Decolonization: What Ought To Be


“The modern collapse of “Reason” & “History” into all things European represented a failure of reason & history that required self-deception regarding Europe’s scope. Put differently: Europe sought to become ontological; it sought to become what dialecticians call “Absolute Being”. Such Being stood in the way of the human being, of a human way of being. It thus presented itself as a theodicy. Theodicy (from theos, meaning god, & dikē, meaning justice) is the branch of inquiry that attempts to account for the compatibility of an omnipotent, omniscient, & good god with injustice & evil.” –  Lewis Gordon in What Fanon Said: A Philosophical Introduction To His Life & Thought (2015:19)

Europe seeks to make Euro-Western thought & practice ontological (all that is (descriptive) & what ought to be (prescriptive) (Gordon 2015:19).  Note that in this case, Lewis Gordon discusses how black can never be white, it can only ‘imitate’ whiteness.  Toni Morrison speaks of this, whiteness just gets to “be”, everybody else has to hyphenate. But by the same token, look at how the rule doesn’t follow in reverse: black can never be white but white always has access to black.  Note, this is in reference to appropriation & the practice of emptying a subject of its complex meaning to wear it as a costume.  This is a kind of objectification that reduces an active subject (a being capable of activity) to a passive thing (what Aime Cesaire calls “thingification”).  But black cannot be white, black can only imitate, its a version, a hyphenation, the standard for all things & their meaning is first white. 

The 1st distinction. The meaning is first white.  It just IS. That’s ontological, Europe seeks to be ontological (descriptive + prescriptive).  To seek to be ontological is to seek to be the sole standard of what is and what ought to be.   This is why knowledge production is so important because the practice of definition, description, & prescription are world making & world ending.  It should never be taken lightly.  & by taken lightly I mean you should be careful, take caution.  If a problem exists then seeking its solution means interrogating its framing.  This caution being taken is a kind of critical consciousness (awareness):

“Rationalizations of Western thought often led to a theodicy of Western civilization & thought as systems that were complete & intrinsically legitimate in all aspects of human life, on levels of description (what is) & prescription (what ought to be), of being & value, while its incompleteness, its failure to be so, hallmarks of the “dark side of thought” lived by those constantly being crushed under its heels, remained a constant source of anxiety, often in the form of social denial. People of color, particularly black people, live the contradictions of this self-deception continually through attempting to participate in this theodicy in good faith. This lived contradiction emerged because a demand often imposed upon people of color is that they accept the tenets of Western civilization and thought without being critical of them. Critical consciousness asks not only whether systems are consistently applied but also whether the systems themselves are compatible with other projects, especially humanistic ones.” – Lewis Gordon in What Fanon Said: A Philosophical Introduction To His Life & Thought (2015:20)

The interrogation of the framing of something, of what something is and the conditions that shape its meaning(s) is a confrontation of the definitive (what is) in the hopes of generating an is and an ought to be based on different principles.  That is what critical consciousness is, we interrogate what the social world is, has been in order to consider other ought to be(s).

Raise the world with language empowered by the act.- Frantz Omar Fanon

When we say we seek to change the world that means we seek new language, one empowered by particular kinds of actions. to be something else. It means we want to change what is (descriptive) & what ought to be (prescriptive). The rules about behavior (norm) are the descriptive & prescriptive. Kwame Nkrumah talks about this in his book “Consciencism”, “Any change of ethics constitutes a revolutionary change” (1964:95). Revolution changes principles, standards, what is, what ought to be, methods, the ways of being, ethics (how to take care + sustain). Decolonization does not go unnoticed, it can’t; its world changing, world ending, and world-making. Decolonization is a historical process that dethrones Euro-Western thought & practice as the standard & primary (theodicy) for existence.

Radical simply means ‘grasping things at the root’. – Angela Davis

The root of a thing is its many meanings it has in the world, what it is, what it ought to be, could be. The root of a thing, its meanings are found in its history, in its process (being, activity, happening). I know that a lot of people use the word “decolonize” & its many other iterations, but the meaning of the word is not understood. Decolonization is a painstaking process, the introduction to the end of the very systems & ways of being that has come to define modernity. It calls for an awareness of your relative position(s) in your community, your role(s), your actions, etc. Decolonization is a historical process, its generated by the making of history (struggles, strategies, & tactics), which is found in the everyday practice of coordinated human action. Decolonization is unsettling, uncomfortable, & it’s messy. Decolonization is a hashing out of a different way to be, definitely not this the ways things are now. & that’s something you struggle with every day, that reflective struggle produces an awareness so you can make better decisions each day.

Decolonization starts with a recognition of your relative social position in the systems we talk about so often about abolishing. Decolonization starts with working out all the different ways we can interact with others without denying their self-determination. Decolonization starts with questioning the notions of private property & endlessly seeking profit & how we can build different relations. Decolonization doesn’t mean ‘diversity’, it means a process that generates actions towards the goal of not having to use that word anymore. Decolonization is asking yourself every day if what you think something “is” &/or “ought to be” is yours or colonialism’s. Decolonization is not a metaphor. How do your words & actions seek to address what has been stolen, lost, & how we can heal? Be careful with the words you use. when we don’t honor words with the respect (attention) their meaning demands we make foolish decisions.

“If you’re not ready to die for it, take the word ‘freedom’ out of your vocabulary.” – Malcolm X

If you are not committed to the returning the stolen lands of Indigenous peoples & confronting settler capitalism don’t say decolonize. Confronting Europe’s seeking to be ontological is not easy or comfortable work. But if you understand & honor the freedom of your life & others then you will honor the meaning of the word. Rejecting oppression means rejecting it for yourself & others. Freedom is also achieved by resisting the false freedom domination offers.

“In construction, as in rejection, it is a matter of reconquering freedom on the contingent facticity of existence, that is, of taking the given, which, at the start, is there without any reason, as something willed by man. A conquest of this kind is never finished; the contingency remains, and, so that he may assert his will, man is even obliged to stir up in the world the outrage he does not want. But this element of failure is a very condition of his life; one can never dream of eliminating it without immediately dreaming of death. This does not mean that one should consent to failure, but rather one must consent to struggle against it without respite.” – Simone de Beauvoir in The Ethics of Ambiguity

James Baldwin says that “a writer is obliged at some point to realize is that he is involved in a language which he has to change.” Decolonization; as Fanon argues in The Wretched of the Earth; seeks to create new men. “New men” as in new humans, new human ways of being based on one’s principled actions against colonization (false freedom, the failure of freedom). The language has to change, the way we use it has to change. The discordance between what we say & what we do has to change.

“The task of the black ethicist is to formulate our values so that we can measure our behavior in relation to our proclamations.” – James H. Cone in God of the Oppressed



Cone, James H.. 1997. God of the Oppressed. Maryknoll: Orbis Books.

de Beauvoir, Simone. 2015. The Ethics of Ambiguity. New York: Philosophical Library.

Fanon, Frantz and Richard Philcox. 2004. The Wretched of the Earth. New York: Grove Press.

Freire, Paulo. 2000. Pedagogy of the Oppressed. New York: Bloomsbury.

Gordon, Lewis. 2015. What Fanon Said: A Philosophical Introduction to His Life and Thought. New York: Fordam University Press.

Nkrumah, Kwame. 1970. Consciencism: Philosophy and Ideology for De-colonization. New York: Monthly Review Press.

Tuck, Eve and K. W. Yang. 2012. “Decolonization is not a metaphor.” Decolonization: Indigeneity, Education & Society 1(1):1–40.