What is Decolonisation?

By: Lola Olufemi

What is Decolonisation?

Decolonisation has reentered the public imagination in a big way. In the last 10 years, students in universities across the country including Cambridge, Oxford, SOAS and UCL have launched campaigns examining their institutions historical and present day role in colonial exploitation and the perpetuation of specific types of cultural authority through curricula. Sensationalist media coverage has reduced the process of decolonisation to something that focuses exclusively on knowledge production (what we learn) inside institutions but in reality, it involves a complex range of practices that seek to grapple with the consequences of colonial encounter. The failures in our education system mean many young people are unaware of Britain’s colonial past and the many ways that is has shaped the world today. This ignorance can make decolonisation a scary prospect. But the first step to coming to terms with it as a principle is seeking out the information about the past that has purposefully been withheld from us. Ask yourself how much you know about Britain’s role in the slave trade, for example? Or the history of the formation of the “Commonwealth” and the consequences of colonial rule to land, resource, familial relationships, language and archives in former colonies?

In order to understand decolonisation, it is important to clearly define what colonialism is and how it operates. Colonialism is best defined as the process of implementing settlements in distant territories. Colonialism is a consequence of imperialism, which is the policy of extending one’s power through colonisation. The extension of this power can take a number of different forms: social, economic and cultural policies as well as physical force. Britain’s history of colonialism included a combination of these methods as well as other forms of violence that were inflicted on entire countries. Despite formal colonialisation ending in parts of the world (many former colonies have gained their independence), there are a number of ways that countries are trapped in exploitative relationships with former colonial powers. There is no way to fully escape the past.

There is no simple way to define decolonisation. French theorist Franz Fanon called it a process of complete disorder that seeks to change the order of the world. Often, decolonisation is approached as if there were a simple formula but it is much more than a tick box exercise. The ongoing process requires us to rethink the tenets of the world we live in. This idea is threatening to those who are interested in maintaining the status quo. Decolonisation can be thought of as a set of practices and processes that seek to reckon with the consequences of colonial encounter, dismantle the coloniser/colonised binary and rectify the material, social, political and cultural dispossession of people and the histories to which they belong. Power is central in understanding what decolonisation means; not only does this process seek to make visible the invisible structures that determine relationships between the Global North and South, it endeavours to destroy those relationships of power and exploitation all together. Decolonisation is about justice and recognising the way the world we live in has been shaped entirely by colonialism, even the nations that were seemingly uninvolved. It is is a variable, constantly shifting process that is both context specific and universal. It requires a collective response to ongoing issues of colonial extraction of land and resources across the world. Right now, in Brazil, the Amazon is burning, putting the lives and land of over one million indigenous people at risk. For activists, decolonisation is a guiding principle for their work and the way they think about justice. It is about more than undoing what has already been done, it constructs an entirely new way of thinking about connections between the past and present. Decolonising means consciousness raising and giving oppressed people the knowledge to understand and resist the conditions they are subjected to. It is also about supporting resistance to forces that threaten indigenous ways of life across the world.

Decolonisation recognises that there is nothing about the present that remains untouched by violent pasts. It provides us with an exciting opportunity attempt to imagine and build a new world that is free from the kinds of structural violence that mark this one.

Where and how does it happen?

Decolonisation has often been spoken about in the context of institutions. Many university campaigns have focused on curricula because they recognise that what we learn, the way we learn it and why we are taught what we are taught is not neutral. A core part of colonial rule involved rewriting the history of the world to ensure that the West became central to all major scientific, political, social, economic and artistic achievements. This kind of thinking is evidenced in our national curriculums at every level. The people we study are most likely to be white men from European countries. Decolonisation asks us to think about the consequences that this has on our understanding of the world. By deconstructing the one-sided nature of our education system and engaging with the works of those who have been purposefully silenced, it aims to expose the ways that knowledge is coded. When students demand a decolonised curriculum, they are demanding a curriculum that engages with knowledge from across the world and is attentive to the contexts from which that knowledge emerged. They are demanding a curriculum that recognises the vast power imbalances that have existed throughout history. Demands for decolonisation are also demands for a more political education system, one that does not shy away from the problems of our time. An education system that places equity and justice at its core. As the curriculum is only an extension of the university, this also means changing the institution; democratising its structures, diversifying staff and cutting the ties between exploitative industries that fund different university programmes. Practically, this has ranged from complete overhauls of curriculums: changing who is studied and endeavouring to understand writers and theorists alongside the contexts from which they emerged.

But decolonisation is best thought about separate to institutions, as something that is connected to our everyday lives. It is a global and local principle; the ongoing crisis’ in Kashmir, Palestine and Hong Kong provide good examples of thinking about the impacts of colonial history in the lives of citizens today. If we understand decolonisation as a process that is fighting for freedom from domination, it becomes easier to make parallels between the past and present. As an internationalist principle, it requires individuals to stand in solidarity with one another against land grabs and state power. But decolonisation also matters in our local communities. This could start with something as small as thinking about what the streets we walk down everyday are called, examining the iconography and plaques that adorn our public spaces in order to take a stand against the sanitising of histories of domination. It means making the links between histories of migration; for example, how the UK government encouraged members of postcolonial states to become citizens in order to rebuild post-war Britain in the late 40s and early 50s only to facilitate the deportation of those same people and their descendants during the Windrush Scandal 2018. Decolonising means investing in our local communities and understanding who has the least access to public services, who is criminalised and who is suffering under the same racism that was a key justification of colonial expansion. It requires us to think of a world beyond states and borders – a place where our humanity is not determined by our citizenship.

What does this mean for poetry?

English literature is often cast as an apolitical field. We think of literature and poems as able to express a universal humanity, untouched by the markers of our identities. But history of English literature as a discipline is also tied up with colonialism. In the colonies, it served as a method of reaffirming the intellectual and artistic superiority of western powers. Poetry is perhaps one of the most radical forms available to us. Members of former colonies and the diaspora have used it to express the unique and complicated situation they have found themselves in as a result of a past they could not control. For individuals living under colonial rule, literature was also a form of revolt. A way to express anger, resentment and to counter the harm that was inflicted on them. Poetry like this helps us understand the consequences of colonialism in different ways. Literature is perhaps the closest we can get to understanding the emotional consequences of colonialism. It reminds us that historical atrocities happened to people who had their own stories. It enables a reclaiming of narratives of expulsion and domination and highlights how, for as long as colonialism has existed, there has always been resistance.

Translation provides a fresh opportunity to engage with work of writers in the Global South. The process of translation is always a two way exchange, it can reveal the power dynamics that are embedded in the languages we speak. Translation is a democratic process that enables the dissemination of radical voices, a key element of the decolonising project. When we translate poetry, especially into languages that are on the brink of extinction, we are helping to archive voices that have been purposefully suppressed. The speaker’s voice is central to any poem and what translation offers poetry, is a chance to discover new speakers and to learn from what they express about themselves, their lives, their communities and the histories that have shaped them.


Decolonisation is not an easy or straightforward process and it should never be presented as such. It requires serious engagement with the structures that organise our lives and a deep investment in making the world a more just place for all to exist in. It is, above all, a call to action and a call to grapple with the notion that our lives are intertwined for better and for worse. Perhaps the most useful consequence of learning about decolonisation is being galvanised to share what you have learnt, politicise others and organise around relevant issues in your community. Whether using literature, supporting campaigns from afar of staying attentive to what is happening internationally and providing solidarity; what is most important to remember is that decolonisation is not a static principle or simply a turn a phrase, it demands serious thought and action and it begins with knowing your history.