In this article we talk to Frank Willem (FW) de Klerk (Former President of South Africa and Winner of the Nobel Peace Prize), George Takei (Actor & Social Justice Activist), Prof. Githu Muigai (Attorney General of Kenya), Patrisse Cullors (Co-Founder of Black Lives Matter), Dr. Nils Muiznieks (the Council of Europe’s Commissioner for Human Rights), Nikesh Shukla (Author), Lord Herman Ouseley (Founder of ‘Kick it Out’) and Iby Knill (Holocaust Survivor). We discuss the impact of racism, discrimination and intolerance on our society, and how we can build a better future for our world.
In April 2003, the Human Genome Project announced they had successfully sequenced human DNA (the building blocks of our species) for the first time. Their research showed that each of us carries around 3 billion base pairs of genetic information which define every minutiae of who we are from the colour of our eyes, to our susceptibility to disease, personality, psychology and more. Perhaps even more profound than our species ability to ‘roadmap’ itself in this fashion was the discovery that every human being on the planet- genetically- is 99.9 percent identical. Of the remaining 0.1 percent, only 10-15% accounts for the differences we see between asserted ‘races’ of humans, the remaining 85-90% being variation within individual groups and families.
This 0.1% difference however, has been enough to push our species towards acts of unimaginable ‘racial’ brutality including systematic extermination of over 6m Jews during the Holocaust, 4 million individuals during the Cambodian and Rwandan Genocides to the made-made famine (Holodomor) of 1932-1933 which killed an estimated 7.5m ethnic Ukranains in the Ukranian SSR. It is this 0.1% difference which was used to jusfity the policies leading to the transatlantic slave-trade (in which 12m were forcibly shipped to their new ‘owners’ across the Atlantic) and which has accounted for the fact that (as Sheryl Wudunn describes) “…it appears that more girls have been killed in the past fifty years, precisely because they were girls, than men were killed in all the battles of the twentieth century.” She continues, “….more girls are killed in this routine ‘gendercide’ in any one decade, than people were slaughtered in all the genocides of the twentieth century.“. In more subtle forms, our contemporary society uses this statistically insignificant variation to support the ‘reasoning’ behind cultural, social, economic and political practices that cause hundreds of millions of people, every day, to face discrimination based on their gender, colour, sexual orientation, ethnic background and many other arbitrary dimensions. To contextualise the absurdity of this further, our closest genetic relatives are Chimpanzees- with whom we share over 98.7% of our DNA. Apart from the occasional conflict caused (predominantly) by resource competition, our existence with this species (with whom our genetic variation differs tenfold more than the widest differences in our own species) is largely peaceful.
The past century of human advance, it would seem, has left us technologically empowered but no less brutish than our predecessors. In recent history however, things have begun to change. The difference now is that our actions are not isolated. Developments in communication mean that we now engage in a subtle yet continual process of peer-review which assesses the morality of our conduct as societies and individuals. It is this process which has led to a huge upsurge of campaigns, ranging from recognition of the rights of women to the Arab spring, all of which aim- at their heart- to secure the rights and liberties of those who are suffering discrimination, marginalisation and other atrocities… all based on that 0.1%.
In this article we talk to Frank Willem (FW) de Klerk (Former President of South Africa and Winner of the Nobel Peace Prize), George Takei (Actor & Social Justice Activist), Prof. Githu Muigai (Attorney General of Kenya), Patrisse Cullors (Co-Founder of Black Lives Matter), Dr. Nils Muiznieks (the Council of Europe’s Commissioner for Human Rights), Nikesh Shukla (Author), Lord Herman Ouseley (Founder of ‘Kick it Out’) and Iby Knill (Holocaust Survivor). We discuss the impact of racism, discrimination and intolerance on our society, and how we can build a better future for our world.
Frederik Willem (FW) de Klerk graduated with a law degree from Potchefstroom University in 1958 and then practiced law in Vereeniging in the Transvaal. In 1978, F.W. de Klerk was appointed Minister of Posts and Telecommunications and Social Welfare and Pensions by Prime Minister Vorster. Under Prime Minister P.W. Botha, he held a succession of ministerial posts, including Posts and Telecommunications and Sports and Recreation (1978-1979), Mines, Energy and Environmental Planning (1979-1980), Mineral and Energy Affairs (1980-1982), Internal Affairs (1982-1985), and National Education and Planning (1984-1989). In 1985, he became chairman of the Minister’s Council in the House of Assembly. On December 1, 1986, he became the leader of the House of Assembly. As Minister of National Education, F.W. de Klerk was a supporter of segregated universities, and as a leader of the National Party in Transvaal, he was not known to advocate reform. In February 1989, de Klerk was elected leader of the National Party and in September 1989 he was elected State President. In his first speech after assuming the party leadership he called for a nonracist South Africa and for negotiations about the country’s future. He lifted the ban on the ANC and released Nelson Mandela. He brought apartheid to an end and opened the way for the drafting of a new constitution for the country based on the principle of one person, one vote. In 1981 he was awarded the South African Decoration for Meritorious Service. In 1992, he received the Prix du Courage Internationale (The Prize for Political Courage) and was co-recipient of the UNESCO Houphouet-Boigny Prize. He was also awarded the Prince of Asturias Prize in Spain during the same year. In July 1993, together with Mr Nelson Mandela, Mr De Klerk received the Philadelphia Peace Prize and on 10 December the same year was the co-recipient, also with Nelson Mandela, of the Nobel Peace Prize. In 2004, Mr De Klerk brought together a number of respected former national leaders to join him as founding members of GLF Global Leadership Foundation. He is also the Honorary Chairman of the Prague Society for International Co-operation in the Czech Republic; a Member of the Assembly of the Parliament of Cultures in Istanbul. In addition, he serves on the advisory boards of the Peres Centre for Peace in Israel and the Global Panel in Germany.
George Takei is best known for his portrayal of Mr. Sulu in the acclaimed television and film series Star Trek. He’s an actor, social justice activist, social media mega-power, originated the role of Sam Kimura and Ojii-Chan in the Broadway musical Allegiance, and subject of To Be Takei, a documentary on his life and career.
Takei’s social media dominance is best denoted by his numerous awards. Mashable.com named George a “social media superstar” on Facebook in 2012, where he currently has over 8.9 million “likes.”
In 2013, Takei won the Shorty Award for Distinguished Achievement in Internet Culture. He has 1.7 million followers on Twitter, and posts on various social media platforms, expanding his reach now with the 2015 debut of the YouTube series, “It Takeis Two,” starring with husband, Brad Takei.
