As readers of this blog may know, I have just written a book on decolonisation. Available to pre-order. One of the things that I was trying to think through in writing the book was how to define decolonisation. I feel that a lot of the debate about decolonisation that we have seen over the last few years, while disguising itself as critique of decolonisation, actually reveals a misunderstanding of decolonisation. This stems from the fact that people are actually not engaging in debate on the same terms. However, there a couple of problems with defining decolonisation, especially in UK Higher Education. Firstly, decolonisation should always be understood from its historical political origins. A number of ways in which people engage with or critique decolonisation suggest that their understanding of decolonisation is divorced from those origins. Secondly, it must be understood that the contexts in which decolonisation has originated and continues to play out are varied. To a certain extent, one could suggest that a narrow definition of decolonisation is neither desirable nor possible.

Consequent and subject upon the above, I have tried to, in a nuanced way, respond to the question: “what is decolonisation?” Therefore, in the video below as well as the transcription that follows, I engage with these two problematics I mention above and to try to produce a workable working definition of decolonisation.


My name is Foluke Adebisi. I am an Associate Professor at the Law school, University of Bristol. Here, I will be very briefly answering the question, ‘what is decolonisation?’

Decolonisation can be defined as the continuous and evolving refusal of colonial conditions of life which were introduced and globalised through the capitalist-colonial-enslavement project via legal, political, social, and epistemic structures of power. This project’s inauguration is dated to 1492 to mark various voyages of discovery of lands and people not missing, who were then subjugated into Europe’s ways of living, thinking and being. The refusals of this many-headed project are context-dependent and reject, among other things, the meanings and uses made of bodies and space-time by this evolving project. These contexts of refusals include, anticolonial actions by colonised nations, during and beyond the moment of colonisation, indigenous peoples quests for sovereignty and land back within and beyond settler colonies, as well as racially minoritized peoples’ quests for equality, reparation and racial justice within imperial metropoles. Decolonisation initially emerged as both theory and praxis which colonised peoples, indigenous peoples and racialised peoples wielded in response to the domination of colonial theories and praxes. In other words, due to the broad range of peoples and places that seek to engage with decolonisation, “to decolonise” encapsulates a collection of connected activities and purposes that seek to fundamentally unseat colonially produced structures of coercive power and technologies of permanent dispossession and dehumanisation that threaten human and planetary survival.

Therefore, decolonisation, however it is couched, can be understood in the present – as an immediate and continuing political and active anticolonial response seeking to dismantle ongoing colonialism. It is contended, in this vein, that contemporary action toward decolonisation in higher education owes its present appearance to, and hence is not divorced from, this history from 1492. Consequently, the task of academics in the face of the foregoing, is to translate varied context dependent theories and praxes of decolonisation into our academic work – teaching, research and ancillary administration. This must be done while untangling the complicity of disciplinary dictates and conceptual methods from the emergence and maintenance of colonialism. Decolonisation has a particular register, that recognises colonialism as a structural condition and not an isolated spatial-temporal event without broad spatial-temporal consequence. Action to decolonise also recognises that the power of colonialism comes in part from its appearance as normal and natural, how ‘as modern subjects we breath coloniality all the time and everyday.’ (Maldonado-Torres 2007: 243). Therefore, the continual unveiling of colonialism as the engine of coercive power is essential to decolonisation. Thus, its key register is anticolonial – a refusal. A refusal of the colonial requires returning [ceding] stolen power – one limitation of diversity as a substitute for decolonisation. Decolonisation requires, among other things, a discontinuation of the epistemologies that have produced colonialism. This proposes that the university is superseded by an equal pluriversity of knowledges.

What I mean here that decolonisation is not curricular redesign. Rather we must question how and if our disciplines and intellectual traditions can be put in service of redesigning a world whose ways of thinking and doing and being, do not reproduce the structures from which we wish to disengage. We must question how and if our disciplines can produce a world that is not put in danger from extreme inequality, starvation, climate emergency and legacies of injustice… can we produce a world woven in a new design?



Nelson Maldonado-Torres (2007) ON THE COLONIALITY OF BEING, Cultural Studies, 21:2-3, 240-270, DOI: 10.1080/09502380601162548

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