We stand together today to demand the decolonisation of the university.
But even as we make this call, we must remember that decolonisation is not a metaphor. That the calls we make today cannot co-opt the name of ‘decolonisation’ only to make use of its stirring heat.
Decolonisation is not a metaphor.
Decolonisation is not a buzzword to repackage token changes as ‘diversity’ and ‘open-mindedness’ or whatever is selling on the student and donation market of the day.
Decolonisation is a radical unsettling in profound, concrete ways.
It is about land, about water, about bodies struggling through the marks of genocide and displacement and loss
It is about who bears the burden of the world’s labour and who gets paid; who gets the wine and the dine and the elegant views over sculpted gardens.
Our work in this city of sculpted exclusion and erasure is meaningful only insofar as we remember that it is marginal. We target this university not because it is some ‘global leader’ of ‘progressive change’, but because of its historical complicity in colonial domination.
Because it has so successfully turned out centuries of colonial officers and racist politicians and professionals
and churned out the kind of theory and policy that has enabled the making of the Third World and communities of colour into resources for extraction, into dumping grounds for the physical and emotional waste of whiteness – and then, after the extraction and the dumping, into projects of rescue and development, or, where deemed necessary, extermination.
And so we must attempt to dismantle these modes of training, these dense and mystical narratives that undergird what is presented as the peak of truth and reason.
and we must stand in the way of policies that shape students of colour into objects of surveillance, or against directions of investment into climate injustice.
But we need to remember that these ends – the changing of curricula and pedagogy and hiring practices, divestment, resistance to policies like PREVENT, and so on – are not the ultimate ends of decolonisation. They are important, and we have to struggle for them, but we need to remember, always, that this is not about Cambridge.
This is about the land that has been stolen and occupied in the Americas, in Australia, in South Africa, in Palestine, and the people who have been massacred, terrorised and confined to enable this theft,
whose water and soil is poisoned for profit and who are brutalised when they attempt to defend them
who are anyway brutalised – kidnapped, raped, murdered, beaten, watched, incarcerated
whose cultures and histories and languages are systematically erased except when they can provide party costumes.
This is about the systems of mass incarceration that allow the legal perpetuation of slavery;
about the white supremacist police states that can kill black people on a whim.
This is about who funds war, funds the production of wastelands from which people are forced to flee,
people who are denied refuge in the countries their wealth has paid to build, and who are joined in their refugelessness by the survivors of climate racism
and how these and other forced displacements and destabilisations serve to serve up oil wells and coal mines and special economic zones
in a global regime of racialised gendered division of labour.
This is about the regimes of gender that are our colonial inheritance, that have shaped the criminalisation of deviant bodies – now the very criminalisation that forms the justification for ‘teach them tolerance’ projects, while queers of colour are still bashed within the ‘bastions of tolerance’.
Decolonisation is not a metaphor. It is the imagining and building of a liveable world in ways that may literally unsettle even the sympathetic. And our role in this project is to shrink Cambridge and its sister colonial institutions – to make way for those who dream of deeper things than this place is able.
Note: ‘Decolonisation is not a metaphor’ is borrowed from a paper of that name by Eve Tuck and K. Wayne Yang in the open-access journal Decolonization: Indigeneity, Education & Society – as were some of the other ideas in the speech. Many thanks to the authors.