Decolonizing the Classroom: A Conversation with Girish Daswani

Photo by Jonas Jacobsson.

This Teaching Tools post features an interview with Girish Daswani, Associate Professor in the Department of Anthropology at the University of Toronto, Scarborough, which was conducted by contributing editor Sarah O'Sullivan in December 2018. A scholar of religion, ethics and corruption in Ghana, Daswani uses platforms such as Twitter, TEDx, and academic blogs like Everyday Orientalism to engage audiences and publics beyond the academy around issues of decolonization, structures of power, whiteness, and colonial occlusions. The post also includes a critical reflection activity designed by O'Sullivan to help students think through the interview by drawing on their own experiences of learning in undergraduate classrooms.


Sarah O’Sullivan: Hi Girish, thanks for your time and for sharing your thoughts on teaching anthropology. I wanted to interview you because, while you have an impressive list of academic publications, there are also a number of public platforms where you’ve written or spoken at length about colonization, belonging, and your own experiences growing up in Singapore. I wanted to know: how and why is public engagement important to you, as both a scholar and a teacher of anthropology?

Girish Daswani: Hi Sarah, thanks for having me. I believe public engagement has become essential to scholarship, both because it allows us to draw on our academic training and critical thinking while speaking to a wider readership, and because it is not weighed down by more formal avenues of academic publishing that usually limit accessibility. There are many barriers within an anthropology written for anthropologists. We are held back by an internal prestige system that forces us to write for a very specific audience and expects us to perform citational prostrations so as to confirm (and conform to) the authority of others’ words. We get trapped in a circular pattern of seeking confirmation by citing the same people and often reproduce a system of privilege that exists within anthropology.

My public scholarship has allowed me to rethink my own positionality as an anthropologist. It has also made me reflect further on my own personal experiences, from my trajectory as an anthropologist from a non-Western country and a middle-class background to my status as a "minority" in an academic world where patron–client relationships (and social class) matter. It has helped me question how much of this elitist prestige system I have internalized, and to reflect on how to respond in a way that allows me to continue as an anthropologist. As a teacher, I believe that your greatest gifts are your stories, your ability to share something of yourself with others, while giving these stories context and recognizing that others have their stories that will help them critically reflect on the worlds in which they live.

More practically speaking, many of my undergraduate students come from immigrant and non-European backgrounds and are searching for their place in a world that seems out of step with them. Having our own stories told and heard is important and using art (spoken word, poetry, music, painting, photography) has been a way to get my students to think creatively about what home means through topics such as colonialism, nationalism, racism and migration. I have also increasingly included readings by nonwhite, female, and indigenous authors that critically reflect on colonialism and settler colonialism in my courses. In order to allow students to think through the colonial baggage we carry—a reality that has deep implications for the ways knowledge is constructed and for how academia (re)produces itself—a colleague in ancient history and I created a cotaught undergraduate course called “Constructing the Other: Orientalism through Time and Place.” A wonderful student essay for that class on Canadian mining and settler nationalism was published on the blog Everyday Orientalism.

SO: Related to the question of how much we, as academics and teachers, have internalized this “elitist prestige system” is the question of how we decolonize our pedagogical practices. Can you explain what it means to you to decolonize the anthropology classroom? What are the challenges (institutional or otherwise) that can impede your commitment to decolonizing anthropology?

GD: First, let me say that there is no one shared experience of colonization and thus the project of decolonizing anthropology has to recognize many distinct paths that are specific to the experiences of different colonized groups and nations. Yet, given these differences, the decolonization project is a necessary and shared one that is important to our teaching since it attends to colonial structures that are still in place within the social systems we live in, within our universities and within anthropology. We no longer have the right to say things like “we are the custodians of culture,” even as we continue to learn from others.

Decolonizing our classrooms means unlearning many things, listening to others who have more authority to speak than us (especially on issues pertaining to settler colonialism and indigeneity), becoming allies where and when we can, and being humble about not knowing enough—acknowledging that we have a lot more to learn. For example, it was shocking for me to learn that many of my undergraduate students knew close to nothing about the violence of settler colonialism in Canada, the residential school system or the Sixties Scoop [in which children were removed from their families and communities for placement in foster homes].

Some of the challenges come from universities that are more interested in performing diversity and decolonization than in actually creating structural change, and from those within anthropology who are uncritically attached to the past. The past is full of baggage and we have to sort through the things that are of use from the rubbish that remains. And so much rubbish remains, especially among those who believe they have a right (as anthropologists) to speak for others or those who nostalgically (and misogynistically) want to retrieve something from our past in order to make anthropology great again. Yet we need to engage with the so-called classics, learn from them, put them into historical context, and change the ways we look at them. Only then can we face ourselves, our history and our privilege, and make ourselves relevant in new ways.