Prof. Githu Muigai is the current Attorney General of Kenya, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Contemporary Forms of Racism, Discrimination and Intolerance and Managing Partner of Mohammed Muigai Advocates. He holds a Bachelor Degree in Law and was called to the bar in 1985. He also holds a Master’s Degree in International Law from Columbia University School of Law, New York and a PhD in Constitutional Law from the University of Nairobi. He is a Fellow of the Chartered Institute of Arbitrators (UK) and a member of the American Association of Trial Lawyers. In addition to Law practice, he is an Associate Professor of Public Law in the School of Law of the University of Nairobi. He specialises in Public Law, Human Rights and trans-national legal practice. Prof. Muigai has extensive experience in constitutional law and has been a Commissioner with the former Constitution of Kenya Review Commission where he advised on Constitution making in other jurisdictions. Additionally, he has researched and taught at the University of Nairobi for over 20 years on the following key topics: Constitutional law, Theories in Democracy /Governance and their applicability in Africa; Human Rights theory and practice; and the question of ethnicity and the social foundations of law. Prof Muigai was also appointed as judge to the African Court on Human Rights and People Rights (2008 – 2010) and is an ICC Defence Counsel.
Patrisse Cullors is a artist, organizer, and freedom fighter from Los Angeles, CA. Cofounder of Black Lives Matter, she is also a performance artist, Fulbright scholar, popular public speaker, and an NAACP History Maker. She’s received many awards for activism and movement building, including being named by the Los Angeles Times as a Civil Rights Leader for the 21st Century.
A self-described wife of Harriet Tubman, Patrisse Cullors has always been traveling on the path to freedom. Growing up with several of her loved ones experiencing incarceration and brutality at the hands of the state and coming out as queer at an early age, she has since worked tirelessly promoting law enforcement accountability across the world while focusing on addressing trauma and building on the resilience and health of the communities most affected.
When Patrisse was 16-years-old she came out as queer and moved out of her home in the Valley. She formed close connections with other young, queer, woman who were dealing with the challenges of poverty and being Black and Brown in the USA. At 22-years-old Patrisse was recognized for her work as a transformative organizer by receiving the Mario Savio Young Activist Award. A Fulbright Scholarship recipient, Patrisse received her degree in religion and philosophy from the University of California, Los Angeles in 2012. That same year she curated her first performance art piece that fearlessly addressed the violence of incarceration, STAINED: An Intimate Portrayal of State Violence. Touring that performance lead to the formation of the Coalition to End Sheriff Violence and eventually her non-profit Dignity and Power Now, both of whom have achieved several victories for the abolitionist movement including the formation of Los Angeles’ first civilian oversight commission over the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department.
In the summer of 2013 fueled by the acquittal granted to George Zimmerman after his murder of Trayvon Martin, Patrisse co-founded a global movement with a hashtag. Black Lives Matter has since grown to an international organization with dozens of chapters and thousands of determined activists fighting anti-Black racism world-wide.
In 2014 Patrisse was honored with the Contribution to Oversight Award by the National Association for Civilian Oversight of Law Enforcement (NACOLE) recognizing her work to initiate civilian oversight in Los Angeles jails. Patrisse then completed a fellowship at the Arcus Center for Social Justice Leadership where she prepared and led a think tank on state and vigilante violence for the Without Borders Conference. There she produced and directed a theatrical piece titled POWER: From the Mouths of the Occupied.
In 2015 Patrisse was named a NAACP History Maker, a finalist for The Advocate’s Person of the Year, a Civil Rights Leader for the 21st Century by the Los Angeles Times, and was invited to the White House. Google awarded Patrisse with their Racial Justice Grant to support her ongoing Ella Baker Center project developing a rapid response network that will mobilize communities to respond radically to law enforcement violence, the Justice Teams for Truth and Reinvestment. In conjunction with the Justice Teams Patrisse is also supporting the ACLU’s development of their Mobile Justice app. Patrisse works with many organizations worldwide.
2016 was a strong year for Patrisse. She delivered the keynote address at over a dozen colleges and universities including American University, The University of Notre Dame, the University of Pennsylvania, and Cornell. She was named a Leading Edge Fund Fellow by The Rosenberg Foundation, a Senior Fellow for Maternal Mortality by MomsRising, a Kick-Ass Woman of Color by DLG Media, and received the Defender of the Dream Award from the AFL-CIO Executive Council Committee on Civil and Human Rights, the Revolution Award for Freedom from ImageNation Cinema Foundation, the Justice Award from National Center for Lesbian Rights, the Community Change Agent Award from BLACK GIRLS ROCK! Inc., the Glamour Women of the Year Award for The Justice Seekers, and honorary doctorates from Chicago’s South Shore International College Preparatory High School and Clarkson University. With the Justice Teams mobilizing and the Black Lives Matter movement gaining even more momentum, 2016 was another powerful step towards freedom.
Nils Muižnieks was elected Commissioner for Human Rights on 24 January 2012 by the Parliamentary Assembly and took up his position on 1 April 2012. He is the third Commissioner, succeeding Thomas Hammarberg (2006-2012) and Álvaro Gil-Robles (1999-2006).
Prior to his appointment as Commissioner for Human Rights, he held prominent posts such as Director of the Advanced Social and Political Research Institute at the Faculty of Social Sciences of the University of Latvia in Riga (2005-2012); Chairman of the European Commission against Racism and Intolerance (2010-2012); Latvian minister responsible for social integration, anti-discrimination, minority rights, and civil society development (2002-2004); and Director of the Latvian Centre for Human Rights and Ethnic Studies – now Latvian Human Rights Centre (1994-2002).
Nikesh Shukla is an author. His debut novel, Coconut Unlimited, was published by Quartet Books and shortlisted for the Costa First Novel Award 2010 and longlisted for the Desmond Elliott Prize 2011. Metro described it as ‘a riot of cringeworthy moments made real by Shukla’s beautifully observed characters and talent for teen banter‘. In 2011 he co-wrote an essay about the London riots for Random House with Kieran Yates, Generation Vexed: What the Riots Don’t Tell Us About Our Nation’s Youth. In 2013 he released a novel about food with Galley Beggars Press, The Time Machine, donating his royalties to Roy Castle Lung Cancer Foundation. The book won Best Novella at the Sabotage Awards.
His second novel, Meatspace, was published by The Friday Project. ‘Like Douglas Coupland’s Generation X,’ according to the Guardian, ‘this novel captures a cultural moment.‘ It’s been lauded by the New Statesman, BBC Radio 4, the Independent on Sunday, and the Daily Mail.
Nikesh is the editor of the essay collection, The Good Immigrant, where 21 British writers of colour discuss race and immigration in the UK.
His short stories have featured in Best British Short Stories 2013, Five Dials, The Moth Magazine, Pen Pusher, The Sunday Times, Book Slam, BBC Radio 4, First City Magazine and Teller Magazine. He has written for the Guardian, Esquire, Buzzfeed, Vice and BBC 2. He has, in the past, been writer in residence for BBC Asian Network and Royal Festival Hall.
In 2014 he co-wrote Two Dosas, an award-winning short film starring Himesh Patel. His Channel 4 Comedy Lab Kabadasses aired on E4 and Channel 4 in 2011 and starred Shazad Latif, Jack Doolan and Josie Long.
