‘Disrupting Coloniality in the Classroom’: Reflections by Aerin Lai and Dr Radhika Govinda

Aerin Lai and Dr Radhika Govinda

In March this year, genderED celebrated International Women’s Day (IWD) with a roundtable on ‘Disrupting coloniality in the classroom’, featuring Dr Sara de Jong (University of York), Dr rashné limki, Mukai Chigumba (Women’s Officer, Edinburgh University Students Association) and Aerin Lai, and Dr Radhika Govinda as chair. This roundtable was part of a series of roundtable discussions on ‘Decolonising the Academy’, collaboratively organised by CRITIQUE, RACE.ED and genderED.

The IWD roundtable focused on the following questions:

  1. What radical possibilities do feminist, decolonial and postcolonial perspectives have to offer when it comes to disrupting coloniality in the classroom?
  2. In what ways can and must our pedagogical practice contribute to decolonising knowledge, especially when it comes to knowledge around race, gender and sexuality?
  3. What are some of the common and unique affective challenges when responding to students’ calls to decolonise the curriculum?
  4. How can we resist the exhaustion that comes with the labour we undertake to decolonise the classroom?

Sara de Jong kicked off the discussion by reflecting on her teaching experiences at the University of York on a module on the politics of post-colonialism. A key observations she made was how she draws on Charles Mills’ (1997) ‘epistemology of ignorance’ [1] in driving home to her students the point that colonial amnesia is an active process of forgetting that remains so in new imperialism today, and that colonialism tends to be so easily constructed as a phenomenon that happened elsewhere in this process of forgetting. She shared how she attempted to dislodge and disrupt coloniality in the classroom by reframing and challenging taken-for-granted ideas such as the ‘non-feasibility’ and impracticality of reparations, by drawing parallels with foreign debt where generations seemingly unconnected to the ‘moment’ where the said debt was incurred, continue to carry the burden of repaying it. Sara’s point echoed Gurminder Bhambra’s (2022) [2] from one of her papers on the history of extraction in the British empire.

rashné then noted that encountering coloniality is quite straightforward in the Business School (which is where she teaches) because ‘for the most part, the curriculum [there] tends to train students to be in the service of capital… and abide by the colonial logic’. A key highlight of her intervention was her explicating ‘cultural difference’ as an example of colonial logic, which she did by drawing links between culture as ‘the expression of some innate human difference’ and colonial classification as ‘the basis of understanding difference’. You can read a fuller account of rashné’s roundtable interventions in our next blog post, cross-posted from her own blog.

"Coloniality creates spaces of otherness that is marked by irrationality... in that existence of otherness is not merely different, it is degraded, devalued and necessarily so"

Complementing Mukai’s interventions, Aerin brought up the insidiousness of terms such as ‘West/East’ that float about in the classroom as convenient catch-all terms that serve to obfuscate the varying forms in which racialisation and colonialism take place in ‘Western’ and ‘Eastern’ countries. The issue with this and other such binaries is that they inevitably exclude certain places from our geopolitical imaginary. For instance, where is Africa? An entire continent that is neither East nor West! Reflecting on the affective challenges encountered in disrupting coloniality in the classroom, Aerin noted that disruption also means discomfort and to live in that discomfort when teaching on and encountering coloniality in the classroom. This, she noted, included her asking her white students when they realised they were white as a means for her to reinstate and reintroduce that discomfort that Sara de Jong had argued is so readily forgotten.

I don't see safety as a silencing move but more as a space of collective exploration, in which... I'm hoping can change around the power dynamics of who is interrogating whom, from the more conventional ways these interrogations often take place.

5 people on a zoom call
(L-R) Aerin Lai, Dr Radhika Govinda, Dr rashne limki, Dr Sara de Jong, Mukai Chigumba

Radhika observed that common threads across the interventions included the importance to taking into consideration the teachers’ and students’ own positionality and the idea of creating a ‘safe classroom’ – a foundational principle of feminist pedagogy that is now widely adopted within academe. Drawing on what bell hooks (1995) writes in Teaching To Transgress [4], Radhika asked the big question: For whom has the classroom been safe, and for whom has it never been safe? Radhika invited reflections from the speakers and the audience on whether it was time to consider the alternative of ‘brave spaces’ (Francois 2019) [5] instead? Would such a classroom hold space for students to take risks, to be vulnerable?

The roundtable interaction ended with some thoughts on how to resist exhaustion when engaged in the labour of decolonising the academy. Speakers agreed that their experiences were neither insular nor individual, that these were instead collectively felt and lived, and as a result it was possible to find respite, renewal and solidarity in the shared praxis of disrupting coloniality in classrooms, feminist or otherwise. 



[1] Mills, Charles W. 1997. The Racial Contract. Ithaca, NY, and London: Cornell University Press.

[2] Bhambra, Gurminder. 2022. “Relations of extraction, relations of redistribution: Empire, nation, and the construction of the British welfare state.” The British Journal of Sociology 73(1): 4-15.

[3] Tuck, Eve and Yang, Wayne. 2012. “Decolonization is not a metaphor.” Decolonization: Indigeneity, Education & Society, 1 (1), pp. 1-40.

[4] hooks, bell. 1994. Teaching to Transgress: Education as the Practice of Freedom. NY: Routledge.

[5] Francois, Janine. 2019. “From Safer Spaces to Braver Spaces: A Black Feminist Responds.” [Audio recording]. Teaching Feminisms, Transforming Lives, GenderED. (https://media.ed.ac.uk/media/1_reeo0pca)