What does ‘Decolonising’ mean to staff?

One of the questions the Decolonising DMU team is frequently asked is ‘what is meant by decolonising?’ As well as providing resources in the toolkit for people to refer to, we also asked members of staff from across the institution what decolonising means to them and why they support Decolonising DMU. Below are some examples of staff narratives.

Rachel Davies – Disability Officer

What decolonization means to me…

When I first became interested in the decolonization project I approached it cautiously. I felt that, as a white woman, I probably didn’t have any useful experience or knowledge to add to the debate. I hoped to observe and learn – and I’m certainly learning lots, sometimes in surprising ways.

I work in the Disability Advice & Support team. As a team we had long been conscious that there were inequalities in who accessed our services, and when. We have tried in the past to address the issue by changing how and when we offer services and by broadening the range of what we do, but those inequalities of access are persistent. They are also experienced by disability teams in universities across the world. Thinking about decolonization has given us a process and opportunities through which we can examine closely issues of intersectionality – how gender, ethnicity, disability and other characteristics combine in different ways to create barriers to access for some of our students.

A couple of specific examples might illustrate what I mean. We invited an external speaker, Carl Konadu of 2-3 degrees, to work with us to understand how we might communicate more effectively with black male students – who are under-represented users of our service. Carl shared his own experiences and encouraged us to think about how our services looked from another point of view. He told us, quite bluntly, that our waiting areas looked like a doctor’s surgery, and linked that to power structures and students’ experiences of imbalances in power relationships with professionals like teachers, doctors and the police, prior to university. Importantly, he didn’t tell us how to change the waiting area – he asked us to be conscious of the impact of the choices that we made as a service, consult with the students that we wanted to encourage to use the service, and work from there.

We also decided to investigate the assessment of learning differences (like dyslexia) and how that works for students in terms of ethnicity, in part because of the racist history of intelligence testing; these kinds of tests are integral to the learning difference assessment process – an assessment isn’t valid at university unless they are included. By considering in some detail who gets referred for assessments and what happens to them at the various stages of getting an assessment we have been able to identify issues relating to gender and language history as well as ethnicity. That’s important because these assessments have an impact on the support and funding received by individual students, and we can look at steps to mitigate the problems identified.

In essence, then, decolonization is about asking ourselves difficult questions – about who doesn’t use our services, who starts but then gets lost in our processes, who might leave the university without ever encountering us, even though they might have benefited from what we offer. It’s a process of thinking, and by thinking about ethnicity we find out more about equality across the board.

Dr. Zainab Naqvi – Senior Lecturer in Law

I first discovered “decolonising” as a PhD student. My doctoral research looked at the ways that English law treats women in polygynous marriages – marriages where a man has more than one wife. Initially, I thought that I would use insights from queer theory to underpin my analysis of the law but after starting down that avenue, something wasn’t working – it wasn’t coming together. Following the usual amount of researcher agonising, in one of those rare and coveted moments that we all hope for, the idea to look at the law through a postcolonial feminist lens occurred to me. With judges referring to the Empire, Christendom and more recently, the desire to discourage the formation of polygamous households in the UK, it was a no-brainer that the effects of colonialism are still being felt in the law today. With that, I jumped into the rabbit hole which I find myself drawn more deeply into every day.

At the start, there was only excitement – like discovering a previously unarticulated explanation for my existence until this point; an explanation for my feelings and reactions to events, interactions and traumas throughout my life. I had a new language and history to draw from – or perhaps it was always there inside: I just hadn’t realised. Along with my research and the law, my life started to make more sense to me. Why did I feel so raw about experiences that others dismissed as trivial? And more importantly – what had I missed out on by being unconscious of the effects of colonialist imperialism and orientalism? My journey into the critical postcolonial, anticolonial and decolonial has led to some of the most enriching, empowering and healing experiences of my life. From seeking out and reading Urdu literature which has led to a greater understanding of the violent and traumatising effects caused by the partition of India to form Pakistan – the land of my father’s birth; to participating as an academic editor and mentor at writing workshops for early career researchers in Kenya – close to my mother’s birthplace of Malawi; the path I now walk takes me closer to my heritage, to my history, and to a greater knowledge of my self.

