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Decoloniality or decolonialism is a term used principally by an emerging Latin American movement which focuses on understanding modernity in the context of a form of critical theory applied to ethnic studies. It has been described as consisting of analytic and practical “options confronting and delinking from [...] the colonial matrix of power” (Mignolo 2011: xxvii); it has also been referred to as a kind of "thinking in radical exteriority" (Vallega 2015: x). As such it can be contrasted with coloniality which is “the underlying logic of the foundation and unfolding of Western civilization from the Renaissance to today,” a logic that was the basis of historical colonialisms, although this foundational interconnectedness is often downplayed (Mignolo 2011:2). This logic is commonly referred to as the colonial matrix of power or coloniality of power. Some have built upon decolonial theories by proposing Critical Indigenous Methodologies for research.
Although formal and explicit colonization ended with the Decolonization of the Americas during the nineteenth century and the decolonization of much of the global south in the late twentieth century, its successors, Western imperialism and globalization perpetuate those inequalities. The colonial matrix of power produced social discrimination eventually codified as “racial”, “ethnic”, “anthropological” or “national” according to specific historic, social, and geographic contexts (Quijano 2007: 168). Decoloniality emerged at the moment when the colonial matrix of power was put into place during the sixteenth century. It is, in effect, a continuing confrontation of, and delinking from, Eurocentrism : the idea that the history of human civilization has been a trajectory that departed from nature and culminated in Europe, also that differences between Europe and non-Europe are due to biological differences between races, not to histories of power (Quijano 2000: 542).
Decoloniality is synonymous with decolonial “thinking and doing,” (Mignolo 2011:xxiv) and it questions or problematizes the histories of power emerging from Europe. These histories underlie the logic of Western civilization. Decoloniality is a response to the relation of direct, political, social and cultural domination established by Europeans (Quijano 2007: 168). This means that decoloniality refers to analytic approaches and socioeconomic and political practices opposed to pillars of Western civilization: coloniality and modernity. This makes decoloniality both a political and epistemic project (Mignolo 2011: xxiv-xxiv).
Decoloniality has been called a form of “epistemic disobedience” (Mignolo 2011: 122-123), “epistemic de-linking” (Mignolo 2007: 450), and “epistemic reconstruction” (Quijano 2007: 176). In this sense, decolonial thinking is the recognition and implementation of a border gnosis or subaltern reason (Mignolo 2000: 88), a means of eliminating the provincial tendency to pretend that Western European modes of thinking are in fact universal ones (Quijano 2000: 544). In its less theoretical, and more practical applications—such as movements for Indigenous autonomy, like Zapatista self-government—decoloniality is called a “programmatic” of de-linking from contemporary legacies of coloniality (Mignolo 2007: 452), a response to needs unmet by the modern Rightist or Leftist governments, (Mignolo 2011: 217), or, most broadly, social movements in search of a “new humanity” (Mignolo 2011: 52) or the search for “social liberation from all power organized as inequality, discrimination, exploitation, and domination” (Quijano 2007: 178).
Decoloniality is not postcolonialism
Decoloniality is often mixed up with postcolonialism, decolonization, and postmodernism. However, Decolonial theorists have made the distinctions clear. Postcolonialism is often mainstreamed into general oppositional practices by “people of color,” “Third World intellectuals,” or “ethnic groups” (Mignolo 2000: 87). Decoloniality—as both an analytic and a programmatic—is said to move “away and beyond the post-colonial” because “post-colonialism criticism and theory is a project of scholarly transformation within the academy” (Mignolo 2007: 452).
This final point is debatable, as some postcolonial scholars consider postcolonial criticism and theory to be both an analytic (a scholarly, theoretical, and epistemic) project and a programmatic (a practical, political) stance (Said 1981: 8). This disagreement is a single example of the ambiguity—“sometimes dangerous, sometimes confusing, and generally limited and unconsciously employed”—of the term “postcolonialism,” which has been applied to analysis of colonial expansion and decolonization, applied to Algeria, to the nineteenth-century United States, and nineteenth-century Brazil (Mignolo 2007: 87).
However, decoloniality does precede post-colonialism historically. Decoloniality arose at the same time as colonialism of the Americas: during the sixteenth century. Decolonial scholars consider the colonization of the Americas a precondition for postcolonial analysis. The seminal text of postcolonial studies, Orientalism by Edward Said, describes the nineteenth-century European invention of the Orient as a geographic region considered racially and culturally distinct from, and inferior to, Europe. However, without the European invention of the Americas in the sixteenth century—occasionally referred to as Occidentalism—the later invention of the Orient would have been impossible (Mignolo 2011: 56). This means that postcolonialism becomes problematic when applied to post-nineteenth-century Latin America (Mignolo 2007: 88).
