Decoloniality article

No Peace without Decolonization: A Lecture and Interview with Nelson Maldonado-Torres

Nelson Maldonado Torres speaks to students, staff, and faculty during his visit to Notre Dame’s campus on March 8, 2023. (Photo by Matt Cashore).


At a time when decolonization has become a buzzword across the university and wider social discourse—especially under the banner of diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI)—clarity about what decolonization entails is required. On March 7 and 8 of 2023 Nelson Maldonado-Torres joined Contending Modernities to present a lecture and to sit for an interview to outline his approach to decolonization. Maldonado-Torres carefully distinguished the decolonial project from piecemeal reforms that do little more than chip around the edges of the status-quo, whether from liberal politicians or university leaders. Drawing on his own activist and scholarly work, Maldonado-Torres outlined a decolonial politics and epistemology rooted in a radical notion of love. In conversation with Emmanuel Levinas, Frantz Fanon, and others, he challenged both conservative and liberal posturing that would prioritize law and order (sometimes under the guise of “justice”) that seeks to maintain a status quo that is predicated on the preservation of Whiteness. The result of Maldonado-Torres’ exposition is a radical notion of what decoloniality entails: the reorganization of the university as we know it and the reimagining of what is entailed in radical politics. It is here where religious practices, such as prayer, offer ways of understanding ourselves and relations to others in profoundly revolutionary ways.


On March 7, 2023 Maldonado-Torres presented a lecture for the Contending Modernities research initiative titled “Countering the Coloniality of Peace and Justice.” The recording of this lecture, along with timestamps highlighting the various chapters of the lecture, are below.


Atalia Omer (AO): In your talk and in your work, you are critical of various uses of the terms decolonization and decoloniality in the academy, arguing instead that decolonization entails a careful consideration of abolition and reparations that is typically missing in academic calls for decolonization. So, what is the relation between decolonization and concepts and praxes of abolitions and reparation?

Nelson Maldonado-Torres (NMT): In recent years, different movements/organizations of activists have been making important connections between decolonization and abolition. In the US, for example, decolonization is very much linked to the Indigenous Land Back movement, and abolition has been primarily associated with the abolition of slavery as well as with the abolition of the prison industrial complex. And so there have been increasing efforts to explore the connections and synergies between these concepts and projects. The growing consensus is that abolition is part of the process of decolonization and vice versa. For me, coming from the Caribbean context, the mutual implication of decolonization and abolition is very clear, perhaps most notably, because of their entanglement during the Haitian Revolution. Haiti became independent from France while also abolishing slavery, and so therefore in the Haitian case it was clear that decolonization involves political, aesthetic, spiritual, and epistemic liberation as well as the abolition of slavery and related structures of dehumanization. In short, how I understand decoloniality combines decolonization and abolition, and I trace this back to the Haitian revolution, among similar revolts in what the Zapatistas have referred to as the long night of 500 years. I have described in my work the Haitian revolution as the first major moment of the decolonial turn, and when you take the Haitian revolution as a reference, then, decolonization and abolition are organically connected. It is important today, for a number of reasons, to continue to work in that direction. Haiti is also a very important case because Haiti was made to pay reparations to France because of their losses. So this is the audacity when of course—

AO: When you have the Eiffel Tower!

NMT: When of course, what was due was reparations to the Haitian people, an imperative that remains relevant today. So, clearly in the context of massive forms of colonization, independence is not enough. You need to abolish the institutions that are serving as mechanisms of domination—different forms of domination in your society—and the former colonial powers need to not only pay reparations, but also engage in reparations. It’s kind of a threefold project and demand: decolonization, abolition, reparations as part of decoloniality. By decoloniality I mean both the undoing of coloniality in all its forms and expressions as well as the cultivation of existing and new forms of communality, forms of subjectivity, and forms of sociality that emerge out of the very process of organizing to counter colonization. In the case of the Haitian revolution, it is in the very process of engaging in the revolution, and before that in the process of the formation of what Jean Casimir calls the “counter-plantation system” that provide an anchor of sorts in the unfolding of combative decoloniality.

