Today we kick off a four-part series called FreshEd x Symposium. During the lead-up to the 2017 Symposium, four speakers will join FreshEd to whet your appetite for the conversations and debate that will take place in Washington DC. This year’s symposium asks us to consider about how comparative and international education phenomena are studied and wade through the possibility that our field has colonial legacies and tendencies.

To kick things off, Leigh Patel joins me to discuss the ways in which settler colonialism structures American society, including the academy.

Leigh Patel is an interdisciplinary researcher, educator, and writer. She is a Professor at the University of California, Riverside, and is working on her next book, “To study is to struggle: Higher education and settler colonialism.”  She will speak at the CIES Symposium later this month.

Citation: Patel, Leigh, interview with Will Brehm, FreshEd, 89, podcast audio, October 2, 2017.

Transcript, translation, resources:


Will Brehm 2:13
Leigh Patel, welcome to FreshEd.

Leigh Patel 2:15
Thank you so much. It’s a pleasure to be here.

Will Brehm 2:17
So, you have written, well, a whole bunch of things, but one of the ideas that you have returned to often is something called “settler colonialism”. What is settler colonialism?

Leigh Patel 2:28
Settler colonialism is a concept that was first introduced to me by a scholar named Eve Tuck, who works at the University of Toronto – an indigenous woman. And I had been talking about decolonization and I’d been thinking about colonization. And Eve and I were at a conference and I was presenting, and she asked folks there if they knew what a settler colony was. And nobody did. And the conference was happening in the United States. And she said, “This is a settler colony”. Settler colonialism is a form of colonialism in which, instead of somebody who’s in power sending folks who are under their power to go and extract resources and bring them back, for example, spices or tea or sugar, which is often a form of colonialism, or oil, to extract goods and bring them back to this powerful nation or powerful country. Settler colonialism is different in which people go to another land in order to claim that land as their own and to settle there. And settler colonialism, Patrick Wolfe (and Wolfe is W-o-l-f-e) has written some of the most referred to works about this. And settler colonialism is more than a single event, so it’s not just the arrival of new people, it’s a structure that gets put in place. It’s the material things that happen, and it’s the logic that we think about it with. So, settler colonialism is always working to justify through different narratives, that it is normal or best for development or best for that nation that these outsiders came and settled the country. But that settlement also involves this necessary and unseemly and violent task of removing any indigenous people who were there on that land because it just makes it harder to claim a land if people are already there. So, there’s a constant attempt to remove or erase indigenous people. And then a third component of the structure of settler colonialism along with claiming the land and erasing indigeneity is bringing in labor to work the land, and in settler colonialism that labor is often labeled as “chattel labor”, so the labor itself becomes property. So, in the United States, when African peoples were seized as slaves and put on slave ships, at that exact moment, they became chattel property. And they did labor for this settler, capitalist structure. But they also counted as capital and property. So, in a settler colonial structure that, again, is ongoing, and has these intertwined pieces, the interest is to turn land into property to be owned by a few. And then it has other locations for different people within that structure. A location for indigenous people is mostly to disappear because it makes it harder to claim the land if there are living indigenous people, which there are. And then there are locations of being criminalized or being just needing to be a worker underpaid, that ultimately serves the interests of the few who hold the largest amount of property land interest.

Will Brehm 5:54
So, this particular logic – I’m not sure if that’s the right way to call it – these structures, these logics, these materials that are all wrapped up with settler colonialism, would you say that they’ve impacted the Academy?

Leigh Patel 6:12
Yes, I think that they have infused just about everything in the United States. That is the structure of the society that we live in. And I think, Will, it’s a good thing to think about. Is it material? Is it logic? Is it structure? I think it’s a good idea to refer to it primarily as a structure that has material practices, but it also has logics. So, the stories that we tell, the words that we use, justify those material actions. And the Academy has definitely been impacted by it because it’s part of how the Academy came to be; it came to be in the structure. So, the Academy, as Craig Steven Wilder writes about in his book, Ebony and Ivy, many of the Ivy League schools, or most elite, celebrated schools in this nation were literally built by the labor of enslaved black people. Literally. There was a large story about Georgetown University a couple years ago, where Georgetown University came to a place of reckoning with how it had saved itself from bankruptcy by selling a number of slaves that the university owned. And so, Georgetown University, being a Jesuit school, I think in a quite representative and quite bittersweet way, enacted this complicated knot. Here’s this Jesuit, Catholic driven, service for other people, school that own human beings. And there were religious leaders who were trying to reconcile, “How do I be a religious leader, and profit from the labor and the selling of human beings?” So that is part of our DNA, and that’s a private school example. There’s also the example of Land Grant institutions in the United States. The land grants were given to federal universities in the 1800s, and they were created as places where people could go and learn about agriculture and technology. And the only people who are going to go and learn about agriculture and technology were land owning white men. And that land that was set aside for these Land Grant institutions – huge amounts of land – well, that was indigenous land that was then repurposed for Land Grant institution purposes. So, it’s endemic to who we are; materially, that’s how our institutions have come to be. And then the logics also that we use in the Academy, ideas like intellectual property, and needing to gain access to research participants in order to publish about them. Those to me not only have mirrored settler colonialism, it’s a way that settler colonialism is enacted to the Academy.

