Migration and the Need to Decolonize (Hegemonic Thought)

(This short piece was written in the Summer of 2016 for the Global Dialogues publication of the Käte Hamburger Kolleg/Centre for Global Cooperation Research in Duisburg, Germany during my visiting Fellowship there. You find the full publication here.)

Looking at the world from and in Europe today, the old continent seems to be grappling with its waning capacity to control its interaction with the rest of the planet. Bodies, ideas, capital, violence and a climate on the move, forcefully knock on the Fortress’ walls from the outside and within.

How are we to understand this beyond the fear-mongering tropes engulfing our public debates? Panta rhei[1]: everything flows. Yet, sub sole nihil novum [2]: there is nothing new under the sun. In all their simplicity and complexity, these two seemingly contradictory insights attributed respectively to Greek and Judeo-Christian – dixit European – traditions, probably best capture how we are to understand contemporary planetary challenges.

Concretely, I would argue that we need to understand them both as the chickens coming home to roost[3] as well as urgent invitations to come up with radically new ways of being, acting and thinking with the other sentient beings next door and far away. Efforts towards genuine glocal cooperation need to take both the reckoning and invitation seriously.

In the short run, our systems of (western hegemonic) knowledge production seem to operate as roadblocks against both recognizing and accepting the reckoning and invitations for what they are: wake-up calls for creative reinvention – very much like Fortress Europe’s (im)material borders standing in the way of peoples’ access to shelter, safety and the construction of a better life.

Having Malcolm X’s roosting chickens of reckoning join Fanon’s call to the wretched of the earth[4] not to mimic Europe but to radically reinvent, the time has come for Europe to humbly join this conversation.

It is in this context, both within the western and non-western scholarly and activist circles, that we see renewed calls for decolonization, decades after the end of formal colonization. Contemporary decolonization refers to structures of extreme power inequality, both materially (cf. access to land and resources) and immaterially (i.e. hegemonic knowledge production systems in education and the media, at the service of the status quo).

the time has come for Europe to humbly join this conversation

Building on personal reflections on two recent current affairs debates in Europe, the refugee situation and the economic crisis, the aim of this commentary is to briefly introduce the decolonial option with regard to knowledge production in a western context and make it more tangible by framing it as three strategies: the need to (1) de-mythologize, (2) de-silence, and (3) anti-colonially de-colonize.[5]

EU Parliament, plenary session, July 2015 [6]

The EU hardly ever stands for exciting news coverage, but a fuming Guy Verhofstadt (EMP) chastising the Greek Prime Minister Tsipras in front of the European Parliament was hard to ignore. Verhofstadt performed a fiery recital of the neoliberal dogma – not as if it were one of the many political options on the ideological menu but as a T.I.N.A., a ‘There Is No Alternative’ mantra, coated in a thick sauce of arrogance and know-it-all paternalism.

As a scholar of EU-Africa relations, I could not help having a déjà vu moment. The – literally – deadly Structural Adjustment Programmes (SAPs) enforced on most of the Global South in the 1980s led citizens of several African countries in the 1990s to take to the streets en masse demanding more democracy. Today the World Bank and the IMF agree that the SAPs may have been poorly implemented, yet fundamentally questioning their premises – e.g. all hail to growth and privatization – remains taboo. The African democracy protests have, if at all, entered the history books as pleas for Western-style liberal market democracy rather than an indignation at the devastating effects of the SAPs on people’s everyday life. Equally silenced is the fact that protesters were actually asking for more political economic self-determination, from both national and international elites. By limiting ourselves to a Eurocentric understanding of the ‘Greek’ crisis (mythology), not valuing non-European experiences as legitimate sources of expert knowledge (silencing), we are able to cast the situation as novel and exceptional, and uncritically reproduce past neo-liberal mistakes with minimal democratic consultation and participation (coloniality).

Sicily, September 2015

Members of the European International Studies Association gathered in the washed up Sicilian sea town of Giardini Naxos to ponder ‘International Relations and Violence’.

(To avoid the ‘fresh-off-the-boat’ refugee treatment, I travelled in high heels, a strategy I picked up from decades of European (including Schengen) ‘are-her-papers-for-real’ border treatment for people of colour.) The participants were acutely aware that holding a conference on the southern border of Fortress Europe put them too close for comfort to an actual site of international violence. Weeks before the conference, people were discussing ways to help the refugees: a petition, systematically raising the issues in the sessions, wearing a black ribbon as a sign of solidarity, …?