You need to abolish the institutions that are serving as mechanisms of domination—different forms of domination in your society—and the former colonial powers need to not only pay reparations, but also engage in reparations.

In the counter-plantation system, you find the seeds of a new order, but for that order to happen you need abolition, and you also need reparations. So decolonization cannot work without abolition and it cannot work without reparations. If we take it from there and we think about places like the university, then whenever we talk about decolonization we need to talk about abolition and reparations. If we are not talking about abolition and reparations, then we are not really talking about decolonization. And it is interesting that many of these recent efforts or projects to pay attention to decolonization, they ultimately make decolonization collapse into projects of diversity and inclusion that reject the grammar of reparation. So, we have to be very careful about this academic commodification of decolonization and decoloniality within a liberal grammar that does not admit the question of reparations or that sees it as something completely different from what we are supposed to be asking and doing now.

AO: Perfect! Maybe you can tell us more about why you are thinking specifically about the need to abolish the humanities?

NMT: Abolish the humanities. Yes. As I see it, decoloniality opens up a horizon of multiple imperatives for change, including reparations, different forms of creolization, and abolition. There is no decolonization or decoloniality without engaging in the abolition of the logic of coloniality, which might involve the abolition of whatever it is that one is decolonizing. This prevents us from approaching decolonization as a project that recentralizes practices that need to morph and in some cases disappear in the very process of coming together to combat coloniality. This is at the crux of what the Frantz Fanon Foundation, which I co-chair, has proposed as combative decoloniality.

In that sense, decolonization entails abolition as a necessary step, or as a permanent possibility. Today, more and more in academia, one finds that decolonization tends to collapse into a call for minimal transformation, preserving the position of the scholar as expert, and doing away with the ideas/imperatives of abolition and reparations. At most, these are forms of decoloniality-lite that facilitate a certain commodification of the decolonial in liberal settings. This commodification is at work in calls to decolonize the humanities, when this call serves to recentralize the humanities rather than to consider the potential need for its abolition, and the abolition of the knowledge apparatus that makes the humanities, as an area within the liberal arts and sciences, possible. The humanities are often glorified, conceived as an effective antidote against the prevalence of technocratic and neoliberal imperatives in industrial and post-industrial societies. However, they remain part of what Sadri Khiari and Houria Boutledja have referred to as the immune system of Whiteness, and particularly so, of the White academic field. This means that the space of the humanities invites oppositions to neoliberalism as much as it also foments oppositions to decoloniality and abolition. The humanities open small spaces for scholars of color, but they truly are, first and foremost, a refuge for liberal Whiteness, which is why the humanities often militate against decolonial knowledge formations that resist accommodation within the established 19th century epistemology that dominates in the globalized modern/colonial university. That is why I believe that the time has come to explicitly engage in the effort to abolish them and, through that effort, engage in the process of supporting other ways of conceiving of education and of knowledge creation. We need not despair. The humanities were invented, and so we can invent something else building from everything at our disposal, including the critical analysis and strategic use of concepts and methods fostered in the humanities and the sciences, and recognizing the many spaces that have always already existed beyond the scope of the liberal arts and the humanities. Of these, of particular relevance are those that have participated and/or participate in the struggle against coloniality and for the restoration of the intersubjective bonds that have been severely undermined under the catastrophe of modernity/coloniality. At the core of this activity might be the cultivation of combative decolonial attitudes (rather than liberal and modern/colonial attitudes) that seek to prepare subjects and communities to engage in decolonial and abolitionist struggle. This struggle involves fostering a pluriverse of decolonizing practices and ideas grounded in those practices, with particular attention to those found in decolonial, abolitionist, and similar combative collectives, and facilitate their interaction and mutual enrichment, always respecting and following the lead of the practitioners/thinkers themselves. At stake is the possibility for the damné  to emerge as a co-combatant, and not merely as a professional, presumed expert, or scholar. As Sylvia Wynter has warned us, though, humanities scholars would tend to resist this impulse as much or more as scholars of Scholasticism rejected the humanities when they first emerged. The humanities were born in a particular time, institutionalized during a particular time, and grounded on specific philosophies the premises of which have been challenged or changed since then.

