Recently we have witnessed a movement, in Britain as elsewhere, to ‘decolonise’ our public spaces. From the taking down of statues, to the renaming of sites named after slave traders, to student campaigns to decolonise universities, the global movement to decolonise our minds is growing. Campaigners are calling for the removal of the legacies of colonialism, which include a dominance of European writers on university curriculums, and statues, plaques and sites commemorating European men who gained wealth and fame through the brutalisation of people from the colonies.

Intellectually, this movement began in the late 1940s, gathering momentum in the 1950s and 1960s as Asian and African countries gained independence from the British and other European colonial powers. As well as the physical removal of imperial power, the concept includes a rejection of the colonisers’ ideas that led to the colonised being oppressed and feeling inferior. Frantz Fanon, the influential author on decolonisation who supported the Algerian independence revolt against the French in the 1950s and defended the use of violence in such circumstances, wrote: “Imperialism leaves behind germs of rot which we must clinically detect and remove from our land but from our minds as well.”

Decolonisation is about the present as well as the past: it is important that descendants of the colonised do not have to live in societies that honour those who oppressed their ancestors. It is about eradicating racism, a direct legacy of colonialism. It can be viewed as part of a wider movement to dismantle old, oppressive systems and tell a wide range of counter-stories – those of working-class people, women, Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic (BAME) people, LGBTQ people, and people with disabilities – that enable us to challenge racist and other discriminatory beliefs that have resurfaced in the current political environment.

A great deal of mainstream media attention has been given to campaigns at universities – most recently in March, when an online article in the Telegraph covered activities by the Cambridge University students’ decolonisation campaign, reporting that it had “spread to Classics, Physics, Chemistry and Engineering”. The campaign posted a response on Facebook that includes the following:

“The purpose of decolonising knowledge is not merely to tack on a few authors of colour to the reading list to reach a tokenistic diversity quota. Change does not come through such gestures. Instead, a decolonised curriculum places knowledge in the context of colonialism to recognise how knowledge has been used to oppress, as well as to learn about the knowledge of the oppressed. A decolonised curriculum recognises that Europe does not exist in isolation, that its own knowledge has been produced through centuries of exchange with (and often erasure of) Others. Finally, a decolonised university cares where university funds are invested and how this contributes to the continued subjugation of the global south, particularly through the arms and fossil fuel industries.”

Last year, students at the School of Oriental and Asian studies in London made headlines when they launched a campaign to decolonise the curriculum. The Decolonising Our Minds Society “seeks to challenge the political, intellectual and structural legacies of colonialism and racism both within and outside the university”. A media debate followed in which the students stated that they wanted not, as the media suggested, to drop white, European thinkers such as Plato from the syllabus, but to stop them from being seen as unquestionable. They argued that the curriculum is too deeply rooted in colonial worldviews, and excludes non-white thinkers.

Other university campaigns include the Rhodes Must Fall movement, which calls for the removal of statues of the imperialist Cecil Rhodes from Oxford University and the University of Cape Town in South Africa. As well as, like other students, reforming the Euro-centric curriculum, Rhodes Must Fall Oxford aims to address the underrepresentation of BAME students and staff in universities.

Decolonisation campaigns have also taken place beyond the academic community. In Bristol the Countering Colston campaign fought successfully for the renaming of the concert venue named after the slave trader Edward Colston, who became deputy governor of the Royal African Company. Colston Hall is to be renamed when it reopens in 2020.

Media discussions are often simplified to the rights and wrongs of keeping or removing statues or European thinkers from university curriculums. Some decolonisation campaigners have been criticised for wanting to ‘whitewash’ Empire out of history. Some, like the historian and TV presenter David Olusoga, are opposed to the toppling of statues, and in favour of contextualisation. In an opinion piece in the Guardian Olusoga wrote that he would like to see, for instance, a new plaque under the statue of Cecil Rhodes outlining who Rhodes was and what he did. “I’m after more history, not less, and not just for Rhodes,” Olusoga wrote. “Let’s not pull statues down,” he continued, “let’s brand them, as the Royal Africa[n] Company branded enslaved Africans, with the truth about who these men really were.” This is the argument behind the student movement too – diversify voices, yes, but also examine the history of European colonisers more critically.

Sumita Mukherjee, historian at the University of Bristol, says that we need to think carefully about how we decolonise: “If we simply replace an elite, imperialist white man with an equally elite black man then we are failing to really decolonise anything, unless it dismantles and challenges systems of hierarchy such as the patriarchy, class-based hierarchies, and sexuality.”

She agrees with the point that we need to contextualise these histories, such as that of Colston, and not relegate them to the dustbin, but she does not believe that removing a name or a statue is whitewashing history, because ‘history’ is not straightforward. “A lot of history is based upon certain perspectives. I think what is happening is that certain groups of people are realising they are excluded from myths about what constitutes national history or identity. They’re realising that imperialist/patriarchal systems still exist, and that some people’s stories and perspectives are privileged over others.”

Through the removal or re-presentation of colonisers, decolonisation is attempting the mountainous task of undoing centuries of emotional and physical damage inflicted on individuals and communities from African and Asian diasporas. If we achieve this we will free ourselves of limiting, divisive and damaging beliefs. It’s not going to happen overnight – ideas of white supremacy are deeply embedded in our collective consciousness – but I am hopeful that we can get there.

Now that decolonisation – which can be seen as part of a wider ethical living movement that calls for respect for all living beings and the planet – has spread into the mainstream, we can begin to decolonise every aspect of society: employment, the criminal justice and healthcare systems, the media, the arts and the family. We can teach our children that there is more than one truth. We might not agree on the best ways to interpret or implement decolonisation, but the important thing is to have these conversations, respectfully, and to move forward together to leave the legacy of a new world understanding for future generations.

Louisa Adjoa Parker is a writer with a particular focus on Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic history. Her collection of poems Blinking in the Light is published by Cinnamon Press.