Decolonising your writing

By kate harriden

kate harriden’s biography

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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.

7 thoughts on “Decolonising your writing”

  1. marang ngarin/morning Adriana

    Totally agree that writing is but the tip of an oversized iceberg. Publication practices/priorities also need a good shake up for example. But yes, it is ultimately about power, and who has it…or not. That changed recognition of value of Indigenous knowledge systems of which you type is something desperately needed (tho’ I am very wary of conflating Indigenous and local knowledge). Yet every day this Indigenous woman sees evidence of 1 step forward and 2 steps back (this is not a typo) in both the academic institutions she’s part of. Colonial-settler power shifts, morphs and changes to ensure it is never shared outside the tight knit group that holds it. And language is so often at the tool that covers this reality. In this way, decolonial writing is also decolonial reading – we need to read what we see through a decolonial prism.

    And who doesn’t love a Tuck & Yang reference? mandaang guwu/thanks for sharing that with everyone 🙂

    girragirra/be well

  2. Dear Kate,
    Thanks for the insightful and very useful piece. I shared with all people in our research team, who works with local and Indigenous communities. We are a diverse team, which works with some communities for a long time, 8 years in two communities, and we come from a diversity of positionalities. Be that as it may, it is really necessary that all in the team reflect about how to decolonize our writing, but beyond that how to decolonize research as a whole. We have been engaged with a number of issues you touch upon in the text. I would like to highlight one of them here, the need that we, researchers, coming from universities (which already brings an imbalance into the picture), with different ethnicities, genders, sexual orientations and so forth, recognize our own privileges. This is a key aspect of the preparation of researchers in our team to go into the field. Those who do not reflect on their own privileges are much more likely to engage in oppressive, (neo)colonial practices, as well as to lose the many opportunities for emergences of dialogue, reciprocity, mutual engagement and learning in encounters across differences, across our different positionalities. In Brazil, the simple fact that we were successful in getting into the university, and then into research is a privilege that needs recognition and, more than that, needs to be worked upon. (We know this is not exclusive from Brazil). The more work we devote to this recognition and deconstructive work, the more likely it is that we truly engage with those who give us the opportunity to share their knowledge, building liaisons of corresponsibility. One important additional aspect I’d like to briefly mention is the need that we give due credit to the owners of the knowledge we are reporting. Evidently, one way to do so, which we need to encourage and carry out, is to coauthor works with them, and, as you write, also invite them to lead the pieces we work on to write and get published. But, also, when we cite passages with their knowledge, we need to add their names as authors, unless there are risks and other ethical concerns that necessitates we avoid to do so. It is important, then, that when we submit our projects to ethics research committees we dialogue about these issues, which may not be so easily recognized depending on the composition of the committees, or may not be properly covered by the laws on research ethics, which may show blindspots to some specific ways of doing research. Again, thanks for this wonderful piece!

    • yiradhu marang/good day

      I’m so pleased you found this piece useful. Your response is also useful and, if it is ok with you Charbel El-hani, I’d like to use some of your experiences (without naming names of course) for a session on positionality that I’m running next week. Not only do you raise some excellent points in a easy to digest style, that your experiences are not in an english settler-state context (eg Aust, Canada, Aotearoa/New Zealand and USA) is particularly useful. There is already (more than?) enough material about the ideas, experience and understandings of people in such places

      Your clear call for uni academics particularly to recognize/acknowledge our privilege before going into the field is excellent. Too many researchers unconsciously or uncritically reproduce destructive research practices and paradigms. Being aware of your positionality, and how it influences the way you work and engage, makes for better research and research relationships and is something I am constantly trying to impress on my colleagues.

      In terms of co-authorship, some non-Indigenous academics in the place now called Australia co-author with the Country of a specific Indigenous nation and some of the custodians of that Country. ‘Country’ is a word First Nations peoples here call their sovereign territory and we know that everything comes from Country, including ourselves. Country is actually lead author in these publications! Not only does this demonstrate how much the non-Indigenous authors positionality has shifted during the many years of researching with Yonglu peoples on Bawaka Country but is a very clear decolonial writing approach. Here’s a reference for one of the many fine papers this group has written: Bawaka Country, Wright, Suchet-Pearson et al (2016) “co-becoming Bawaka: toward a relational understanding of place/space” Progress in Human Geography 2016, Vol. 40(4) 455–475 DOI: 10.1177/0309132515589437

      girragirra/be well

      • Dear Kate,
        Thank you very much. I am happy that the comment was useful for you and I am very pleased you will use it in the session on positionality. Thanks also for the indication of the paper and the comments on co-authorship, a challenging but entirely necessary step we have been taking here. I hope we can stay in contact and continue sharing along time. All the best, Charbel

  3. Thank you Kate! This is exactly what one who was born on the other side of the history needs to hear. With all my openness I tried to expose myself to this incorporated injustice — but blind spots remain and most likely not even the longest psychotherapy could reveal what those suffering western hegemony can illuminate to someone like me. I was lucky enough that very patient people accompanied me and are still patient with me in unlearning behaviour I’d love to get rid of (thanks Rebecca, thanks Thenjiwe… and many others). From Paulo Freire’s texts I have learned: “It is only the oppressed who, by freeing themselves, can free their oppressors.“ Reading that, a strong feeling of powerlessness, of helplessness emerges — alongside a deep feeling of hope that there is a way out … Ulli

    • marang ngarin/morning Ulli

      Lovely to see you acknowledge those who helped you ‘unlearn’. ‘Unlearn’ is a long – neverending? – process. Decolonizing writing practices is a good place to start. Also nice to see you acknowledge blindspots. We’ve all got them, but not everyone likes to admit it. Positionality statements, while not “extensive psychotherapy” also offer the decolonial-curious researcher a solid starting point to being unpacking the myriad of ways ‘western’ hegemony has colonized their minds.


  4. Dear Kate,
    Thank you very much for this call to decolonize academic writing. Indeed, it is absolutely necessary. And I consider it a direct consequence of the persistent practice of coloniality in research and knowledge production. I believe that the writing is only the visible part of the iceberg. So, if we do not decolonize power and knowledge, the issues you highlighted will continue appearing in the writing. One way is stopping Damage-centered research practices (Tuck & Yang, 2014), another is engaging in more respectful dialogue with people/communities from different knowledge systems (e.g. see our contribution on about Listening-based dialogue). Things could change when academics start recognizing Indigenous and local knowledge at the same level and with the same value as academic knowledge.

    Tuck, E., & Yang, K. W. (2014). R-words: Refusing research. In D. Paris & M.T. Winn (Eds) Humanizing research: Decolonizing qualitative inquiry with youth and communities, Sage, 223-248.


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