AO: We can think specifically about Kant or…

NMT: Yes, we can think of Enlightenment thinkers and figures like Immanuel Kant who served as reference and as inspiration for how to conceive the modern research university. We also need to consider how in the last two centuries other things have happened in the university that were not anticipated for most of its history. For me one of the most important things that has happened is the emergence of Black studies and ethnic studies fields, all of which defy the division of knowledge in terms of the humanities, the sciences, and the social sciences. However, since these forms of “studies” are expected to be incorporated within the established horizon of the liberal arts and sciences—because no other horizon is considered to be possible—they are forced to exist in a context that constantly militates against their decolonial dimensions and that seeks to make them work in the mode of pursuing incessant struggles for recognition and accommodation. At best, the humanities and the social sciences open relative spaces for these areas, while keeping their most combative decolonial dimensions, grounded on movement-based epistemic and aesthetic formations, in check.

AO: But you are not against studying literature?

NMT: Exactly. I’m referring to the humanities as a general framework within which different activities that are sometimes labeled as humanities activities are accommodated. My point is that they are better identified, they are better-affirmed—these activities like thinking, writing, interpretation—when conceived in a different kind of paradigm, not the paradigm of the humanities and social sciences, but a much more plural and dynamic paradigm that is deeply and intrinsically linked with anti-racism and decoloniality.

For me one of the most important things that has happened is the emergence of Black studies and ethnic studies fields, all of which defy the division of knowledge in terms of the humanities, the sciences, and the social sciences.

The humanities have become—and this is the other reason why I think that it is time to firmly proceed with their abolition—not only some stumbling block for other forms of knowledge, but also a refuge for liberal Whiteness, as I already mentioned. They have served as a refuge for liberal Whiteness—focused on the abstract principles of liberty, equality, tolerance, free speech, and more recently diversity and inclusion—in its opposition to conservative Whiteness—focused on the perceived integrity of the nation, based on what is understood as its core—, and neoliberal Whiteness—focused on perceived efficiency in the service of unending growth. In the academy, now more than 50 years after the formation of the first ethnic study programs, it is time for us to demand further transformations and to take away these refuges that liberal Whiteness has created for itself.

Joshua Lupo (JSL): To get back to your discussion of justice during your talk, there you were saying that when the right wing proposes something outrageous that they’re going to do, President Biden responds by saying, “we’re going to stand for justice.” It sounds like there’s a similar idea you are exploring here in the sense that Governor Ron DeSantis says that Florida is going to get rid of African American studies—or even African American history—and only do “American history,” to which the liberal humanist replies, “No, no, no. We need these things.” Then the question is: What exactly are we protecting when we respond to right–wing talking points in this way? What do we want the alternative to be? Is it just that we’re studying Shakespeare for our own personal edification, or is it something more? Do you see those two as linked?

NMT: Yes, certainly. While conservatives embrace the rhetoric of “law and order,” liberals respond with the accent on justice, by which they mean justice as conceived by the modern/colonial liberal nation-state. Similarly, in the context of the struggle for education in the university, you find some sectors that call for justice. They will say that we need to stand up for justice as a topic, as a thematic, in academia. But as I pointed out, the concept of justice has already been mobilized to undermine the claims of anti-racist knowledge formations in the university, so justice-talk has also been compromised and it has always had its limits. Liberals come closer to an actual defense of Black, Indigenous, and ethnic studies when they question the conservative attack on Critical Race Theory, which has become the label to refer to all of these knowledges.

AO: They don’t know what it means.

NMT: Exactly. They don’t know what it means. The Republicans don’t know what it means and they criticize it. And the liberals don’t have any other way to define it, whatever it is. But I think that ultimately, they mean something like diversity and inclusion.

AO: Yeah. I mean, we see it here, too.

JSL: We don’t know what to do, but we need to do something for the public.

