Further thoughts on “Decolonization in Not a Metaphor”

Ayush Gupta (they/them/theirs)
6 min readMar 25, 2021

In 2017, I wrote a blog post trying to grapple with some of the ideas in the paper: Tuck, E., & Yang, K. W. (2012). Decolonization is not a metaphor. Decolonization: Indigeneity, education & society, 1(1).

I wanted to develop my thoughts a little bit more. Tuck and Yang make a clear call: “decolonization specifically requires the repatriation of Indigenous land and life. Decolonization is not a metonym for social justice.” (p. 21)

They warn against metaphorical notions of decolonization that focus on continuities between decolonization and other forms of social justice. They warn against conceptions, that under the framing of decolonization, center the needs, interests, and futures of settlers.

This is where I had ended in 2017, puzzled as to what repatriation of Indigenous land and life can look like?

As part of a recent panel at University of Maryland, College Park, USA titled, “Decolonization is not a metaphor: Pedagogy and Praxis” (go.umd.edu/ARseries) I got the opportunity to grapple with this question again.

The session organizers had put together a set of excellent questions for us, and that helped structure some of my thinking:

What is the paradigm shift that decolonization asks of us as educators and practitioners? How does this shift then inform how you conceptualize your classroom, syllabus, evaluating student material, hire employees, develop programming?

This requires us to grapple what repatriation of land and life will look like as educators and practitioners. I want to explore this question, cognizant that even in trying to answer this we run close the risk of re-centering systems as is, we can assuage our own desire for looking for continuities. Let’s try.

One kind of a paradigm shift would be to hold constant the idea: Indigenous folks have a right to be here. Indigenous folks have a right to thrive here. On this university land. On their own terms. As whole people. Beyond bodies. Their knowledges, languages, epistemologies, desires, passions, pursuits, values have a right to be here.

This is different from the usual rhetoric of diversity and inclusion. See, diversity sort of assumes everyone’s right to be here, ideally in proportions representative of that in the larger population of the country. The idea above is different.

Operationalizing this idea, I feel, is what will lead us into various discomforts that we will need to contend with. You see, the common reaction might be, “Of course, we totally agree. but … they should have the right admissions criterion; they should have the right prior GPA; otherwise how will they succeed” “Of course, we want Indigenous faculty, provided they should have the appropriate credentials. We can’t compromise on excellence.” Appeals to fairness, to excellence, to success, and so on and so forth..

But if I hold central the idea above, I want to say that the current systems of admissions, within epistemologies of disciplinary boundaries institutionalized within silo-ed departments, of english language hegemony, of learning within a socio-technically divided system, of success defined in narrow technocratic and meritocratic terms are incommensurable with the notion of decolonization. Leaning into the notion of incommensurability in the Tuck and Yang paper, helps us here. If we center indigenous futures, then we will need to change these criterion. No merit criterion, no fees criterion, no language criterion, no departmental criterion, no prior GPA, no prerequisites — Indigenous folks have a right to be here!

Indigenous folks have a right to thrive here — and Indigenous thriving is made not possible by majority white populations, racist cultures, technocratic education, narrow disciplinary boundaries, stringent 4-year curriculum plans. And programs that do not have space for ecological, holistic education in indigenous languages, highlighting indigenous history, ecological understandings and technologies, and spirituality. And hegemonic cis-hetero patriarchal cultures. (Queer and/or disabled and/or … Indigenous folks have a right to be here too!) So…repatriate that space. Center indigenous thriving and reorder the world — Tuck and Yang are clear: Drawing on Fannon they say: “Incommensurability is an acknowledgement that decolonization will require a change in the order of the world.”

And this is not limited to students. Indigenous folks have a right to be here as professors, deans, vice presidents, as president, as members of board of directors. And their right to be here, thrive here, is not contingent on having to prove their credentials for being here, without having to go through the sequence of white-supremacist-aligned hiring, tenure, and promotion processes. They have a right to be here, and pursue their own living knowledges, living histories, living epistemologies, not beholden to the disciplinary boundaries, technocracies, meritocracies that currently define the system, unless they want to.

That is the paradigm shift I am thinking about to make sense of Tuck’s and Yang’s call.

They note: “To fully enact an ethic of incommensurability means relinquishing settler futurity, abandoning the hope that settlers may one day be commensurable to Native peoples. It means removing the asterisks, periods, commas, apostrophes, the whereas’s, buts, and conditional clauses that punctuate decolonization and underwrite settler innocence. The Native futures, the lives to be lived once the settler nation is gone — these are the unwritten possibilities made possible by an ethic of incommensurability.”

And at times, that is scary for settlers to accept. Including folks like me whose journeys through a colonized world makes them simultaneously ethnic minorities in the USA as well as settlers, with complicated relations of power, privilege, and oppression with lands and peoples of our countries of origin. That’s something we need to contend with, make peace with.

But what does this mean in practice?

That is a hard question again, but I want to do a tiny bit of thinking around it. Like, if I hold steady the idea that Indigenous folks have a right to be on university grounds, to thrive here, in various capacities including positions of power and privilege, what are the day to day implications of that. Currently, most of the decision making spots are held by non-Indigenous folks. And so, this would mean that when we find ourselves in moments of decision making, we should guide our decisions by the idea that they have a right to be here.

  • this might mean modifying admissions criterion for indigenous students who apply our departments. Not as a “concession” but in recognition that we are incapable of assessing their expertise and the kinds of ways in which they have the potential to mould our disciplines. Towards honoring that expertise, knowledges, and futures.
  • this might mean modifying hiring/promotion criterion, for various positions such as faculty and dean, and allowing for Indigenous folks to rewrite their job descriptions and promotion criterion such that their knowledges, practices, epistemologies, are legitimized in their work.
  • this might mean modifying assessment practices in our courses to value plural ways of knowing and being and allow for a variety of students to be successful. Grades then would be modified from their current technocratic nature. We can, for example, include rubrics that value students forming relations, helping one another, effort, etc., in addition to outcomes.
  • this might mean modifying our syllabus from their current disciplinary silos and technocratic focus. Within STEM education, it would specifically mean including the history of how STEM has been deeply entangled with militarism and colonization all through its history and current practice, and to build capacity with students for imagining and pursuing alternative ways of doing science, engineering, and mathematics. The very fabric of our disciplines would need to change. We, who are trained in colonized versions of STEM, would need to work alongside Indigenous folks to unlearn what we have learned to imagine new possibilities that center Indigenous futures. At minimum it means, divesting immediately from STEM projects that ongoing steal and desecrate Indigenous lands, such as the Dakota Access Pipeline and the Thirty Meter Telescope.

It would be important to note that modifications of syllabus, assessment, and such without simultaneously modifying the criterion and norms that keep Indigenous folks out of institutions of higher education in roles of students, professors, deans, etc would lead us back to the space of recovering settler innocence. Since that would mean that we are improving the culture for settler students, professors, deans... Lack of attention to modifying institutional culture and polices would mean that we are asking Indigenous folks to participate in and become complicit in settler ideologies, epistemologies, ... Decolonizing, in this perspective, demands simultaneous attention to ceding space to Indigenous persons as well as Indigenous knowledges, histories, epistemologies, and so on.




Ayush Gupta (they/them/theirs)

I do education research. Interested in emotions, ideology, epistemology, identity, values, ethics, and learning …