About Decolonizing History


Decolonizing Our History presents a history of the United States that is interconnected, wide-ranging, holistic, evolving, and radical. Above all, it is a decolonized history.

Decolonizing Our History presents a history of the United States that is interconnected, wide-ranging, holistic, evolving, and radical. Above all, it is a decolonized history.

What does it mean to “decolonize” history? To colonize means to take over, to invade and conquer, to impose and establish the culture, the values, the social, political and economic systems of the conquering colonizer by eradicating the civilizations of those conquered and colonized.


The United States originated with the invasion and conquest by the Europeans over 500 years ago. But the civilizations of our continent were not the only or even the first to be conquered by the Europeans. Over the centuries, the Europeans have conquered and colonized all the civilizations and people of the Global South, and have established a division of humanity that has been both geographic and racial. It has also been gendered because the very first conquering and colonizing began before the Europeans, perhaps as long as 10,000 years ago, when patriarchy conquered, occupied and colonized collectivist matrisocial civilizations.

To Define a Word is to Define Yourself

When the two writers Bushra Rehman and Daisy Hernández began editing their book of essays, Colonize This!, they looked up the definition of “colonize” and found that it meant “to create a settlement.” It sounded “so simple and peaceful,” they wrote.1

For the colonizer, it is so much simpler. For the colonizer, that bland, innocuous definition glibly disappears the host of sins and slaughters, the legacy and violence of invasions, enslavements, occupations, and systematic abductions. That disingenuously innocent definition is the privilege enjoyed by the colonizer.

So Rehman and Hernández wrote their own definition, based on their realities as women of color, as members of communities and nations which had been and still are on the colonized side of uninvited created settlements. “To colonize,” they wrote, is “to strip a people of their culture, language, land, family structure, who they are as a person and as a people.”2


Colonizing Hearts and Minds

To colonize is also to spread rapidly, as in a cancer cell. A cancer cell doesn’t just create a settlement, it reproduces quickly, lethally, crowding out and killing off the healthy cells. It turns a healthy organ into a mass of infected, cancerous cells so that even once-healthy cells now spread the DNA messages of lethal cancer.

This is how colonization of the mind works, how messages of inferiority are internalized and belief in the superiority of the colonizer is implanted, continuously reinforcing an “other,” lesser, inferior, subordinate, even subhuman status of the colonized. The process of colonizing the mind, of teaching inferiority, may be based on gender, on race, on physical “ability”; on any number of human attributes, but the results are the same: a human being who has been robbed of his or her dignity and full potential, who has been fractured in order to maintain a system of privilege for an elite few. Race-based colonization of the mind is not a new concept, though the terminology has changed, along with a progressively deeper understanding of its impact and scope, and of methods for reclamation.

In 1892, feminist abolitionist Anna Julia Cooper wrote about the legacy of African American “manhood and womanhood impoverished and debased by two centuries and more of compression and degradation” as a result of enslavement.3 A few years later, and well into the twentieth century, scholar and activist W.E.B. Dubois began advocating for full equality for African Americans, writing about colonization and rejecting accommodationist approaches to dealing with racism and subjugation.4 Throughout the twentieth century, other pioneering scholars and activists—like Aimé Césaire,5 Frantz Fanon,6 Paulo Freire,7 Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak,8 Edward Said,9 and Linda Tuhiwai Smith10—continued developing a body of knowledge for understanding oppression and colonization, as well as a methodology for decolonization.

Kenyan writer Ngugi wa Thiong’o was one of those pioneers and in his 1986 book, Decolonising the Mind, he wrote about the pervasiveness of European indoctrination.11 His focus in the book was the language of the colonizer, which was forced on Africans and affected every aspect of life. “African children in colonial schools and universities,” he wrote, learned “the world as defined and reflected in the European experience of history. Their entire way of looking at the world…was Eurocentric. Europe was the centre of the universe.”12

In 1974, a number of African scholars and educators came together to formulate a way forward out of the devastating effects of colonization;13 in other words, how to begin decolonizing the minds and self-identities of Africans. One of their proposals, to begin teaching African literature in Kenyan schools, described the impact of the colonizer’s Eurocentric acculturation:

Africa as a continent has been a victim of forces of colonial exploitation, oppression and human degradation. In the field of culture she was taught to look on Europe as her teacher and the centre of man’s civilization, and herself as the pupil.…Western culture became the centre of Africa’s process of learning, and Africa was relegated to the background. Africa uncritically imbibed values that were alien and had no immediate relevance to her people. Thus was the richness of Africa’s cultural heritage degraded, and her people labelled as primitive and savage.14

Not only were African cultures, histories, languages, and bodies of knowledge pushed to the margins, the European colonizers demonized and demeaned everything that was African. An example of the astounding ignorance and racism of the European colonizers was given by historian David Stannard in his book, American Holocaust. He quoted the very eminent Oxford historian and scholar Hugh Trevor-Roper who wrote in his 1965 book, The Rise of Christian Europe, that the notion of teaching African history was ludicrous: “Perhaps, in the future, there will be some African history to teach, but at present there is none, or very little; there is only the history of Europeans in Africa. The rest is largely darkness, like the history of pre-European, pre-Columbian America.”15

The result of this complete dismissal and subhumanization of colonized people is what Ngugi called a “cultural bomb” because the damage done to the psyche is so utterly devastating. “The effect of the cultural bomb,” he wrote, “is to annihilate people’s belief in their names, in their languages, in their environment, in their heritage of struggle, in their unity, in their capacities and ultimately in themselves.”16

That the colonizer has been successful around the globe in deeply damaging people and entire nations is the reality and the history. That the colonizer has never been successful in completely annihilating any people’s belief in themselves is a testament to the strength of the human spirit and the power of resistance. Each action of the colonizer has a reaction and a rebellion, whether it’s a single woman fighting back against misogyny or an entire nation rising up to evict the colonizer. These are the acts of decolonizing.