Will Brehm 9:08
It seems to me that capitalism would be deeply ingrained or intertwined with a lot of these structures. And particularly with the access and the IP law, the intellectual property rights regime, when it comes to academia, is deeply connected to capitalism over who owns this property, and how can it be sold and profited on.

Leigh Patel 9:34
Absolutely. So, the idea, just even that knowledge can be property should raise a similar concern when we think about the planet. And you and I are speaking at a time when the planet is reeling from multiple successive hurricanes, devastating earthquakes. And hopefully, people are really concerned about the state of the planet. If we only think about the planet as resources, though, we don’t think about it as a living being. And then we think less well about our relationship as other living beings in relationship to that living being. And so, with knowledge, if we only think about knowledge as property, intellectual property, and how people have access to, or who owns an idea, or who should be cited, then that really becomes susceptible. And it has been susceptible to the power structures in society. So, capitalism for sure, but even more so racist capitalism. So, when ideas and knowledge are seen to be entities that are ownable, and are pursued as ownable, that’s going to become kind of a delivery system, another delivery system through which white supremacy and patriarchy show up in their power structures. So that tells us something, or at least should inspire us to ask some questions, about why the percentages of full professors who are tenured in the Academy is overwhelmingly white and male. That’s not disconnected from settler colonialism, which one of the things that it really needs is racist capitalism.

Will Brehm 11:14
And I would imagine it also goes with the demographics of students enrolled in particular universities.

Leigh Patel 11:21
Yes, this raises a super interesting question. One of the things that I’ve tried to think and write about, and many others have done so as well, in really wonderful ways – I’m thinking of Sara Ahmed right now. So, we’re at a place as a society where we know that it’s a bad look to have an all-white leadership team or a predominantly white institution. We know like, “Err, that don’t look so good” because we are a diverse nation. So, there is a desiring of diversity in many colleges and universities, but it can be very quota driven. And it also can be very representational driven. So it’s not so much to transform whose knowledge is really infused into the culture of the campus and changing who is publishing and what they’re publishing about, and what different ways of knowing and being in the world they’re bringing into college campuses, but it hit the ceiling with how far representation can go, and the quotas of just how much is enough. And we’re at a real hot point about that right now on college campuses. One that in many ways is related to the uprisings in the 1960s where college students are pushing back on diversity for only diversity’s sake. Students often are demanding more faculty of color, in part because they want to see leaders who reflect their histories and their experiences, but also because they want curriculum that doesn’t start with Sartre, doesn’t start with conquest of the West. They want history that includes the history of their peoples and doesn’t begin that history of their peoples with colonial encounters.

Will Brehm 13:08
What do you think about some of the universities in America now where the students are demanding changes to the names of certain buildings because they reflect a white male who used to own slaves, or even some of the statues that have been torn down in the South that were of Confederate heroes? What’s your take on this sort of recent phenomenon?

