios of injustice in order to understand our options for resolution. This is highly contextual and a lot of work. But teaching students to both critique and be generative allows us to see that this is not only possible but that the macro structures constraining our lives are replicated in the micro relations of our everyday lives. We may not be able to eliminate Racism as a structure in our everyday but we can recognize and challenge our internalized assumptions about others, and ourselves, enabling us to build stronger happier communities. We may not able to eliminate the settler state overnight but we work towards building functional communities from the bottom up. The fact that we intuitively seek to improve upon our social world is a sign that we want to improve it. Many of us in this struggle are idealists that want to see and live in a better world. But sometimes we lose track of the trees for the forest. We forget that when we transform the micro relations in our everyday lives—relationships with our families, co-workers, friends, partners, etc.—we are actively transforming our social world. --Natalie Avalos