Decoloyarning: You are not the messiah…you’re a very naughty researcher (aka some reasons to, and tips for, decolonizing your writing)
Everything settler-colonists write, everything settler-colonists research, has an opportunity to be decolonized. That's right: there are no loopholes, no exceptions. It doesn't matter if you're researching the diets of species through mammalian scat analysis in a lab, working under the direction of local Traditional Owners on waterways, or writing an exegetical essay to accompany a painting of your local shops, this month's Decoloyarn is for all researchers, from all disciplines, whether you do research at a university, for an organisation or as an individual.
So how do you decolonize your writing? In this Decoloyarn, Fenner Circle co-founder and co-convener kate harriden speaks to non-Indigenous academics directly, from her standpoint as a wiradyuri woman and awarded water scholar. If you do one thing this year to support decolonisation and Indigenous scholars, consider your writing, with the support of this article and the recommended readings.
It is draining, infuriating and tedious to consistently encounter recently written academic material that invokes, seemingly uncritically, colonial tropes. Paired with these tropes is usually a mix of arrogance, condescension and ignorance on which notions of western superiority are based. I am Totally. Over. It. Not only are these tropes inaccurate and offensive, they allow the colonized researcher to avoid critiquing the impacts of colonization and (un)conscious biases in their work. If you don’t understand ‘the problem’, chances are you are part of it, so sit down and open your mind as we go through this together. Hopefully the tips provided on how to decolonize your academic writing will start your journey into decolonizing writing.
Learning to recognize colonial writing
Undoubtedly you have read substantially more academic material imbuded with colonial values and assumptions than decolonial academic material. Further, the volume of colonial material is such that you are likely blinded to the many and long threads of the colonial project deeply embedded in academic writing. Evidence of the colonial project is readily found in most academic writing, be it about Indigenous peoples or not.
Two common colonial narratives in academic writing about Indigenous peoples are:
- white saviour mentality: The sense held by many in the global north that they have the solutions to the global south’s problems and can just show up in a community and begin crafting solutions for the locals without their input (Malfatti, 2017).
- deficit discourse: a mode of thinking that frames and represent Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander identity in a narrative of negativity, deficiency and failure (Fogarty, Lovell, Langenberg & Heron, 2018).
These narratives are often supported by certain ways of using language, including disrespectful and exclusionary language, noting that “The terminology used in public discourse has rarely been that actually preferred by Indigenous people.”. Even as some turns of phrase sting this readers eyes, they offer a sense of the author’s (unconscious or otherwise) bias, demonstrating their lack of positional awareness. Positionality is the social and political context that creates your identity in terms of race class, gender, sexuality, and ability status (Duvall, Epting, & Isaac, n.d.).
General colonial writing practices that disadvantage Indigenous peoples include:
- exhibiting an unwillingness to consider anything other than ‘western’ ways of being, valuing and doing;
- a rigid adherence to, and insistence on, the title-abstract-intro-methods-results-discussion-conclusion-structure, word limits and image expectations (i.e. graphs, charts and diagrams ok; photos, drawings, imagery not so much); and
- an expectation that English will be language of academic writing, used in a particular academic style.
Regardless of the context academic colonial writing is found, it disadvantages Indigenous peoples.
Why decolonize academic writing?
There are many reasons to decolonize academic writing, some may even be more important than avoiding aggravating a small but significant readership cohort. A particularly important reason is to comprehensively reject inaccurate and damaging colonial troupes and racist stereotypes.
Other reasons to decolonize your academic writing include:
- to provide space for non-‘western’ ways of thinking, being, doing and valuing;
- to engage with Indigenous resilience and strength-based discourse and support dismantling the deficit discourse;
- to redress the power imbalance created by colonial insistence on writing/literacy and imposed, alien, standards of evidence and expertise;
- to redress the imbalance in knowledge transmission, where western knowledge systems and paradigms imported and imposed by colonial-settler project overwhelm efforts to maintain First Nations knowledge systems and paradigms; and to
- allow the voices of Indigenous knowledge creators and holders to be heard unfiltered, unedited.
- to improve your academic practice, wonderment, and integrity: if you believe knowledge production is as varied and exciting as the knowledge it produces, then you don’t get to decide (gatekeep) the knowledge production process – how it works, who it responds to or the format of its presentation.
Decolonizing your academic writing is one way to ‘check your privilege’.
How to decolonize your academic writing?
If you’d like to write articles that are decolonial in tone, and hopefully content, there are a number of things you can do. First, accept that it will take time and consistent effort to develop your decolonial writing skills. The next important step is to draft a positionality statement or do some self-reflection exercises to help identify the colonial/colonizing tendencies in yours and others academic writing. A positionality statement examines how your identity influences, and biases, your understanding of and approach to research.
That is, be respectful, humbler and more aware of your biases. Other practices to aid decolonizing your academic writing include:
- read and cite First Nation authors, including country, and decolonial conspirators; be critical about whose voices you privilege;
- review the terms and types of language you use when writing about Indigenous peoples and related matters
- seek free, prior and informed consent from Indigenous peoples before writing up any information they shared with you;
- write ethically. For example, when writing about research into other people’s lives, stories or knowledges, include only what can made public, do not misrepresent, fabricate or exaggerate knowledge/data shared, and ensure the holder of the knowledge being written about is appropriately acknowledged;
- co-author with First Nations knowledge holders, academics and practitioners; ask them to be lead author; and
- carefully consider who you seek to publish with – do they have a decolonizing policy, support First Nation research/ers or alternative publication practices?
Given the global history of the colonial-settler project, and ‘western’ science’s role in establishing colonial hegemony, it is appropriate that all academic writers seek to decolonize their writing expectations and practices. Even though each academic will decolonize their writing to different extents, over time the academy will become more familiar and adept with decolonial writing skills.
Start now – be at the forefront of your field.
Learn to recognise the deficits of colonial writing
Here are some use blogs and articles expanding on the deficits discussed in this article:
- White saviour mentality
- Deficit discourse
- Lack of positional awareness
Here are some materials about writing respectfully
At a recent Fenner Circle, this paper was regarded as a reasonable example of decolonized academic writing, albeit with a collective side eye to its sole authorship.
Gram-Hanssen, I. (2021) Individual and collective leadership for deliberate transformations: Insights from Indigenous leadership Leadership 17(5) 519-541
Duvall, S., Epting, K. & Isaac, M. (n.d.) ECF Sophomore Seminar Assignment: Positionality Statements
Fogarty, W., Lovell, M., Langenberg, J. and Heron, M.-J. (2018) Deficit Discourse and Strengths-based Approaches: Changing the Narrative of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Health and Wellbeing, Melbourne, The Lowitja Institute.
Malfatti, G. (2017) Of Chalk and Chai: Teach Abroad Experiences that Enhance Cultural Adaptability of Pre-Service Teachers in Handbook of Research on Efficacy and Implementation of Study Abroad Programs for P-12 Teachers