Do Not ‘Decolonize' . . . If You Are Not Decolonizing: Progressive Language and Planning Beyond a Hollow Academic Rebranding

I write this from Aotearoa New Zealand, an immigrant in this country as I was in the United States for the 15 years prior. The way I see it, I am an immigrant from post-colonial India to two settler colonial states. In addition to my identity as an immigrant cis-South-Asian woman, I also identify as an academic. I often think of myself as an accidental academic. Academia was a space that offered me refuge as an immigrant, but it also allowed me to do the thinking, critical, questioning work I needed to do – but in a safe space. I started graduate studies in the post-9/11 world. As you can imagine, academia served as a particular refuge in that particular historic moment.

I have been in academia, either in training or teaching since…well, since I was seventeen. I have learned, trained, researched, and taught in four continents – my post-doc was in Geneva (even though most of that post-doc time was spend doing research in India). There are a lot of things I do not know, but there are some things I do know – one of them happens to be the intricate workings of academia – its peoples, its egos, its structures, the spaces of suppression, subversion, and subtle resistance. Within this space I see the hard work of resistance from individuals and groups, but also the dogged structural underpinnings of academia. Between the individual struggles and systematic dogma, is the troubling paradigm where academic structures and powers co-opt the struggles as their own – but contribute little to the cause. Over the years, I have seen academia do this co-optation and rebrand itself but not genuinely willing to do the hard work required to imagine a better academia. I have learned to navigate academia, but continually remembering to view this space critically.

This blog post, written as I transition into a tenured position at the interdisciplinary Centre for Science in Society at Victoria University of Wellington, is my attempt to remember to keep thinking and engaging critically. I have been precariously employed and over the past few years, I have seen what precarity does to one’s sense of self and relationship to others. I hope I never forget that feeling as it has been one of the most intellectually exhausting, but also critically generative space. It was in this space of academic precarity as an immigrant living and working on indigenous land, that I have seen the interesting mobilizing of the word ‘decolonizing.’ I have started to see the complexity inherent in how decolonizing has been co-opted from a vibrant and critical engagement to an academic buzzword. This was recently bought home to me when I saw a student wearing a rather colourful t-shirt with a ‘Decolonize the …” typed in boldface in the front.

While it was unclear to me what they wanted to decolonize, I was troubled by the text on the shirt, not because of my dislike of buzzwords (I’ve used them before) or because of the student wearing it, but rather it was just at the end of a long line of hollow ‘decolonizing’ moves I had witnessed – online and offline. Within the academy, I have seen the sloppy attempts to ‘decolonize’ a syllabus or a programme without any real structural changes – in the programme, the class, the faculty, or the university. This is NOT decolonizing the syllabus, or the programme, or the university. To take on decolonizing work without having ever engaged with the long tradition of scholars who have written on decolonizing – is sloppy and opportunistic. Especially sloppy if you have not read the seminal Tuck and Yang article which asks you to not use decolonizing as a metaphor.

In my avowed attempt to stay critically focused, I thus hold my fellow academics to account and ask for some refrain when using the word ‘Decolonizing.’ It does a disservice to the amazing indigenous scholarship and activist work that is targeting power structures to shake and reshape them to accommodate indigeneity. So, my humble suggestion, till you are actually willing and able to do the work of decolonizing the structures you (and even me) benefit from currently, let us think of better words to do what we are actually doing.

This does not give us/you a pass to not attempt to decolonize academia, but rather start planning the ways in which to do it and putting into place plans (hiring indigenous faculty on permanent positions, provide scholarships to indigenous students, accommodate teaching/learning structures to different knowledge production sites and ways, etc.) starting now. But at this exact moment, when enjoying the privileges afforded by academia on indigenous land, and when we actively working or are unable to work towards decolonizing work, we need to acknowledge that reality.  


To that end, here are some alternative suggestions to talk about the work we are doing now, while thinking of a decolonized sovereign nation future. To really keep it simple, I even suggest words start with the letter D [1].

  • Diversify your syllabus and curriculum

  • Digress from the cannon

  • Decentre knowledge and knowledge production

  • Devalue hierarchies

  • Disinvest from citational power structures

  • Diminish some voices and opinions in meetings, while magnifying others

All of this allows for anti-colonial, post-colonial, and de-colonial work in the academy; but not make claims to a ‘decolonized programme,’ ‘decolonized syllabus,’ or a ‘decolonized university.’ It allows you to be honest – about who you/we are and how you/we are situated within certain privileges.

This means starting the work that actual decolonizing requires – but those are long term goals and require YOU/ME to do a LOT of work. They also require becoming accomplices (not an ally or spectator) in local indigenous communities and politics as the fight for land and resources continues. There are concrete plans that can be put in place and how to get there (i.e. genuinely support decolonization) in a five-to ten-year period. Do not give up on the vision…just remember, academia is not there yet.


