Thursday, May 21, 2009

United Nations: Global Movement Against Racism 26 March

UN 2001 World Conference Against Racism in Durban: Conference Review:

Sponsored by the SubCommittee for the Elimination of Racism of the NGO Committee on Human Rights in collaboration with the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights.

K Webster, Discussant:

Thank you to the Organizers and to the Distinguished Panel:

Most of us came to Durban recognizing the desperate need to dismantle racist institutions and policies in order to end the creation of more victims and to alter the fate of those who are sinking under its weight.

We, United to End Racism, came primarily to provide a space for the activists at the conference to work on reversing the personal effects racism had left on them: The devastating, often hidden affects of racism when it becomes internalized as ones own thinking.
We listened. The stories were breathtaking and heartbreaking. And everyone who came had one to tell. Our goal was to make a safe place for these “agents of change” to unload the grief, terror and indignation at racisms legacy so they could carry on, unimpeded in their lives and their work. The ingenuity and resilience of people targeted by racism had been tested and intelligence triumphed over and over again.

There were many large success stories, but I’d like to remind us of some of the everyday stories of Durban. The ones that people told as they tried to free themselves of the hold of racisms corrosive powers; the accumulation of insults that slowly sap the life out of people.

There was the schoolteacher who had fought to end apartheid. Relishing the victory, she told of her excitement at attending an International teachers conference in Johannesburg for the fist time. But confronted by a sea of white faces, she wilted under a tidal wave of shame, embarrassment and a feeling of not belonging. She quietly packed up her bags and left. She had won the war, but the battle for her own mind was not over. And now she knew it.
Or the chance meeting with an Aboriginal leader as he stood frozen, discouraged by the lack of enthusiasm for his program. He sobbed for a full five minutes about the abduction from his people as a young boy by a white institution…and his powerlessness to stop it. He startled himself upon realizing he was feeling exactly as he had as a boy. Laughing suddenly, he raced off- to try again.
And there was the workshop run by two women: Palestinian and Israeli. They refused to accept the vilification of either ones people as the road to the resolution of the conflict. Preferring instead to painfully and awkwardly untangle the emotions that clouded their thinking.

There were countless examples of kindness and courage and patience and fortitude. People drank up the resource of the host of people who came to strategize together.

Durban was also an opportunity to address the effect on white people as the agents of racism (sometimes unwitting, sometimes willing). Absorbing its poison, being set up to play this role distorts our goodness and intelligence. It creates both monsters and a silent coterie of witnesses too frozen to act. We, too, have much damage to heal from having been coerced or bribed to barter our humanity for a counterfeit sense of “betterness”. I came from a home with good but terribly hurt people where the racism was overt and unrelenting. But I’m here now. I am very sure that white people want the chance to have our minds and hearts back. Even the most intransigent among us.

Last, as sometimes happens when people try to find a path through complex human tragedies, other forces were at work stoking confusions and fears, and encouraging the blaming of someone or group for the mess we are all in. Anti-Jewish oppression was shamefully but skillfully manipulated to target Jews and Israel and used to try to derail the intent of Durban. But it did provide a searchlight on oppressive beliefs and actions that must to be challenged if we are going to eliminate the particular destructive oppression of racism. You can’t liberate one group while targeting another.

This gathering today is a testament to the enduring belief that those forces will not win the day. That enough people will refuse to be guided by revenge or defensiveness (even when it is understandable, even when it feels “justified”) and instead will tackle the difficult task of using our minds to find our way out of this tangle.

The acts of September 11th seemed to overwhelm the large and small decisions to end racism that occurred in Durban. But eight years later, that same country elected a President named Barack Hussien Obama.

Racism is still ravaging the world. But a thousand acts of intelligence can change the trajectory of a chance meeting with a stranger, of a close friendship, of a beloved community, of a proud State, and finally, of a world.

Thank you.

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