British Association for American Studies


Book Review – On Decoloniality: Concepts, Analysis, Praxis by Walter D. Mignolo and Catherine E. Walsh

Duke University Press, $28.95.

In On Decoloniality: Concepts, Analysis, Praxis, Walter D. Mignolo and Catherine E. Walsh present a wide-ranging discussion of the role that power plays in decolonial thought and praxis, in an attempt to build on Anibal Quijano’s work on the ‘colonial matrix of power’, using local histories from the Americas in an attempt to illustrate how power functions in formally colonised societies and within the process (and praxis) of decolonisation.

In a somewhat rambling – but nevertheless illuminating – fashion, they make three key arguments:

  1. That decoloniality is a matter of praxis, not theory alone; and that neither can function fully on its own. Praxis needs theory in order to see, and theory needs praxis in order to have impact upon the world.[i]
  2. That decoloniality cannot be achieved by changing the content of the conversation if we do not first change the terms and structure upon which the conversation is based.
  3. That decoloniality is relational, and would not exist (or need to exist) without coloniality and modernity.

That said, it is difficult to say that there is a central thesis to On Decoloniality. Instead, this work – the first in a series of books edited by Walsh and Mignolo – covers a vast amount of ground in its quest to familiarise readers with the myriad ideas, concepts, and practices that might concern those interested in exploring decoloniality on a deeper level. It is intended as the start of a conversation between Mignolo and Walsh, between the other authors in the series, and more globally with ‘all the people in different parts of the world who are prone […] to sense […] the power to do’[ii], about decoloniality.

Walsh and Mignolo split the book into two parts, they say, because they feared that taking a more typical approach of interspersing the chapters would ‘take away from the flow of each part’[iii]; a logical-sounding decision that arguably takes away from the flow of the book as a whole. The first half is written by Walsh, and the second half by Mignolo. The book ends with a conversation between the two authors, in which they discuss how they came together, and the similarities and differences in their approach to the concept of decoloniality and the arguments set forth in On Decoloniality.

In part one, Walsh defines decoloniality as relational, contextual and practice-based, and argues that the process of decoloniality (as distinct from decolonisation) is the never-ending work of creating what she describes as a decolonial ‘otherwise’. She convincingly argues that decolonial work cannot be effectively theorised and implemented from above by states and universities, but must instead originate from below, via collective practice, analysis and theorisation; in other words, thinking differently to create difference or, in her words, a decolonial ‘otherwise’. She concludes that it is likely that there is no definitive end to decolonial work, that it is an ongoing process and practice, and that it is necessarily done in the borders, cracks and margins of existing colonial processes and ways of thinking.

In part two, Mignolo takes a similar approach to the concept of decoloniality, arguing that decolonisation cannot be state-led, in an argument that recalls Audre Lorde’s famous maxim that the ‘master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house’.[iv] In other words, we cannot use tools that were created by coloniality to take it apart, analyse it and put it back together to create Walsh’s decolonial ‘otherwise’. Indeed, Mignolo argues that the university and the state are Western, colonial enterprises, and that decolonial work must be done outside of the Western canon and considered something other than an academic discipline in the colonial, Western sense.

However, whilst Walsh emphasizes collective responsibility for decolonial work, Mignolo argues that we are each responsible for our own decolonial liberation. There are other differences too. For example, while Walsh takes an almost geographical approach to the subject of decoloniality, using illustrative case studies from movements that she has observed, researched and/or taken part in across the Americas, Mignolo takes a more historical approach. Arguably, it might have made more sense – narratively, at least – to place Mignolo’s half of the book first, as he is more given to providing definitions that his co-author and gives the needed historical context to Walsh’s theorizing. He spends time on the history of decoloniality as a term, idea and praxis, and considers the ways in which decoloniality developed out of decolonisation and in relation to modernity/coloniality.

This concept of modernity/coloniality is one of the more revelatory concepts outlined by both authors and bears extra consideration. In short, they argue that modernity is the public-facing side of coloniality. Colonising movements argue that they are not stealing and destroying when they move in and colonise a society, they are modernising it – and directly link modernity to white, Western ways of being and thinking – and position modernisation as something to be desired. Thus, modernity seeks to hide colonialism, whilst providing a moral and ethical justification and smokescreen for coloniality. Walsh and Mignolo link this dual concept of modernity/coloniality to decoloniality, arguing that the latter could not exist without the former.

In conclusion, On Decoloniality serves as an introduction to Walsh and Mignolo’s way of thinking about decoloniality, and frames a larger discussion played out across the remainder of the books in the series. It is at times both revelatory and somewhat overwhelming in its broadness, attempting to cover everything from interculturality to Eurocentrism, while setting out a clearly defined approach to a subject that it admits itself is difficult to define.

End Notes:

[i] Walter D. Mignolo & Catherine E. Walsh, On Decoloniality: Concepts, Analysis, Praxis (Durham: Duke University Press, 2018), 138.

[ii] Ibid, 11.

[iii] Ibid, 9.

[iv] Audre Lorde, The Master’s Tools Will Never Dismantle the Master’s House (Penguin Modern Classics, 2017).

About the Author

Naomi Smith is a freelance journalist and postgraduate researcher at Birkbeck, University of London. Her current research looks at how gatekeepers at broadcast news institutions in the USA decide what is and is not newsworthy, with a view to reimagining the "news values" theory from an intersectional perspective.