NMT: Yes, exactly, the little that exists of CRT has been gained through struggle and pushes so that the liberal system has had to make concessions. But when the liberal system makes concessions, it also doesn’t do so passively; it takes these concepts over and recodifies them, right? So, it opens, appropriates, and then turns what it incorporates into a subset of something else that it controls.

AO: It multiplies and you see it over and over again.

NMT: Exactly. That’s the cycle. And so, ideas like justice, the humanities—I mean we should all be tired of seeing the same project every now and again in the name of justice, the humanities, the humans, and so forth. Ultimately, using those as tools to say, on the one hand that “we are so progressive,” and, on the other, that “everyone should be grateful to us that we are so progressive, benevolent, and you know.” But then what you are really doing is stopping the possibility of further, more radical, anti-racist and decolonial forms of thinking and action. And then you are providing refuge for liberal Whites to counter the other forms of Whiteness, that of conservatives and agents of neo-liberalism, but also counter the pressure that comes from the movements from below. So, the liberal engages in at least two forms of countering at once while appearing benevolent, progressive, and rational. It’s quite a rhetorical trick, and that’s why I think that we should resist confronting right-wing attacks by celebration or endorsements of liberal projects and visions such as what typically takes place in calls to defend the humanities. Because already, time has gone by and we know that we’re going to be singing the same song for the next 100 years. We need to somehow at least tell White liberals: “we know what you are doing and we’re not going to play your game,” right? And we need to enter into the space and reconceptualize the questions. You can enter there and begin to change the pieces, but the liberals don’t want you to change the grammar. They will say: “You need to defend justice and you need to defend the humanities.”

AO: And you need to use the existing grammar.

NMT: Exactly. Ultimately, at the end of the day, this ties to settler colonialism because all of this is a function of baptizing as legitimate the order that has emerged and been built on this land and so on. So, all of that will go without question. You don’t question possession of the land. You don’t question anything else. You take an entire array of matters as presuppositions: calling for the constant defense of the humanities while simultaneously naturalizing a colonial order of things and suppressing decolonial knowledge formations that cannot be possibly encapsulated within the province of the humanities or the liberal arts and sciences.

AO: This is where it also ties to the reparations, because that approach is so myopic and suffers from profound amnesia, right? It doesn’t want to interrogate and engage and own up to its history.

NMT: It is the humanities, and so it is compatible with the individualism that doesn’t recognize the weight of historical responsibility.

AO: Yeah, yeah. Responsibility, which is at the heart of reparation.

NMT: Exactly, yeah because “I was not my grandfather,” “I did not own any slaves,” right? “So why do I need to—”

AO: Right. Right.

NMT: I think it’s not only you, so to speak. It’s a government which you picked that is the one that is responsible to change the entire social setting for you and everyone. But that is something else.

AO: And perhaps at this point, maybe we can turn to a final question. In your work, you interrogate and you are also partly grounded in the critical study of religion. You engage with how the construction of the secular relates to the story of modernity, coloniality, the history of modern coloniality; and you use them and you engage with theological categories and questions of ontology and epistemology. Do you see a role for theology in the vision and the praxis of decoloniality, decolonization? Especially since theology (and specifically Christian theology) was so complicit in modernity, coloniality; what’s its role in abolishing it?

NMT: Well for me, since I was much younger, I resisted the separation between the secular and the religious. For me it was clear that they were mutually implicated, that that line was artificial in multiple ways, that it was a problematic line, and it was foundational in the assertion of philosophy as a secular enterprise. As a young person being introduced to philosophy, I was educated to presuppose the demarcation between the philosophical and the religious, and I should leave everything that was based on “faith” outside. But then when I was reading philosophers and so on, it was clear that they were drawing from some of these categories that came from particular religious traditions. So that was dubious. Also, there were questions—let’s say, metaphysical questions—that go beyond the limits of logical positivism and certain forms of investigation that I think invite the kind of speculation and reflection that sometimes is found in something like theology. And while it is true that theology and religious ideas, Christian and otherwise, have been used to dominate and colonize peoples, they have also been instrumental in resisting colonization, in defying slavery and other forms of domination, right? And, for me in particular, I come from a context where liberation theology had already existed and I was acquainted with it, so I knew that there was more to theology and to religious ideas than their connection with empire, with the nation-state, with powerful institutions.

