Blog: Decolonize the Academic Institute: get rid of it or get it right?

By Sanne Rotmeijer

“What should we do with academic institutions inherited from a cruel past? Are such institutions reformable, or should they simply be decommissioned? Or, for that matter, literally be burned down in the hope that from the ashes something new will eventually emerge?” 

These are questions Professor Achille Mbembe addressed at the conference Critical Theory in the Humanities: Resonances of the work of Judith Butler, April 5 at the Vrije Universiteit (VU), Amsterdam.

Questions that immediately resonated with me.

Who does research for whom? 
I work at KITLV, an institute born of a cruel past. It was founded to gather information about the Dutch colonies, “not least to undergird colonial policy.” Also, I am a Dutch, white researcher. And, I do research in St. Maarten and Curaçao, Caribbean islands that are (still) part of the Kingdom of the Netherlands.

My position is problematic. Not only I am an ‘outsider’ to Caribbean culture, but also a representative of an academic institute with roots in a Euro-American tradition of collecting information about the colonized world. This is a tradition linked to colonial policies, not only by underlying political agendas, but also by imposing representations of the colonized, while producing and legitimizing this knowledge “as the only valid way of knowing.

Indeed, through time, research has been based on a dominant academic framework – guided by notions of classification, measurement, and objective truth- that neither reflected, acknowledged, nor engaged with the people the research was about. Some of the latter, therefore, have resisted this particular sort of knowledge production that, in their minds, contributed to forms of domination and cultural alienation: “[Research] told us things already known, suggested things that would not work, and made careers for people who already had jobs.”

Now, is this hegemonic way of producing and legitimizing knowledge something of the past?

The Decolonizing Project
This question is at the heart of current scholarly debates on the need to decolonize academic institutions. What does this mean? “[T]he decolonizing project seeks to reimagine and rearticulate power, change, and knowledge through a multiplicity of epistemologies, ontologies and axiologies.” It addresses what is currently called knowledge (and what is not), who is able to produce that knowledge (and who isn’t), who benefits (and who doesn’t). And it shows how most knowledge production is still linked to the colonial past.

Most importantly, it seeks to include the not(s).

The decolonizing project is growing. In 2015, protest movement #Rhodesmustfall began at South-African universities – and later spread to universities across Europe and the USA – “to change the curricula, lecturers, policies and practices.” During the 2015 Maagdenhuis Protests at the University of Amsterdam one of the slogans stated: “No Democratization without Decolonization!!” A Diversity Commission was established that proposed to use a framework of ‘decoloniality’ in order to democratize the university.

These decolonization movements show an increasing awareness among a new generation of academics of the need to transform the academic institutions inherited from a cruel past.

Back to Mbembe’s questions: how?

Get rid of it
Some argue that talking about decolonization while working for modern institutions linked to colonialism only reproduces hegemonic knowledge production. Therefore, “[i]n true decolonization work, one burns down bridges at the risk of not getting hired.” This is a similar reaction to the one I received from a Caribbean journalist, who decided not to meet with me: “If you really understand decolonial knowledge production and the mechanisms of Dutch white supremacy then you should’ve divested from KITLV.”

Get it right
But should we refrain from working in or with academic institutes “in the hope that from the ashes something new will eventually emerge?” Or should we actively engage in debates within academia about what knowledge is, and under what conditions it is produced?

Certainly, I do not have clear-cut answers. What I do believe is that to decolonize institutions, we need to do more than replace one institute with another, or one academic framework with another. We need to radically rethink the way our academic institutions are structured, both politically and epistemologically. We need a collective realization of how we position ourselves and are positioned in relation to others. And how that impacts the way we see and move the world.

Decolonization has never been a one-sided process, but one that transcends essentialist and privileged ideas about what knowledge is. It is one that strives for radical openness to multiple perspectives and positions – a process that is needed to decolonize academic institutions, and, in Mbembe’s words, to “decolonize existence itself.”

More info about decolonization? Click here for further reading.

(Sanne Rotmeijer is a PhD Candidate at KITLV and the Department of Journalism and New Media, Leiden University. Sanne’s research interests include cultural differences, postcolonial thought, migration, identity formation and politics, perception and representation mechanisms through media. Sanne’s research interests include cultural differences, postcolonial thought, migration, identity formation and politics, perception and representation mechanisms through media.)

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