Decolonising Narratives: Part 3 How can we decolonise narrative work? Decoloniality as queering

We are living off expired stories. Stories that expire can no longer dance with you. They are lethargic or stuck, they can’t move things in generative ways any more, but we often feel we cannot let them go. Many of these expired stories give us a sense of security, purpose and direction—precisely because they seem stable and solid.

Vanessa Andreotti

Reeling in the grief of the summer of 2020, I reflected on how the work of narrative change was itself “living off expired stories”; its practices embedded in racism.

Here, I’d like to try shifting gears and evolving where we’re at. What might the work of learning and doing narrative change look like if we moved it beyond coloniality, capitalism, patriarchy and whiteness?

Decoloniality as queering

If you meet a monster on your road, do not try to plunge your sword into her. You will not win. Instead, bury your sword. Break it in two. Toss it away. Go unprepared.

Bayo Akamolafe

Vanessa Andreotti beautifully summarises decoloniality as yes, and rather than no, but in her book, Hospicing Modernity: yes, urgency, and slowness, rather than no urgency, but yes slowness. In other words, not creating more binaries by throwing out one thing in favour of another, but instead holding (often uncomfortably) the complexity of multiple truths living side by side. Yes, rationality, and emotion, two ways of understanding that interact with one another, not just competitively.

For me, this yes, and is nicely held by the idea of queering (such as in the words of bell hooks or adrienne maree brown’s Pleasure Activism): to trouble, to complicate or complexify, to foil. (Read: if it wasn’t for those pesky kids, capitalism would have got away with it!)

1. Queering knowledge

Colonial thinking values certain types of knowing over others, and mediates our relationship to knowledge: such as through academia and the written word. It often takes what is WEIRD (Western, Educated, Industrialised, Rich and Democratic—add to this list white, non-disabled, straight, cis, etc etc) and generalises it to the majority of the global population (who do not share these characteristics).

It shapes the direction of travel as much as the destination: sending researchers off to answer questions that are already framed with bias inherent in them. It’s what allows a white, British woman to say that research shows using a particular framing is successful, and for that to be an accepted conclusion, even though it is simultaneously conceded that brown immigrants experience the framing as damaging.

It also looks like creating hierarchies of knowledge: narrowly defined experts and individual discoveries, and, much like the rest of the colonial project, it is extractive. This means that we might see Black, brown, working-class, disabled and trans folks in focus groups, or as messengers in campaigns, but we’re much less likely to be leading strategy, designing and analysing research, or presenting our recommendations for best practice to funders or at conferences.

What might it mean to queer knowledge: to value other types of knowing, to learn differently, to expand whose experience is seen as valid, to see knowledge production as a collective project? How can we decentre academic thinking and research findings and recentre personal and collective experience as a site of knowledge, understanding all of these as useful puzzle pieces and none of them as the whole picture?

In a decolonized narrative ecosystem, grassroots groups and their members are not only end-product consumers of narrative; they are essential creators and drivers of narrative change.


A few existing practices and suggestions:

  • Pay folks with lived and living experience of issues to lead narrative work. Resource and support them to do it with training, mentoring, time and money.
  • Do more participatory knowledge-creation over traditional research methodologies, including group and collective reflection of issues.
  • Embed reflective practice in narrative work: thinking about how our own positionality shapes our understanding of the issues we’re working on, and asking, for example, whether actually I should just step back and let someone else lead on this thing. (Like, do I actually know what it feels like to be poor whilst working on framing of poverty? It doesn’t mean that I shouldn’t be working on it if I don’t, but it might mean I should check in with some folks who do—and to consider how to do this without being extractive.)
  • Question the roots of our understanding, draw on the wisdoms of non-academic communities with expertise of experience, and give credit to the depths of lineages of knowledge.

2. Queering relationships

Capitalist, white culture is based on hierarchical and binary relationships (coloniser and colonised, man and woman, good and bad); tasks over connection; and rationality over emotionality. Hierarchies and binaries require policing in order to be maintained (because, despite loud voices saying otherwise, they are not natural and inbuilt and just the way it is!), so rules, control and punishment are also features.

In narrative work, this might be present in the process: in how we relate to each other in design meetings or creative workshops, in who has decision-making power, or in how we prioritise our task lists. These features might also be reflected in the types of recommendations we make and the communications that are produced: such as creating campaign communications that inadvertently reinforce hierarchies and power imbalances. This has often been an inadvertent feature of charity communications: for example presenting ‘beneficiaries’ as needy (poor, black, disabled, etc) victims who require (often white, rich, non-disabled etc) ‘saviours’.

How do we queer and decolonise the types of relationships we’re encouraging? Some suggestions:

  • Create workplaces, meetings and workshops in which we’re encouraged to bring our emotional selves—not just our rational selves.
  • Prioritise relationships, care and trust building in collaborative work.
  • Work to challenge and break down power imbalances, through supporting leadership of folks with marginalised identities. Encourage critical reflection of our own positionalities, identities, and experiences, and practise stepping back, ceding our power, and challenging others with power to do the same.
  • Take an intersectional approach in designing and producing campaigns and communications, thinking through the relational and power dynamics intentionally or unintentionally promoted.
  • Self-determination (communities getting to choose their own destinies) as a guiding principle for design and production.
  • Share and redistribute resources wherever possible — and then challenge yourself to go further!

3. Queering spacetime

We’ve largely been socialised in a capitalist society to understand time as linear, productivity as key, and therefore to see speed and urgency as of the essence. Chanda Prescod Weinstein beautifully takes apart our understanding of spacetime in ‘Spacetime isn’t straight’, a chapter in The Disordered Cosmos, outlining how dominant ideas in maths and physics are based on flawed (or limited) understandings of the nature of reality. For example, we’ve historically put an emphasis on straight lines: getting from point A to B via a straight line, and the line between past and future as linear too, whereas actually spacetime is curved, and doesn’t behave linearly except at the very small scale.

Colonialism also requires a collective and narrative amnesia, in order to maintain power and not give land or resources back to exploited peoples. Colonial powers forcibly, and often violently, alienate people from both their places of origin and their histories. Think, for example, of Black descendants of peoples who were brutally displaced in the transatlantic slave trade and punished for practising their own customs in the Americas. Or at the more insidious level, children of African immigrants in the UK (myself among them) whose heritage and traditions are derided and suppressed by a hostile mainstream culture.

Narrative work is not immune to any of this. Groups and individuals are often under pressure to produce campaigns and communications in unrealistically tight timescales; never with enough time for the big conversations about vision and the whys, whos and hows, or for meaningful review and evaluation. Those who produce more are rewarded with more resources. Disabled and neurodivergent folks are often marginalised by their needs around time and pace.

Some suggestions for queering spacetime in narrative work:

  • Build in spaciousness (long breaks!), flexibility and rest into workshops, projects and funding bids (see work on crip time, like Care Work by Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha).
  • Understand processes as cyclical and iterative, rather than linear and forward-moving, with reflection, evaluation, review and learning given proper space and time.
  • Understand the time and space you’re working in as connected to the past and future, shaped by historical and current power structures and dynamics, and acknowledge the impact on peoples and land.
  • Acknowledge and name the power structures and historical forces at the root of the issues we face.

This is just a starting place, and in future blogs, we hope to dive deeper into these and many other ideas and practices. I’m also conscious of the irony of creating checklists and tick-boxes in true capitalist style to meet structural, cultural, systemic issues!

In aid of our thinking and practice, how else can we work to decolonise narrative work? Do you have examples of it in practice? That, as well as any other feedback, is deeply welcome.

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