He currently hosts The Subaltern podcast, an anti-panel discussion featuring conversations with writers about writing. Guests have included Zadie Smith, Junot Diaz, Teju Cole, James Salter, George Saunders, Jennifer Egan, Evie Wyld, Sam Bain, Alex Preston, Colson Whitehead and more. He also co-hosts a podcast with sci-fi writer James Smythe, Meat Up, Hulk Out.
He was knighted in 1997 for his services to local government and community relations and was made a life peer as Baron Ouseley of Peckham Rye in the London Borough of Southwark in 2001.
He acts as a council member of the Institute of Race Relations, is on the board of directors of the Manchester United Foundation, and has been awarded 13 honorary degrees.
Lord Ouseley has a career spanning over 50 years as a champion of equality and diversity, and continues to be at the forefront of challenging institutional discrimination.
During her childhood in Czechoslovakia, Iby Knill‘s parents – alarmed at the persecution of Jews in Germany – smuggled her over the border to Hungary. She was caught by the security police and then imprisoned and tortured, not only as a result of her Jewish connections but for having entered Hungary illegally and for aiding the resistance movement. Eventually, Iby was sent to the infamous Auschwitz-Birkenau camp. In June 1944, Iby Knill left Auschwitz-Birkenau by volunteering to travel as a nurse with a slave labour transport of 500 women. Once transported to Lippstadt, she was put in charge of a hospital unit and risked her life protecting the weak and helpless from the gas chambers. After decades of silence, Iby recounted her experiences in her book “The Woman Without a Number“
Q: What has been the role and impact of racism in your life?
[Lord Herman Ouseley] Race, racism and racial discrimination have always been an issue in my life. Born into poverty and growing up in a mixed ethnic environment, all communities were affected by social and economic disadvantages but, we knew each other by mixing with each other, by learning with each other, about each other, from each other. We had our prejudices, but these were not driven by ignorance about each other or false stereotypes.
When I arrived in England as an eleven year old, I was greeted by smiling children who called me all sorts of names, I wrongly assumed that they were being friendly, not knowing that they were racial insults. but they were themselves ignorant and only taking forward their parents’ ignorance about people like me.
Racism is about prejudice and power combined to subjugate and discriminate against people on the grounds or race, colour. ethnic and racial origin and nationality. The guy on the street would use his racial prejudice to abuse me, but without the power, would not be able to discriminate against me. But institutionalised discrimination impacts negatively in different ways on all racial groups.
[George Takei] Racism has been a formative part of my life. I was incarcerated as a child because of the bombing of Pearl Harbour. We are Americans, my mother was born in Sacramento, the state capital of California. My father was a San Franciscan- they met and married in Los Angeles, and that’s where me and my siblings were born. We are Americans but we just happened to look like the people that bombed Pearl Harbour. Overnight we were looked at with suspicion, fear and outright hatred.
First, they came down with a registry (we would now call it a database) to record who we were, where we lived and how many of us there were in the family. That was followed by curfews; we had to be home by 7pm, and stay home till 6am- we were imprisoned in our homes overnight. Then, our bank accounts were frozen. We had no access to money, our life savings… and then the soldiers came to take us. At first we were imprisoned in horse stalls (because the camps weren’t built) and then in barbed-wire prison camps with sentry towers and machine guns pointed at us. I was five years old…
That kind of extreme, hysterical, racism was the world I was born into.
When we were freed and the gates were thrown open, we were impoverished. When we returned back to Los Angeles, we lived on Skid Row; it was a terrifying place.
I started school and the teacher continually called me, ‘The Jap Boy…’ I was the only Asian-American kid… the only Japanese American in that class. Whenever I raised my hand, she looked the other way and ignored me. I knew she hated me for no discernible reason. I just couldn’t understand why this old lady hated me, but then- as an adult- I thought back… maybe she had a son or husband in the Pacific Theatre during the war. Even still, I was a kid at the time, a student…
When I became a teenager, I started reading voraciously. I read civics books about the American ideals and the roots of our democracy and I couldn’t reconcile that with my childhood imprisonment and experiences. I had many after-dinner conversations with my father, and learned about American democracy from the person in our family who bore the burden, pain, degradation and outrage of our internment the most. He told me that ours is a people’s democracy, and that people are capable of doing great things. He also told me that people are fallible human beings, and that people who have done great things are also capable of making horrible mistakes. He used the example of George Washington who led the revolutionary war, served as the first President of the United States, but still kept other human beings as slaves.
I was shaped by racism, but also by the ideals that grew out of our history and our democracy.
Fallibility and nobility are organic to a people’s democracy.
[Nikesh Shukla] For race to be a social construct, it has to have been socialised in me at some point. I can’t pinpoint when I became aware of my race, but I certainly remember feeling different in school (which was predominantly white, with a smattering of Asians). I was definitely proud of the Indian part of me, but that was something I exercised and indulged at home. I had a home Nikesh, and a school Nikesh. It was only years later that I realised this was code-switching, where you act out different versions of yourself in different situations, based on the different people who are around you.
Before the internet, we all thought we were alone feeling the way we did. When I was growing-up, it felt- at the time- like there was a lot less nuance to what constituted being ‘British Asian’ in my early-teens there were a narrow band of social constructs which seemed to define what it meant to be British-Asian and if you didn’t adhere to these? you were called a ‘Coconut.’
The first time I started to feel maybe it was OK to not like Bollywood and Bhangra, and not to be fluent in Gujarati was when my friend Rishi introduced me to Talvin Singh, Asian Dub Foundation and Cornershop. There was a time in the mid-late 1990s where there were some amazing things being done by British Asians which really explored the full-spectrum of our difference.
It was at this time I discovered a book called ‘The Buddha of Suburbia,’ where the first line is… “My name is Karim Amir, and I am an Englishman born and bred, almost.” That one word- almost– stayed with me for years.
I’m not saying life is easier because of the internet, but it helps you explore your own diversity without becoming homogenised by external forces.
South Africa’s Story
Q: In your view, what caused the racial segregation during colonial times which culminated as apartheid?
[F. W. de Klerk] The concept of human rights is a fairly new phenomenon in human affairs. For most of history, (even among the indigenous peoples of Africa, America and Asia) it was accepted that conquering powers could treat vanquished peoples and their territories more or less as they wanted. The behaviour of colonial powers toward the people they conquered was seldom restrained by law, morality or compassion – (particularly in the Americas). Relationships between settlers and the indigenous population in South Africa were generally less exploitive and less repressive than they were in the Americas, Australasia and in many parts of Asia.
Most colonial powers practised segregation against the peoples they conquered for a number of reasons: they believed that their status as ‘Christians’ gave them a right to discriminate against ‘pagans’; there were often substantial differences in levels of development between the colonial powers and the people they subjugated; colonisers were often ignorant about the cultures that they encountered; they were usually motivated by determination to seize the land and the resources of colonial peoples; and they had an interest in keeping colonial peoples in a state of subjugation to prevent them from rising in rebellion.
