Winter 2021

Teaching Colonization and Decolonization During the “CRT” Panic

We have the tools we need to teach anticolonial history. The anti-"CRT" erasure movement shows why we must.

by Christopher J. Levesque

Last week students in my United States History II course read about the New South and the New West, and then completed a class discussion in which they wrote about what parts of the material “surprised or astonished” them and then explained what new insight it gave into American History. Two common themes emerged in their responses: they believed that they had been taught the “Disney version” of history in school and that the history they learned in public schools was “censored.” It was clear from their comments that members of this class felt betrayed by what they now viewed as incomplete. Attacks on “Critical Race Theory” in public school and college classrooms threaten to enhance the “Disneyfication” of history that shocked my students by discouraging teachers from addressing topics that are divisive or that might make students “uncomfortable.”[1] The goal of these attacks is to make it difficult for instructors at all levels of the American education system to reach topics related to race or gender, such as women’s suffrage, slavery, or the Civil Rights movement, under the pretense that such lessons will make white children into scapegoats.[2]

As a result of this whitewashing of history in public schools, many students come to the topic of 19th and 20th century colonization with the assumption that Europeans and Americans sought to bring “civilization” to people in Africa and Asia. Even if students acknowledge that Western powers sought to dominate colonized peoples to gain new markets or sources of raw materials, they often argue that colonizers brought “benefits” like roads, railroads, finished goods, education systems, and Christian missionaries. To subvert this learned narrative, I approach imperialism and colonialism in multiple course modules to show the continuity of the concepts involved as Europeans built these systems and how colonized people resisted their oppressors.

John Gast’s famous painting, American Progress, illustrates the construction of colonial myths and why their persistence misleads students. As Gast’s painting suggests, colonial “progress” involves dispossession and violence and occurs at the expense of Native communities. Image via American Yawp.

Instructors can use primary sources created by the colonizers and colonized to illustrate how both groups understood imperial projects. This helps students develop a more nuanced understanding of colonization and decolonization through instructor and student-led discussions. Educational technology can create more dynamic student interactions with the materials and each other as they explore European justifications for imperialism, the development of nationalist movements in Africa and Asia, and the methods of anti-colonial movements. Connecting these ideas with the outbreak of the World Wars during the 20th century and the ways in which the United States and Soviet Union used, and were used by, peoples involved in anti-colonial struggles demonstrate how these concepts affected even those not living in colonial settings.

Homi Bhabha’s[3] concept of hybridity provides a theoretical framework instructors can use for their instructional designs. Bhabha argued that cultural identity developed in a Third Space in which colonized peoples use their own culture to adapt the ideas of colonizers to create something new.[4] Abdennebi Ben Beya describes hybridity “as a counter-narrative” created by colonized peoples that either creates new understandings or uses the ideas of the colonizers against them.[5] This allows instructors to present European and colonial texts within a framework that highlights European abuses and ideologies alongside the ways in which colonized peoples responded to and resisted them. Done properly, the theory of hybridity preserves the agency of colonized peoples.

The New Imperialism and the Scramble for Africa

The intimately connected concepts of “New Imperialism and the Scramble for Africa provide a foundation for students’ understanding of the events of the 20th and 21st centuries. How they are presented is crucial to recognizing how Euro imperialisms amplified and mass-produced global inequality and expropriation. The key is to provide students a framework that prepares them to interpret primary sources and then to provide them a curated set of primary sources that presents as many viewpoints as possible without overwhelming them.

When given the option, I prefer selecting Open Educational Resources (OER) textbooks and readers for my classes. Both the American Yawp and OpenStax’s United States History serve admirably well in this regard; the “American Empire” section of the American Yawp Reader provides a good selection of documents. Finding OER textbooks and primary source readers for World History is more challenging. Boundless World History, now hosted by Lumen Learning, is a solid starting point, but is no longer maintained and updated. Another option are Georgia Highlands College’s World Civilizations textbooks, written by Jayme Feagin, Bronson Long, Steve Blankenship, and J. Sean Callahan, which includes a video lecture collection (Unfortunately, there do not appear to be OER primary sources collections paired with either of these textbook options).