As time passes, my excitement and sense of validation in what I find on this decolonising journey has become increasingly entangled with concerns about what we mean by decolonising – the term itself is not without its limitations. As I say to anyone who will listen – when you de-louse a cat, you take the lice away but when you de-colonise, what is it you are taking away? And even if it were possible to take the colonisation away – what would we be left with? We cannot just strip away colonisation as if it is a layer on top of the way things should be or were before and this feeds into a deeper concern about decolonising. Tuck and Yang once wrote that decolonisation ‘is not a metaphor for other things we want to do to improve our societies and our schools’ (2012: 1). This caution resonates with me now more than ever. We need to be careful what we mean and make sure we aren’t claiming to decolonise our syllabuses, our reading lists and assessments without the necessary accompanying structural changes or engaging with the long tradition of scholarship in this area (Appleton 2019). Positionality is key to this. My position and my privileges in the academy also require me to constantly evaluate who benefits from me and my resources. Existing and operating in this oppressive world have made me look for ways to speak back to those in power; to challenge their oppressive ways of knowing and doing as well as my own ways of knowing and doing which have unsurprisingly internalised their oppression. Decolonisation, the postcolonial and the “formal breakdown of the Empire” do not merge into a singular historical moment but a series of moments which are still occurring and recurring even at this moment. The worlds we inhabit, the knowledges we produce and recognise as knowledge – these are all still rooted in unequal power relations that privilege the imperialist West. Successfully undoing and untangling all of this is not something we have achieved yet and may not achieve in this moment of history. Instead, I stand on this road to decolonising – the destination too far away to be visible. I breathe. I take a step. I stop and reflect. I may not move for a while but that’s OK. I’m learning to live with that being OK.


Nayantara Sheoran Appleton (2019) ‘Do Not ‘Decolonize’ . . . If You Are Not Decolonizing: Progressive Language and Planning Beyond a Hollow Academic Rebranding’ Critical Ethnic Studies [online

Eve Tuck and K. Wayne Yang (2012) ‘Decolonization is Not a Metaphor’ Decolonization: Indigeneity, Education and Society 1(1) 1-40

Tom Daly – Football Development Coordinator DMUsport.

My name is Tom and I am the Football Development Coordinator in the DMUsport. I have always loved working in the HE sport sector because I firmly believe in the power of sport and how much it can impact individuals, not just physically, but socially, psychologically and how it can provide invaluable life skills. I love my job because it gives students an opportunity to learn so many life skills for post-graduation and provides experiences that will benefit the in the long run in an infinite amount of ways.

However, I want everyone to have these opportunities and it so happens that I often have students turned away or ignored when looking for volunteering opportunities, which impacts their student experience. The very real fact is these students are often international or BAME students – why should their experience and opportunities to get on the coaching ladder or to work in a football environment be limited just because of who they are? It is a monumental frustration which has led some students and myself to launch the DMUsport BAME Football Network to highlight where local County FAs and the National Governing Body for HE sport (BUCS) can support us or where we need to ask questions.

I was first introduced to Decolonising DMU by a now-former-colleague. I did not know much about it but went with an open mind to one of the insight sessions and it really resonated with me. It occurred to me that we all want the same thing! We all want every student to benefit and have the same chances as everyone else. The stark reality is that even though we are of different backgrounds and are all working in different departments, we all have the same goal. Collaborative working is a strength throughout the university and is something that can make a real change for a lot of people and, ultimately, positively impact over half of the student population. Why wouldn’t you want to support Decolonising DMU?

Dr James Tangen – Senior Lecturer in Criminology

Justice and Decolonising DMU 

When historians write of this time they will inevitably reflect on the challenges of tackling a global pandemic, and evaluate the approaches adopted in different countries. But they will also write that America burned. America burned with frustration at a lack of change. America burned with the injustice of police and prosecutors collaborating and frustrating public accountability. America burned with anger at the oppression as the state turned on its own citizens 

The death of George Floyd at the hands of White police officers in Minnesota has sparked demonstrations coordinated by the campaigning group Black Lives Matter. The militaristic response from President Trump and his followers has ignited a wave of violence across the United States as centuries of oppression, violence, and structural disadvantage boil over. The actions of the current protesters recall those of White colonists challenging the absolute power of a government that fails to understand their everyday lives. Make no mistake, the British Empire laid the foundations for this current moment over three hundred years ago.  

