What Decolonising Digital Rights Looks Like

By Aurum Linh, 6th April 2020

Coloured bricks of lego

Decolonisation is core to all of our work as NGOs and non-profits. We are striving to create a future that is equitable and just. To do that, we need to dismantle the systems of racism, anti-blackness, and colonisation embedded in every aspect of our society.

This is a particularly urgent conversation to have in the digital rights field, given the belief that technology will liberate us from these biases. In reality, we can see that it is deepening these divides and automating these systems of oppression.

We can’t decolonise something if we don’t know what colonisation is. In per TEDx talk, “Pedagogy of the Decolonizing”, Quetzala Carson explains what colonisation is and how deeply it is embedded in nearly every aspect of our lives: “Colonisation is when a small group of people impose their own practices, norms and values. They take away resources and capacity from indigineous people, often through extreme violence and trauma.”

Quetzala goes on to explain that colonisers also bring their axiology, which is how things are quantified and how value and worth are prescribed to things. They impose their assessment of the value of the people, resources and land that become embedded in the institution that then creates the nation-state in settler colonialism. All of the established laws, policies, institutions, and governance structures are based on those beliefs that were brought upon contact.

They impose their assessment of the value of the people, resources and land that become embedded in the institution

How we conceive and transfer knowledge, as well as what knowledge we see as credible and valid (known as epistemology) are also based on these colonial beliefs. How we exist within these structures and how we interpret reality (known as ontology) is deeply influenced by colonisation as well. Axiology, epistemology, and ontology all come together for the state to create a narrative – to create how “normal” is defined.

This is why it’s so uncomfortable and painful to have these conversations – because these structures and beliefs have been embedded in our own hearts and minds. To have these beliefs challenged feels like an attack on our own being, but we have to remember that these beliefs were taught to us and are deeply embedded within us by design. 

Nikki Sanchez, an indigenous scholar, recommends that decolonisation is giving up social and economic power that disempowers, appropriates, and invisibilises others; dismantling racist and anti-black structures; dismantling the patriarchy; finding out how you benefit from the history of colonisation and activating strategies that allow you to use your privilege to dismantle that; and building and joining communities that work together to build more equitable and sustainable futures.

Decolonising must first happen within ourselves – decolonising our own hearts and minds

Decolonising must first happen within ourselves – decolonising our own hearts and minds. It is necessary to both actively combat and resist systems of oppression on the outside, but also within ourselves.

DFF held a strategy meeting in February of this year and there were two sessions on decolonisation (one of which I facilitated) that resulted in the following strategies being shared:

  • Unlearn and re-educate yourself.

  • Acknowledge your privilege and use it to dismantle the system from that position of power within the system.

  • Actively start conversations with people about privilege, decolonisation and anti-racist work.

At the organisational level, how can you give people tools to reflect and engage with this concept in a meaningful and critical way? How might we make it part of the culture of the organisation itself, embedded within every aspect of the organisation, as opposed to something that is considered an add-on or nice-to-have? How can decolonisation be the flour (vital to the recipe), and not the icing (an add-on)?

Culture is cultivated. Participants at the strategy meeting brainstormed a number of practical steps that could be taken at the organisational level to cultivate their decolonised culture. Some examples of the organisational measures suggested include:

  • Create a common language around decolonisation, and make publicly questioning the influence of biases and privilege part of your organisational culture.

  • Remember that this work is more than just hiring people of colour (PoC) and significant work is required of a mainly white organisation before bringing in someone of colour. Otherwise it could put that person in a position of having to educate others and endure traumatic conversations.

  • Learn what white fragility is, and be aware and conscious of when white fragility is arising in conversations.

  • Ask yourselves “are we the right people to be doing this work?” and “are we taking resources from other people or organisations that have been doing this work?”

  • Only put the necessary qualifications on job descriptions – women and PoC are less likely to apply to jobs if they don’t meet every qualification listed. Be conscious of this.

  • If no one on your team is part of the marginalised community you are working to protect, acknowledge that your organisation is coming from a place of allyship. Do not act like stakeholders when you are not part of the community that you are trying to protect and ask yourselves (again) “are we the right people to be doing this work?” and “how can we provide resources to the community members who are doing this work?”

  • Recognise your blind spots on issues of power asymmetries both within and between private and state actors.

  • Pay a liveable salary – people are often financially responsible for others (their parents, siblings, etc.) and can’t afford to live on a low income.

  • Avoid tokenism. Does everyone truly have a seat at the table or are some people there as (or made to feel like) figureheads for “diversity” purposes?

  • Consider what problems get solved first at your organisation. Who decides what? There is space here to rethink and/or dissolve structural hierarchies.

  • Set clear standards to cultivate inclusive meetings by design. For example, rules to prohibit interrupting others, creating space for pointing out problematic behaviour.

  • Restructure how you measure impact and work, and recognise “invisible work” like mentorship.

The effects of colonisation are deeply internalised in nearly every aspect of our waking lives

Colonisation is a collective history that connects us all. The effects of colonisation are deeply internalised in nearly every aspect of our waking lives. What is your personal role in this healing? What role can your organisation play in actively decolonising the digital rights space and beyond? Ultimately, all of these actions create a collective movement towards healing, justice, and dismantling systems of oppression. 

Aurum Linh is a technologist and product developer embedded as a Mozilla Fellow within the Digital Freedom Fund.

Image by Omar Flores on Unsplash