It is easy to locate freely available primary sources related to the New Imperialism and the Scramble for Africa online. This allows instructors to develop sets of documents that they can use to illustrate the ways in which Europeans expressed colonizing ideologies and contrast them with colonized peoples responses. Cecil Rhodes, “Confession of Faith;” F. D. Lugard, “The Rise of Our East African Empire;” Jules Ferry, “Speech Before the French Chamber of Deputies;” and Rudyard Kipling, “The White Man’s Burden,” all show aspects of European pro-colonial ideas. However, these represent an incomplete view of colonialism. Instructors should use them in conjunction with Ndansi Kumalo, On the British Incursion in Zimbabwe; John Mensa Sarbah, “Fanti Customary Law;” Edward Morel, “The Black Man’s Burden;” Roger Casement, “Report on the Administration of Congo Free State;” and George Washington Williams, “An Open Letter to His Serene Majesty Leopold II.”

The document sets provide students the tools for their discussion, but it is the instructor’s role to set the stage and guide their discussions. The methods I use are common in asynchronous online courses—guided discussion forums in which students respond to a prompt and each other and metacognition discussions, in which students write about the elements of the week’s readings that they found most important or most surprising. While other instructors may vary in their methods, I do not allow students to see other posts in the discussion until after they have posted their own submission to encourage them to develop their own ideas rather than follow along with the rest of the class. In the guided discussion, I use a prompt that asks students to focus on the ways in which the New Imperialism affected the peoples of Asia and Africa and to evaluate whether it was a story of European domination, or something more complicated. This allows students to engage with sources from both colonizers and colonized while foregrounding the concerns of people from Africa and Asia.

Anti-colonialism and the development of nationalism

The development of nationalism represents another area in which Bhabha’s theory of hybridity allows instructors to show students that people in colonized countries did not simply succumb to the mission civilisatrice and manifest destiny. Instead, they used western ideologies and their own histories to develop new tools to fight colonialism. Two examples stand out as particularly useful – India and Vietnam.

The case of Mohandas Gandhi is particularly apt in this regard, as his legal training in England and work in South Africa led him to lead the Indian independence movement rather than leading him to a career supporting businesses and the British Raj. The legal profession became the clearest route Gandhi could follow to assume his father’s role as dewan.[6] Gandhi pursued his legal studies in London at the behest of his father’s adviser, Mavji Dave, who understood that locally trained advocates could not compete with barristers from England.[7] Gandhi encountered theosophists through his membership in the London Vegetarian Society while a student, leading him to read Helena Blavatsky’s Key to Theosophy. He credited this leading to a deeper study of Hinduism, including a study of the Bhagavad Gita.[8] Contacts with Theosophists and his own understanding of Hinduism seem to have influenced Gandhi’s later radical religious tolerance.[9]

Mahatma Gandhi during his time as a lawyer South Africa in 1909. Image via Wikimedia.

Before studying in England and working as a barrister in South Africa, Gandhi venerated British civilization, culture, and education—his primary identity was that of a British subject rather than an Indian.[10] Working as a barrister in South Africa, where he experienced racism directed against Indian immigrants and Black South Africans, radicalized Gandhi.[11] The harsh realities of racism in the British Empire made Gandhi question his place and that of Indians within the structure, leading to his initial forays into politics in Natal, South Africa. These experiences combined with increasingly harsh British rule as embodied by the Rowlett Acts, which authorized the imprisonment of Indians accused of sedition without trial, led Gandhi to take on leadership roles among Indian nationalists, helping their movement grow from one of elites into a mass phenomenon.[12]

The concept of hybridity allows instructors to frame Gandhi’s struggle and ideas as developing within the colonial context, in which he and others adapted aspects of British culture as a means to flout colonial authority. Instructors must take care to present this in a way that acknowledges the agency of colonized peoples and that the cultural interchange between groups may be positive, negative, or indifferent in its effect. This is necessary to help students consider the burdens placed on colonial peoples and their suffering under colonial regimes.[13]

