1963-2018 - 55 years of Research for Social Change

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Back | Programme Area: Identities, Conflict and Cohesion (2000 - 2009)

What Kind of Yarn? From Color Line to Multicolored Hammock: Reflections on Racism and Public Policy (Draft)

At the turn of the twentieth century, W.E.B. du Bois the pre-eminent intellectual of the African-American people presciently foretold that this would be the century of the "color line". During the decades that followed, the world witnessed the rise and fall of Nazism and the Holocaust, the civil rights movement in the United States, the end of colonialism and apartheid, the emergence of indigenous peoples as political actors on the international scene, the renewal of racism in Europe and the horrendous spectacle of ethnic cleansings and genocides in Bosnia and Rwanda. And yet a century later, the "color line" is still with us, separating peoples and cultures, dividing the powerful from the downtrodden, even as it binds some people together in tight ethnic communities but also ties up a lot of people in conceptual knots. So the color line turned out to be a string of many features and multiple uses; perhaps like a clothes-line on which we can hang out our dreams and dreads and dramas to dry. But the color line can also be seen as an interconnected net of multi-colored yarn, strung and woven together, yet each one fiercely singular. In my part of the world hammocks are made of multicolored yarn; if you attempt to lie on each separate strand, it will break, but if you stretch your hammock and relax on it, you can rest and dream and even make love. What kind of yarn, what kind of story makes up these multicolored hammocks?

There are, of course, many kinds of racism, diverse racisms -it is a monster with many faces. Nothing further from reality than the widespread idea that "racial prejudice", an irrational feeling of antipathy and rejection of some Other deemed inferior and not worthy of our respect and understanding, is a matter of individual choice at worst, and at best the result of ignorance and personal prejudice which can be overcome by logical arguments and well-intentioned educational projects. Not that prejudice and subjective attitudes of rejection do not exist; they do indeed, and they need to be dealt with, but they do not float freely in the abstract mind; they are implanted and cultivated by social and political conditions and circumstances which reflect the dynamics of complex group relationships. Unless we are able to come to grips with these issues the struggle against racism will turn out to be a bit like preaching against sin: it may allow us to take the moral high-ground but how effective will it be?