Decolonizing and Diversifying Are Two Different Things: A Workshop Case Study

We (Amber and Ana) met in 2018 through our involvement with Interference Archive’s Education Working Group. Interference Archive is a volunteer-run space in Brooklyn centering the cultural production that emerges from social movements through an open stacks archival collection, exhibitions, and events. The Education Working Group facilitates the use of Interference Archive’s resources for pedagogical purposes. While generating ideas for programs geared towards teachers at all levels, we shared some of the challenges we had experienced as educators – Ana was a teaching assistant and lead instructor as an MA/PhD student in Art History, and the majority of her teaching experience was in Modern Art survey courses, while Amber has been teaching courses on Indigenous Visual Culture and Activism for several years and was nearing the end of her PhD program in Visual Studies. We found we were interested in sharing – while also learning – decolonial pedagogical tools that could be used in undergraduate classrooms. This initial realization led us to propose a workshop for educators at the College Art Association’s Annual Conference in New York that would serve as a space to share these strategies.

It is important to note that we approached this work from our positions as settlers (Amber, 5th generation Irish, and Ana, Filipino American). Amber had already developed, in conversation with other educators, several strategies for creating a more decolonial classroom space in the courses she taught, and had seen success with instituting them. Many of these were relational, such as the “Situating Ourselves” exercise included in the zine below. Ana had been attempting to counter, through assigned readings and structured discussions, the false neutrality that is often present in Western art survey courses that obscure power relationships between the colonizer and colonized subject. The courses we had taught were very different, as were our strategies for implementing decolonial tools, but we shared a mutual interest in fostering an educational environment within the university that was as conducive to political engagement as it was to aesthetic or artistic inquiry.

There is a long history of decolonial work in educational spaces. We acknowledge that the tools we shared with participants during this workshop as well as the thoughts we share here are a small part of this process. We recommend continuing this work in conversation with others who are also attempting to decolonize their classrooms (as well as spaces outside of academia).

We wanted the workshop, “Decolonial Strategies for the Art History Classroom,” to be instructive and generativeintroducing participants to new tools to bring into their classrooms, while also providing space for them to share their own strategies. We hoped to make this kind of work feel more accessible for people who do not know where to start, and we were interested in sharing the burden of rebuilding curricula with other engaged educators. We also hoped to connect work on this topic within Art History and Visual Studies to that happening within other disciplines.

We knew that we would be joined by a large group of people with different backgrounds and levels of familiarity with the discourse surrounding visual culture and decolonization. We also knew we would only have an hour. So we structured the workshop around broader questions, such as:

  • What would it mean to decolonize our classrooms?
  • How do we disrupt the replication of an art historical canon that is predominantly white and male?
  • How do we discuss cultural appropriation?
  • How do we design courses to relay different cultural narratives than what we were taught?
  • How do we help students think critically about how art has accrued value?
  • How do we confront the presence of colonial violence, racism, and misogyny in famous artworks and art movements?
  • How do we create safer spaces for students?
  • How do citational practices relate to decolonization?
  • What are best practices for acknowledging Indigenous land and artists?
  • How do we bridge decolonization within the classroom to decolonization beyond the classroom?

We were aware that many educators are currently interested in mobilizing decolonial strategies in classroom spaces, and the workshop’s RSVP list soon filled upthe day of the workshop, some people also joined in unexpectedly. Though we saw this as a good sign, it also meant the group was quite large. We began the workshop by asking participants to respond to the question: What would it mean to decolonize our classrooms? Responses were written on post-it notes and placed on the podium at the front of the room.

Later, we asked participants to choose questions from our list (or create their own) and compose collaborative responses from their groups. Some engaging conversations emerged through these questions, one example being the current debate surrounding confederate monuments and their removal. One participant proposed that confederate monuments should be moved to a museum; another responded that museums are spaces for things we care about, and that therefore confederate monuments have no place in such institutions (we agree with the latter). Although this debate is deeply important, it pointed toward a key challenge that arose in the workshop: Many of the issues being brought up were ostensibly limited to the field of representation, and there was a lack of connections being drawn between representation and land.

Though the workshop did succeed in providing a forum for people to share ideas around decolonization, and many participants were energized by the discussion that arose from this space of engagement, we feel that we fell short in providing the attendees with resources that would facilitate a deeper understanding of decolonization and challenge its current overextension in the contemporary art world. In “Decolonization is not a metaphor,” Eve Tuck and K. Wayne Yang do the important work of reminding us that decolonization is ultimately about the repatriation of land to Indigenous peopledecolonization is not actually about diversifying representation in museums or tearing down monuments, it is about a complete reconfiguration of dominant relations to land and life.*

We should have shouted this loud and clear from the beginning, but instead we fell into a familiar trap articulated by Tuck and Yang:

“At a conference on educational research, it is not uncommon to hear speakers refer, almost casually, to the need to ‘decolonize our schools,’ or use ‘decolonizing methods,’ or ‘decolonize student thinking.’ Yet, we have observed a startling number of these discussions make no mention of Indigenous peoples, our/their struggles for the recognition of our/their sovereignty, or the contributions of Indigenous intellectuals and activists to theories and frameworks of decolonization. Further, there is often little recognition given to the immediate context of settler colonialism on the North American lands where many of these conferences take place.” (Tuck and Yang, “Decolonization is not a metaphor,” 2-3)

Although we did center Indigenous knowledges and land in the workshop, we could have done so even more explicitly. For instance, if we teach another workshop like this, we could ask participants to learn about the land on which they hold their classes. Whose land is it? How can you make this clear to your students?

In addition, here’s what we propose:

  • We need to be careful not to collapse colonialism and white supremacism. Yes, they are related. But they are also distinct. Attending to this difference is deeply important if we truly want to decolonize our classrooms.
  • We have provided several exercises and case studies in the zine below, which we also shared with workshop participants. Please use them, and email us if you have your own exercises to add (our email addresses are provided in the zine)
  • Knowing that this kind of conference setting will bring together people of diverse backgrounds and knowledge bases, it may be a better practice to assign readings prior to the workshop, in order to work with consistent reference points when discussing a topic like decolonizationa topic that is often misunderstoodwithin such a short span of time.  
  • Do not be afraid of how slow this work can be. We learned that it would have been better to address one issue in depth, rather than many issues in brief.


Link on the cover to view the complete zine


* We want to acknowledge that there are many definitions and interpretations of what decolonization means, but we refer to Tuck and Yang’s.

3 responses to “Decolonizing and Diversifying Are Two Different Things: A Workshop Case Study”

  1. Genevieve Canales says:

    Excellent content! I’m eager to learn how to transform physical and psychological spaces to reflect Latinx and Indigenous perspectives. My challenge is how to think/create” new” ideas, having been schooled in graduate and undergraduate programs built on the cultures of White, monied, straight, Protestant men.

  2. Art history programs that include museums dedicated to cultures that have been and continue to be marginalized merit more attention. At institutions where the museum and collection do not have autonomy – where the director is subordinate to the art history department – conflict of interest does happen. In these situations the museums can actually finance activities that are not related to the museum mission at all. Example – using an annual fundraiser for a museum to generate money for general art history research. Students – future curators and educators – learn that ongoing colonial action is ok.

  3. Linda Williams says:

    I found that there are monsters of all kinds when dealing with this subject matter. People can become nationalists in their own right, respective of their cultural identity; to the point of becoming toxic–just like their predecessors (i.e. white males). How do you address this issue–if at all?

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