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Opinions Sun, 20 Sep 2015

Dying to live — Undoing racism in America

It is one thing to speak of racism in America as an abstract concept. It is quite another thing to live in a country where the colour of your skin actually enhances your chances of death, even presumably, accidental deaths, not to mention the risk of being at the wrong end of glaring disparities in healthcare access and outcomes as black people.

Ten years ago, who would have thought that at the height of the hurricane Katrina disaster in New Orleans, powerful white folks would gather to celebrate the deaths and displacement of millions of black people as an act of God to cleanse their premises of miscreants; something they had long wanted apparently, but failed to accomplish!

Conversation about race

America is in the midst of an upheaval of sorts. A challenging conversation about race, with many throwbacks to the civil rights era of the 1960s. The direct causes lie in the fatal shooting of over 23 unarmed black people by security forces since May 2010. The remote causes lie in what the People’s Institute conceptualises as the institutionalisation of white privilege, thus consigning black people to a lifetime of institutionalised limitations and ‘being helped.’

These events have inspired the formation of “Black Lives Matter” as an activist mass movement and “a unique contribution that goes beyond extrajudicial killings of black people by police and vigilantes".

As an African contributing my quota in Africa, as an African trained never to feel limited in what I could or could not achieve in life, as an African knowing how numerous high schoolmates who attended American colleges ended up in the top 10 per cent of their class— competing favourably against black, white and any other student colour in between, as an African, knowing how given a half chance in America, many friends became highly accomplished professionally, who can convince me that God graded brain tissue on the basis of skin colour?

Indeed, we respect the West but have never been overwhelmed by the West. Against this background, I have often also struggled to appreciate the concept of being semi-literate or jobless or homeless in America. How can this be? Could you not have made better use of your opportunities? But as the training by the People’s Institute showed so clearly, blaming black people for individual shortcomings is the easier transient option.

The more challenging lasting alternative is to critically examine, understand and contribute to dismantling the systems, policies and practices that clearly perpetrate racist behaviours and creates gnawing inequities in modern-day America.

The Undoing Racism training helped me to sympathise more with black people in America. I suppose I must not have previously sufficiently appreciated just how tired and afraid and frustrated many black people feel.

But I can identify, after all. I have freely jogged in the streets of numerous capitals of the Western world. This week, the very thought of an early morning jog in America produced a knot in my stomach! What if I was mistaken for a fleeing criminal and shot dead before any questions could be asked? Ultimately, I stuck to the hotel’s fitness centre!

Definition of racism

Of many things, it was perhaps the somewhat drastic definition of racism by the facilitators that perhaps stimulated the greatest controversy. Essentially, they held that by being born into a life of privilege, by seeking to dominate, by being conscious and unconscious beneficiaries of an institutionalised system of oppression, by being blind to systemic inequities, all white people were racist by definition! Being racist was, therefore, not something you did, essentially reflecting bigotry, but something you already were by virtue of your skin colour! I found this most unfair!

What about all those progressive white people who stood toe to toe with black compatriots in the American civil rights movement, those who died as comrades in the anti-apartheid struggle and those who fought in the trenches with African nationalists to dismantle the shackles of colonialism? Were they also racists? Second, if we relied solely on this definition, and by extension, left the alteration of the institutional arrangements that sustained racism in America to white people only as facilitators appeared to argue, were we not by implication further disempowering black people from being active positive collaborators in transforming their own fate?

Need for reflection

But then again, given our overly politically correct global environment, it is perhaps just this unforgiving definition that is required to shock the conscience of many white people who have long learnt to say the right things, to complacently intellectualise, while in reality, remaining racist at heart! We might thus argue that there is such a thing as insidious racism, where the light of appropriate public enunciations is overcome by the darkness of our internal demons!

In effect, therefore, if the only people you have unconsciously repeatedly labelled incompetent and lacking in attention to details are black folks and people of colour, if with little/no context you contemptuously dismiss African challenges as “African excuses”, if you unconsciously apply harsher standards to black people because you constantly expect failure, if you really struggle, unconsciously or not, to give credit to sterling work accomplished by non-whites because you think black is or should be less, if your reward system is unconsciously weighted in favour of skin colour, then I dare say, reflect carefully on this wicked definition of racism. It might be perfect for you.

Let’s now go and begin the individual, organisational and systemic changes that actually lead to improvement.

It's been too hard living, but I'm afraid to die

Cause I don't know what's up there beyond the sky

It's been a long, a long time coming

But I know a change gon' come, oh yes it will

— Sam Cooke, 1963

Email: Sodzi_tettey@hotmail.com

www.sodzisodzi.com

Columnist: Sodzi-Tettey, Sodzi