The criminal justice system in England & Wales has been just as stubborn in its refusal to change as the US, in spite of calls for action such as the MacPherson Report and the Lammy ReviewAccording to statistics released by the UK government on ethnicity and policing powerspeople of Asian and Mixed ethnicity were nearly three times as likely to be stopped and searched by police as White people in England and Wales between April 2018 and March 2019. Black people were nearly ten times more likely to be stopped and searched by police as White people in the same period. Based on data from the Independent Office of Police Conduct (IOPC), the proportion of people who died following contact with the police who were BAME in 2018-19 superficially mirrors the proportion of BAME people in the overall population (11%). However, this hides the fact that Black people were again over-represented in this group – 4.6% of people who died following police contact were Black, when this group only makes up 3% of the wider population.  

But the issue of systemic racism permeates every aspect of our criminal justice system. Our police remain predominantly White and Asian and Black Police Officers are represented as a proportion of police ranks below their respective rates in the wider population. While there have been improvements in the percentage of police officers from ethnic minority groups at most ranks between 2007 and 2019, the rate of improvement in representation in senior ranks (Chief Inspector and above) has been stubbornly slow. Similarly, according to HM Prison & Probation Service, BAME staff were more likely to receive a worse appraisal outcome than their White colleagues, including lower proportions achieving an ‘Outstanding’ rating and higher rates of being rated as ‘Improvement Required’. BAME staff also had a lower promotion rate at 5.1% than White staff at 6.2%, and higher overall rates of grievances and disciplinary action.  

In challenging this narrative, every action matters. It is important that our curriculum acknowledges and critiques the legacy of our colonial history, and that we use all of our creativity to achieve this – after all, decolonisation needs to offer alternative ways of thinking about the world and alternative forms of political praxis”. De Montfort University’s well established reputation for training professionals working in the criminal justice system offers an opportunity to promote change. DMU is one of the few higher education institutions in the UK accredited with the College of Policing to provide academic elements of the Policing Education Qualifications Framework (PEQF) as well as holding a contract with the Ministry of Justice to deliver the Professional Qualification in Probation (PQiP). As such, we lay the foundations for the practice, and professional behaviour of our future law enforcers – it is our responsibility to ensure that our graduates acknowledge their power and position, reflect on their actions and be the change we need. DMU can also work with its local partners, including Leicestershire Police, in addressing concerns raised about their practices, whether by the public or from within their own ranks 

But there is more we can do as individuals and as an institution. Individually, our instinct may be to reach out to people of colour to find an explanation for something that we do not understand. After all, this is about understanding their lived experiences, isn’t it? The problem with this approach is that this makes the issue about the history of the oppressed and their actions in resisting this. Instead, educate yourself and reflect on how you can contribute to the change. (A useful resource for understanding racism can be found here). 

DMU works in partnership with the UN as a hub for academia, practitioners and politicians to come together to develop new practices to address key issues of peace, justice and stronger institutions. But, as our recent history shows, there is more that we can do to make our own institution more transparent and accountable. For example, across the higher education sector, only 1.9% of staff and less than 0.7% of professors are Black. Those who do become a Professor have done so in the face of entrenched institutional racismAccording to the Higher Education Statistics Agency (HESA), nVice Chancellors, Deputy Vice Chancellors or Pro Vice Chancellors were Black between the academic session 2014/15 and 2018/19. That is five years without any Black representation at the highest levels of academic in the UKThe overall proportion of senior academic posts held by people of Asian, Mixed and Other ethnicities was just 4.6% during the same period. While there are encouraging trends evident in DMU’s ongoing efforts to address the Race Pay Gap, which has seen improvements in some areas, there is still a lower proportion of BAME staff earning in the top quartile than in elsewhere in the UniversityWe have to acknowledge that we are part of this problem, particularly as we undertake the process of recruiting a new Vice Chancellor. 

Decolonising DMU has started a journey towards creating an anti-racist university with a commitment to creating discussions and actions within our community about how we can continue to make the changes we want and need – a useful starting point if you want to join the conversation is to explore the resources for our Read to Debate sessions. Alternatively, get in touch by email (decolonisingdmu@dmu.ac.uk) or follow the team on Twitter (@DecolonisingDMU) and don’t forget to check out our hashtag for more curated resources and updates (#DecolonisingDMU). 


Elements of this narrative were developed from a statement on Black Lives Matter for the Race, Ethnicity and Post-Colonial Network of the Media and Communication and Cultural Studies Association, written by Mita Lad (Middlesex University) and Nour Halabi (Leeds University). The full statement can be found here.