SO: Lately, I’ve been thinking a lot about anthropology’s place in the world beyond academia and how we can make our world a better, more inclusive place for people to live and grow. What are your thoughts on anthropology as a discipline, and what do you think anthropology can bring to the world?

GD: Anthropology has a lot to offer. I truly believe that. For a while, I was disappointed by certain patterns I saw emerging in anthropology. Anthropologists are sometimes complicit in acts of misogyny and abuses of power, and many remain silent on these issues. But at the same time, there is a growing sense that many of us are able to see through the hypocrisy that comes of holding contradictory and opposing views; we are academics who are able to see through structures of power and hierarchy while we also reproduce these same structures through our attempts to manage and hold power.

I do think that sociocultural anthropology is qualified to help the world in thinking through Eurocentric, misogynistic, and capitalist views of the world; to bring attention to how power operates, its various scales and institutional similarities and differences; and to help bring a comparative perspective to the diverse ways that humans and nonhumans have (in the past and present) continued to coexist and resist. Primarily, we do that through our methodology of long-term participant-observation and through the ways we put the pieces of our research together, in conversations between people and social theories, slowly and carefully over time. We do not hurry to make sweeping comparisons or to create far-reaching theories that strip others of their complexity. This precision is our strength, even as we make the supposedly strange familiar and show how the familiar can sometimes be strange.

SO: I love this, but I think it’s easier said than done. As anthropologists dedicated to decolonization, how can we move within the academy, a place that is still in many ways an ivory tower resistant to change?

GD: You have to accept that you may become unpopular with some of your colleagues. Because attempts to think through decolonization in our departments and our classrooms are uncomfortable. They will invade comfort zones and disturb some people’s sensibilities, including our own. But discomfort about our complicity in structures of colonial power should be something we learn to accept. Otherwise, no number of unconscious bias workshops will bring us closer to understanding the extent to which we have internalized these structures of whiteness, masculinity, and elitism.

We also have to accept that it is a learning process and that we sometimes make mistakes. We have to be open to learning and listening: things that, as anthropologists, you would think we’d be good at. But many of us are resistant to change. One institution’s performance of decolonization or diversity is not another person’s expectation or experience of decolonization and diversity. Misogyny and elitism still rear their ugly heads among those who are widely respected.

SO: What words of wisdom or advice would you give to anthropologists, as teachers, scholars, and engaged community members interested in decolonization?

GD: That anthropology is not about an individualist star system populated by scholars who go to the right universities and publish with the so-called best journals or presses. It is about being a part of a community that works hard together to speak about and to differences and similarities around the world. It is about being a community that is critically aware of how power operates. Being a community of anthropologists does not mean shielding our differences. Instead (and implicitly drawing on Audre Lorde [2018]) we have to acknowledge that we have different positionalities and that we need to take these differences and make them strengths. We can do this by listening to and allowing other voices (nonwhite, queer, female, indigenous) into our syllabi, our classrooms, and our institutional decision-making structures.

SO: Before we end our conversation, I wonder if there are any key authors who helped you “unlearn” the elitist narratives that we’re taught in graduate school about the academy. Who were the most influential for your development as an engaged anthropologist?

GD: There’s the stuff I read for my own work and academic publications, and there’s the stuff I read for my own personal enrichment and teaching. With regards to the latter, I would include: Franz Fanon, Edward Said, Timothy Mitchell, Ann Stoler, Sara Ahmed, Roxanne Gay, Lee Maracle, Tanya Talaga, Patrick Wolfe, Ghassan Hage, and Audre Lorde. For the longest time, my reading was confined to texts that were deemed necessary to become an academic. As an undergraduate student studying sociology, people like Foucault, Weber, and Durkheim were the go-to thinkers. As a graduate student in anthropology, I was trained in classic anthropological debates. When completing my PhD, I had to draw on and cite anthropologists who were considered relevant and authoritative in my field of study. Now, I feel like I have more freedom and flexibility in what I choose to read. If the stories we are surrounded by and surround ourselves with are central to the kind of academics we become, then I have chosen to surround myself with stories from nonwhite, women, and indigenous writers, texts that provide alternative spaces for rediscovering parts of myself and my surroundings that are usually occluded.

SO: Expanding on this, what are your favorite ethnographies to teach and why?

GD: Audra Simpson’s (2014) Mohawk Interruptus has been a favorite ethnography in several of my classes. It demonstrates anthropology’s relevance to contemporary questions and persistent problems. It does a beautiful job demonstrating the strengths of anthropology’s ethnographic practice, while drawing the curtain on continuing structures of settler colonialism and on how indigenous identity is experienced through refusal and resistance. Another one that I’ve liked using is Given to the Goddess, by Lucinda Ramberg (2014). Shifting the lens from assuming what religion is to its very problematization, Ramberg focuses on a form of worship that is not considered Hinduism. She is thus able to shine a light on how different participants make their worlds, the ongoing influence of colonialism, and how a Hindu upper-caste politics rules over the secular politics of modern India.