While it is true that theology and religious ideas, Christian and otherwise, have been used to dominate and colonize peoples, they have also been instrumental in resisting colonization, in defying slavery and other forms of domination.

So I knew that there is not one Christianity, that there are multiple Christianities—and the same thing is true with Islam with other so-called religions. So, I was well prepared to traffic in the exchange between, across, and beyond the secular and the religious, but of course when looking at those so-called theological and religious ideas, particularly paying important attention to the ones that seem to play a role in the struggle for emancipation and liberation. From there, those struggles provided the hermeneutical key, if you wish, about how to then interpret other categories like prayer, for example, and like the gift, or love, which I explore in my writings.

AO: Maybe you can talk about prayer and love. That would be really helpful.

NMT: I began to take love particularly seriously when reading Chela Sandoval’s Methodology of the Oppressed shortly after it was published. In this text, she introduces and develops the concept of decolonial love, which is central in accounting for the richness and complexity of the methodology of the oppressed. At that time, I was also reading Fanon and Levinas very intensely. All of these thinkers combined, persuaded me that there was something to think about with regard to love. And then, in Against War, I presented an interpretation of Fanon as a philosopher of love in that vein, as well as a postsecular philosopher, if you will. Love, in Fanon, has to do with connection and relation. Love makes possible what is impossible from a strictly logical point of view: it accounts for the possibility of building communities of deeply wounded and vulnerable subjects who have been dehumanized. Love is the answer to the question, what is it in the human being that can allow for the possibility of connecting with someone else, particularly with someone else that you have been taught not to value? How does one become an agent of connection and not assimilation, subordination, and self-hate. That is, since many of us have been taught not to value ourselves and not to value people in our communities, how do we overcome that? I think the Fanonian answer is that there is something, that which we call love, some kind of dimension of the human, that would make it possible for us to go beyond that condition of separation and division and get there. And this love can be so powerful that it can bring people together and lead to a process of self- and collective healing. Love can turn destructive and problematic in so many ways, but this does not mean that, in its most basic forms, it seems to be, as Sandoval suggests, something like a force and the very possibility of deep connection. For lack of a better word, decolonial love is about the possibility of connection (and relation) when connection seems completely impossible, because you are supposed to eliminate yourself and you’re supposed to not care about another person. So, when you reach out to another slave and connect, that’s where love appears, or rather, this connection is made possible by virtue of love. Love is the very condition of possibility for this connection to take place. But, you know, this idea of subjects in isolation, in this self-annihilative mood, to reach out to another when the other is not there because the other has also been educated not to look out for you (you don’t know if they are there), that’s where prayer comes in because it’s the attempt at a connection even when the other is not immediately present.

AO: And this is a prayer and also an ethics, the underside of modernity, right?

NMT: Yes. Prayer is about connection, and ethics is a discourse and logic of connection. Both acquire particularly important dimensions in contexts that are premised on separations that sustain dehumanizing hierarchies.

AO: Maybe if you can clarify, what’s the distinction between colonial love and decolonial love?

NMT: What is colonial love? Love that kills us.

AO: Or consumes.

NMT: I mean I think that there can be so many multiple forms of love.

JSL: Or is colonial love, love. Or is it distorted?

AO: Think of missionaries.

NMT: It is paternalism, a very supreme paternalistic love, self-serving love. Paternalistic, but all of that is—

AO: “Saving you! Because God loves you! You know, my God loves you!”