One way to do this is to discuss the ways in which local histories and religious traditions inform how indigenous people react to colonial institutions. Gandhi provides an excellent example for instructors who can introduce his childhood and his mother’s piety—before agreeing to allow Gandhi to attend law school in London, she insisted that he take a vow to abstain from meat and alcohol that was administered by the Jain monk, Bechari Swami.[14] This provides a foundation for discussions of India’s religious traditions and how ideals such as Ahimsa informed Satyagraha, Gandhi’s method of passive resistance.[15] When assigning primary sources, I ask students to read introductory materials that provide context before diving in, or I present a short lecture highlighting these traditions before breaking a class into groups. For those in favor of the flipped classroom model, short video lectures can help maximize the amount of time available for group or class discussions.

The development of Vietnamese nationalism during the 19th and 20th centuries shows how colonized peoples responded to the cultural interchanges initiated by colonial powers. As resistance to Chinese rule had previously done, colonization by France provided a common struggle that enabled the creation of a shared national identity.[16] The French mission civilisatrice, with its early focus on assimilation into the core of France, introduced the ideals of the French Revolution and the Enlightenment to Vietnamese students. The goal was to inculcate core French values and traditions to create new citizens in the colonies.[17] Instructors can introduce students to the ideas of Phan Boi Chau’s “The History of the Loss of the Country,” Phan Chau Trinh’s  “Monarchy and Democracy,” and Nugyen Thai Hoc’s “Letter to the French Chamber of Deputies” within this contest to show how colonized people adapted French justifications for holding colonies in unexpected ways—in this case by arguing for their own independence and autonomy.[18]

Photo of longtime anticolonial activist and revolutionary Hồ Chí Minh, circa 1946. Image via Wikimedia.

These sources are quite powerful but may not be as accessible to students as those associated with World War I and World War II. Woodrow Wilson’s advocacy for self-determination of peoples in the Fourteen Points Speech, followed by Ho Chi Minh’s petition on behalf of “le Group of Annamite Patriots” to U.S. Secretary of State Robert Lansing requesting American aid in seeking greater autonomy for Vietnam present students with more obvious prompt to discuss the ways in which people living in colonies understood the rhetoric of colonial powers. Coming after Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s support for Vietnamese autonomy, Ho Chi Minh’s use of the Declaration of Independence and Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen when asserting Vietnam’s independence in 1945 shows not only the ways in which colonial peoples adapted to Western countries justified their own freedoms, but in how they reacted to Vichy ideology focused on promoting loyalty to local regions within Indochina and the French Empire. Vichy’s switch from the traditional French ideals of liberté, égalité, fraternité to travail, famille, patrie provided Ho with additional rhetorical fodder to use against it, writing that France “violated our Fatherland and oppressed our fellow citizens.”[19]

Moving Forward

The events, ideas, and documents outlined above are just the starting point for how instructors can foreground the ways in which colonized peoples responded to the ideologies and methods of colonial powers. Continuing forward into discussions of decolonization and the Global Cold War, instructors could rely on the excellent document collections that the British Library makes available online in its collections on Indian Independence, which include speeches and letters by Mountbatten and Jawarhalal Nehru, Gandhi, and other leaders. Gamal Abdel Nasser’s 1956 speech denouncing British Foreign Secretary Anthony Eden’s proposal for a Canal Users’ Association also provides a good introduction to former colonies’ efforts to build and maintain their independence. In turn, this could lead into an examination of the Non-Aligned Movement, highlighting concerns of countries caught in the middle of the Cold War conflict between the United States and the Soviet Union.