Leigh Patel 13:36
I again think, “What an amazing, exciting and huge opportunity we have.” I think that there’s a number of different things, and as educators, I feel a huge amount of responsibility this way. When we had the events that happened in Charleston over the summer, my initial reaction was, as educators, “What have we taught about how these statues were built, when they were built, and why they are this size?” And if we had taught that history with more precision, then I think more of us would be able to be in the conversation that these statues are about maintaining a fictive idea of the South that is purposefully disconnected from the maintenance of slavery and the desire to not let go of that racist, capitalist economic system. But we haven’t taught that like. We didn’t teach that these statues were built after the Civil War, well after. A lot of them cropped up in the 1930s, when there was a great deal of lynching going on, and during the Jim Crow era as well. And they were built during these periods of time because there was seemed to be a threat towards that base – the idea of the Confederacy and the idea of white supremacy had. That’s when a lot of those statues were built and put up. So, my first inclination is, “Okay, the statues coming down.” I absolutely think that it’s shameful for us as a society to just say, “Yes”. There will just be some people in our society who have to make sense of themselves walking past these statues that are monuments, really, to the degradation of their ancestors and to who they are. That’s unconscionable. The statues need to come down. The educators in me wonders a couple of different things: 1) How can we teach about … I don’t want to lose a chance, also, of teaching about how these statues even got to be, because that helps us to unearth so much of the history of the nation that we don’t teach directly in schools. We teach manifest destiny, but we don’t teach it as a settler colonial project that relied on killing and erasing indigeneity and relied on a lot of enslaved black labor in order to conquer – I’m doing finger quotes in the air – “conquer” the savage land. And taking the statues down, we have an opportunity to teach about how those statues got up there. Another part of the educator in me wonders, “So what would it be like if we decided to create statues of black women who have been at the forefront of liberation in this country for decades? What would it be like if children grew up in small towns and cities walking past statues of Harriet Tubman and Ida B. Wells and Claudia Jones?” And I think our society is not quite ready for that, but even proposing it as a question should help us to engage better with the people that we put up on pedestals says something about our values and says something about the narratives that we tell ourselves about our history. So, I think there’s just a huge amount of potential in the statues. They need to come down. And the potential is also in, how do we tell the story of why they need to come down? How they came to be. And what is it that we value? What is it that we want to elevate? And why?

Will Brehm 17:10
You just said that you don’t think America is ready for that. Yet. So, what’s holding in a sense America back? Why can’t they take this as a teachable moment, and why can’t schools incorporate the history of these statues and how they got to be, and why can’t statues of the African American women who were so important to America’s history be erected? What are the main things holding America back?

Leigh Patel 17:41
I think the main thing that’s holding America back is that white supremacy is just much bigger and deeper and more entwined in all of our structures than anybody would like it, imagine it to be so. I think some people have really reckoned with that truth, but I don’t think that’s far and widespread. I think that even just over the past weekend; you and I are speaking after a weekend in which many of the national sports teams decided to sit out the national anthem or kneel. And in the wake of that, people are talking about it as protest against the anthem. And many people are correcting and saying Colin Kaepernick kneeling was about the overpolicing and the militarized policing and brutality in black communities. So I think just that – how much there’s kind of a signal confusion about kneeling during the national anthem, and what Kaepernick meant that to signal was very clear about saying – that signal has gotten kind of confused and taken up in many different things; that this is an offense to the national anthem. When in fact it can be a calling to the national anthem; let this national anthem actually serve its citizens a challenge to the national anthem. But that that signal has gotten really confused and scrambled and taken up in a whole lot of different directions. To me, that’s a manifestation. We’re not at shared, wide held, deep reckoning with how much white supremacy is infused in our thinking. That’s why I think if I were to bring up to a city council, to the US Senate, you know the next time I walk up to the Senate, if I was like, “Why don’t we erect statues of black women?” because they literally have been at the forefront of every social movement. Young black women have been at the forefront of every social movement that has gained victories for civil rights, gained victories for people to be able to love each other regardless of their sexual identification. That has been with black women at the vanguard. Why don’t we only erect statues for the next 50 years of black women? I just don’t see it. I think because it’s so radically different than who we have anointed as the founding fathers of the country. That’s the phrase we use still, is the “founding fathers”.

Will Brehm 20:11
They are also all white men.

Leigh Patel 20:13
Right. So, we’re not quite there yet. And as an educator, I also believe there’s a tremendous amount of potential in what we teach and how we teach, and how we invite people into a difficult history. I think that too often we teach students curriculum that is flat, and I just have a great deal more faith in humans’ abilities to be invited into very difficult, complicated histories. We can handle it; we can deal with it. And in fact, we’ll deal with it much better when we have the multiple truths that we have to hold at the same time.

Will Brehm 20:51
It reminds me of the Ken Burns and Lynn Novick documentary on Vietnam that’s airing right now. And the simple narrative that was given out to the masses is just so radically different than the complexity of the situation that Ken Burns and Lynn Novick present. And I just wonder – are Americans trapped by a very particular and simplistic historical memory?

