GW Community Offers Perspectives on Colonial Moniker

During a King Week event, the "Decolonial Dialogue" panel shared how their diverse experiences have been impacted by the moniker as well as ways the university can decolonize education.

Decolonial Dialogue
From left: Elizabeth Rule, Jordan West, Breya Johnson and Georgie Britcher discuss the impacts of colonialism during a King Week event. (Harrison Jones/GW Today)
January 27, 2020

By Briahnna Brown

There are many ways that colonialism affects Georgie Britcher on campus, she said, and the most impactful is that there is no space for her to be herself.

"I often find myself hiding my Indigeneity and also recognizing I have the privilege to do that in many spaces,” said Ms. Britcher, who is president of GW Students for Indigenous and Native American Rights. “People should not have to hide who they are on this campus.”

She also described firsthand experiences where students and faculty joked around with the term “savage,” even after expressing the harm that the word has caused.

“Culture is not a joke, and I think that especially rich white students think that it is and are allowed to think that it is because they're not going to face the repercussions,” Ms. Britcher said.

She shared these sentiments during a panel on Tuesday evening where other George Washington University students, faculty and staff gathered in a Funger Hall auditorium to discuss the impact of colonialism on higher education.

The “Decolonial Dialogue” examined how institutional colonialism impacts the GW experience for all members of the community, and what steps can be taken to dismantle systemic colonialism. The discussion also analyzed issues with institutional naming practices and the impact that those naming decisions can have.

In last year’s Student Association election, about 54 percent of students who cast ballots voted in favor of a referendum urging the university to change the university’s Colonial moniker, which the university began using in 1926. Since then, the Board of Trustees announced the launch of the Task Force on Naming, which will not consider specific naming requests but develop principles and procedures to guide the board in considering name changes.

Tuesday night’s panel, which the student-run Anything But Colonial Coalition hosted, tackled the issue of institutional names and symbols that they believe do not represent institutional values. The panel was part of GW’s annual King Week events, celebrating the life and legacy of Dr. King throughout January with thought-provoking and inspiring programming.

Jordan West, director of diversity and inclusion education at GW, said during the panel that an important part of decolonizing education is ensuring that the university is not simply welcoming to a diverse group of individuals, but showing them through actions that they all belong here in a way that reinforces an accessible campus culture for people of all identities.

She also said that it is important that institutions provide these resources without needing students to tell them that services are needed. Dr. West said that providing those accessibility measures ensures that people can feel that they deserve to be here and be their full selves while they are here.

"When you have people on a college campus who need to continuously request services, it means that we're not at a full place where we've said, 'This is what it means to be an institution of higher education,'" Dr. West said.

When thinking about institutional names and the way language is used, Dr. West suggested that the GW community spend some time asking about the history the community lives within as well as what the names mean. For Breya Johnson, a graduate student in the women’s, gender and sexuality studies program, the colonial moniker, along with controversial institutional names such as the Cloyd Heck Marvin Center, highlights the lack of acknowledgement for the groups that those people harmed.

"Everyone we uplift, we made the conscious decision that their achievements outweighed everything egregious that they ever did,” Ms. Johnson said. “In order to make that decision, they had to decide who was a human and who wasn't."

Ms. Johnson also called for direct action, saying that students have to determine what they can strategically do to make radical change that goes beyond a dialogue.

In looking at the university’s strategic planning process, which Dr. West noted has incorporated some of these sentiments, the high-impact research that the university plans to pursue and amplify must do more to have material impacts on those who have been systemically disenfranchised by colonialism, said Elizabeth Rule, assistant director of the AT&T Center for Indigenous Politics and Policy.

For Indigenous people in particular who continue to be exploited by extractive research, Dr. Rule said, it is important that researchers are particularly thoughtful in STEM and in the humanities with how that research is conducted, especially with the ways that research can reinforce power imbalances. This does not mean that researchers should shy away from that work, she said, but it is important that they go the extra mile.

“It doesn't do any good to just say, 'It's too hard to deal with these things so let's just not deal with them at all,' that puts us back at square one,” Dr. Rule said. “We need to consistently think about how those power structures and relationships are replicated through things that maybe seem benign.

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