NMT: Yes, exactly. Love as a tool to impose civilization, “because I love you so much that I want you to be civilized.” This is “love” in the service of civilization, of colonization; “love” as a form of imposition. This utterly self-centered “love” also finds expression in the delegitimization of combative movements: it is “love” as a call for an apparent peace that preserves multiple forms of structural violence. But in these cases what we call love is not really love, as Joshua was suggesting, and certainly not decolonial love. Love is about connection, a connection that maintains, respects, and celebrates singularity while calling for the exercise of respons(e)ability. Romantic love, when it is really love, affirms these two dimensions, and so forth with other forms of love. Decolonial love, in particular, takes place when the impulse for connection/relation and respons(e)ability finds expression within and against the hierarchies that sustain dehumanizing hierarchies and differences. Decolonial love accounts principally for the movements from dehumanized selves to dehumanized others, leading to the formation of collectives of the condemned which seek to end the world as we know it. Along with rage, decolonial love inspires opposition to the structures, values, principles, and ideas that sustain coloniality. Decolonial love also allows for the possibility of substantive (as opposed to superficial) coalition building and for the generation and enrichment of relations of conviviality that supersede the social contract of the modern/colonial state.

Nelson Maldonado-Torres
Nelson Maldonado-Torres is Professor of Philosophy at the University of Connecticut, Professor Extraordinarious at the University of South Africa, and Honorary Professor at the University of KwaZulu-Natal in Durban, South Africa. A former President of the Caribbean Philosophical Association, he co-chairs the Frantz Fanon Foundation, and is a senior associate of the Soweto-based Blackhouse Kollective. His work focuses on the philosophical dimensions of coloniality, race, and decoloniality, and he has published extensively in phenomenology, the theory of religion, the philosophy of race, and the theoretical foundations of ethnic studies. His publications in English include the monograph Against War: Views from the Underside of Modernity (Duke University Press, 2008), and the co-edited anthologies Latin@s in the World-System: Decolonization Struggles in the 21st Century U.S. Empire (Routledge, 2005), and Decolonial Feminism in Abya Yala: Caribbean, Meso, and South American Contributions and Challenges (Rowman and Littlefield, 2022). Relevant articles and book chapters include “Religion, Modernity, and Coloniality,” Religion, Conquest, and Race in the Foundations of the Modern/Colonial World,” “The Meaning and Function of Religion in an Imperial World,” “Secularism and Religion in the Modern/Colonial World System: From Secular Postcoloniality to Postsecular Transmodernity,” “What is Decolonial Critique?,” and the forthcoming “Combative Decoloniality and the Abolition of the Humanities” (Routledge Companion to Postcolonial and Decolonial Literature, ed. L.R. Brueck, and P. Gopinath).
Atalia Omer
 Atalia Omer is Professor of Religion, Conflict, and Peace Studies at the Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies and at the Keough School of Global Affairs at the University of Notre Dame in the United States. She earned her Ph.D. in Religion, Ethics, and Politics (2008) from the Committee on the Study of Religion at Harvard University. Her research focuses on Israel/Palestine; religion, violence, and peacebuilding; as well as theories and methods in the study of religion. Omer was awarded an Andrew Carnegie Fellowship in 2017, resulting in Decolonizing Religion and Peacebuilding (Oxford University Press, 2023). Among other publications, Omer is the author of When Peace is Not Enough: How the Israeli Peace Camp Thinks about Religion, Nationalism, and Justice (University of Chicago Press, 2015) and Days of Awe: Reimagining Jewishness in Solidarity with Palestinians (University of Chicago Press, 2019). She is also a co-editor of the Oxford Handbook of Religion, Conflict, and Peacebuilding (Oxford University Press, 2015). 
Joshua S. Lupo
Joshua S. Lupo is the Assistant Director of the Contending Modernities research initiative. In this role, he serves as the editor and writer for the Contending Modernities Blog and the classroom coordinator for the Madrasa Discourses program. He has published articles and reviews in Sophia, Soundings, Critical Muslim, Reading Religion, and Religious Studies Review. With CM Co-Director Atalia Omer, he is the co-editor of Broken Solidarities: Feminism, Race, and Transnationalism (Notre Dame Press, 2022) and Religion, Populism, and Modernity: Confronting White Christian Nationalism and Racism  (Notre Dame Press, 2023). His current book project is titled After Essentialism: A Critical Phenomenology for the Study of Religion.

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