‘Time to Decolonise Academia’

2018-04-23 15:05

Colonial attitudes seem to remain widespread in academia. European and Western perspectives continue to dominate, and important knowledge is lost when research that does not fall within the prevailing framework is pushed off the table, researchers tell genus.se.

‘Regardless of where you go in the world, European and Western researchers and theorists, in particular from the UK, the US, Germany, France and Italy, continue to dominate the scholarly community. If we would have seen the same dominance of five Asian or African countries, we would have considered it a serious problem,’ says Nana Osei-Kofi.

Osei-Kofi is a researcher who grew up in both Gothenburg and Ghana but who currently lives and works in the US. Parts of her position at Oregon State University are reserved for practical decolonisation work, which refers to the process of bringing attention to and challenging colonial attitudes. She gives courses and workshops where she helps university staff challenge their colonial way of thinking. The participants take the courses for example because they are involved in the restructuring of a course and need help staying clear of mental traps they may not even be aware of.
‘It feels important to work with these issues at a practical and not just a theoretical level. I think it’s necessary in order to really get somewhere,’ says Osei-Kofi.

Questions the Three Waves of Feminism

As a consequence of the colonial attitudes – or the Eurocentrism – many important perspectives are missing and some groups are marginalised in academia, according to Suruchi Thapar-Björkert, political scientist at Uppsala University. In the current issue of Swedish peer-reviewed gender studies journal Tidskrift för gender studies (TGV), she and ethnologist Fataneh Farahani write about the ongoing ‘racialisation of knowledge production’. It is the Eurocentrism that makes research comprehendible, they claim, and mention an example from the field of gender studies: The three-wave model is a recurring theme in descriptions of the development of feminism.
‘The problem is that all waves are based on the notion of feminism as something white and heterosexual. Other feminist movements are excluded,’ says Thapar-Björkert.
‘The description of the three waves gives students a warped understanding of the feminist movement, and students or academics who are themselves racialised are expected to consume knowledge that lacks our voices,’ she continues.

‘We Are Made Ambassadors of Our Culture’

The Swedish academic community is characterised by the idea that European pedigree constitutes ‘real intellectualism’, Thapar-Björkert och Farahani write in TGV. White researchers are considered true theorists, while their racialised counterparts are forced to struggle for their recognition. Instead of being treated as an expert in your field, you risk being made into some type of ‘ambassador of your country’, says Thapar-Björkert. In 2012, a gang rape in New Dehli drew a lot of media attention, and in connection with this incident, she was assigned the role of expert on sexual violence in India and was repeatedly asked to comment on what had happened.
‘We are made ambassadors of our culture. Suddenly we are considered to be experts, at the same time as our knowledge in the areas in which we really are experts is largely ignored,’ she says.

University with a Sami Perspective

May-Britt Öhman Sami researcher at Uppsala University, has spent many years challenging colonial attitudes in academia. She is also entertaining the idea of creating an alternative to the state-funded higher education institutions in Sweden. The idea of a Sámi Land Free University was formed during discussions with her researcher colleague Gunilla Larsson. The vision is for the university to serve as an academic institution for Sami-led research in Swedish Lapland, but at present, it is more like a platform for ideas and thoughts.
‘How would a university in Sweden that is based on Sami perspectives work? There is not one perspective but several, but a fundamental premise is that we humans must live in harmony with nature,’ says Öhman.
According to Öhman, this view is hardly typical of Swedish state-funded universities at this point in time.
‘We study economics as if we had endless access to resources, and we keep coming up with technical solutions that enable continued exploitation of natural resources,’ she says.

She goes on to say that she works at a university that stores boxes filled with Sami bodies as well as the saved material from the Swedish State Institute for Racial Biology. The skulls and skeletal remains that Uppsala University still has not reburied remind us of the University’s history, but the racism and colonialism are not just remnants from the past but also something that strongly characterises Swedish higher education institutions today, Öhman underlines.
‘For example, very little is taught about Sami culture and history at Swedish universities and the reason for this is spelled colonialism. The current paradigm excludes Sami perspectives of nature and animals,’ she says.

Gender Research Has Potential to Unveil Problems

Swedish universities have a long way to go to leave their Eurocentrism behind, Osei-Kofi believes. She has faith in the potential in gender research to shed light on the colonial attitudes in academia.
‘Although being a gender researcher doesn’t automatically mean that you have a focus on decolonisation, gender research usually takes a critical perspective in relation to academia and tends to emphasise that there are several views of what knowledge is, and that’s definitely a good starting point,’ she says.
Osei-Kofi is eager to stress that the point of decolonisation is not to ignore all knowledge that stems from European and Western sources, but to adopt additional ways of looking at the world. As for Sweden, this is a process that has just started, says Öhman. She would like the discipline of indigenous studies to gain a foothold in Sweden, and mentions the US, Canada and Australia as positive examples in this regard.
‘I’m not saying that indigenous peoples have it better in those countries, but they have made more progress in the way these issues are handled at their universities. Norway and Finland are also ahead of Sweden. In fact, Sweden is way down on the list,’ she says.
She feels that she experiences both support and resistance when she points to the need for an indigenous perspective in academia.
‘Silence, or lack of interest, is the worst form of resistance. If the resistance is verbalised, then at least you have something to work with, but you can’t respond to silence,’ she says.

National Self Image Stands in the Way of Decolonisation

Maybe it is particularly difficult to change the colonial attitudes in Sweden because of the national self-image, Thapar-Björkert speculates.
‘Swedes view themselves as tolerant, gender equal and free from racism. But you have to admit that you have problems before you can deal with them,’ she says.

Osei-Kofi thinks that the most difficult part of the decolonisation work is that it turns the spotlight on you at a personal level. At her workshops, researchers and teachers are forced to scrutinise their own views and role. Some participants have a hard time accepting that they have advantages because there are white. Others struggle with feelings of guilt. None of these reactions are very productive, according to Osei-Kofi.
‘It can be difficult to have one’s privileges pointed out, but overall I experience that many people do want to talk about these things and do understand that they are important. It may feel uncomfortable, but that’s okay and we still need .to do this,’ she says.

Author Charlie Olofsson
Photo University of Gothenburg
show more news ›