By: Nayha Acharya, Assistant Professor of Law – Schulich School of Law
On October 22, 2020, the Schulich School of Law convened a panel for our faculty seminar series to discuss “Decolonizing Research.” I was part of this panel along with Sherry Pictou, Naiomi Metallic, and Olabisi Akinkugbe. Each panelist responded to the question “What does decolonizing research mean to you?” and then engaged in an open discussion with the faculty members and graduate students who were present. I have offered a slightly edited version of my narrative here.
My initial reaction when I received the invitation to be part of this panel was that I didn’t think I could contribute much because I hadn’t set out to expressly decolonize my research, and decolonization has also not been a substantive area of research for me. In fact, most of my writing so far has involved an analysis of the legitimacy of the adjudicative system—a system rooted in a Western worldview.
On reflection, though, I realized that for several years now, I have been in a process which I think I can rightly call decolonizing myself, and I have seen that internal shift starting to impact my research.
This phenomenon of what I’m referring to as self-colonization is something that I find quite fascinating among Asian immigrants and their children. I, like many, grew up straddling two cultures plus my own personality. Indian heritage was prevalent in my upbringing, but what I find so intriguing is that there was also a clear commitment that the dominant White culture, with its institutions and ideals, is hierarchically better and more important. After all, why else would we have come to Canada? It follows then, that we must be grateful to be part of Canadian society (which I am) and that we should also demonstrate that gratitude by conforming to the dominant culture and its behavioural norms, by not asking for or expecting too much, by accepting that the hurdles that are put before us are deserved, and by being at least a little apologetic about being here. It’s this internalization and the subsequent breaking down of it that I wanted to share in the panel discussion and in this piece.
Before I came to the Schulich School of Law for graduate studies, I worked at a law firm where I quickly felt very uncomfortable. Over the years, that developed into a sense that I was not good at law. There may be some objective truth to that, but that idea developed in me (as I believe it does in others) at least in part because of a misperception that every structure, every institution, and the expectations of the dominant culture, are wholly legitimate, and my discomfort arises because I am illegitimate, problematic, or wrong. (I want to be careful here not to overstate a sense of being a victim of the law firm I worked at—I do not perceive myself that way. First, I met one of the most important mentors in my life at the law firm I was at, and many other lifelong friends. And, I also had (and continue to have) extensive privilege due to my socio-economic background. But when I dig into my memories, the emotions, thoughts, and feelings that I describe here are starkly present.)
So, this sense of illegitimacy in law, along with a commitment that Western institutions, structures, culture, and way of thinking and behaving all represent what is ‘right’ came with me when I started doing research in law. I have contemplated how this impacted my research. First, I noticed that I easily adopted an arms length, purely analytical style in my writing, which doesn’t leave room for any subjective “me”. This seems consistent with my internal state of being, wherein “me” was illegitimate—it doesn’t need to appear distinctly in my writing, and in fact it shouldn’t. Second, my doctoral work focused on searching for an articulation of the legitimacy of the legal adjudication system. I do like my work in that arena, and I think it is analytically sound, but it was limiting in that I was focusing exclusively on Western jurisprudence and learning from and citing only theorists who have Western worldviews and seeing their debates as the only ones that are relevant in theoretical work about law.
I have found that the more I have broken down my internal commitment to a hierarchy of cultures, and the less I have tried to define my own legitimacy in comparison to the dominant culture, the more freedom I feel, and correspondingly, my research is also freeing itself from those initial constraints that I had put on it. I have found that I have discovered, and accepted the validity of, methodologies that allow for subjectivity—like autobiographical inquiry, meditative inquiry, narrative research, and writing, which are prevalent in other fields like Education and which Sherry Pictou (a co-panelist) would have more familiarity with than me. I have dabbled in these methodologies and have enjoyed the work that has emerged tremendously, because that work is connected to my heart, while my analytical work is connected primarily to intellect.
Substantively, I have moved into writing about conflict resolution and mediation, which have at their core a foundational and remarkable critique of the formal system of law and adjudication that prevails, and whose roots can often be traced to non-Western ideas/ideals. This area has also enabled me to introduce non-Western concepts and writers into my research because Eastern philosophy has done incredibly insightful work on conflict for centuries. I have becoming keenly interested, for example, in the philosophy of Jiddu Krishnamurti who has discussed, extensively, the human experience of conflict.
These research shifts, to me, are a by-product of a process of self decolonization. I’m grateful that this process has unfolded in me, because it has allowed me to let go of “imposter syndrome”, and to stop trying to constantly measure up to any dominant culture or ideology—whether that’s law firm culture, or law school culture, or Indian culture, or anything. I don’t feel like an imposter in the academic world because teaching and writing feel natural to me, and I no longer believe that any ideological, cultural, or behavioural conformity should dictate anyone’s actions or self-concept. The sense of freedom that comes with letting go of being internally dominated by any external force (which is perhaps a broad definition of colonization) is necessary, not just to meaningful research and writing, but also to living fully.
Explore more of Nayha Acharya’s work: