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Overcoming racism depends on respect for every person’s dignity

Black Lives Matter by Asurnipal
International human rights mechanisms alone cannot offer reliable solutions to racism, including racism affecting racialized migrants. Photo by Asurnipal.

By Evelyn Namakula Mayanja, Carleton University

I teach a course on race, racialization, racism and human rights. In my classes and some of my research, I highlight empathy, personhood and respect for human dignity as fundamental to overcoming racism.

On the International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination, a student asked: Why does racism still exist against Black people, Indigenous people and people of colour when we have national and international mechanisms built upon notions of human dignity, equal rights and freedom?

National and international human rights mechanisms do not seem to provide reliable solutions to racism. They are tokenistic gestures that silence the consciousness of those benefiting from racialized systems and institutions.

Mechanisms for addressing racism

Mechanisms like the Canadian Constitution, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948) and the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (1965) don’t address the root causes of racism and do not seem to provide reliable solutions to racism.

After the killing of George Floyd, people protested against anti-Black racism and against all forms of racism have become common. However, racism remains engraved in Canadian and global society.

Nineteen racialized students from my class remarked they are traumatized, because since childhood they have lived in fear of being stopped by police, incarcerated or killed because of their skin colour. Others lamented how their parents, with qualifications including doctorates, do precarious jobs.

One student said that in Canada, we hide behind race-neutral excuses, multiculturalism, the cultural mosaic and the myth that Canada is more welcoming than the United States.

What is human dignity and personhood?

Western theories of human dignity denote basic and inherent worth that belongs to all people. In philosophy, Cicero introduced the idea of “the dignity of the human race.”

The philosopher Immanuel Kant, in his 1785 Groundwork for the Metaphysics of Morals, argued that every person has inherent dignity or value which demands moral respect in treating them.

Kant emphasized that every person has the obligation to always treat the Other “as an end” and “never merely as a means.” It is not only about treating others as you would like them to treat you, but behaving in a way that your conduct could be a model for universal laws.

In western law, human dignity is key to interpreting human rights and adjudication.

Yet clearly, factors beyond these have shaped our societies.

Greed, capitalism, and racism

Slavery and colonialism emerged historically in racial capitalism, meaning that a denial of the dignity, rights and humanity of groups of African and Indigenous people was an intrinsic aspect of justifying economic control of their bodies, lands and resources.

Today, the denial of “others’” humanity to enable brutal violence and exploitation for profits continues to deny the dignity, rights and humanity of the racialized, and to commodify, objectify and kill them.

For example, the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), rich with gold, diamonds, coltan and the critical minerals needed for transitioning to renewable energy, is exposed to corporate resource extraction.

In the Global North electronic vehicles and lithium batteries are considered a game changer for mitigating climate change. However, the extraction of minerals displaces communities, engenders deforestation, pollutes land, air and water and exposes people to diseases, poverty and incessant armed conflicts.

Since 1996, the DRC has been embroiled in violence that even UN peacekeepers have failed to de-escalate.

Don Lee head tax certificate
In 1918, Chinese immigrant Don Lee had to pay a $500 head tax to enter Canada, unlike non-Chinese immigrants. Photo from Vancouver Public Library.

Dismantling racism

Without dismantling racism, we cannot achieve sustainable development goals, global peace and security.

We need mechanisms and policies designed with the involvement of well-informed young people (like the ones I teach) who are determined to create new societies where every person’s dignity and humanity matters.

We need to dismantle racial capitalism that commodifies, objectifies and exploits the “other” and the planet to accumulate capital for a few. This implies being concerned with the humanity of others, including migrants: While Canada and the western world welcomed Ukrainians wholeheartedly, the same has not been the case for racialized migrants.

Obligations to the collective

We need to notice each other’s personhood and be informed by wisdoms that acknowledge, affirm and celebrate our human and ecological interdependence.

Geographer Nicole Gombay examined how in Nunavut, “struggles of co-existence between a model of personhood founded in the gift and based on obligations to the collective,” seen in Inuit society, contrasted to colonial models “of personhood associated with individual rights and the market economy.”

The concept of Ubuntu, which has roots in humanist African philosophy, is based on personhood, the dignity of every person and interdependence among people. Translated, Ubuntu is “I am because we are and because we are, therefore I am.”

Desmond Tutu wrote that “Ubuntu is the essence of being human… We are different in order to know our need of each other.”

Need for liberation

Racism hurts the oppressed and exposes the indignity of the oppressor, highlighting the necessity to liberate both. When Nelson Mandela became South Africa’s president after 27 years of incarceration, he was committed to respecting the dignity and humanity of all races.

Mandela wrote that dismantling apartheid required liberating the oppressed and the oppressor.

The great Brazilian educator Paulo Freire was also committed to liberating the oppressor and the oppressed, the racist and the racialized. The oppressors who use their power to oppress, exploit and racialize “cannot find in this power the strength to liberate either the oppressed or themselves. Only power that springs from the weakness of the oppressed will be sufficiently strong to free both.”

A key implication of this is that the oppressed, though “weak” because they are denied agency even in issues pertaining to their well-being, alone understand their condition. They are better situated in creating social, political and economic processes for change.

Racism affects us all

Parents and educators have an obligation to teach and exemplify empathy, love, care and respect for every person.

As Mandela noted, people “learn to hate, and if they can learn to hate, they can be taught to love, for love comes more naturally to the human heart.”

Racism affects us all. When we understand this as individuals and as a society, we stop denying it and start asking: How is racism operating in our midst?

Then, we have a chance of recognizing how racism saps our strength that lies in diversity and interdependence.The Conversation

Evelyn Namakula Mayanja is an assistant professor of interdisciplinary studies at Carleton University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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We would like to acknowledge that we are gathered on the traditional and unceded territories of the Coast Salish peoples of the xʷməθkwəy̓əm (Musqueam), Skwxwú7mesh (Squamish), and Səl̓ílwətaɬ (Tsleil-Waututh) Nations. With this acknowledgement, we thank the Indigenous peoples who still live on and care for this land.