However, for much of their history, a majority of black South Africans continued to live in their own tribal areas where they were ruled by their traditional authorities (whose appointment was, however, approved by white governments in Pretoria).
In South Africa’s case segregation had its roots in a strong view that each of the peoples of the region should be encouraged to develop separately. From the late 50s onward South Africa embarked on a policy of internal decolonisation that culminated in the development of ten homelands, each with its own parliament, government, administration – and often its own university. Almost 40% of black South Africans lived in these areas and were, for all practical purposes, governed by their own people without any kind of racial discrimination. Six of the territories progressed to the stage of self-government – and four were granted full independence that was recognised only by South Africa and each other. Nevertheless, most of the states had budgets and economies larger than those of quite a number of independent countries elsewhere in Africa. The policy failed because the territories set aside for blacks were too small and fragmented; because economic forces were drawing more and more black people into the so-called white economy; because the policy made no provision for the political rights of black people in the so-called white areas (where whites were also a minority); and because the policy was vehemently rejected by a great majority of non-white South Africans.
Q: During apartheid, what was the view the majority held of the minority and vice versa?
[F. W. de Klerk] All peoples resent foreign domination. Black attitudes toward whites were invariably coloured by the dominant/subservient relationship that ensued. White attitudes toward black South Africans ranged from fear and prejudice to paternalistic care and concern. Personal relationships were often quite cordial – but usually within an employer/employee relationship. Many of the whites who were involved in developing black national states were idealistically committed to the welfare and advancement of black South Africans. However, relationships inevitably suffered as a result of the reality of white domination in most areas of the country and of daily life. It was only after the constitutional transformation of 1994 that South Africans from different communities could really start to relate to one another as equals.
Q: What led to the abolition of apartheid?
[F. W. de Klerk] There were a number of factors that led to the abolition of apartheid: firstly, the clear failure of the government’s policy to achieve a just solution to the problems of the country; the rejection of apartheid by the overwhelming majority of non-white South Africans leading to a spiral of resistance and repression; growing international isolation and sanctions; increasing integration of black South Africans into the economy leading to substantial shifts in the distribution of income; emergence of the majority of Afrikaners into the middle class, with university education and increasing exposure to international attitudes; the acceptance by the end of the ‘eighties that there was no prospect for either a military or a revolutionary solution; the successful implementation of the UN independence process in Namibia following the negotiated withdrawal of Cuban troops from Namibia; the emergence of a new generation of National Party leaders after the stroke suffered by President P W Botha at the beginning of 1989; the positive influence of exploratory talks between white business and academic leadership groups and the ANC – parallel to the initiation of informal talks between Nelson Mandela and the SA Government; and the collapse of the Soviet Union and the victory of free market democracy.
Q: Now, years later- what is the state of racism and discrimination between these groups?
[F. W. de Klerk] After seventeen years of progress in national reconciliation which reached their high point with the FIFA World Cup in 2010, race relations have begun to show serious strains. This has its roots in continuing high levels of inequality arising from unemployment of about 40% among black South Africans. The catastrophic failure of the education system has resulted in growing pool of uneducated and unemployable black youth, receptive to radical anti-white activism of populists like Julius Malema. This is compounded by the failure of ANC leadership to continue with Nelson Mandela’s policies of national reconciliation and the ANC’s anti-white National Democratic Revolution ideology
The Concept of Racism
Q: Why, in your view, does racism exist?
[Prof. Muigai] I think racism is a form of discrimination, and discrimination exists respective of various matters. Race is one of them, religion is another, origin, sex and a million other aspects exist that one can think of. I think there are many sociological reasons that form the basis of discrimination. Fundamentally, I think, individuals are disconcerted by what they do not know, what they are not familiar with, what is different and so on. I think, at the root of racism, is the discomfort with persons who do not like us, speak like us, eat like us, who have different customs, cultures, practices and so on. At another level, this is a phenomena about the insecurity of human beings. An insecurity that leads human beings to need to have people who they feel better than! People who they feel above from!. In a sense, this is a form of self-assurance- that at least one is better than somebody else. I think that is seen with the inferiority complexes people in society have, locked in the deep subconscious of the psyche somewhere.
We use the term ‘contemporary racism’ to distinguish between historical forms of racism- the sort of racism that drove colonialism, slavery and apartheid- from contemporary practices that are often more ‘subtle’ and not officially mandated or sanctioned, but which are nonetheless part of the way societies are governed today. I have been to many places in the world and observed this. In Singapore, for example, people were talking to be about the sort of racism they found on the bus. If, for example, you are a different sort of race or ethnic origin- you take a seat on the bus, and someone else who was sitting next to you will get up and move to someplace else. This is the form of racism where if you pick up the phone and call someone who has advertised an apartment, for example, when they hear your accent or when you get to the apartment and they see you, they may say, “in this apartment we don’t encourage meat eaters..” or whatever tool of discrimination they use. Contemporary forms are the more current forms of the manifestation of racism.
[Nils Muiznieks] Racism has been defined in various ways as an ideology, as a discourse, as a belief system… or the practice of individuals, groups or institutions. Racism is, though, a belief that humans can be divided into discrete groups that do not change- that group membership is linked by both appearance and behaviour. In its hard form there is a biological and hierarchical component- and in soft form it focuses on culture and the alleged incompatibility of different cultures with each other. A lot of social science theory has suggested that it’s linked to people’s need to belong to a group, and the tendency of people to exaggerate their commonality with people in their group- and to exaggerate not only the differences with people in other groups, but to have a negative evaluation of those groups. These differences are exacerbated through a lack of contact, by negative experiences, by negative propaganda… but also by competition over resources.
It’s the belief system that things such as ‘race’ exist which is used by dominant groups to justify their position and to organise groups against each other.
Q: Why is racism still such an issue in our western ‘liberal’ world?
[George Takei] In the same way I was shaped by the racism that confronted me as a child, there are those in this country who have similarly been shaped by the racism of their upbringing and the society in which they grew up.
The Republican leader Mitch McConnell– right after President Obama was inaugurated- made the public statement that his personal mission, and that of his entire party was to make sure Obama was a one term President. With that premise, they did everything possible to create problems for Obama during his eight years in office. One of the most outrageous examples was when Obama- doing his job- nominated a candidate to fill a vacancy at the Supreme Court. The Republican Party said they were going to wait until the people had voted…. Well, the people had voted and put President Obama in office and now this party was refusing to let Obama do the job he was voted-in to do. They completely ignored his nomination….
When the President of the United States is confronted with such outrageous obstinacy because of race, you can see that racism is still a very real problem in our society.
