By kate harriden
As an Indigenous person, 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 imbued 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.
- deficit discourse: a mode of thinking that frames and represents Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander identity in a narrative of negativity, deficiency and failure (see also the i2Insights contribution by Katie Thurber on Why we need strengths-based approaches to achieve social justice.)
These narratives are often supported by certain ways of using language, including disrespectful and exclusionary language. Even as some turns of phrase sting this reader’s 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.
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 (ie., graphs, charts and diagrams ok; photos, drawings, imagery not so much); and
- an expectation that English will be the language of academic writing, used in a particular academic style.
Regardless of the context in which 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 tropes 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 and 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-settlers overwhelm efforts to maintain First Nations knowledge systems and paradigms;
- to allow the voices of Indigenous knowledge creators and holders to be heard unfiltered and 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 your and other 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 Nations 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 and 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 where you seek to publish – does the publisher have a decolonizing policy, support First Nations 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!
To find out more:
This i2Insights contribution is adapted from a longer version, with references, published on 2 November 2022 as “Decoloyarning: You are not the messiah…you’re a very naughty researcher (aka some reasons to, and tips for, decolonizing your writing)” in Decoloyarns, a series of articles arising from the Fenner Decolonial Research and Teaching Circle which was co-founded by kate harriden, Rachel England and Sam Provost in 2019.
Biography: kate harriden is a wiradyuri woman who has been working with water, from Indigenous and non-Indigenous perspectives, for more than 20 years. She recently submitted her PhD thesis, undertaken at the Fenner School of Environment and Society at the Australian National University in Canberra.