Challenging Classroom Colonialism and the Problem With “Decolonizing Education”

A teacher reads a story to young students.

Efforts to “decolonize education” aim to bring attention to the ways that settler colonialism shapes schooling. In practice, however, they may perpetuate the same injustices against Indigenous peoples they seek to dismantle.

Educators should grapple with the multifarious ways that colonization operates in education. Teachers, students, researchers, and administrators ought to actively challenge the systemic racism and settler-colonialist bias that undergirds education at every level.

One way to engage critically with the concept involves understanding why most calls to “decolonize the curriculum” and “decolonize education” fail to bring about transformative change and reparations for Indigenous people.

What Is Decolonization?

Can you name the Indigenous peoples upon whose land you work and travel? How did you come to occupy the territory where you now live? The legacy of settler colonialism involves the erasure and active forgetting of Indigenous people, so asking questions like these can spark students to consider their complicity in the ongoing devaluation and divestment of Indigenous people.

Yet, helping students learn the truth of settler colonialism and centering Indigenous thinkers and activists in lesson plans, even on a wide scale, does not amount to decolonization.

Decolonization is the repatriation of Indigenous land and life. In concrete terms, decolonization can take many forms: restoring settler-occupied territory to Indigenous people, acknowledging the sovereignty of Indigenous people, and ceasing the state-sponsored segregation, surveillance, and criminalization of Indigenous people through the use of schooling, imprisonment, and policing.

Decolonization requires action, not lip service or mere perspective taking.

When “Decolonizing Education” Becomes a Metaphor

Often in education, the advice given by well-meaning theorists to “decolonize the classroom” falls woefully short of the tangible goals of decolonization.

In their foundational article, Eve Tuck, of the State University of New York at New Paltz, and K. Wayne Yang, of the University of California, San Diego, find that education research superficially adopts the language of decolonization in problematic ways. They assert that tepid calls to “decolonize” education equate the arduous political struggle for recognizing Indiginous sovereignty with reading Indigenous authors or learning about Indigenous ways of life.

While these latter projects may be admirable, and even necessary for social justice, they fail to achieve decolonization. This is why Tuck and Yang propose that “decolonization is not a swappable term for other things we want to do to improve our society and schools.”

Scholar Sara Ahmed speaks extensively about how schools and universities resist decolonial transformation. Ahmed argues that academic institutions may use their public image to “paint a profitable illusion of themselves as lively, dynamic and responsive,” while often actively trying to stop change from happening. In her view, terms such as “decolonizing” become buzzwords to project the appearance of responsiveness to injustice instead of making lasting change.

Who Really Benefits from “Decolonizing Education”?

Tuck and Yang’s deeper critique concerns the ways that the language of decolonization flatters those in power.

They argue that the inappropriate use of the term “decolonizing” as a metaphor actually “kills the very possibility of decolonization; it recenters whiteness, it resettles theory, it extends innocence to the settler, it entertains a settler future.” How can this be?

Consider an example from recent efforts to achieve equitable classrooms by diversifying assigned readings.

It is an important tenet of anti-racist pedagogy to assign thinkers and texts from underrepresented groups, and to decenter the thinkers and texts that participate in the ongoing oppression of marginalized groups. No one doubts that these are crucial steps to increasing representation in the classroom of people of color and other groups who write from the margins.

But imagine a teacher who assigns Indigenous authors, then describes their efforts as “decolonizing” the curriculum. The use of the term “decolonizing” in this metaphorical way mistakenly equates reading Indigenous writers with achieving Indigenous political aims. This move also “entertains a settler future” by appropriating the narratives of Indigenous people into existing education structures.

Creating More Equitable Learning Environments

History does not need to overtly valorize settler-colonialist ideals to tacitly endorse them. Teachers want to help. But teachers need to actively question their own personal position of power first.

Take stock of the following suggestions for creating more equitable learning environments.