Decolonizing Is the Process of Undoing Colonization

In 1999, Maori researcher and scholar of indigenous education Linda Tuhiwai Te Rina Smith introduced a profound challenge to the supremacy of European/Western standards of research, academics and knowledge. In her book, Decolonizing Methodologies,17 she shattered the myth that the colonizers’ ways of studying, interpreting and claiming knowledge were the epitome and ideal of all the world. Just as important, she reclaimed and legitimized indigenous methods of studying and constructing a body of knowledge.

The supremacy of Euro/Western knowledge dismisses all other approaches to knowledge as illegitimate. Its methods of researching and learning treat all other people as lesser, “exotic” beings. The result of believing they are the only “true” human is that Euro/Western researchers have left a long legacy of exploiting, disrespecting and abusing those “others” they study. As a researcher, Tuhiwai Smith explained, “I wrote Decolonizing Methodologies primarily to disrupt relationships between researchers (mostly non-indigenous) and researched (indigenous), between a colonizing institution of knowledge and colonized people, whose own knowledge was subjugated.”18

Colonizing methodologies treat all other perspectives as irrelevant, all other histories and cultures as departures from “normal.” Colonizing people view all “others” as less intelligent, less “cultured,” less civilized, less like “normal” (i.e., white) people.

The irony is that this bias results in the colonizer interpreting the world through handicapping blinders: Biased researchers (some might say “racist”) are only capable of understanding other cultures through the narrow filters of their own worldview rather than with objectivity. Men who are patriarchal dismiss women entirely and so have no understanding or body of knowledge about half the human race. Tuhiwai Smith pointed out that the Western views of “Other” people were mostly based on:

“[T]he experiences and observations of white men whose interactions with indigenous ‘societies’ or ‘peoples’ were constructed around their own cultural views of gender and sexuality. Observations made of indigenous women, for example, resonated with views about the role of women in European societies based on Western notions of culture, religion, race and class.”19

Patriarchal Euro colonizers can only envision themselves as the one “true” model of humanity. All others are offshoots (like womankind being a subcategory of “mankind”), aberrations to the “default,” subhuman. Tuhiwai Smith quoted the observations of Lee Maracle, a Canadian First Nations activist, writer and scholar, who talks about the way Western newspapers describe “Native” people “as though we were a species of sub-human animal life.…A female horse, a female Native, but everyone else gets to be called a man or a women.”20 In Australia, Tuhiwai Smith pointed out, the subhumanization was the same: “Aborigine women talk about a history of being hunted, raped and then killed like animals.”21

From Australia to Africa, from Asia to the Americas, the history of how the world was colonized by white Europeans is a mirrored history of plunder, rape and slaughter. It is a multiplied, continuing history of eradicating, delegitimizing and subhumanizing all other cultures, races and histories, of turning the world upside down and proclaiming the barbarians to be the civilized.

Decolonizing means no longer accepting the worldview of the colonizer as true and immutable. Decolonizing is recognizing the many invisible threads that are elaborately woven together to create the fabric of colonized society. Decolonizing is recognizing that the threads are figments of imperial lies, and then recognizing that the imperial emperor is naked. As Tuhiwai Smith wrote, “Decolonization is a process which engages with imperialism and colonization at multiple levels.”22 “Decolonizing,” she explained, “once viewed as the formal process of handing over the instruments of government, is now recognized as a long-term process involving the bureaucratic, cultural, linguistic and psychological divesting of colonial power.”23

It is also how we move beyond a world based on exploitation and hierarchies; how we construct a world rooted in collective, egalitarian action and sustaining respect for ourselves, each other and our Mother Earth.

To decolonize means to undo all the damage done by colonization, from the global injustices to the internalized self-hatreds.

To decolonize means to recognize and undertake our own work. Those who’ve been silenced and pushed to the margins must step up, speak out. Those accustomed to owning agendas, occupying positions of dominance must step back, allow others to speak and be heard, cede the territory they’ve claimed, be their own agents of change. Those accustomed to the privileges of colonization must undo their own internalized presumptions of superiority and unnoticed privileges: One of the privileges of the colonizer is that they have the choice to colonize or decolonize.

To decolonize means learning what was done, reclaiming/rebuilding what was taken, and healing fractured communities, lands, cultures, histories, and psyches.

Decolonizing is the opposite of co-optation; it is the daughter of resistance and the mother of revolution.

To decolonize means to be fully human, ready to be a citizen of our shared world.

M. Campbell Yahn

See also:
Restorative History