[Lord Herman Ouseley] Race is an issue in all societies but in liberal western societies it is an issue still because of the underlying issues of nationalism, patriotism, power, status, race supremacy and protectionism. Institutional and organisational discrimination, often unintentional, is the basis on which discrimination flourishes, in spite of equality policies and practices as well as anti discrimination legislation. Terminology such as Diversity is used to keep everyone comfortable and not having to face up to race exclusion challenges. It enables diversity policies and commitments to be a façade for change, while prioritising other characteristics such as gender and sexuality issues for more effective action.
Q: What are the dangers racism poses to a society?
[Lord Herman Ouseley] Racism is divisive. It pitches communities against communities, ethnic groups against each other and it is the people with the power, combined with racial prejudice, who perpetuate this situation. The elites talk about “diversity” and hide behind “unconscious bias” as an excuse for on going exclusion, but they know what they are doing and not doing and how to turn a blind eye to things which perpetuate exclusion, especially when not being challenged. For instance, since 2003, Britain has been driven by an urgency to deregulate in many ways to keep the private sector sweet which means that discriminators know they can get away with most discriminatory acts.
Q: How is racism linked to other forms of discrimination we see in society?
[Patrisse Cullors] This is not separate from class or gender. We live in a capitalist system that priorities money over people, priorities dehumanisation over dignity, and the outcomes are catastrophic for our communities.
Q: How had social and institutional manifestations of racism changed in the last century?
[Nils Muiznieks] Many forms of racism have not changed that much. For example, many of the common themes that we see in contemporary Anti Semitism are very old and have not changed much through history- the same holds true of prejudice against the Roma or Gypsy people. If you look at the manifestations of ‘how’ these prejudices have manifested themselves over times? With Anti Semitism you saw ghettos and special clothing in the middle ages all the way through the Nazi period. With the Roma you have slavery and in the nineteenth century, in parts of Europe, you had Roma being hunted down and in some European countries you saw forced sterilisation that continued until the 1970’s- and even forced assimilation which still goes on today. Regarding Blacks, of course, you had the slave trade and colonialism which were critical- and that has changed over the years- although the legacy of colonialism and the slave trade continue to influence relations between majorities and black minorities- not only in Europe, but more broadly in the world.
I think what we have seen in ideological terms is that biological racism, after World War II, was largely discredited. You will find few mainstream figures who will claim that people are biologically superior and so on. What we have now is the rise of a discourse of cultural incompatibility which says, “…we’re not better or worse, we’re different… and we’re so different that we can’t live together…” What we’ve also seen in the last hundred years is that the role and context of the state has changed. The role of the state in providing welfare, mobilising people and penetrating their daily lives has changed massively along with the context in which states interact (through globalisation, mass migration and mass communication). So here you see a situation where confrontation with ‘the other’ has become more common. The role of the media is also important in terms of both the ‘evil’ that it can do, but also the possibilities inherent in the media which could allow it to combat racism.
Many of the prejudices we see are very old and you still have elements of biological racism creeping into debates today- even when these ideologies have been discredited. This is an age old phenomenon that changes form, and changes it’s manifestation based on the changing role of the state and the advance of globalisation.
Q: Why do we still have such negative views around immigration and integration?
[Nikesh Shukla] Blaming immigrants for problems provides an easy scapegoating narrative for government and media. It’s a huge challenge to go from not labelling people to understanding them as individuals; it’s part of a wider trend to re-homogenise people into discrete groups of ‘otherness.’
The assumption is that if people want the space to explore the nuances of their identity and cultural heritage, whatever that may be, that it detracts from their ability to ‘integrate,’ ‘assimilate,’ or have ‘British Values.’
This fundamental question of what constitutes British Values is important. If I think of what I want ‘Britishness’ to mean, it’s about multiculturalism and acceptance of difference, and about people coming together over their differences, not just their similarities.
The rapper Heems once said in an interview, “..my parents didn’t come here to assimilate, they came here to make money…” but sometimes… if you want to make money, you have to assimilate!
There are so many reasons why people move, but at the core you see things like survival, money, community and safety. I don’t think people immigrate thinking, ‘how am I going to be exactly like the locals…’ they think, ‘how will I make money?,’ or ‘is this going to get me away from the sh** I’m escaping…’ or ‘will I be able to make a better life for me and my family?…’
People confuse the idea of assimilation with the reality of what that word means to those who use it…. They are saying, ‘don’t take our jobs! don’t take our women! don’t be seen! don’t be heard!’
Just look at your own street. There’s a strong chance that your friends, your neighbours, may have opposing political views to you… may have committed a crime at some point… may have done things you disagree with… but you come together around communal living, making your street look nice, getting the bins out on time, and treating your street with respect. That is more important than the murky, abstract, concept of ‘integration.’
The way that people use the words integration and assimilation is as substitutes for the word erasure, and that’s dangerous.
Q: Why are we not moving forward from race in our society?
[Nikesh Shukla] Race often feels like a ‘weight around the ankles’ of people who experience discrimination from it. In truth, we’re not as post-colonial as you might think….
The British Empire ended less than one generation ago, within the lifetime of our parents we had colonialism. Britain can’t have the post-race discussion yet, we’re not even post-colonial. Whatever concepts we have around race are tied to colonialism- so much of that era is where our race identity and politics were formed.
Our institutions aren’t post-colonial. The way the government is run is not post-colonial. Twice a year, the Queen gives out medals from the British Empire– that’s not a post colonial world.
Q: What ‘pushes’ a society to commit atrocities based on race or religion?
[Prof. Muigai] I think there are many forces that drive this. I think in most societies where you have these very, very, extreme manifestations- there are historical circumstances upon which opportunistic politicians build. If you look at the holocaust, for example, you will have seen anti Semitism in Europe and elsewhere was very established. Hitler and his Nazi’s therefore were working with a very fertile ground which was already in existence. The same is true of the more severe forms of the manifestation of apartheid. Already, there was over a century during which there were attempts to exterminate whole communities in water areas of the Kalahari and so forth…. The seeds are often there, waiting for someone to water and germinate them.
We saw the same in Rwanda! The suspicions, the divide and rule tactics, employed over multiple generations. One of the most interesting things I have encountered in my experience as Rapporteur is how similar all these deeply racist thoughts- that become genocidal- really are! The first thing the propagandists do is to denigrate the existence of the persons to be eliminated so they are treated as sub-human. Language de-humanising them is concocted by the propagandists- you see people referred to as cockroaches, rats or vermin. It then makes it easy for a soldier of 16, 18 or 20- to turn his gun on a whole village. He is then not killing human beings but is exterminating cockroaches.
[Nils Muiznieks] In all of the major genocides of the last century, we have seen this aspect of ‘dehumanisation’ where ‘the other’ is not only worse, it is not even human- it is not like us at all. And not only is ‘the other’ not like us at all? it is scapegoated as being the cause of all of our alleged problems. In the Nazi period you had industrial means used to carry out genocide which had not been available earlier- but also in recent years, we have seen the critical role of the media. In former Yugoslavia and Rwanda, you had state controlled media propagating the prejudice and stereotypes- promoting the dehumanisation of the other group and urging people to take action against them. This is where it gets really dangerous where you have authoritarian racist regimes who have a monopoly over mass media, and use that media to push people to do horrible things.