Decoloniality is not decolonization
Decolonization is largely political and historical: the end of the period of territorial domination of lands primarily in the global south by European powers. Coloniality is in fact the substance of the historical period of colonization—its social constructions, imaginaries, practices, hierarchies, and violence. This substance manifested throughout the world and determined the socioeconomic, racial, and epistemological value systems of contemporary society, commonly called “modern” society. Coloniality did not disappear with decolonization: the nineteenth century end of territorial domination of the Americas by Iberian nations, or the twentieth century end of territorial domination of Asia and Africa by other European nations.
It is important to note that vast difference exists in the histories, socioeconomics, and geographies of colonization in its various global manifestations. What happened in Peru was much different than what happened in Indonesia, in South Africa, and the U.S. Southwest. However, coloniality— meaning racialized and gendered socioeconomic and political stratification according to an invented Eurocentric standard—was common to all forms of colonization. Similarly, decoloniality in the form of challenges to this Eurocentric stratification manifested previous to de jure decolonization. Gandhi in India, Fanon in Algeria, Mandela in South Africa, and the Zapatistas in Mexico are all examples of decolonial projects that existed before decolonization.
Decoloniality is not postmodernity
"Modernity" as a concept is complementary to coloniality. Coloniality is called “the darker side of western modernity” (Mignolo 2011). The problematic aspects of coloniality—racism, sexism, ecocide, ethnocide, and genocide—are often overlooked when describing the totality of Western society. The advent of Western society is instead often discussed as the introduction of modernity and rationality, a concept critiqued by post-modern thinkers. However, this critique is largely “limited and internal to European history and the history of European ideas” (Mignolo 2007: 451). Although postmodern thinkers recognize the problematic nature of the notions of modernity and rationality, these thinkers often overlook the fact that modernity as a concept emerged when Europe defined itself as the “center” of the world. This means that they overlook the fact that those defined as “periphery” are part of Europe’s self-definition. In a nutshell, like modernity, postmodernity often reproduces the “Eurocentric fallacy” foundational to modernity. Therefore, rather than criticizing the terrors of modernity, decolonial thinking and doing criticize Eurocentric modernity and rationality because of the “irrational myth” that these conceal (Mignolo 2007: 453-454). Decolonial approaches thus seek to "politicise epistemology from the experiences of those on the ‘border,’ not to develop yet another epistemology of politics" (Laurie 2012: 13).
It is critical to recognize that the “structure of power was and even continues to be organized on and around the colonial axis” (Quijano 2000: 568), that decolonization did not eliminate coloniality, “it merely transformed its outer form” (Quijano & Wallerstein 1992: 550). The lofty goals of decoloniality, in both its analytic and programmatic function, are succinctly stated by Quijano: To recognize that the instrumentalization of reason by the colonial matrix of power produced distorted paradigms of knowledge and spoiled the liberating promises of modernity, and by that recognition, realize the destruction of global coloniality of power (Mignolo 2007: 452).
Examples of contemporary decolonial programmatics and analytics exist throughout the Americas. Decolonial programmatics include the already-mentioned Zapatista caracol (LINK) governments of Southern Mexico, Indigenous movements for autonomy throughout South America, including CONFENIAE in Ecuador, ONIC in Colombia, the TIPNIS movement in Bolivia, and the Landless Workers' Movement (MST: Movimento dos Trabalhadores Sem Terra) in Brazil. Recent transnational organizing by a coalition of Indigenous peoples in the form of the Idle No More movement is yet another example of decolonial programmatics. These movements embody action oriented towards the goals expressed in above statement by Quijano, succinctly, to seek ever-increasing freedoms by challenging the reasoning behind modernity, since modernity is in fact a facet of the colonial matrix of power.
Examples of contemporary decolonial analytics include ever-expanding applications and conceptualizations of feminism and queer theory, as well as ethnic studies programs at various educational levels, including those at the K-12 level recently banned in Arizona, as well as long-established university programs in ethnic studies like those at the University of California, Berkeley. Expanding recognition of the articulation between scholarship and activism in fact begins to dissolve the arguably artificial boundary between decolonial analytics and programmatics, between decolonial thought and action by recognizing that the way in which scholars view “the causes, forms, and consequences of social movements has significant implications for how [they] understand their potential, the stakes involved and the meaning of the political [or decolonial] itself.” Scholars—those usually concerned primarily with analytics—who fail to recognize the connection between politics or decoloniality and the production of knowledge—between programmatics and analytics—are those most likely to reflect “an underlying acceptance of capitalist modernity, liberal democracy, and individualism” (Juris & Khasnabish 2013: 6) values which decoloniality seeks to challenge.
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