Teachers Must Self-Examine and Self-Correct

As educator Michael Seward writes, “Colonization’s legacy is about power: who has it, and who is denied it?” Teachers who merely denounce racism without actively teaching anti-racism fail to empower students to grapple with these questions.

Teachers need to self-reflect and consider the ways that the classroom is a political space, regardless of whether a teacher chooses to acknowledge this fact.

“I have yet to encounter a teacher who openly espouses racism,” Seward continues. “Everyone claims to be against racism. Everyone wants to empower students. Yet to begin to ameliorate the deep damage caused by colonization and racism (systems of power) means to be actively and overtly political.”

Challenging Colonialism in the Classroom

Educators can take many steps to challenge colonialism in the classroom:

  • Speak in the present tense. When referring to Indigenous peoples, speaking exclusively in the past tense is a form of erasure. It suggests that Native people are not living today. Use the present tense.
  • Learn the history of your own neighborhood. Disrupt the narratives that erase Indigenous people. Search online or ask a librarian to help you learn more about the land you live on and its history.
  • Practice land acknowledgement. Land recognition, or land acknowledgement, is a practice of naming and respecting the Indigenous people upon whose territory we gather. The practice of land recognition disrupts dominant narratives that ignore and alienate Indigenous peoples, and honors the people on whose land we often live as uninvited guests.
  • Diversify learning materials, teaching methods, and assessment tools. Resisting colonialism involves engaging students with a variety of voices, mediums, and activities that decenter colonialists and imperialists and center Indigenous thinkers.
  • Incorporate social justice aims in lessons. Settler colonialism is ongoing, and so are efforts to reduce its pernicious influence. Look on tribal websites and social media pages to find out what priorities and actions Indigenous activists in your area are advocating for today.
  • Encourage coalitional activism and resistance to colonial legacies. Much activism today focuses on a single issue or a single social group. Coalitional activism brings diverse stakeholders together to fight for a cause. Encourage students to think about how oppression on the basis of race, gender, and class function together to suppress voices from the margins. Think about ways to build coalitions with others, then act.

Advocating for All Students

Teachers must work to promote more equitable learning environments that actively resist cultural hegemony. Mills College’s online Master of Arts in Educational Leadership program teaches a leadership model that emphasizes inclusiveness, collaboration, and decolonization. Rooted in anti-racist praxis, Mills prepares educational leaders to confront ethical challenges and advance lasting structural change. Learn more about Mills’s commitment to equitably educating all students today.

Mills College stands on Ohlone territory. The college offers this official land acknowledgement:

We acknowledge the land and labor of the Ohlone people, whose connection to this land we remember, and whose presence—past, present, and future—we respect. As part of Mills’s mission of supporting and fostering learning through the generation and dissemination of knowledge, we acknowledge that the land we are meeting on today is the original homeland of Ohlone people.

Promoting Social Justice in the Classroom

Why Is Equity in Education Important? Understanding the Long-Term Impact of Opportunity Gaps

How You Can Be a Diversity Advocate as an Education Leader


Decolonization: Indigeneity, Education & Society, “Decolonization Is Not a Metaphor”

Duke University Press, Kyla Schuller, The Biopolitics of Feeling: Race, Sex, and Science in the Nineteenth Century

GBH News, “Dismantling Systemic Racism Starts in Schools, Educators Say”

The Guardian, “Academics: It's Time to Get Behind Decolonising the Curriculum”

Medium, “So You Want to Decolonize Higher Education? Necessary Conversations for Non-Indigenous People”

Medium, “So You Want to Decolonize Higher Education? Pt II: Questions for Non-Indigenous People to Consider”

Muwekma Ohlone Tribe of the San Francisco Bay Area

National Congress of American Indians

National Council of Teachers of English, “Decolonizing the Classroom: Step 1”

PBS Teachers Lounge, “Decolonizing Our Classrooms Starts With Us”

Varsity, “Sara Ahmed: ‘If Addressing Racism Gets in the Way of Someone Else’s Happiness, Then So Be It’”