2020 has seen ‘unlearning’ swiftly enter mainstream vernacular primarily in response to the #BlackLivesMatter movement that has dominated global headlines. But what does it mean? Why is it important? And how, exactly, do we start the process of unlearning?
“We can choose to walk through it, dragging the carcasses of our prejudice and hatred, our avarice, our data banks and dead ideas, our dead rivers and smoky skies behind us. Or we can walk through lightly, with little luggage, ready to imagine another world. And ready to fight for it.”
You’ve probably seen, heard, or read these words. They come from what must be the most influential essay in our contemporary moment: “The pandemic is a portal”, by novelist Arundhati Roy. What Roy is getting at is this: humanity collectively stands at a crossroads. We have been forced to make a choice. Do we emerge from this tumultuous time carrying the baggage of age-old and hegemonic ideas, along with the institutions and structures built upon it, or do we let go of what no longer serves us, in order to build a new world? The answer is clear, of course. But the question is, how do we, practically speaking, do that? If, as feminist and social activist bell hooks writes, “the world is a verb, or at least a gerund”, how do we do it?
There’s no manual for world-building. Nor is there, I imagine, one right answer. After all, many of us are—and have already been—world-building. But as Roy alludes to, one of the ways to get there is to unlearn.
Learning is a revolutionary act
Traditional education as we know it is more flawed than we’d like to admit. (Here I am referring to the traditional institutions within the global education system, rather than individual teachers themselves, though they may also be complicit.) Teaching is a one-way transmission of information from teacher to student. Yet, this is the practice we are used to seeing in traditional education everywhere. Which is one reason why learning is revolutionary. In a society that emphasises learning (and not teaching), education becomes, as it should be, “a process in which the environment changes the learner, and the learner changes the environment”. Learning is, in effect, an act.
We must begin to see learning as an act. Because what is taught in traditional educational institutions are not always “fact”. Certainly, there are scientific consensuses (like the reality of climate change) and reasonably absolute “facts” (which must always be tempered with the question “how do we know what we know”, but we’re not getting into that today). But so much of what (we think) we know is constructed and propagated by structures and institutions that oppress. Not to mention being written by people who have historically held, and continue to hold, positions of immense power. (See: the movement to decolonise academia for more on that.) In other words, knowledge is not as objective as we may think. Learning must be the revolutionary act that grapples with this.
Where does unlearning fit into the picture, then? Common dictionary definitions of the word “unlearn” associate the act with forgetting: a deliberate erasure of something (an idea, a concept, a habit, etc.) that you have learned. But unlearning is a form of learning too, because the act inevitably makes space for something new to replace it. So where do we start?
How did we get here?
If we’re in the business of changing and rebuilding the world, we’ve got to first understand how we got here. Here, as in: a rapidly warming and depleting world with increasing inequalities (à la an elite club of the absurdly rich vis-à-vis the rest—a growing global middle class subject to the tyranny of capitalism, and the urban and rural poor), growing divisions (racism, ableism, sexism, discrimination etc.), being ruled by more and more authoritarian governments who may as well be in cahoots with corporations. Oh, and to top it all off, a global pandemic.
Ours, William Defebaugh, Editor-in-Chief of Atmos magazine, says, is a crisis of separation. “I think everything really boils down to this one idea, which is us thinking we’re separate from nature, but also that we think all of these problems are separate from one another.” You’ve heard this before. Everything is connected to everything else. All these crises our collective humanity is facing are not disparate. They are intersecting and compounding crises. The cause of which is interlocking systems, institutions, and structures of oppression. So no, it’s not “humans are killing the planet”. Nor is it “corporations are killing the planet”. Nor is it “governments are killing the planet”.
In short, and for the benefit of folks who think visually, it’s:
Why it all started with colonisation: a primer
There is an entire scholarly literature on this, but here’s a very brief primer. Malcom Ferdinand, who wrote Une écologie décoloniale (A Decolonial Ecology), explains: “[w]e have seen several accelerations in environmental destruction, particularly in the 19th and 20th centuries, but the ecological crisis began before these. It comes from a certain way of inhabiting the earth, from some believing themselves entitled to appropriate the earth for the benefit of a few.”
“While colonisation and slavery were also driven by capitalist rationales, these processes were above all based on a colonial world view that invented a hierarchy between races and different lands of the globe. […] It was a violent and misogynistic process, an awful way to inhabit the earth promoted by a coloniser for whom other human beings were dehumanised and for whom colonised lands and the non-humans that inhabited them mattered less than his desires. This is what I call “colonial habitation”. Colonial habitation is a violent way of inhabiting the earth, subjugating lands, humans, and non-humans to the desires of the coloniser.”
This view of colonisation, of course, is very different from “colonisation” as has been taught within traditional institutions. That is, an understanding of colonisation as a physical process of nations dominating overseas territories. From this traditional perspective, we have already decolonised, because those nations are no longer on foreign land. But this is exactly why this newer understanding of colonisation is so important. Because even if there is no more physical presence, the underlying ideology that oppresses still remains, and is very much alive today.
Decolonisation, then is an ongoing process, of unlearning.
