On the Reading List: “Decolonization is Not a Metaphor” by Tuck and Yang

This week’s final suggested reading is “Decolonization Is Not A Metaphor” (2012) by Eve Tuck and K. Wayne Yang. In the article’s introduction Tuck and Yang identify themselves and the positions they bring to their research, Tuck an Indigenous scholar and Yang a “settler/trespasser” scholar. Their work continues and builds upon the idea of settler colonialism as a structure, and reminds the reader to center Indigenous experiences and scholars in discussions about decolonization, even though settler colonial systems have grown to impact populations beyond Indigenous tribes and nations.

Marabou shares this excerpt from the article’s introduction (on page 3) to provide an idea of Tuck and Yang’s approach to discussing and thinking about decolonization:

“When metaphor invades decolonization, it kills the very possibility of decolonization; it recenters whiteness, it resettles theory, it extends innocence to the settler, it entertains a settler future. Decolonize (a verb) and decolonization (a noun) cannot easily be grafted onto pre-existing discourses/frameworks, even if they are critical, even if they are anti-racist, even if they are justice frameworks. The easy absorption, adoption, and transposing of decolonization is yet another form of settler appropriation. When we write about decolonization, we are not offering it as a metaphor; it is not an approximation of other experiences of oppression. Decolonization is not a swappable term for other things we want to do to improve our societies and schools. Decolonization doesn’t have a synonym.”

Tuck and Yang are thinking about decolonization in the sense of education and education research in schools, but their ideas are equally relevant to work done by museums and cultural sites.


Edit: 10 August 2020 A reader requested clarification of Marabou’s concluding statement above. Here is Marabou’s response (also in the comments) for ease of reading and continuity:

When initially writing, Marabou meant that that Tuck & Yang provide some examples from higher education and academia of how decolonization (in a settler-colonialism context like the United States) has been subsumed into/conflated with other social justice discussions and movements and how the definition of decolonization has dramatically shifted away from its core tenet: repatriation of land to Native people, literal return of land, not in symbolic gestures or a “return” that perpetuates settler concepts of ownership.

As it relates to museums, it was implied (and now Marabou realized they should have been more explicit) that museums need to apply Tuck & Yang’s ideas in a few ways:

One, when US museums and cultural institutions either volunteer or are called to have a decolonizing commission, this process must include reconsidering their ownership of the land their building(s) and other structures (such as sculpture gardens) occupy. Ultimately it should mean a repatriation of the land to Native people. How can a museum fully decolonize if it maintains settler ownership of the land beneath it?

Two, museums should evaluate themselves through the six settler moves to innocence (page 4) detailed by Tuck & Yang. An evaluation through the lens of the six settler moves to innocence should be applied to narratives told in their galleries, the way an institution positions and presents itself, and as part of calling in all settler-employees so they understand how they are expected to be accountable to a decolonization process. In our current moment so many institutions are desperately scrambling to form and hold DEAI (Diversity, Equity, Inclusion, and Accessibility) or anti-racist committees and trainings. A decolonization process is separate from these initiatives and specifically centers Indigenous people and works toward return of land.

Beyond museums, Tuck & Yang’s discussion of decolonization, what it really means and how its definition and application have been twisted, avoided, and made into metaphor, is something all folks who are settlers need take time to sit with and reflect on. Decolonization has become a popular term. Tuck & Yang illuminate that too many times when “decolonization” is used, Indigenous people are not centered and “land back” doesn’t even enter the conversation.

2 thoughts on “On the Reading List: “Decolonization is Not a Metaphor” by Tuck and Yang

  1. Hi Marabou, I came across your writing and was wondering if you could expand on “Tuck and Yang are thinking about decolonization in the sense of education and education research in schools, but their ideas are equally relevant to work done by museums and cultural sites.”. I reread it a couple of times and it seemed that I did not fully understand what you were trying to imply. Would appreciate it.. thank you— Anita

    1. Hi Anita, thank you for your question and for your patience in waiting for a response. Your comment invited me to read through an older post and consider my intention when writing it (both are always good to do regularly). Before responding to you, I revisited Tuck & Yang’s article and realize the last part of this post isn’t all too clear. I will hopefully remedy that now.

      I believe what I meant when initially writing was that Tuck & Yang provide some examples from higher education and academia of how decolonization (in a settler-colonialism context, like the United States) has been subsumed into/conflated with other social justice discussions and movements and how the definition of decolonization has dramatically shifted away from its core tenet: repatriation of land to Native people, literal return of land, not in symbolic gestures or a “return” that perpetuates settler concepts of ownership.

      As it relates to museums, I was implying (and now realize I should have been more explicit) that
      museums need to apply Tuck & Yang’s ideas in a few ways:

      One, when US museums and cultural institutions either volunteer or are called to have a decolonizing commission, this process must include reconsidering their ownership of the land their building(s) and other structures (such as sculpture gardens) occupy. Ultimately it should mean a repatriation of the land to Native people. How can a museum fully decolonize if it maintains settler ownership of the land beneath it?

      Two, museums should evaluate themselves through the six settler moves to innocence (page 4) detailed by Tuck & Yang. An evaluation through the lens of the six settler moves to innocence should be applied to narratives told in their galleries, the way an institution positions and presents itself, and as part of calling in all settler-employees so they understand how they are expected to be accountable to a decolonization process. In our current moment so many institutions are desperately scrambling to form and hold DEAI (Diversity, Equity, Inclusion, and Accessibility) or anti-racist committees and trainings. A decolonization process is separate from these initiatives and specifically centers Indigenous people and works toward return of land.

      Beyond museums, Tuck & Yang’s discussion of decolonization, what it really means and how its definition and application have been twisted, avoided, and made into metaphor, is something all folks who are settlers need take time to sit with and reflect on. Decolonization has become a popular term. Tuck & Yang illuminate that too many times when “decolonization” is used, Indigenous people are not centered and “land back” doesn’t even enter the conversation.

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