The term “decolonize” has recently entered the mainstream vocabulary. Calls to decolonize business, branding, healthcare, design, fashion, academia, and many other institutions are becoming louder and more commonplace. But what exactly is decolonization? And why is it a crucial practice to evolve your brand?
What is Decolonizing?
Decolonization is the resistance to colonial norms and active shifting of power toward Indigenous people. It’s a nuanced and positive process that occurs through recognizing and reforming political, economic, and cultural structures.
As Shay-Akil McLean, Ph.D., Decolonial Scientist, suggests, the Euro-centric settler worldview seeks to be the sole standard of “what is” and “what ought to be.” Decolonization is a process that dethrones the euro-centric dominant worldview and is a “hashing out of a different way to be.”
Actively working to undo the effects settler colonialism has had on Indigenous populations, their land, communities, and cultural practices requires undoing practices that have been so entrenched in the day-to-day that they may go unnoticed by many.
For many brands, the decolonization process is daunting and confusing as the mainstream, non-Indigenous community widely misunderstands it. But, decolonizing your brand can be an exciting and restorative process when approached with an open mind and a drive to improve both the health of a business and the greater self.
Important to note before we dive in:
Colonialism is a profoundly complex structure, and its effects cannot be generalized or blanketed over an entire culture. All people of euro-caucasian descent don’t necessarily share the settler worldview, and the Indigenous experience isn’t universal. While decolonization historically focuses on Indigenous reparations and healing, Native populations aren’t the only groups who have been affected. Intersectional populations like Black Indigenous people that trace their lineage in North America back centuries to the first enslaved Africans challenge the settler-indigenous binary.
So as you consider decolonizing your brand, think about this process as it applies to your individual experience, brand, industry, and geographical location.
What does it mean to decolonize your brand and how do you do it?
In contemporary consumer culture, decolonization is a critical practice and long-term effort for brands. People aren’t willing to overlook historical inequities and exploitative business origins like generations of the past. In an evolving values-driven environment, acknowledgments need to address past realities and offer actionable solutions for reparations and balancing scales — which is good for businesses and the people that make them successful.
Here are some preparatory steps to start your exciting journey into decolonizing your brand.
1. Audit your brand’s current position
If you’re non-Indigenous and are passionate about Indigenous rights, it may be challenging to acknowledge the privilege you and your brand inherited from the Euro-centric colonial system. But this is also an opportunity to strengthen your brand’s identity and character.
Let’s talk about the pitfalls of guilt and shame. Whether conscious or subconscious, these feelings may take a necessary moment but, if left unattended, often lead to what decolonization scholars Eve Tuck and K. Wang call “settler moves to innocence.” In their seminal piece on decolonization, Tuck and Yang point out the long history of non-Native people working to reduce the impacts of colonization — but often in a way that focuses more on relieving their settler guilt than on truly dismantling colonial structures.
Ultimately, Tuck and Yang argue that these claims to innocence represent fantasies that time has watered down the effects of colonization and that modern times make for more accessible paths to reconciliation.
Promises, platitudes, pleas, and protests are often seen as settler moves to innocence as they don’t require relinquishing power or privilege. And often, in these cases, a settler leader takes up a disproportionate amount of microphone time, leaving Indigenous communities and their leaders as bystanders in their own story.
So, what does all of this mean for decolonizing your business and brand? Before you can begin decolonizing your brand, you have to ask yourself hard questions: Why do we want to do this? Who are we doing it for? What do we hope to get out of it?
If you aren’t an Indigenous-owned company, examine your social position in the context of colonial structures and acknowledge your position in the colonial system without barriers to the truth and without expecting Native people to do the emotional labor.
If you are ready to disrupt the status quo and dismantle colonial worldviews, structures, and systems, run exercises to examine what is operating your business outside of the acceptance of “what is” and run it based on what “should be.” Think about how actions and words take from others. Examine how your brand can engage in commerce honestly with accountability to the people most exploited by capitalist infrastructures. Look carefully at your products, communications, internal policies, and business practices that may have been borrowed from indigenous cultures without permission or regard for their meaning and importance.
The beautiful thing about this exercise is that it grants permission to recognize and acknowledge whatever role your brand may have had in perpetuating a settler worldview. It also offers the opportunity to see the past, present, and future more clearly. This creates a runway for better strategies and a path forward that focuses on values-driven growth, placing your brand in a position to authentically become part of the solution.
2. Acknowledge whose land you’re on
Once you’ve recognized and acknowledged your brand’s position in the colonial system, the next step is to know whose land you inhabit. Which Indigenous group or groups were forcibly removed from it? Where are those Indigenous groups now? Who are some of their living members still residing in the community, and who are their modern-day leaders? Dig deep and compile all of your research into a land acknowledgment statement to recognize the history of the land and Indigenous peoples’ relationship to it. These statements help create awareness around the erasure of Indigenous cultures and their removal from their traditional homelands.
But be wary of letting the guilt/shame tone creep in. The Native Governance Center, a Native-led nonprofit organization that promotes sovereignty and strong Indigenous governments, suggests that land acknowledgments should be celebratory and focus on the positive contributions of Indigenous people and who they are in modern times.
Also, be open to your acknowledgement evolving over time. In its land acknowledgment statement, Northwestern University points out that “Land acknowledgments do not exist in a past-tense or historical context: colonialism is a current ongoing process, and we need to build the mindfulness of our present participation.”