Former Yugoslavia, especially for Europe, was a great lesson. We thought we had learned so much since World War II and we hadn’t. We saw that these kind of atrocities were still possible in a very wealthy and supposedly civilised continent.
Q: How can a society which is described as ‘democratic’ exist with racism and intolerance?
[Nils Muiznieks] Democracy is predicated on the equality of all before the law. Therefore racism or any ideology of superiority or exclusion based on group membership is incompatible. Unfortunately, we see discrimination, racist violence and hate-speech still prevalent across Europe and around the world. This is why the international community has focussed so much of their recent efforts in this field on anti discrimination law- to try and enshrine this principle of equality in national and international legislation and to create mechanisms to punish those who violate these principles of equality. Anti discrimination is key not only to re-enforce this principle of equality in a real way, but also because discrimination leads to further prejudice. How? basically by preventing people from mixing and co-operating in work settings, schools, army and so on. There is a lot of social science research which suggests that if people co-operate and act in such organisational settings, their values change… they overcome their prejudices and grow more tolerant to ‘the other’. Discrimination is an artificial ‘keeping apart’ of people through institutional and individual actions.
Q: What is the relationship between freedom and liberties in media, speech and elsewhere to racism and intolerance in a given country?
[Prof. Muigai] This is a complex relationship. In some ways, societies that are more free can make it easier for people to disseminate ideas which are racial in origin. Increasingly we talk, therefore, of hate-speech and the challenge of balancing the freedom of expression and containing hate speech. In other circumstances, the more backward communities- and I use backward in the sense of less democratic societies- make it even more possible to harbour retrogressive ideas. The less democratic a society is, the more demagogic the leadership is. In communist, single-party and mock-democracies you see this. The more demagogic these cultures are, the more racism can legitimately be used. You can see it is complex and you don’t find that one excludes the other.
Q: What are your views on media portrayals of race?
[George Takei] I’m an actor, and I know the power of the media, its stereotypes, and its power to shape people’s attitudes towards groups of people.
When Pearl Harbour happened, we had an Attorney General in California, a great man who knew the law and the constitution. He was the top lawyer in the State of California, wanted to become Governor and saw that the top issue in California at the time was to lock-up the Japanese movement, and the Japanese people. This man- who knew better- got up and made an amazing statement as Attorney General. He said, ‘we have no reports of spying or sabotage or fifth column activities by Japanese Americans, and that is ominous… the Japanese are inscrutable, and it would be prudent to lock them up before they do anything…’ Just think about that, this is an Attorney General who used the absence of evidence, as evidence. He became enormously powerful as the leader of the internment movement in California. He fed into the wartime hysteria, which fed right up to the President of the United States. It was President Roosevelt who signed the Executive Order that put us into these barbed-wire camps. This Attorney General ran for Governor, won, held two terms in office and was then appointed as the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of the United States. You might recognise his name, Earl Warren… the so-called liberal Chief Justice of the United States. I like to think he was liberal because of his conscience; he never owned up to the role he played in California as Attorney General, but in his posthumous memoirs- he wrote that his greatest regret was the role he played in the internment of Japanese Americans; but this was not something he was prepared to say while he was alive.
This proclivity for making sweeping characterisations of whole groups of people is coming back to haunt us. When Japanese Americans were put into these prison camps, we were all characterised as enemy-aliens despite the fact that we were born here, raised here, and were loyal American citizens. Trump has characterised all Muslims as probable, or potential, terrorists. That’s the implication with his ban on Muslims entering this country. Some of his surrogates have used the imprisonment of Japanese Americans during World War II as ‘precedent’ for doing that with Muslim Americans now. If there is a precedent, that precedent is a warning to never, ever, repeat what happened then.
[Lord Herman Ouseley] Media is in the forefront of misinformation and misrepresentation which perpetuates ignorance, reinforces prejudices and contributes indirectly to promoting stereotypical images of different groups of people. For instance, find and photograph a family from Africa or Asian in and overcrowded B&B, making demands for publicly funded housing accommodation with bedrooms for the many children. The story line is that immigrants, who have not contributed to the country, over here living on benefits, making demands for facilities and provision ahead of the essential needs and entitlements of indigenous poor white disadvantaged households and adding unreasonable burdens on the society.
Q: What led to the outbreak of Anti-Semitism culminating in the holocaust, and what is the state of Anti-Semitism in the world today?
[Nils Muiznieks] It’s clear that this ideology of biological racism had been around in Germany and other parts of Europe for a long time… since the early nineteenth century. This developed into full-brown theories on race in the 1930’s which were exacerbated through economic competition and the envy of part of the Jewish community which had done well economically, and the big political movements of the time, such as capitalism or socialism. Individual Jews had been symbols of both socialism (through prominent representation in many of the revolutionary movements in the 1920’s) but also they were prime symbols of capitalism through their success in certain economic sectors. They became the objects of an anti-modern movement which was against both socialism and capitalism. Through the evil mastermind of Hitler, and his henchmen, all the means of Germany’s industrial might were turned against this one group.
Anti Semitism, unfortunately, is very much alive and well in Europe today. Some of the forms are very old and we have seen them for hundreds of years… all the traditional protocols of the elders of Zion, certain Christian groups who turn against Jews and so on. You also have new modern forms of Anti Semitism. One is linked to events in the middle-east where people have begun to link criticism of Israel with Anti Semitic stereotypes- which is quite frequent in the right wing and parts of the left wing. The global financial crisis has also led to the revival of conspiracy theories of alleged Jewish capital and so forth. On top of that, not only do we have our own ‘home grown’ Anti Semites in Europe but we also have ‘imported’ Anti Semitism where immigrants from all over the world have brought their prejudices along with them when they moved to Europe.
The sad thing is.. in many parts of Eastern Europe where the holocaust was carried out, you have very few Jews left, but Anti Semitism is still alive- so you have Anti Semitism without Jews. If you look around Europe, a very good indication of how safe the Jewish community feels is to understand to what extent are their community centres, synagogues and cultural infrastructure are fortresses and to what extent are they not heavily guarded. That will give you a good gauge of how safe that community feels in any given country.
Q: What are your views on Islamophobia, and the world perception of Islam before and after 9/11?