Leigh Patel 21:23
Yes, I tend to think we do. And I hesitate a little bit in saying that to you, because I also don’t want to … I don’t think it’s how we have to be. But I do think that part of how the nation has been able to become an empire has been through the power of a simple narrative. It’s much easier to rally behind a simple narrative. It’s much easier in some ways for certain purposes. But it also comes at a great cost. So, when we rally behind a simple narrative of what the Vietnam War was, which, I’m thinking about Viet Nguyen’s book, multiple books now, that tell the Vietnam War from the story of the Vietnamese. When Americans have been raised with a very simple story of the Vietnam War, for example, or of manifest destiny, or the founding of the nation … I’ve just moved from Boston, and Boston is a beautiful city, it’s a wonderful city. And Boston has the word “first” on a plaque every 15 feet in the city, like first … first library, first … Well, okay, but there were people here before that first library; there was maybe another kind of library that was happening here. So, there’s very little recognition of the Wampanoag people when you’re walking around the Freedom Trail in Boston. But when we tell a certain kind of simple narrative, there is a power in that. People can really rally behind it. But then we also see the downside of that simple narrative, which is, then we have created an attenuated humanity that can handle this more sordid truth, because we haven’t insisted on that being part of what we have to know about where we come from.

Will Brehm 23:16
It seems to me the Academy has to play a very large role to be able to make things more complex. And I guess I might feel a little discouraged speaking with you and learning about how deeply ingrained the Academy is in this settler colonial logic and structure. And to be honest, I don’t really know … I am a white man in the Academy. How do I behave? And what is the appropriate way? How do we actually start valuing alternative epistemologies and ontologies when we’re within this very structure that is racist and colonial?

Leigh Patel 24:03
I think a couple things are really important for us to do. One of the things that that is important in how I think about this is: I try to keep distinct the difference between the structure of higher ed and right now where it’s at where it’s very much a focus on certification and qualifications and achievement and property. And as somebody who’s an educator and has been for over 25 years, just what learning is.  My job is to really steward spaces where learning and where knowledge building can happen. And if I keep an eye on the fact that I need to try to the best of my ability to steward spaces where learning can take shape in multiple different ways, and where knowledge building can happen, and that my purpose and doing that isn’t for me to be able to publish about that knowledge, then I’m already moving away from this logic of property. And this logic of research for the researcher’s sake. It puts me in a better position to be answerable, to support, to be in partnership with people being the experts of their own experiences. I think there’s a tremendous amount that academics can do who have these skills of knowing how to ask these questions of, “How do we know what we know?”, “Who have access to books and journals behind these paywalls?” and “Who are teachers?” Classrooms are catalytic, beautiful spaces. There’s a tremendous amount that we can do. But it’s going to require us to change the curriculum that we teach and really interrupt this idea that all knowledge started in Europe and that’s where thought comes from. We need to really change just how we understand knowledge and ways of being with the world. And it exists. We have the power to do that. We have the power to take some of the skills that we learn in the Academy and make that available as communities tell us that they need those skills. And then get out of the way for communities to build the knowledge that they want to build about themselves.

Will Brehm 26:25
I keep thinking back: to do that, you have to also, as an academic, publish papers, and try and get that tenure position. There’s still that reality of the precarious nature of a lot of the work that academics have right now.

Leigh Patel 26:43
Yes, and the Academy, I think, is at a really interesting moment. Because, the Academy, like most other spaces in the United States, has become so infused with capitalism, and so in need of bringing in money. Public institutions need grant monies to be brought in in ways that is different than it had been previously. And at the same time, we’re talking during a time when there are many young academics – younger academics than me, I’ll speak for myself – who do incredible public intellectual work that’s fast and nimble and responsive. They do it on social media, they do it on online magazines, and journals and blogs. I think you may be speaking to Vijay Prashad in the future. He wrote a quick, fast, brilliant essay about an article that was published in a journal called Third World Quarterly, and it is a fantastic piece of scholarship. Just about the history of this particular journal, and how it took a turn and ended up publishing a piece that really is quite colonial in nature, as opposed to liberatory, which was really the founding of the journal. That essay that Professor Prashad wrote came out three or four days after that article had been published, so the Academy is going to have to figure out how to count, how to assign importance to scholarship that has an impact, that hasn’t gone through these more traditional hierarchical structures of peer review processes. It’s also going to have to figure that out, because if it really wants to diversify the Academy, this kind of as a corollary to having a jury of your peers. Well in the academy, if you are a person who comes from a lineage that is not of the typical college going, upper middle class, upper class family, and you bring in the knowledges of your people in your culture, and you write in the ways that does honor to those histories, how are your peers going to actually be able to read and understand and evaluate that? So, the Academy is going to have to transform or else it will keep self-reproducing.

Will Brehm 29:10
Well Leigh Patel thank you so much for joining FreshEd. It really was pleasure to talk, and best of luck at the symposium.

Leigh Patel 29:16
Thank you so much. It’s been a pleasure to be speaking with you and a pleasure to be on the podcast. I appreciate it.

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