Just in case you were wondering, what will the decolonizing future facing project look like and what you can actually do enable it? This requires work and planning (starting now), rather than taking that energy and excitement (around decolonization) to just rebrand yourself and your site of knowledge production and praxis.

There are amazing scholars who can teach us all about the ways we can do this planning work. I share their wisdom humbly and with the hope that it allows the start of a conversation about the future of the academic space you/we inhabit.

  • Hire faculty from indigenous and marginalized communities so they can magnify the voices and concerns of their communities. Change your hiring criteria (and your hiring committees), if needed, to meet this goal.

  • Hire said faculty on permanent positions – not on precariously created contracts. To bring on a junior faculty for a year or two position (while dangling the possibility of a permanent position someday) means they are on the longest interview ever!  

  • Hire faculty that actually challenge you – and listen to them (they are more than your token hire).

  • Be willing to be inter/multi/anti disciplinary – look beyond your cannon.

  • Design classes that have a ‘?’ at the end of the title. Example: Decolonizing Geography?: How, When, and by Whom? Or Decolonizing Knowledge?: (re)Imagining the Future in Sociology.

  • Do not expect your precariously hired POC/BAME/Indigenous/queer/junior faculty to do the diversity work (or, ahem, as you call it ‘decolonizing’ work for you to take credit on – we do it in our scholarship, research, teaching, thinking, talking, listening, and being in the university and we need to be rewarded for it directly).  

  • Create syllabus and curriculums that are innovative – there are more ways to assess work than the research essay, but do not use this as a short cut to not help marginalized students with academic work.

  • Make space for indigenous and marginalized students – both physical and intellectual.

Then there is the slightly more complex thing to do simultaneously, as a way to create space for indigenous and marginalized students:

Take the extra time with these students to help them/us [2] learn to read and write like ‘power.’ Teach us ways to operate in this oppressive world. Do not assume we cannot write as well as you, thus you should not put in the time or effort.


Also take the extra time to learn how we think, read, and write. Learn from us the ways we see and seek to change this oppressive world. Respect our refusal to write like you, even after you train us well to write like you.

These are not really radical suggestions. If you are one of these lovely people trying to decolonize your space, you already know this. But this is just a good reminder to myself as I move out of my precarious space and into a tenured position that decolonizing is not a metaphor!

While there are many examples of amazing scholarship that challenges colonial structures underpinning academia, I offer one example of a dear colleague doing this work every day. She offers a wonderful course that does this heavy, preliminary work of encouraging students to think of a better academia (better anthropology in particular). Lorena Gibson’s paper titled, Anthropology for Liberation is an honest and humble attempt to think about a future of a discipline without making grand claims to have decolonized the discipline or academia. Like she says, this is the first step in a long journey that she has to walk alongside other scholars, students, and communities.

Through her work (amongst others) it is clear to see that decolonizing is real work which needs to have real world structural consequences – not hypotheticals. It should not be a buzzword to increase your ‘woke’ student enrollments. Do not deploy it in service of the structures it was created to destroy.

It is my obligation as an immigrant living, working, researching, and teaching on indigenous land to respect and remember the history – and act as an accomplice to the local communities, particularity when it means unsettling my own academic privilege and identity. Together, it is our obligation as academics to make plans for a decolonized academia, to take care our students, and hold people to account who use this amazingly powerful word recklessly for their own self-interest. This is important to recognize and curtail, so we can start the very hard work of imagining and planning a decolonised academia – rather than just rebranding the current space and carrying on business as usual.

[1] Trained in cultural studies, I have consciously chosen to refrain from using ‘deconstruct.’ Not enough time in this short blog post to engage with that particular postmodern anxiety.

[2] I consciously use ‘us’ here as when talking about this focus on students, as I speak from my experiences as an immigrant student in the American academy…and what wonderful advisers I had who took the extra time with my writing and work (Thank you – Hugh Gusterson, Roger Lancaster, Rashmi Sadana, and Tim Gibson).

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Nayantara Sheoran Appleton

Nayantara Sheoran Appleton is a Senior Lecturer at the interdisciplinary Centre for Science in Society, Victoria University of Wellington, Aotearoa New Zealand. Trained as a medical anthropologist (with a PhD in cultural studies) she is interested in Feminist Medical Anthropology and Science and Technology Studies (STS); Cultural Studies and Media; Science Communication; Reproductive and Contraceptive Justice; Critical Kinship; Ethics and Governance; Regenerative Medicine; and Ethnographic Research. She has done research on hormonal contraceptives, stem cell and having recently moved to Aotearoa New Zealand, she is now starting to conceptualize a project that explores relationship between immigrant and indigenous communities – both within and beyond the medical space.