[Nils Muiznieks] What’s interesting is that until about 1997, the term ‘islamophobia‘ was not in broad use. Starting in 1997, you had the first big study by the Runnymede Trust in Great Britain who introduced this term in their laying out of the various aspects of prejudice against Muslims. It really took off, of course, after 9/11 and the ‘link’ in many people’s minds between Islam and terrorism. This was exacerbated by the attacks in London, Madrid and so on. Muslims have now become the primary ‘other’ in much of the racist debate in Europe. There have been a number of studies looking at the programmes of right wing political parties- where you see that the old Anti Semitism of these parties has been replaced by a new Islamophobia. You also have the odd alliances being formed between right wing populists and very conservative Jewish groups who also are not very open to dialogue with Muslims. This is a very serious issue that I think we all have to pay much more attention to. Finding a way to have a respectful dialogue between different religious people, finding a way to address the social exclusion and feelings of alienation among many young Muslims in Europe.
Disconnecting the discussion about terrorism from Islam is absolutely critical.
We just saw in Norway, and earlier saw in the Netherlands (with the murder by a Moroccan actor of Theo Van Gogh) that terrorists come in all shapes, sizes and convictions. Europe has focussed so much on Islamic extremists that it has forgotten that there are many other kinds of extremists around that we need to look at as well.
One very unfortunate thing which we have noticed in our work at ECRI is that before 9/11, practices of ethnic, racial and religious profiling by police, border guards and other security services had been largely delegitimized. They made a huge come-back after 9/11 in the context of ‘the fight against terrorism’. Profiling based on the use of actual or alleged group membership, without a justified cause… is discrimination- it’s that simple. It is affecting these communities, especially Muslims, in a very serious way.
Q: What are your views on discrimination towards people based on their ‘caste’ or descent?
[Nils Muiznieks] Debates about caste or descent in Europe are not very prominent. I was at the World Conference Against Racism a little over ten years ago- and there was a huge debate about the Dalits, about caste, and to what extent they should be integrated. The general consensus was that this is a form of racism which should be combated- that you have the same kind of principal of ‘attributed group membership’ that cannot change, that is inherited- linked with alleged abilities or behaviours. That’s what racism is all about. In Europe, issues of caste have not really been on the agenda- but elsewhere- especially in the Asian subcontinent they are more serious. Given globalisation, we will certainly see this issue come to Europe in a more prominent way.
Q: Why do we see widespread global racism and intolerance (both in developed and developing world) towards Africans, people of African descent and people of ‘Black’ origin? are there solutions?
[Nils Muiznieks] I think part of this has a long-history of colonialism and slavery where whites and other groups had a lot to gain from dominating and exploiting these people. They also generated a lot of theories to justify their actions. There is a strong tone of self-interest in some of the persistence about racist discourse aimed at blacks. There is also a defensiveness which you saw a lot of at the World Conference against Racism around ten years go where you first had the compensation and reparation claims coming up. Many European countries had a hard time coming to terms with their own past and their complicity in some horrible crimes and policies- and the economic benefits they derived from those policies. The demands on the part of countries and people that were subjects of slavery are also demands for symbolic recognition of their history- and these issues of history and human rights are not going to go anywhere. We see it particularly in Eastern Europe with regard to contemporary Russia. These demands will come back and provoke counter-reactions. I think, of course, blacks- as opposed to many minority groups- are immediately physically distinguishable as being different, as being ‘the other’ – so they become convenient targets along with other groups who are physically distinguishable from majority populations.
Q: What are your views on the causes and solutions for intolerance directed at migrants, refugees and those seeking legitimate asylum?
[Nils Muiznieks] This is going to be Europe’s toughest nut to crack over the next decade or two. The old refugee regime is under serious stress and it’s become increasingly difficult to sort ‘who is who’ among the large flows of people. In the boats arriving on the southern shores of Europe you have very mixed groups of people- you have economic migrants, refugees, victims of trafficking and their traffickers… all on the same boat! To fulfil one’s international obligation is becoming increasingly problematic- potentially even impossible. These are huge issues which we must face. Firstly the erosion of the refugee regime- but secondly debates about migration in general. The trend in migration is clear- and the choices are very difficult. It is a country’s sovereign right to have a zero migration policy so long as it fulfils its rights under the refugee regime. It can accept refugees and no economic migrants, for example. Very few countries are doing that, and certainly fewer will do that in the future- mainly due to demographic processes. How to have a liberal discussion based on human rights, about migration is sometimes I think that not very many European countries have succeeded in doing. Usually moderates and liberals are silent on these issues, leaving the field open to extremists who then set the tone and raise fears, linking these individuals to criminality, disease and so on… Whether or not a country wants to have immigrants and has immigrants is a sovereign choice of states. What’s critical from ECRI’s point of view is to look at the tone of debate, whether the debate is racist in nature, whether groups are being stigmatised, and then what happens once the people are in the country- whether they have status or not. Even illegal migrants are entitled to basic social right and the conditions upon which they are accepted are important too. Are the various measures designed to promote the integration of immigrants discriminatory in nature? do they stigmatise? do they work? what is their purpose and effect? is the purpose to keep people out? or to make people feel welcome and integrate into society? These are issues we are looking at very closely in many European countries and I think the debate is only going to get more difficult in the future. In the absence of immigration, the choices we face are very difficult. Raising the pension age- bringing more people to the labour market who aren’t there now- shrinking the state- or using technology. The Japanese, for example, use technology – they have no real immigration to speak of, but instead put their cards on technology, using robots and so forth. I don’t think that’s really a solution which can be adapted wholesale in Europe. The choices are very difficult, and none of them are politically popular. The business community, of course, will be pushing for cheap labour. The problem is that if you are a smart and well-educated migrant, you will not come to Europe. You will go to Canada or the United States where conditions for getting residency, citizenship, labour market access and so forth are much better- rather than Europe which is fragmented into twenty seven different jurisdictions. Europe wants highly skilled and well-educated labour, but it attracts low-skilled labour and complains about the difficulty in integrating this labour. This is a dilemma which will face every European country over the next twenty or thirty years- how to cope with demographic decline and the pressures we face ahead- and how to do this in the context of our human rights obligations.
Q: What are your views on the perception of groups such as Women and of homosexuality in different races and how does that manifest with intolerance?