Colonisation exists today in two ways: in the ideology of White supremacy, and in the economic and political system of capitalism. Let’s break it down. White supremacy, like colonisation, has the underlying tenets of “conquest and control”, as Theodore Grudin writes for the Earth Island Journal. “It is the idea of a chosen people who possess, by some divine right, unlimited license to use or destroy other peoples and places. Supremacy writ large posits a false hierarchy onto the world, which leads to pain and destruction.”
What does capitalism have to do with White supremacy? Well, capitalism is a competitive and hierarchical structure. It concentrates power (via wealth, material resources, and control over the means of production) in the hands of a few. The system takes this power, of course, from fertile lands, resource-rich communities, and bodies (by way of labour). It takes from those that are then perceived as less worthy, and so it necessitates, as this post explains, oppression, exploitation, and domination.
White supremacy provides the logic of this false hierarchy, and the capitalist system materialises it. Learning how these are interconnected, then unlearning them will help us address the roots of the climate crisis we are in today.
It’s not just the climate crisis that we can tackle with unlearning: it’s our inner crises too
As wellness designer Jackie Iyamah points out, unlearning is a form of community and self-care. Everything is connected to everything else, remember? She writes: “many of the ideas, beliefs, behavio[u]rs and actions we are taught, come from a white colonialist worldview.” White supremacy is a culture that we need to dismantle within ourselves. It’s ingrained into our ways of thinking and patterns of actions. Here’s a useful starting guide:
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Decolonizing our minds is an ongoing, never ending, forever & always practice and process. It’s learning to lead with your heart and not your head. It’s accepting and then rejecting our social conditioning and training the intrusive voices inside our heads to ask why we think, feel and act the ways we do. It’s dismantling the white supremacist inside of us and creating space for more abundance, empathy and love.
Here’s another example. Recently, we’ve seen the discourse on police abolition go more mainstream (police brutality has a lot to do with the fossil fuel industry, and hence the climate crisis, in case you didn’t know). But how do we unlearn how that system has been ingrained in our being and way of life? How do we “defeat our inner cop”? It’s about seeing cycles of systems and abuse and it’s about centring the stories of victims and survivors. But it’s also about yourself, and understanding your power. How are you an oppressor, and how are you oppressed?
The revolutionary thing about unlearning in this context is that it takes unlearning beyond the individual. Understanding unlearning in this way reminds us that unlearning is a process not just for ourselves. It’s for our community too. As cultural critic Zeba Blay says, “[t]here’s so much unlearning I have to do about what freedom and “success” looks like, what it means in a racist and capitalist society. A “good life” cannot and should not be attained if it’s at the expense of other people.”
Changing the way we think matters
Doubtful of the power of unlearning? Here are some words that might shift your perspective. “The large scale changes that we all want to see happen manifest through countless real-world instances of the butterfly effect: changing one mind at a time, challenging the way we think, and sharing our common humanity with one another. These small scale happenings will add up to big ones, and we can all be the change we wish to see in the world.” Which is to say: yes, we need systemic changes. We need structural shifts. But these aren’t going to happen if we don’t change the way we think.
After all, as we’ve explained, the reason why we’re in this shit show of a world today is because of the flawed thinking of a powerful group of humans. Who, unfortunately, proceeded to take that thinking and wreak havoc all over the world. But, as climate expert Dr. Elizabeth Sawin reminds us: “[i]f coloni[s]ation and extractive economics changed the temperature of a whole freakin’ planet in a few hundred years, what might decoloni[s]ation and regenerative economics do? There is hope yet.
We cannot only show up when we feel like experts
I leave you with this parting thought, and mini-essay I’ve kept close to my heart since I first read it. If you’re anything like me, coming to terms with all this is scary. Putting words together to talk about what I’ve learned is worse. It feels like I’m jumping into the deep end without a lifebuoy in sight. But the journey of unlearning that we are about to embark on is a journey into the unknown. Doing the work will be messy. We will make mistakes. We will say the wrong things. But we cannot only show up when we have the words to do so. We cannot only show up when we feel like experts.
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Fake film stills (it’s a movie in my head) 🔹 I started writing this essay this morning on how important it is to free ourselves from the expectation of acting only when we fully know how to, and instead of acknowledging where we are at and going from there. I was thinking about how being supportive to a friend through a traumatic physical event he underwent has shaped my life for the last three years, and asked me to show up in completely unexpected ways. But then the topic slipped from my hands and went into current events, how white liberals only wanna be seen as “good” white people, how the fear of behaving only when we are “experts” keeps us submissive, and how the ideas of expertise and perfection are calculated myths designed by capitalism, white supremacy, and colonialism. And THEN, I got thinking about how institutions uphold this idea of expertise and cling to it in order to preserve the status quo, and the violence rooted in this. And THEN how academics sometimes present knowledge as a thing they can own and gate keep, rather than honoring lived experienced and the complexities of knowledge. After all that I was so tired I just made these fake film stills from iPhone pics and thought about passing out. 🔷🔷 Oh also, no need to take anything I’m saying as the Truth or see me (and any other person on social media with many followers) as an Expert. Don’t let the arbitrary blue check mark fool you, I’m just writing all this out of obsessive curiosity & self-interrogation and sharing it with you to spark dialogue. And everything I’m saying doesn’t exist in a vacuum. I’m taught by others and larger conversations, as well as my own lived experiences.
We must show up to unlearn, now.
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