American Studies Professor Ben Railton argues that education has two great goals: “to challenge established prior perspectives” and “to understand and appreciate our shared connections.”[20] These processes are often uncomfortable for students and teachers alike, making it difficult for them to explore “hard history” like slavery, colonialism, and genocide.[21] Even teachers who are comfortable addressing these topics report that white students often become defensive when learning about racism. The current wave of anti-CRT legislation makes these lessons even more challenging, as legislation in Mississippi and Florida seeks to ban education and training that makes individuals feel “psychological distress on account of his or her race.”[22] Sharif El-Mekki contends that states have imposed restrictions limiting how teachers can teach Black history, allowing them to discuss the achievements of pioneers like Jackie Robinson without explaining why barriers to their participation in professional sports, military service, or education existed. As a result, he argues that teachers should increase their use of primary sources so that students discover the realities of racism without running afoul of these educational gag orders.[23]   

The instructional methods presented—of instructor guided and student led asynchronous discussions, are easy to adapt to classroom settings with group or classroom discussions. The recent development of social reading applications like and Perusall allow instructors to create more dynamic and collaborative interaction with documents available through their LMS, library subscription databases, or external websites. Student-led development of wikis or websites related to these materials also allow students to engage with these materials in ways that are familiar to them while also developing shared resources that they can include in eportfolios at institutions that use them.

Students deserve an education that teaches them the fullest extent of the past so that they can understand the sources of the problems they (and others) will face beyond the classroom.

Christopher J. Levesque, MLIS, Ph.D. is the Head of the Professional Studies Library at the University of West Florida, and is an adjunct instructor of history at Pensacola State College and the University of Charleston. His dissertation, “Not Just Following Orders: Avoiding and Reporting Atrocities During the Vietnam War” focuses on how soldiers understood their responses to atrocities they witnessed during the war. He is primarily interested in soldiers’ experiences of war and the connections between war and religion.

Editor’s Notes 

****We wish to clarify the terms used throughout our “Teaching ‘CRT’ in an Age of White Backlash.” Some of our essays engage actual Critical Race Theory, the legal term used by thinkers & jurists like Kimberlé W. Crenshaw and Derrick Bell to explain the racist ways that American laws are enforced and litigated. Our submissions also criticize white conservative attacks on “CRT”—the umbrella term they apply to any teaching critical of white supremacy. The distinction between these terms is important for two reasons. 1) As many have already noted, no one teaches Critical Race Theory in primary or secondary schools (although it would be fine if they did) because it is a legal theory. 2) It is important to explain clearly what white supremacists mean when they use the term “CRT” because it is important that Americans of all ages understand the ways that our racist history and culture contributed to the country we inherit. Thus, although we encourage contributors to use both terms as it relates to their work, we want to be clear that conservatives lie about what Critical Race Theory is both to prevent teaching about our country’s racist past/present and to undermine necessary critiques of our white supremacist legal system.****

****After we accepted this essay, Homi Bhabha signed on to the infamous Harvard Letter in support of abuser John Comaroff, a signature he has since retracted. We stand in solidarity with victims of abuse and reject the deeply exploitative working conditions graduate and contingent scholars face that contribute to that abuse. We believe that it is the responsibility of everyone involved in higher ed to end systems of abuse and to expel abusers from our ranks.****

Further Reading

[1] “Disneyfication,” in Dictionary, n.d.,

[2] Daniel Kreiss, Alice Marwick, and Francesca Bolla Tripodi, “The Anti–Critical Race Theory Movement Will Profoundly Affect Public Education,” Scientific American, November 10, 2021,; Francesca López et al., “Understanding the Attacks on Critical Race Theory” (National Education Policy Center, September 2021),

[3] After we accepted this essay, Homi Bhabha signed on to the infamous Harvard Letter in support of abuser John Comaroff, a signature he has since retracted. We stand in solidarity with victims of abuse and with the deeply exploitative working conditions graduate and contingent scholars face that contribute to that abuse. We believe that it is the responsibility of everyone involved in higher ed to end systems of abuse and to expel abusers from our ranks.

[4] Nasrullah Mambrol, “Homi Bhabha’s Concept of Hybridity.” Literariness: Literary Theory and Criticism, April 8, 2016.

