The trouble with ‘decolonizing UConn’

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Illustration by Dionel De Borja

Over 100 cities and towns and 11 states celebrated Indigenous Peoples’ Day this past Monday, denoting some degree of progress in how U.S.-American communities recognize the relationship of the American settler state to indigenous nations. President Joe Biden, whom human rights students will meet this Friday, even proclaimed Oct. 11, 2021 to be Indigenous People’s Day, something done by no presidents preceding him.  

Curiously, however, the Biden White House also saved the date for Columbus Day, a holiday that could most charitably be said to apologize for a genocidal Genoese human trafficker. Of the 11 states that observe Indigenous Peoples’ Day, only three do so without simultaneously observing Columbus Day.  

The University of Connecticut is one of the handful of institutions that observes Indigenous Peoples’ Day sans Columbus, which speaks to the growing trend of universities and groups of academics embracing the goal of “decolonizing” academia. 

In fall of last year, UConn partnered with the University of Nottingham for an event with a “focus on decolonizing education… disbanding unequal and oppressive narratives, as well as the future opportunities to contribute meaningfully to an anti-racist and anti-colonial agenda.”  

UConn events begin with an acknowledgement of the Indigenous nations whose land the school occupies, and often hosts dialogues oriented around “decolonizing” various academic fields. Implicit in this project seems to be the aim of reconciling with UConn’s history as a land grant institution. To many, this reconciliation process, along with the diversity of faculty, administration and curricula and promoting equal opportunity for Black and Indigenous students represents the overarching process of “decolonizing the university.” 

Here’s the problem, though: decolonizing UConn isn’t decolonization. 

What I mean is that the process of making a university more equitable, sustainable and reciprocal with indigenous communities may be anti-colonial — that is, opposed to university policies that reinforce colonial practices, such as an antiquated curriculum, a department that sidelines the contributions of educators of color, or the privatization of resources like land and education — but that still isn’t decolonization. 

To define decolonization, we can look to the decolonial theorist Frantz Fanon.  

Fanon viewed colonialism as a violent opposition between the colonial power – the metropolis –and the colonized peoples. Decolonization is thus the still violent resolution of that conflict resulting not in the dictatorship of the colonizer over the colonized, but of the formerly colonized over the colonial elements, such as metropolitan businesses, military and, most controversially, metropolitan settlers. This manifests itself in the form of an independent state governed by and for the formerly colonized peoples, violently exploited by colonialism.  

The results of decolonization aren’t always idyllic (for individuals who benefit from colonialism). After the Algerian independence struggle against the French, a revolutionary war in which Fanon fought, the nearly one million European settlers in Algeria emigrated back to Europe en masse. This may sound threatening to non-Black and Indigenous Americans considering the question of Land Back, or granting sovereignty over the back to Indigenous nations, until you consider that Algerian independence cut off the sources of wealth for White colonizers profiting from Algerian oil and agriculture.  

We’ve also seen decolonization fail, like after South Africa’s independence in 1961. Even though independence is supposed to shift power to the Indigenous population, 60 years later, only 23% of publicly-traded stocks are owned by Black South Africans, who make up almost 80% of the population. During the apartheid period, 30 years later, 80% of wealth was held by the 8% white population, which has only decreased to 70% since 1994. Here, anti-colonial politics didn’t manifest into decolonization.  

Decolonization in the U.S. looks like Land Back, or the repatriation of democratic, political and economic powers to colonized Black and Indigenous peoples. The justification of this program is that the liberating conditions for the most oppressed communities will liberate all communities, except for the oppressive classes. Decolonization requires the gradual abolition of colonial institutions like privatized land, natural and human resources and the colonial-imperial police and military.  

Because of the enormity of the decolonization of the US, it’s insufficient to discuss “decolonizing UConn” in isolation.  

This isn’t to say that removing white supremacy in academia isn’t worth pursuing; it’s necessary for the sake of an accurate, robust educational experience, as well as a more healthy and harmonious environment.  

Still, we must contend with the fact that attempting to institute an anti-colonial agenda at UConn will run into the problem of UConn’s many investments in colonialism and imperialism, like its partnerships with war contractors like Raytheon and Lockheed Martin, and agencies such as Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), which partners with universities to develop military technology. 

Decolonization is meaningful only if we orient it around a systemic analysis of US settler-colonialism and imperialism – that is, by connecting our struggles at UConn to the struggles of Indigenous water protectors at Line 3 and building even more connections therefrom. The goal is the liberation of all peoples worldwide, not just in the classroom! 

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