As these things go, in life and in academia in particular, there is no activism without cynics and critics. Alongside the mainstream cynics, who resent the collective guilt-trip inflicted on them, there were the cynics-in-solidarity, for whom a focus on guilt and responsibility is justified but not sufficient. To them, if we fail to tell the story from the beginning (e.g. the colonial practices that gave birth to current-day global conflicts), and broaden the scope of the analysis beyond issues of shelter (by e.g. including questions of interventions, occupations, arms trade, but also borders and nation-states as given), then our actions are nothing more than catering to our own conscience.

we need to take the implications of our alternative understandings of reality seriously

Eventually a consensus was reached that it is not an ‘either or’ situation. In practice, a sustained more comprehensive analysis does not prevent us from heading to Calais, opening our home to refugees, or demanding refugee accommodation and scholarships from our universities. Academically though, we need to take the implications of our alternative understandings of reality seriously. Are we still dealing with refugees and migrants, i.e. outsiders, when we start telling the story from the beginning? If our societies have been connected for over centuries, and if there is a direct correlation between the origin of our wealth and their misery, can we then still frame our debates in terms of gift, hospitality and generosity? (de-mythologizing) Are we even dealing with a crisis? If we, like Robbie Shilliam did during the conference debate on refugees, look at Europe from the position of the systematically disenfranchised (de-silencing), the ‘crisis’ is rather a reflection of the norm, a norm that day in day out systematically pushes people to the bottom of the society and keeps them there. Understanding the situation as a crisis, and thus exceptional, prevents us then from imagining and finding sustainable and radically different solutions (anti-colonially de-colonizing).


Herein lies the added value of a decolonial approach to the study of contemporary challenges: the understanding that there is nothing new under the sun; that we are not condemned to making the same mistakes, if only we are willing to look beyond the presently known. In practice it comes down to asking the following questions: ‘How does a post-Eurocentric, de-fragmented understanding of reality change the story’ (de-mythologize); ‘Who is not around the expert table’ (de-silence), and ‘where do we go from here to materially change the status quo towards more equity’ (de-colonize)?

Answers to these questions need by definition to be reached inclusively and context-specifically – not in the abstract. Depending on one’s positionality in the colonial matrix of power, decolonization has different implications in practice. Rather than a grand new theory, it ought to be approached as an option[7], a set of strategies explicitly aimed at a radical shift in the distribution and use of power at the service of equity. Addressing the structural power inequality embedded in our knowledge production practices is then a necessary, even though not sufficient part of the struggle towards decoloniality.

[1] Attributed to the philosopher Heraclitus in Plato’s Cratylus.

[2] Ecclesiastes 1:9

[3] Malcolm X used this expression on the occasion of the assassination of John F. Kennedy in 1963 to convey his conviction it had been a consequence of the climate of hate in the American society to that date. https://youtu.be/SzuOOshpddM?t=54

[4] Fanon, F., 1961, (2001). The Wretched of the Earth, Conclusion, London: Penguin Classics. ‘Let us waste no time in sterile litanies and nauseating mimicry. (…) So, my brothers, how is it that we do not understand that we have better things to do than to follow that same Europe? (…) We today can do everything, so long as we do not imitate Europe, so long as we are not obsessed by the desire to catch up with Europe (…) Let us combine our muscles and our brains in a new direction. Let us try to create the whole man, whom Europe has been incapable of bringing to triumphant birth.’ (p. 251–5)

[5] The three strategies are presented here as distinct for analytical purposes to cover respectively ontological, epistemological and normative aspects of knowledge production. Yet, in actual fact they are rather indivisible and co-constitutive in the decolonial endeavour to switch from knowledge production to what Robbie Shilliam has referred to as knowledge cultivation. (Shilliam, R. (2015). The Black Pacific: Anti-Colonial Struggles and Oceanic Connections, London: Bloomsbury Academic.)

[6] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=P84tN0z4jqM

[7] I am indebted to decoloniality scholar Rolando Vazquez for pointing out this difference during a keynote speech on Decoloniality during a study day on the cultural and arts sector in the Koninklijke Vlaamse Schouwburg (KVS) in Brussels, 3 December 2015. http://www.demos.be/city-of-cultures-revisited

2 Comments Add yours

  1. Reblogged this on foluke's african skies and commented:
    ‘decolonization has different implications in practice. Rather than a grand new theory, it ought to be approached as an option[7], a set of strategies explicitly aimed at a radical shift in the distribution and use of power at the service of equity. Addressing the structural power inequality embedded in our knowledge production practices is then a necessary, even though not sufficient part of the struggle towards decoloniality.’


  2. Suzanne Henry says:

    Dear Olivia,

    I am so deeply moved and strengthened to read your blog.

    I have just completed an art foundation where my attempts to discuss these ideas were completely silenced as was I to a large extent. My project was on visibility and the impact of colonial thought on present day conditions for people of colour.

    It was a totally invisibilis’ing’ experience in comparison to my undergraduate degree which was in human rights and law with lots of discussion and open debate. There was so much resistance to even acknowledging history and no engagement in the work itself until it got to a wider public audience outside of the classroom. It only motivated me more to produce a louder statement against these attitudes and speak up through creativity.

    It is a breath of fresh air to read your blog which captures so much of what is missing in public thinking, everyday attitudes and in politics. Thank you.


    Liked by 1 person

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