January 3, 2023 - 1:35pm

Why is decolonisation such a hot topic right now? Wasn’t most of the world decolonised decades ago with the end of the old European empires? 

Well, in some ways, yes. But according to the academics who promote this concept, the process of decolonisation isn’t complete. For instance, in a piece for The Conversation, Mary Frances O’Dowd and Robyn Heckenberg argue that “colonisation is more than physical. It is also cultural and psychological”. Therefore it’s not enough to merely grant colonies their independence: colonial powers must also “challenge and change White superiority, nationalistic history and ‘truth’”. 

One might suspect that the call to “decolonise the curriculum” in Western universities is a smokescreen for the woke Left, but it’s also more than that. It’s surely right for academics to question the assumptions that underpin their disciplines. Though overt imperialism may be vanishingly rare these days, we still conceptualise the world in ways that were formed in previous centuries.

For instance, why do we make a hard and fast distinction between Europe and its neighbouring continents of Asia and Africa? This would have made little sense to other cultures, like the ancient Greeks and Romans. Without indulging in bouts of self-flagellation, we should be fully conscious of the influence that the past has on our present-day thinking.

However, if the advocates of decolonisation want to be taken seriously as academics and not just activists, they need to ask themselves why their narrative is so heavily centred upon the empires of the West.

If you want to see this mindset clearly displayed, just look at the official United Nations map of “Non-Self-Governing Territories”. Basically, it’s a list of fragments from the British and French empires, plus a few territories governed by the U.S. and New Zealand. The only exception is Western Sahara, where there’s a footnoted reference to its Spanish colonial history, but no mention of the fact the current ruling power in that territory is Morocco. 

Not appearing on the map at all are territories controlled by other non-Western powers like China and Russia. There isn’t the slightest acknowledgement — despite all the evidence to contrary — that places like Tibet and Chechnya have been colonised.

The decolonisation movement therefore needs to take a dose of its own medicine and question its assumptions. Above all, why are some instances of colonisation endlessly re-examined while others are studiously disregarded? This glaring inconsistency is not sustainable. 

There’s one field of academic research where the indifference to non-western colonisation is beginning to crumble. According to a fascinating piece for Radio Free Europe, the invasion of Ukraine has prompted a major re-think among western scholars of Russian Studies and related disciplines:

Many scholars say the Russian state receives too much focus in academia at the expense of the colonised nations, regions, and groups, including Ukraine, the Caucasus, and Central Asia, as well as ethnic minority communities in Russia itself.
- Todd Prince

Indeed, a Grand Duchy centred upon medieval Moscow didn’t become a vast territory spanning eleven time zones without a spot of colonisation along the way. Further, as current events have made clear, this particular imperial project is ongoing.  

As much as we have cause to regret our own past, this mustn’t come at the expense of what is happening in the world today. 

Peter Franklin is Associate Editor of UnHerd. He was previously a policy advisor and speechwriter on environmental and social issues.