At a recent speaking event, I told the audience that I live by two mottos:
I wouldn’t dare call myself woke when there’s still so much waking to do.
I wouldn’t dare call myself decolonized when there’s still so much decolonizing to do.
When we’ve decided to call ourselves woke, we are disregarding the journey of becoming woke along the way. When we say we are already decolonized, we are neglecting the seriousness of the journey toward decolonizing in all its complexities.
Decolonization is a journey.
So, what is decolonization?
On the larger level, decolonization might look like a group breaking away from a “colony” or nation, de-colonizing itself, freeing itself of systems of economic, social, religious, and political oppression. On the smaller institutional level, decolonization is the work of breaking down systems of colonization that we see daily, like toxic patriarchy or misogyny.
On a personal level, though, what might decolonization look like?
To put it simply, I’d say that it’s challenging the lies we have been told and engaging in work that breaks down systems of oppression/colonization. If we are people who are oppressed, we ask what freedom looks like for us individually and collectively. If we belong to the groups of oppressors, we ask how we can change the narrative and choose to give up some of our own power so the system can change.
The United States is a colonized nation. We are a settler colonial state that was founded on genocide, and if there is ever a month to talk about that, it’s November: a month dedicated to both Native American heritage and the false narrative that Pilgrims and Indians gathered for a shared meal and lived happily ever after.
How do we recognize our need to decolonize if we don’t recognize the U.S. as a colonized institution in the first place?
The journey of decolonization begins with telling the truth — about the origins of this nation’s founding and about the church’s role in the oppression of black, Indigenous, and other people of color, LGBTQ+ folks, disabled people, minorities, and women. It also requires that we take an honest look at our own personal complicity in white supremacy and work to change ourselves and our environment.
I have had to reckon with the ways in which I have grown up complicit in a Christianity that actively colonizes the lives of others, even today. In deconstructing my own faith, in choosing to tell the truth, I have had to choose to see that I have been both oppressor and oppressed. I choose to start with my identity as a mixed Potawatomi woman and descendent of European peoples. I choose to name that complexity in my journey so that, in telling the truth, I honor every part of who I am in the story of America.
Yes, I am an Indigenous person who celebrates Thanksgiving with my family. Indigenous peoples across this land are not a monolith, so some of us celebrate the holiday season, and some of us don’t. Some of us are Jewish, some of us are Christians, some are Muslim or Buddhist, some are Democrats, Republicans, Leftists and Socialists, and some of us aren’t religious or political at all.
But in our journey to decolonize, we must make difficult decisions, while recognizing that decolonizing is just that: a journey. Flipping a switch and suddenly saying “I’m decolonized!” isn’t the way it happens; that’s rarely the way anything happens.
In facing oppressive power systems and toxic empire, decolonization is a non-linear journey that involves a lot of twists and turns, a lot of questions, and a lot of gray space where we don’t know what the hell we are doing.
So this holiday season, let’s lean into that reality. Before we make assumptions about one another, let’s posture ourselves as people who give invitations to conversation. While we are at the dinner table with our racist conservative uncles or our self-proclaimed “woke” progressive aunts, how do we hold space with the reality of our collective complicity? If we are black, Indigenous, or people of color, how do we protect ourselves from situations that harm us?
A few years ago, I had Christmas dinner with my partner’s family, a family of German/French heritage who celebrates who they are and where they’ve come from. I made a Potawatomi wild rice dish, and we served it with Christmas dinner. My way of decolonizing on that particular holiday was to celebrate the resilience of my people and our food. We sat at that table and remembered that all of our stories matter and that throughout history, oppressive power has too often won.
Decolonizing isn’t just this or that. It isn’t just big movements and protests or little changes made to daily patterns and behavior. It is all of those things, a process that encompasses all aspects of who we are individually and collectively. And we must do it in community.
Some of us decolonize by having difficult conversations with our grown children about the toxic stereotypes they learned growing up in school, as a process of unlearning and re-learning. Others might decolonize by actively choosing not to engage in consumerism during the holidays. Maybe decolonizing is challenging churches and businesses and other institutions to acknowledge the original Indigenous peoples of the land they occupy and to name their complicity in settler colonialism. None of these things is easy, but they are possible, and when we do them in community, we lead each other toward a better kind of humanity.
If, as Christians, we expect to follow a Jesus who stood against empire, a man who stood in uncomfortable spaces, we have to be willing to stand in our own uncomfortable spaces and do the work necessary to create change in ourselves and those around us.
The question perhaps isn’t where we end on the journey, but what that first step to beginning might be.