The Native Governance Center offers a helpful guide with tips and resources for creating a meaningful and robust land acknowledgment statement that includes a solid call to action encouraging your brand’s followers to support Indigenous communities and causes. The non-profit also offers a downloadable guide to help you create an action plan as part of your land acknowledgment.
3. Give back in meaningful ways
Your land acknowledgment is a precursor to the action-oriented work of decolonization. Donations are great practice for distributing wealth. Still, Edgar Villanueva, an activist member of the Lumbee Nation and author of Decolonizing Wealth, suggests that companies can make a more significant dent in decolonization by practicing reciprocity. This can mean sharing resources, supporting Native-led, grassroots campaigns and movements, and meeting specific needs in the community through relationship-building, volunteering, and activism.
Ask questions about building solid relationships that enable you to identify with and meet critical needs in your community. A great way to start is through power mapping. This exercise can help your brand identify individuals and organizations to target for relationship-building to wield combined power and influence toward social change.
Another way to give back meaningfully is to look into returning the land you’re on if your brand owns it. Resource Generation, a non-profit organization based in New York, has a land reparation toolkit that serves as a starting point for returning Indigenous land to its rightful owners.
4. Protect the land
Decolonizing your brand requires a heavy focus on protecting the land and its natural resources. Carefully examine how your business contributes directly or indirectly to environmental destruction and actively minimizes your impact by adopting a business model built on environmental sustainability.
Examine all areas of your business, including your products, policies, and practices, and identify those that may contribute to environmental harm. Audit your partners, collaborators, manufacturers, suppliers, and anyone you work with to ensure they operate sustainably. Sourcing your products responsibly, setting sustainability goals, and adopting clear policies and practices explicitly designed to minimize environmental impact goes a long way in strengthening your brand’s integrity.
Consider becoming a certified green business through organizations like the Green Business Bureau (GBB). A trusted third-party organization, the GBB provides EcoAssessment and EcoPlanner tools that help small and large companies assess their environmental impact and design and implement new, more sustainable policies and practices.
5. Know the difference between diversity and decolonization in visual identity
Actively dismantling colonial structures requires more than including images of marginalized populations in brand campaigns and projects. It requires internal changes to balance inequalities within an organization so that change occurs from the brand’s core.
Dr. McLean, Decolonial Scientist, notes that diversity and multicultural practices can act as ways for institutions to deflect responsibility. McLean proposes that these practices often aren’t created to celebrate our differences and reassign seats at the table to marginalized populations but instead are “about privileged liberals employing the lives and bodies of disempowered peoples to deflect from the systemic and institutional issues at hand.”
Be wary of this misstep and missed opportunity.
Images are powerful, and dispensing with the old tropes and stereotypes in your brand’s imagery and content helps to promote inclusion and the appreciation of racial and ethnic diversity. When done right, it plants new seeds in the minds of those who rely on a Euro-Western worldview — seeds that grow into a rejection of “what is” and a redefining of “what should be.” If those are your values and goals, that’s a step in the right direction — but it’s not quite decolonization. Multiculturalism and diversity are to decolonization as baking soda and butter are to cake. Think beyond the outward expression and move inward to the structure of your company, and audit the quality of perspectives present to inform your visual identity.
6. Pay attention to language
Assessing your marketing language, HR policies, and processes and auditing your internal company language can significantly reduce bias and decolonize your brand.
In today’s media, recognizing that language is evolving, and some acceptable terms don’t fly anymore. Words are powerful, and using the right ones without fear of pushback — even when they’re controversial — shows your audience and the people in your organization that you’re not skirting around issues in a practice of appeasement.
Actively seek out perspectives that aren’t white or euro-centric and consider them through a non-colonial lens.
Look out for soft, palatable buzzwords, and replace them with powerful words that hold more weight and certainty, e.g., replace “discriminatory” with “racist” if it is the more accurate term. Did you just say “leverage” when you actually meant “exploit”? And check for resources that point to outdated and discriminatory terms, e.g., the word “grandfathered” is steeped in the racist history of the grandfather clause. Replace it with legacy. Self-Defined’s modern dictionary is a great resource for more terms like this. Also, check out Seramount’s glossary of diversity, equity, and inclusion terms for more historical and current language standards.
7. Put people over profits
Decolonization values people over profits. The process begins with addressing how you treat employees, customers, vendors, and partners. How do your brand’s decisions impact the people responsible for your bottom line?
Striving for ethical sourcing, social responsibility, and transparency is the start. The hard part is identifying a new value system that isn’t purely financial — but rather the antithesis of the colonial-corporate mindset.
Assess your brand’s values, mission, and purpose. Do they reflect your decolonizing goals? Does your company embody your brand story? Does your brand support partners, customers, the environment, and the community?
Decentering whiteness and Euro-centric ideologies around wealth and power means denouncing age-old settler perceptions of perpetual scarcity, which requires a willingness to redefine success, wealth, value, and power within a capitalistic framework that often is in opposition to those redefinitions. Think about what could be and how you might get there in the long run.
Decolonization is a long game
Decolonizing your brand isn’t a short-term endeavor or a cheap one. But to future-proof and grow your business with the values that align with today’s growing conscious consumer audience, it needs to be an integral part of your long-term business plans and goals. Gaining ground over colonialism and the massive environmental and human destruction it created contributes to a future where everyone can fulfill their purpose and exist in a land that’s made for all people. And that’s good business.