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Decolonization(s): Planetary Citizenry

Updated: Feb 17, 2021

In order for there to be a concrete goal for what decolonization must do and undo there has to be a collective understanding of what colonization does. Both understandings are difficult to arrive at when different regimes have colonized distinct people and places with different methods and motivations. With so many variables in the colonial process, there will be at least as many in the decolonial process. Suffice it to say, there cannot be one right way to decolonize all lands, societies and individual minds that have been subjected to colonialism. Colonization proves time and again to be inherently violent as it depends upon the subjugation of any people, non-human animals and the rest of the natural world should they prove to be an obstacle to the colonizer’s project. There are only two universal constants in how a decolonial project ought to be undertaken: (1) in accordance with non-domination, as described by Adom Getachew and (2) in accordance with self-determination, which accounts for the multiplicity of decolonial initiatives and does not seek to overlook or overcome that multiplicity.

Fig. 1) Adom Getachew, political theorist at the University of Chicago

Decolonization cannot be ultimately realized through half-measures. Still, in some cases it may unfold in a gradual way where organizers return to the drawing board and adjust methods to more effectively meet the goals of a particular postcolonial community. Revolutions that are full-stop reversals of power in a dialectical sense and movements that are muddled and full of contradictions: the two approaches have aligned purposes when each is exercised under suitable circumstances. So long as it is on the terms of the colonized, there is no wrong way to decolonize one’s land, one’s own body and one’s mind.

In the field of biology, colonization is defined as such:

Colonization is the occupation of a habitat or territory by a biological community or of an ecological niche by a single population of a species. Biological colonization relates to all species, from microbes – including bacteria, archaea, and fungi – to more complex organisms, like plants and animals. The term also applies to the occupation of new territories, including planets, by the human species. Biological colonization is a dynamic process that begins when unoccupied habitats, territories, or niches become available, or when organisms acquire the ability to survive and reproduce under environmental conditions of new niches, by a process of adaptation. [1]

Like some other predator species, the human colonizer does not care whether the territory is already occupied. Humans, however, are in the unique position of being able to radically manipulate a habitat to meet their demands, instead of having to adapt themselves to meet the conditions of the environment.

Fig. 2) E. coli colony growth

The climate crisis faced today is largely understood to be catalyzed by unsustainable industrial processes. The fate of all humanity quite literally depends on a full-stop termination of these practices and in order to accomplish this the mechanisms behind industry: neo-colonialism and capitalism must be dismantled. This lofty task has been assigned to decolonial efforts, as they are the first line of defense against multinational corporate interests (i.e., neocolonialism).

One of the most enduring challenges facing decolonization efforts is the medium/language that decolonial goals are articulated. All of the academic texts cited in this essay are in English, some occasionally featuring sections of text in other languages or were written in another language but were then translated to English to make the ideas contained in them accessible to a wider audience. In this context, from the first utterance of a decolonial idea, it is already on the terms of the colonizer. It is for this reason that Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak says the Subaltern cannot speak, why Ngũgĩ wa Thiong'o writes almost exclusively in Gĩkũyũ and that Gloria Anzaldúa encourages her readers to dream, conceive and conceptualize in their native language. Of course there is the troublesome territory of whose language is whose. Ngũgĩ wa Thiong'o has a pretty straightforward, binaristic concept of language ownership: English and other languages of European origin belong to the colonizer and are imposed upon the colonized.

Fig. 3) Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, author of Can the subaltern speak?

Fig. 4) Ngũgĩwa Thiong'o, author of Decolonising the Mind

Fig. 5) Gloria Anzaldúa, author of Borderlands/La Frontera: the New Mestiza


[1] Silvano Onofri, Colonization (Biological), In: Gargaud M. et al. (eds) Encyclopedia of Astrobiology. (Springer, Berlin, Heidelberg, 2011)