Both of these ethnographies speak to the contradictions of liberalism, the violence of assimilation, and how kinship within different nation-states (Canada and India) is constructed through patrilineal and colonial constructions of descent, while also providing alternatives to such models. They also ask important questions, such as: Who qualifies as a citizen? What authority does one answer to? When is something considered illicit? And how do processes of state legitimacy simultaneously occlude other forms of belonging and other histories? I feel that I have something to offer my students through scholarship that reveals my discipline’s strengths in questioning normative categories such as citizenship, kinship, and religion; in acknowledging the continuing residues of and violence afforded by structures of colonialism; and in allowing them to discuss the relevance of such debates for themselves.

In-Class Activity

If used in the classroom, this interview can be a helpful tool for challenging students to think about what it means to do anthropology today and how decolonizing the classroom impacts learning and teaching.

The D.E.A.L. Model (see Ash and Clayton 2004) for critical reflection is a useful tool that I have adapted for use in my own teaching. I thank the University of Toronto’s Centre for Community Partnerships for introducing me to it. The model reflects three levels of guided student engagement and reflection on a particular event. Here, I have set up the activity to reflect on the experience of learning in a classroom, by: describing the experience of learning, objectively and in some detail; examining and evaluating the experience by making connections between the experience and relevant academic material; and articulating what a student has learned by reflecting on how they learned, what they learned, and why it matters.

Learning Objectives

  • Understand the significance of critical reflection
  • Draw comparisons and contrasts between previous learning experiences in high school or university with the experiences described in the interview text
  • Produce a personal, critical reflection using the D.E.A.L. model
  • Identify the ways in which decolonization in the classroom can impact one’s learning

Critical Reflection

Learning how to critically reflect is necessary to prevent arriving at simplistic solutions to complex problems. As advocates of critical reflection, Sarah Ash and Patti Clayton (2009) argue that students may reinforce stereotypes if they come to conclusions based on experience alone. Engaging in critical reflection teaches students how to articulate questions, identifying and confronting bias through reflexivity. While critical reflection does not always come easily, it is a skill that can be learned through practice, such as the activity provided here.

This activity is appropriate for undergraduate courses of all levels. It can be done alone, in small groups, or together as a class, depending on class size.

Describe (what?): After reading the interview, ask students to summarize it by making a word-chart or map of key concepts drawn from the text. Ask students to reflect on their initial emotional response to the text and how the text differs from previous experiences of learning in a classroom.

Examine/Evaluate (so what?): Ask students to define or expand on each concept, either in small groups or together as a class. Using these explanations, try to guide students to drawing comparisons between concepts and making new connections. Focus especially on how these concepts may diverge from or correspond to past classroom and learning experiences. Ask students to comment on any new insights they have gained, particularly from their own positionality as an undergraduate student. If your students are mostly in their first or second year, you may also ask them to reflect on how their experiences compare/contrast with learning in a high-school context.

Articulate (now what?): From here, students should spend five to ten minutes on their own, writing a short critical reflection. They can structure their response by answering the following questions: What did I learn? When did I learn it? Why does it matter? What will I do in light of it? By answering these questions, students will articulate how the learning experience (in this case, of decolonizing anthropology in the classroom) influences their understanding of the discipline's impact (for better and worse). Through activities such as these, students can become more confident critical thinkers and active listeners, equipped with the knowledge necessary to reveal the violences embedded within much of anthropological thought.

Further Thinking

If students are reluctant or uncertain about where to begin, foster their curiosity through the following questions and prompts:

  1. Did anything from the reading or discussion make you uncomfortable? Why do you think you felt this way?
  2. What does it mean for anthropology to be the “custodian of culture”? What are the potential pitfalls of imagining ourselves in this way, and how do you think anthropologists can move away from this way of doing anthropology?
  3. What do you think anthropology’s main role should be in today’s world?


Ash, Sarah L., and Patti H. Clayton. 2004. “The Articulated Learning: An Approach to Guided Reflection and Assessment.” Innovative Higher Education 29, no. 2: 137–54.

______. 2009. “Generating, Deepening, and Documenting Learning: The Power of Critical Reflection in Applied Learning.” Journal of Applied Learning in Higher Education 1, no. 1: 25–48.

Lorde, Audre. 2018. The Master’s Tools will Never Dismantle the Master’s House. New York: Penguin.

Ramberg, Lucinda. 2014. Given to the Goddess: South Indian Devadasis and the Sexuality of Religion. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press.

Simpson, Audra. 2014. Mohawk Interruptus: Political Life Across the Borders of Settler States. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press.