Racism and alcohol abuse have affected me throughout my life. Growing up in England with Punjabi heritage means that I have been an ‘outsider’ since birth. It also means, unfortunately, that my experiences of racism are plentiful. Coupled with my Dad's lifelong struggle with addiction and many visits to rehab, I've often been left seeking ways to overcome these issues. While reflecting on how I have tried to combat racism as well as help my Dad through his recovery, I realised the similarities in their solutions. Decolonising and recovering from addiction are ultimately two rails of the same track. Their journeys towards peace overlap and connect.
While no exact blueprint exists for decolonising, there is one for self-improvement - the 12 steps to recovery. Self improvement programmes support both the addict and their loved ones. The first of the 12 steps encourages the individual to admit that they have a problem with addiction. No resolution is possible without recognising and owning the issue at hand. In the same way, decolonising requires an acknowledgement of the presence of racism. This acknowledgement in the peacebuilding sector must be at a structural, institutional and personal level. Moreover, recognising the colonial legacy of the peacebuilding sector is foundational. This includes recognising the ways that racism manifests and reflecting on our own positionality and relationship with racism and power dynamics.
Following the recognition of addiction, self-improvement focuses on challenging ego and developing compassion. Through a series of steps, these programmes help individuals to recognise that they are not at the centre of the world. And therefore can't control other people's lives. Through this reflection, the individual can develop a greater sense of humility. The process helps them to decentre themselves from their perspective of the world and accept and respect other people for who they are. It also encourages the practice of forgiveness.
A successful approach to decolonisation follows this route. This is particularly important for people whose beliefs and values are rooted in Western philosophy. By decentring personal and institutional agendas and approaches, individuals and organisations in the peacebuilding sector are able to recognise the merits of other cultures, approaches and knowledge systems. What’s more, conquering the ego within a decolonising approach encourages people to ask for help and guidance outside of themselves or the culture they are a part of. This is a key aspect of humility. While this takes a step towards redistributing power dynamics, it also encourages more effective peacebuilding practice through diversity of perspective. These are important foundations, essential for sustainable decolonisation across the sector.
With this loving and compassionate outlook, we can reflect upon and make amends for the hurt that this may have caused to others. Within self-improvement this involves listing any wrong-doings, and contacting those affected, unless doing so would harm the person. Most importantly, it is the willingness to make amends for those behaviours to demonstrate the humility that is a key element developed throughout self improvement.
Similarly, people and organisations who are engaging with decolonising can follow these steps. This will help to develop strong foundations for a more human centred approach. Organisations and individuals in the peacebuilding sector can humbly develop an inventory as to how their organisation or sector has impacted racial equality or perpetuated neo-colonial power dynamics. They can then engage with partners, local organisations, communities and local governments who may have suffered because of this, and be willing to correct their mistakes. It's crucial that those committed to decolonising remain open to criticism and are able to reflect on their involvement in perpetuating racist practices.
For self-improvement programmes and decolonising, the answer to correct these mistakes has already been developed in previous steps – love, compassion, and humility. However, the challenge lies in continuous self-reflection, honesty, and engagement with the programme. My dad struggled with this and unfortunately his battle ended earlier this year. For others, it has been a transformative experience that, while continuing to pose challenges, has increasingly been rewarding. The journey to sustainable peace is not a complicated one – but it requires a complete test of our strength and commitment.
Will we choose the track of neocolonialism and inequality or can we learn from recovery programmes and decolonise sustainably?