From this perspective any decolonial effort must seek to do away with languages from Europe and return to one’s Indigenous language. But if someone happens to be an English-speaking colonized person whose dialect is mixed with the native tongue of the colonized land, then could that person seriously be expected to formulate thoughts in any other form than the sort of English that has been reconstituted to suit its cultural context? Take for example Cristina García’s 1992 novel, Dreaming in Cuban (1992), specifically how it is not called: Dreaming in Spanish. The implication here is that the colonized are not the ones that should be forced to atone for the colonization of their Indigenous languages but have every right to move through life from the mixed cultural context in which they find themselves. Spivak argues that regardless of what language the colonized opts to use that because of the colonizer’s weaponization of hegemony the thoughts that the colonized seeks to share are already compromised by double consciousness, and othering of themselves and centralizing of the colonizer. Then again, the imposition of English on the colonized world is one of the primary devices through which this epistemic violence is inflicted. In the dilemma of language one can glimpse the leviathan of an issue that decolonization is facing in various places and different cultural contexts, that is: the experience of having been colonized is inextricably linked to the anticolonial present and efforts towards a decolonized future cannot pretend that that history is not there. Decolonization entails confrontation for healing as much as for a revolution’s sake, which is another point that Anzaldúa advises her reader on:

The answer to the problem between the white race and the colored, between males and females, lies in healing the split that originates in the very foundation of our lives, our culture, our languages, our thoughts. A massive uprooting of dualistic thinking in the individual and collective consciousness is the beginning of a long struggle, but one that could, in our best hopes, bring us to the end of rape, of violence, of war. [2]


[2] Anzaldúa Gloria, Borderlands/La Frontera: the New Mestiza (San Francisco, CA: Aunt Lute Books, 2012), p. 181.

Here lies a new challenge—concerning binarismsone that can brew in-fighting but also catalyzes much needed peer critique: can any and everything remain fluid or are there hard lines that have to be drawn?

Achille Mbembe’s proposal for Afropolitanism (Afro-centric cosmopolitanism) incited strict criticism from some for being elitist and from the graduate student, Sarah Balakrishnan in particular on the grounds that its detachment of the definition of Africaness from that of Blackness invalidated the kinship and solidarity of Black people of the Diaspora to those that reside on the continent. Mbembe’s assertion is that:

[...]the ability to recognize one’s face in that of a foreigner and make the most of the traces of remoteness in closeness, to domesticate the unfamiliar, to work with what seem to be opposites—it is this cultural, historical, and aesthetic sensitivity that underlies the term Afropolitanism. [3]

Fig. 6) Achille Mbembe, philosopher

Fig. 7) Sarah Balakrishnan, doctoral candidate in African History at Harvard University

This emphasis on hospitality and cultural exchange is what facilitates the flows of the rhizomes and networks (which Mbembe discusses in reference to French deconstructivist theory). Mbembe deploys these terms to counteract the reigning ideology that Africa is a monolithic, custom/tradition bound place that exists outside the happenings of the rest of the world and to instead insist on the cultural dynamism of the continent. He emphasizes that these flows move out from as well as into and circulate within the continent’s subgroups. An individual in one lifetime might live in many different places and have ancestors and descendants in ever more different places.

Fig. 8) some types of Networks

Fig. 9) Gilles Deleuze (left), French philosopher and Félix Guattari (right), French psychotherapist

Individuals are carriers of cultures: bringing it with them, exchanging it in relationships forged in new places, and bringing what they pickup in those relationships to those they make in yet another new site. This point is one that Balakrishnan raises affirmatively:

The fact that kinship networks still scaffold the urban economy, granting food and shelter on credit and supporting those in need, is the reason that African cities are said to be capable of absorbing new global itinerants. [...] It is precisely the endurance of the tribe in the city, as an ever-expanding category, that makes the Afropolis the nexus of cosmopolitanism, par excellence. [4]

What Balakrishnan describes here is precisely what Afropolitanism aspires to for all its people regardless of race within the continent as well as those without.

In the same way that Afropolitanism can forge kinship bonds and solidarity at the individual or interpersonal level, as cited above it can demonstrably do so at a sociological scale. An Afropolitan approach to international relations should encourage similarly situated nations to collectively bargain with those superpowers that would seek to intimidate and economically exploit them.


[3] Achille Mbembe, “Afropolitanism,” trans. Laurent Chauvet, Journal of Contemporary African Art, no. 46 (May 2020): pp. 56-61,­ 8308174, p. 60.

[4] Sarah Balakrishnan, “Afropolitanism and the End of Black Nationalism,” ed. Gerard Delanty, Routledge International Handbook of Cosmopolitanism Studies , July 27, 2018, pp. 575-585, p. 582.

Cosmopolitanism’s mobility and itinerancy actively undermines those national borders that were imposed on the continent at the Berlin conference of 1884 and which remain to this day. These nation-states, while providing communities with a concrete liberation goal, have also drawn lines through pre-existing tribal groups, thereby fuelling multi-ethnic conflicts within nations and separating people of the same ethnic group into separate nation-states. Should the racial and ethnic multiplicity of African cities and countries be embraced at a multinational level within the continent, solidarity between African nations might achieve what Adom Getachew coins Postcolonial Cosmopolitanism.

Fig. 10) Cartography of the African continent over time

Getachew’s Postcolonial Cosmopolitanism—a multinational collection of similarly situated states—operates in resistance to the calculated move by the oppressor to maintain control over international relations by dictating the official language and terms that are to be used in discussions over what is really a move from direct to indirect rule: “Empire comes to an end when formerly excluded colonies enter international society as full members, and central to this inclusion is the universalization of the nation-state as the accepted institutional form of self-determination.” [5] Adherence to these prescribed nationalities delegitimizes traditional, tribal organizations of society and governance and encourages Indigenous groups to continue dispossessing themselves in order to gain access to the wider, dynamic, interrelated world that—prior to colonization—they have always participated in: “Partial recognition of this kind granted legal personality to non-European peoples, but it was a recognition that afforded native subjects the right only to dispossess of themselves.” [6] International relations as they are being mediated currently by colonizing nations, are a rigged game indeed. But that is not to say international relations are lost altogether. On the contrary: collective bargaining according to terms of non-domination is the only hope there is of reclaiming international relations and positioning them so that they are genuinely mutually beneficial. An expansive reading of Audre Lorde’s quote about the master’s tools emphasizes the importance of collective bargaining:

[...]survival is not an academic skill. It is learning how to stand alone, unpopular and sometimes reviled, and how to make common cause with those others identified as outside the structures in order to define and seek a world in which we can all flourish. It is learning how to take our differences and make them strengths. For the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house. They may allow us temporarily to beat him at his own game, but they will never enable us to bring about genuine change. [7]

Liberation requires the colonized subject to think outside the master’s box and discover that there is a world outside of it. Despite what the master might have that subject believe, the world is not his domain and neither are all the English dialects that have been refashioned and wielded by the Subaltern that dare to speak.

Fig. 11) Audre Lorde, author of Uses of the Erotic

Fig. 12) Micah M. White, co-creator of Occupy Wall street

As Micah White clarifies, Audre Lorde does not imply that one should give up because all tools available belong to the master, because that simply is not the case. She explicitly states that playing into the colonizer’s scheme for personal benefit will only provide short-term gains but that aligning oneself with those also on the periphery will provide new perspectives and relationships based on mutual interest.


[5] Adom Getachew, Worldmaking after Empire: the Rise and Fall of Self-Determination (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2020), p.16.

[6] Adom Getachew, Worldmaking after Empire: the Rise and Fall of Self-Determination (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2020), p.20.

[7] Micah White, “Meaning of ‘The Master's Tools Will Never Dismantle the Master's House.’ - Audre Lorde,” Activist School, accessed November 24, 2020,

The greatest undertaking is decolonizing decolonization itself, all others will inevitably return to this point. Decolonization in its infancy: an international liberation effort of the colonized world lead by the likes of Franz Fanon and Kwame Nkrumah, accomplished the first and one of the most difficult tasks in the decolonization process which is freedom from direct, militarized control by a colonizer.

Fig. 13) Kwame Nkrumah, first Prime Minister and President of Ghana

Fig. 14) Frantz Fanon, psychiatrist and political philosopher

But Fanon himself warned his successors that the struggle does not end there, for in order to free the whole person from bondage one must decolonize the mind: “With his back to the wall, the knife at his throat [...] the colonized subject is bound to stop telling stories. After years of unreality, [...] the colonized subject [...] finally confronts the only force which challenges his very being: colonialism.” [8] To be concerned with the abstract factors in decolonization does not detract from the material concerns of decolonization. On the contrary, the material condition of colonization cannot be overturned without dismantling the cognitive trappings that uphold colonialism.


[8] Frantz Fanon, Wretched of The Earth. transl. Richard Philcox. (New York, NY: Grove Press, 2005), p.20.

