Perspective: ‘Decolonization’ has become a Gen Z shibboleth

A rally participant holds up a sign “Decolonize Palestine Land Back” on Dec. 23, 2023, in Frankfurt, Germany. Several hundred people demonstrate under the slogan “Stop the genocide in Gaza! Stop the occupation of Palestine!”
A rally participant holds up a sign “Decolonize Palestine Land Back” on Dec. 23, 2023, in Frankfurt, Germany. Several hundred people demonstrate under the slogan “Stop the genocide in Gaza! Stop the occupation of Palestine!” | Andreas Arnold, Associated Press

On the website of Teen Vogue, in addition to sections devoted to style, culture and shopping, there are sections for “politics” and “identity.” Teen Vogue brands itself much differently from its fashion-centric namesake; it calls itself “the young person’s guide to conquering (and saving) the world.”

The self-identification is ironic, given our culture’s sensitivity about the ethics of conquering anything these days. This sensitivity is especially acute among young adults, who see colonization as a root evil that underpins everything from the Israel-Hamas war to the arts to the consumption of dairy products.

I learned of the latter from a pamphlet distributed by the Food Empowerment Project, which says, “Food is a principal tool of colonization, which is the practice of acquiring control over another country, occupying it with settlers, and exploiting it economically. We can see this in how the descendants of colonizers continue to force dairy products upon the Indigenous people of North America.”

The pamphlet, which promotes vegan eating, says that although many non-European people have trouble digesting dairy products, “the U.S. government and the dairy industry continue to push dairy consumption on these populations.” It goes on to say, “In addition, lactose intolerance implies there is something ‘wrong’ with Black, Brown and Indigenous people who are not able to digest milk — a product of colonization.”

There are many good reasons to be suspicious of the U.S. government’s dietary guidelines, but for most of us, the evils of colonization isn’t chief among them. Some of us even grew up in the 13 original colonies of America, and are glad of it and don’t harbor any lingering resentment of the British crown. This is not to trivialize the suffering that has occurred throughout history because of colonization, but to say that the subject has little relevance in the everyday lives of most Americans.

Not so for the activists of Gen Z, who see “colonizers” in much the same way that their grandparents saw “communists” — and who believe the colonizer menace is ongoing.

As an article in Teen Vogue said, “It may be easy to brush colonialism off as a relic of the past, but we are all living in a world shaped by these histories of brutal and violent conquest. The wealth and prosperity of what were once the most powerful colonial nations in the world can be attributed to the theft of land, resources, and people from former colonies.”

Colonialism and its abuses have been of increasing import to young adults in the years since The New York Times launched “The 1619 Project,” which called for a reframing of American history. More than four years later, that controversial work is still influencing what is taught in public schools. As one Philadelphia teacher recently wrote, “The 1619 Project helped me to truly ‘decolonize’ my history teaching.” On that teacher’s door is a sign that says “Come into this room to be loved and to de-colonize your mind.”


Over the past few months, people protesting Israel’s response to the Hamas attack have used the terms “settler-colonialism” and “decolonization” in a manner that one writer in The Atlantic described as “robotic.” But the protesters make clear with their signs that “Decolonization is not a metaphor.” They want those for whom colonization seems a topic for a history class to “decolonize yourself,” the specifics of which are fuzzy, although I now know it involves not drinking milk.

Last month, a group that promotes the arts in New Jersey offered a workshop for teachers entitled “Decolonizing Arts Education.” Participants learned “how to remove European and colonial practices from teaching and learning” in grades K-12. Decolonizing the arts also necessarily means decolonizing museums, as is being done across the country; as a student blog at the University of Washington described it, decolonizing museums means “moving away from narratives told by the oppressors.” The same with decolonizing libraries.

The dividing of not just groups, but also individuals, into oppressors and the oppressed takes place both online and in classrooms. In one class at Stanford, students were identified by their professor as either “colonizer” or “colonized” based on where their family originated.

When young Americans marinate in this sort of ideology in high school and college, it’s not surprising that so many of them see the world as they do, and that there is a widening generational divide on the subject of Israel and Palestine. It’s also not surprising that there is increasingly strong pushback to the narratives of oppression and colonization when people don’t see them as relevant or valid.

A diversity, inclusion and health equity office at Johns Hopkins University had to respond to that sort of pushback earlier today, in a statement retracting a definition of unearned privilege that included English-speakers, Christians and middle-aged people. It was the kind of pronouncement that might have stood prior to the ousting of the Harvard and University of Pennsylvania presidents, but progressive ideology, which for a time seemed like a cultural tsunami that would inevitably engulf the country, is suddenly looking a bit more vulnerable and fragile. As one person remarked on social media, “Johns Hopkins didn’t want to get the Harvard treatment.”

Society would be poorer without the zeal of the young, whose activism often runs counter to the beliefs and values of older generations. Most of the time, we manage to love each other anyway although sometimes this requires a workaround. Which is to say, I’m open to reconsidering my dairy intake, but for reasons other than decolonizing myself.