[5] Abdennebi Ben Beya, “Mimicry, Ambivalence, and Hybridity,” Postcolonial Studies, October 2017.

[6] Stephen Hay, “Between Two Worlds: Gandhi’s First Impressions of British Culture,” Modern Asian Studies 3, no. 4 (1969): 305–19.

[7] John A Flood, Review of Saints and Sinners: On Gandhi’s “Lawyers and Touts,” by J. S. Gandhi. American Bar Foundation Research Journal 9, no. 4 (1984): 889–902.; Stephen Hay, “Between Two Worlds: Gandhi’s First Impressions of British Culture,” Modern Asian Studies 3, no. 4 (1969): 305–19.

[8] Michael Bergunder, “Experiments with Theosophical Truth: Gandhi, Esotericism, and Global Religious History,” Journal of the American Academy of Religion 82, no. 2 (2014): 398–426. doi:10.1093/jaarel/lft095.

[9] Michael Bergunder, “Experiments with Theosophical Truth: Gandhi, Esotericism, and Global Religious History,” Journal of the American Academy of Religion 82, no. 2 (2014): 398–426. doi:10.1093/jaarel/lft095.

[10] Stephen Hay, “Between Two Worlds: Gandhi’s First Impressions of British Culture,” Modern Asian Studies 3, no. 4 (1969): 305–19.; Arthur Herman, Gandhi and Churchill: The Epic Rivalry That Destroyed an Empire and Forged Our Age (New York: Bantam Book, 2008).

[11] Satinder Dhiman, Gandhi and Leadership: New Horizons in Exemplary Leadership, (New York: Palgrave Macmillan US, 2015).

[12] “Gandhi, Mohandas K,” The Martin Luther King, Jr., Research and Education Institute, August 4, 2020.

[13] Per Bauhn and Fatma Fulya Tepe, “Hybridity and Agency: Some Theoretical and Empirical Observations,” Migration Letters 13, no. 3 (2016): 350-358.

[14] B. R. Dugar, “Gandhi and Jainism,” The Indian Journal of Political Science 74, no. 2 (2013): 319-322.

[15] B. R. Dugar, “Gandhi and Jainism,” The Indian Journal of Political Science 74, no. 2 (2013): 319-322.

[16] Eugene John Johnston, “Evolution of Vietnamese Nationalism,” University of Montana. 1973.

[17] Martin Deming Lewis, “One Hundred Million Frenchmen: The ‘Assimilation’ Theory in French Colonial Policy,” Comparative Studies in Society and History 4, no. 2 (1962): 129–53.

[18]  Robert Arthur Boucher, “The Pursuit of Equality: The Continuation of Colonialism in Vietnam,” Florida State University. 2019; Milkie Vu, “Examining the Social Impacts of French Education Reforms in Tonkin, Indochina (1906-1938),” Inquiries Journal. April 1, 2012.

[19] Ho Chi Minh. “Declaration of Independence of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam,” History Matters – The U.S. Survey Course on the Web, n.d.; Jennifer R Roberts,  “French vs France: Vichy Government Attempts to Save the Empire,” Western Oregon University. 2015; Chizuru Namba, “The French Colonization and Japanese Occupation of Indochina during the Second World War: Encounters of the French, Japanese, and Vietnamese,” Cross-Currents: East Asian History and Culture Review 8, no. 2 (2019): 518–47.

[20] Ben Railton, “Considering History: Why Learning about the Past Should Be Uncomfortable,” The Saturday Evening Post, November 1, 2021,

[21] “Https://,” All Things Considered (NPR, February 4, 2018),

[22] Rachel Scully, “Bill to Ban Lessons Making White Students Feel ‘Discomfort’ Advances in Florida Senate,” The Hill (The Hill, January 20, 2022),

[23] Russell Contreras, “New Rules Are Limiting How Teachers Can Teach Black History Month,” Axios, February 1, 2022,

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