Decolonisation: What does it mean for me?

You might have heard activists demanding to 'decolonise' Australia. What does this mean? Is that a good or bad thing?

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What is decolonisation?

Definition: Decolonisation

Decolonisation occurs when Aboriginal or non-Aboriginal people reverse impacts of colonisation.

Aboriginal people can decolonise through self-determination (i.e. taking care of their own affairs).

Non-Aboriginal people can make a conscious effort to prioritise and learn about Aboriginal culture and values over views from the dominant (and usually Western) culture.

Decolonisation seeks to reverse and remedy the aftermath of colonisation through direct action and listening to the voices of First Nations people.

The word "decolonisation" was first coined by the German economist Moritz Julius Bonn in the 1930s to describe former colonies that achieved self-governance.

Decolonisation means also revisiting and rewriting the past, and understanding colonisation as "unfinished business". It involves assessing how colonisation has affected Aboriginal culture and business, and starting to tell Aboriginal rather than non-Aboriginal stories and doing things the Aboriginal way.

You can also understand decolonisation by examining the process of colonisation and inverting it. Then, decolonisation is

  • to restore Aboriginal ways of life including, political, economic, social, and spiritual systems;
  • to regain and set up internal political control (self-determination);
  • to break economic dependency on the coloniser; and
  • to provide high quality social services, e.g. for education and healthcare.

For Aboriginal people, colonisation is not confined to history. Decolonisation recognises that colonisation is "an ongoing project of domination, control and assimilation perpetrated by non-Indigenous authorities" and also "the many ways Indigenous Australians have resisted oppression and fought for sovereign rights".

Jargon: 'settler-colonial' & 'neocolonial'

In Australia the coloniser (Western) culture remains until today. Although Aboriginal politicians emerge, Aboriginal people still don't hold significant positions of power or self-determination.

Such nations are often called "settler-colonial". Australia's history bears all the hallmarks of settler colonialism: from violent massacres of the original inhabitants to more subtle, legal means such as assimilation or recognition of Aboriginal identity within a colonial framework.

In a neocultural country ("neo" is Greek for new, recent, modified) the former coloniser's powers continue to exist in some form throughout the economic, political and educational layers of society.

Ways to decolonise

In theory there are three main ways to decolonise:

  • Surrender. Aboriginal people surrender their right to self-determination and submit to become part of the dominant culture. (The UN call this option "Integration".)
  • Compromise. Aboriginal people and the dominant culture form a compromise where Aboriginal people retain some freedom to govern their own affairs but are still subject to the administration and/or laws of the dominant culture. ("Association")
  • Independence. Aboriginal people are free of any control of the dominant culture and empowered to introduce their own (often pre-colonial) systems of governance.

These options exist since the 1960s when the UN adopted the Declaration on Decolonization and proclaimed "the necessity of bringing colonialism in all its forms and manifestations to a speedy and unconditional end".

If we deeply understand not just the history but the evolution of how colonisation still exists, then we’re able to chart a different path towards what we want to see instead.

— Alicia Garza, Co-founder, Black Lives Matter movement

Colonisation has caused all the known social disadvantages and trauma. One can colonise both directly (e.g. by imposing blanket approaches) and indirectly (e.g. by rejecting Aboriginal knowledge and practices).

Decolonisation, on the other hand, supports Aboriginal culture, identity and health. This can be achieved by emphasising

Previously historians and anthropologists have described and defined Aboriginal people and culture from their Western perspectives. Decolonisation means to challenge these imposed representations, and replace them with Aboriginal voices, experiences and representations.

Decolonising practices include turning away from seeing Aboriginal people as a 'problem' and focussing on strengths, capacity and resilience, and stress the importance of proper process, including allowing the time and opportunity to develop relationships and trust.

Several Aboriginal nations have already made unilateral declarations of independence, triggering the United Nations to consider adding Australia to its list of non-self-governing territories (also called the decolonisation list).

    Throughout the process of colonisation Aboriginal people have found ways to maintain their culture. This, in effect, is decolonisation through resistance.

    What can you do?

    The biggest step you can take is to learn about Aboriginal culture (like you do right now).

    Browse the list of things to do to support Aboriginal people and pick activities and tasks that resonate with you.

    At a minimum, find out on which Aboriginal nation's land you live and work, and maybe some of their history. Know the proper words to use when you converse about Aboriginal culture.

    Video: Decolonisation means renaming towns

    Watch Michael Ghillar Anderson, Conveyor of the Sovereign Nation, give examples of towns that have been named after white people and why they have to be renamed for decolonisation.

    Example: Decolonising in journalism

    If you applied decolonisation principles to journalism it would mean:

    • Awareness of racism. Journalists need to increase their awareness of institutionalised racism.
    • Greater representation. Efforts are required to ensure greater representation of Aboriginal people in newsrooms and media management, or as sources in stories, including and beyond those directly related to Aboriginal affairs.
    • Solutions-focused reporting. Rather than reporting about Aboriginal culture only if there are problems, journalistic work emphasis solutions.
    • Equal, not other. Media coverage humanises, rather than separates, Aboriginal people. It stops portraying them as 'the other'.

    At least since 2012 students can study decolonising methods at university.


    The United Nations have a Special Committee of Decolonisation (also known as Committee of 24, or C-24). It annually reviews the list of territories to which the Declaration on the Granting of Independence of Colonial Countries and Peoples is applicable and makes recommendations as to its implementation. It also makes recommendations to mobilise public opinion in support of the decolonisation process.


    You can "decolonise your bookshelf" by reading books written by Aboriginal authors and learning about the Aboriginal perspective.

    Clare Land's book Decolonizing Solidarity – Dilemmas and Directions for Supporters of Indigenous Struggles offers a thorough examination of the problems that can arise when activists from colonial backgrounds seek to be politically supportive of Aboriginal struggles.

    Homework: Colonised too many times

    During a native title case, Aboriginal woman Carol Martin said:

    "Aboriginal people need to take control of their own destiny … Aboriginal people have been colonised so many bloody times: first, by the British; second, by the do-gooders; third, by the missionaries; fourth, by industry; and now, by the bloody greenies!"


    • What does Carol mean when she says Aboriginal people have been colonised more than once?
    • Who are the "do-gooders" and what was their agenda?
    • Make a table comparing each group of "colonisers": Who were they, what were their intentions, how did they influence Aboriginal culture?
    • Which group do you think had Aboriginal people's interests at heart? Has this changed today?


    View article sources (10)

    [1] 'Explainer: what is decolonisation?', The Conversation 23/6/2020, available at
    [2] [2a] 'Beyond Bandaids - Exploring the Underlying Social Determinants of Aboriginal Health', Chapter 2: 'Indigenous Insights into Oral History, Social Determinants and Decolonisation',, retrieved 14/2/2015
    [3] 'Aboriginal People in Canada: Contemporary Conflicts', James Frideres and Rene Gadacz, 2005
    [4] [4a] 'We Need To Talk Much Less About Andrew Bolt And Much More About Treaty', New Matilda 8/10/2016
    [5] 'Settler colonialism', Wikipedia, retrieved 17/6/2021, available at
    [6] [6a] 'United Nations and decolonization', United Nations, undated, available at
    [7] [7a] 'Decolonising Australian Psychology: Discourses, Strategies, and Practice', Pat Dudgeon, Roz Walker, Journal of Social and Political Psychology, 2015, Vol. 3(1), 276–297
    [8] [8a] [8b] 'Decolonising practices: can journalism learn from health care to improve Indigenous health outcomes?', Melissa A Sweet, Patricia Dudgeon, Kerry McCallum and Matthew D Ricketson, The Medical Journal of Australia, 2014; 200 (11): 626-627
    [9] 'Dare to be wise: Decolonisation underpins the Sovereign Treaties processes', Sovereign Union - First Nations Asserting Sovereignty 17/6/2016
    [10] 'James Price Point: Victory or Loss?', Arena Magazine 7/2013

    Cite this page

    Korff, J 2021, Decolonisation: What does it mean for me?, <>, retrieved 19 June 2024

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