This is evidenced by the neocolonial relationship that persists in lieu of conspicuous colonial rule. The financial dependence that newly independent states have with powers from the Global North persists as a result of a political vocabulary established by those powers that maintain their position as the mediators and dispensers of “aid.” Return to Getachew’s note on how “central to this inclusion [in international society] is the universalization of the nation-state as the accepted institutional form of self-determination” (see fifth footnote) and how this linguistic qualifier for sovereignty upholds the neocolonial relationship of dependency, as described by Fanon:

A world of underdevelopment, a world of poverty and inhumanity. But also a world without doctors, without engineers, without administrators. Facing this world, the European nations wallow in the most ostentatious opulence. [...] And when we hear the head of a European nation declare with hand on heart that he must come to the aid of the unfortunate peoples of the underdeveloped world, we do not tremble with gratitude. On the contrary, we say among ourselves, “it is a just reparation we are getting.” So we will not accept aid for the underdeveloped countries as “charity.” Such aid must be considered the final stage of a dual consciousness—the consciousness of the colonized that it is their due and the consciousness of the capitalist powers that effectively they must pay up. [9]

Remember that Europe’s glimmering wealth comes from looting colonized peoples and lands, notably the gold and blood diamonds of Africa. The mindset of “charity” is the hegemony that allows the Global North to have an imbalanced relationship with the Global South in a more inconspicuous fashion (i.e., better optics).


[9] Frantz Fanon, Wretched of The Earth. transl. Richard Philcox. (New York, NY: Grove Press, 2005), p.53, 59.

And what need is there for palatable domination when the colonizer’s only offended party is the colonized and the only constituents are wealthy white people? Because colonial violence is not condoned by all that could benefit from it and not all constituents/citizens of the Global North are wealthy white people. Cosmopolitanism is writ large and race or ethnicity is not always a reliable indicator of a person’s geographic or economic positionality anymore. The borders thrust upon the global landscape by those that believe land can be owned and parcelled out for a given price are being challenged by the itinerant citizens of the world. Some move of their own volition and others are forced from their homelands by war or economic strife, either way the human inclination towards mobility is knocking down one crutch that holds up the colonizer’s dominance over newly independent nations, and that is the very idea of the nation-state as a geographical confine. The other crutch is financial and political isolation within a nation-state which is overcome by the collective bargaining that Getachew advises her subjects to partake in so that they might together be a sizable enough force to demand reparations instead of requesting “charity.” As the idea of the nation-state topples and East-West/North-South binarisms become muddled by mobilization and demographic flows, from it emerges an international society and global citizenry, the citizens of Earth. In a virtual lecture at Stanford University, Mbembe discusses habitability and definitions of “Earth,” "Planet" or “The World,” in relation to Martin Hiedegger’s ideas on Being in the world. Hiedeggar identified two modalities that people use to relate to one another: someone is either (a) useful or, (b) to be taken care of. The two definitions Mbembe highlighted were of Earth as: (a) Resource or, (b) Shelter/Home. The preconception of the Earth as something that is exploited for personal gain is what fuels colonial ambition and justifies its collateral damage. Should people choose to name Earth as home instead of nation-states that operate in a competition to exploit the planet the most profitably, humanity may stand a chance to survive anthropogenic climate change and discover new and dynamic ways of being in relation to the world and one another. And as humanity begins to situate itself in a wider universe, the definition of “world” becomes ever more ambiguous. Suffice it to say, addressing Earth as home and rooting relations with it and one another from a place of care becomes an ever more crucial form of resistance to the machine of ambition as it looks to the stars for new lands to colonize.

Fig. 15) Nyota Uhura, character in the original Star Trek T.V. series.



Anzaldúa Gloria. Borderlands/La Frontera: the New Mestiza. San Francisco, CA: Aunt Lute Books, 2012.

Balakrishnan, Sarah. “Afropolitanism and the End of Black Nationalism.” Edited by Gerard Delanty. Routledge International Handbook of Cosmopolitanism Studies , July 27, 2018, 575–85. 2nd ed. London and New York: Routledge, 2018.

Fanon, Frantz. Wretched of The Earth. Translated by Richard Philcox. New York, NY: Grove Press, 2005.

Getachew, Adom. Worldmaking after Empire: the Rise and Fall of Self-Determination. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2020.

Mbembe, Achille. “Afropolitanism.” Translated by Laurent Chauvet. Journal of Contemporary African Art, no. 46 (May 2020): 56–61.­ 8308174.

Onofri S. (2011) Colonization (Biological). In: Gargaud M. et al. (eds) Encyclopedia of Astrobiology. Springer, Berlin, Heidelberg.

Stanford Humanities Center. “Presidential Lecture: Achille Mbembe.” YouTube. Stanford University, October 22, 2020.

White, Micah. “Meaning of ‘The Master's Tools Will Never Dismantle the Master's House." - Audre Lorde.” Activist School. Accessed November 24, 2020.

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