[Nils Muiznieks] In ECRI, we have dealt with the gender aspects of racial discrimination particularly in regards Roma, Muslim and some refugee groups. Only in passing have we dealt with issues relating to homosexuality, bisexuality or trans-sexuality. We have, though, begun to have debates on how to incorporate these issues into our agenda. Unfortunately, this is an area where there has not been a lot of contact and co-operation between different groups pushing for equality. In terms of Women- in particular if we have seen data and evidence to suggest women are facing double-discrimination- not only because of culture or religious background, but also gender- we have highlighted this and urged that states address it. Regarding homosexuality, an interesting report just came out from the Council of Europe’s human rights commissioner on discrimination and intolerance against gays, lesbians, bisexuals and trans-sexuals. You see increasing incorporation of these various ‘grounds for discrimination’ in legislation- for example, the equality directives within the EU. Within the case law of the European Court of Human Rights and the work of various other groups involved in combating hate crimes, they find that the kind of violence and discrimination faced by both women and sexual minorities (to use a shorthand phrase) are often very similar to the kinds faced by ethnic and racial minorities and the solutions are often very similar. There are some specific issues (for example, relating to LGBT’s) which stray beyond the standard agenda of anti-discrimination, hate speech, or violence- and go into the realm of family law. For example, adoption- marriage- resident partnerships and so forth which are, in some contexts, perceived under ‘discrimination’ but in many cases are not. There is not a common European standard on many of these things. The explanation for discrimination and intolerance against people on the grounds of sexual orientation are often different too. The two big schools of thought on racism and ethnic intolerance have to do with social identity theory where people want to belong to a group or other groups- this fits in very well with LGBT’s. If, however, you look at competition for resources- it’s very difficult to apply that paradigm to look at intolerance against LGBT’s as a large number of these individuals are in the ‘closet’ and nobody knows that they have different sexual orientation- they therefore cannot identify who they are in competition with. The conceptual framework is therefore slightly different- but this is being more integrated into the mainstream. We see now that in many European equality bodies, you are getting fewer and fewer specialised commissions looking at racial discrimination, or discrimination on the grounds of gender, or sexual orientation- but more and more general purpose equality bodies are emerging- looking at discrimination against all these groups. I think that’s a good thing- this debate is only beginning now, and over the next fifteen or twenty years we will find common ground to unify our approaches and explanations, and have more dialogue between activists and experts looking at discrimination on all these grounds.
Q: How far has race come in the United States since the civil rights movement?
[Patrisse Cullors] You have look at progress on race from different angles.
The ‘Jim Crow’ days of legalised segregation are over, and that’s a huge feat. What we’ve seen however, is a different type of segregation through the ‘illegalisation’ of Black People through the criminal justice system.
While we don’t have laws that state that Black People can’t go to certain places, do certain things or have a certain type of job- what we do have is a caste system inside a country that means that when someone becomes a ‘criminal’ they become excluded from places, things and jobs… and Black People have been criminalised.
Q: Who is benefitting from racism, and how is it impacting Black communities?
[Patrisse Cullors] The racial caste system was not built by Black People, it was built by White wealthy people, and those are the individuals who benefit from the system. Let me clear, this is a global problem. We have a global system of anti-black racism, a global system of white-supremacy, and we see this in the rise of white nationalism across Europe and elsewhere in the world.
People talk of America as being one of the only places that experiences the worst outcomes of racism, but that’s simply not true. I’ve worked with Black communities across the globe, and whilst it lands differently on each of us, the fact is that if you’re Black- anywhere in the world- you cannot escape racism.
This is lowering the morale in Black communities, and having real and significant impact on people’s lives.
Q: To what extent do phenomenon such as climate change, urbanisation, resource competition and so on influence racism and intolerance?
[Prof. Muigai] Without a shadow of doubt it has been quite clear to me, in my experience, that the more insecure people feel about their livelihoods, way of life, culture and future… the more intolerant they are. If you look, for example, at contemporary forms of racism- they are often fuelled by immigration- usually immigration from poorer third-world nations, to countries where there is a perception of job opportunities and increased standard of living. One of the most amazing things I have encountered is that you find people who are hostile to immigrants, who may be of different ethnicity, colour, race, religion, etc- who are doing jobs that they, themselves, would never touch- but who’s excuse for racism is that “they” are taking our jobs!
If you look at the middle-east, for example, the wave of migration there by workers from South East Asia, Africa and so on is enormous. The sort of jobs they do- for example, if you look at construction workers in the Emirates… is back breaking work. This is work which, if the immigrants were not there, would simply not be done- or at least not in those conditions, circumstances or for those wages and living conditions.
[Nils Muiznieks] The research I’ve seen on the impact of the global economic crisis, particularly as it pertains to Europe is very mixed. In some countries you have seen a worsening of the situation where you’ve had a real hardening on the debate on migration and refugees, where it’s been easier for right wing populists to pedal fear, and where groups have turned against Jews and revived old stereotypes, where Muslims are vilified. In other areas, this has not happened. The impact has been variable- and I don’t think we have a good grip on ‘why’ it has been so vary variable across Europe. Apparently these things are filtered through local culture, local history and local context- and we have to adapt our conceptual framework to take that into consideration, which is not an easy endeavour. The one thing that we in ECRI have been particularly concerned about in recent years is the severe cuts that these equality bodies- and national human rights commissions and ombudsmen have taken. This is the front-line in combating discrimination in countries around Europe. These are the places that victims can turn for help, for legal assistance and advice. These are the bodies doing research, raising awareness- and if they are being undermined as a result of the economic crisis? then the most vulnerable groups will be hit even harder. Often-times if you have budget austerity across the board, ombudsmen and human rights institutions are faced with disproportionate cuts, which is of grave concern to us. Also- if you do not have money, you cannot implement the programmes designed to serve the most marginalised groups. Here in Europe I would highlight the plight of the Roma, who are socially excluded, marginalised and unemployed to begin with- and it’s clear that in the context of the economic crisis- programmes designed to deal with their social exclusion have been cut or done away with altogether in some countries. This will only worsen their situation and make their problem more intractable in the future.
Q: What are your views on the possible solutions for religious conflicts such as that between Israel & Palestine, and that between India & Pakistan?
[Prof. Muigai] Of course we must confront the reality that racial tension is also exacerbated by a million and one other factors. Not just the colour of skin, texture of hair or cultural practices. There are historical issues which have grown into major problems, and now need to be resolved… Not essentially as racial problems, but as political conflicts, albeit of racial origin. To my mind, one of the most difficult questions in modern diplomacy is the Middle East problem. I believe that there is a sense in which, in order for us to truly resolve some of these historical problems, we must recognise racial identities and we must permit- to a very large measure- self determination. One of the most complex issues at the heart of this is migration. What are we to do with migrants who come into dominant cultures, in which religion, language, cultural practices and other things are settled. Is it for these societies to adapt to immigration? or is it for migrants to adopt their societies practices? I think there isn’t a simple answer to that. Some of the events recently in Europe over the last several weeks have brought us back to the realisation that this issue is still there- complex and unresolved.
[Nils Muiznieks] The path forward in any situation of severe conflict or in which prejudices, fears and stereotypes are entrenched is first of all to start with the educational system. You must look at what is being taught to the younger generation to ensure that old hatreds are not being reproduced. What is in the curriculum? how are teachers delivering it?. Secondly, if at all possible, you must promote mixing- co-operation and dialogue. Separate institutions, particularly education institutions just re-enforce intolerance and make the problem more intractable. It’s important to look at NGO’s in civil society also- who try to promote mixed groups- this is critical. There has been some excellent work on India and Asia looking at ethnic conflict in civil life- they made the argument that if you have ethnically mixed NGO’s it is a key mechanism by which conflicts can be overcome, and violence prevented. The media is also key- looking at political discourse. This is a very difficult nut to crack as politicians have a mandate from the people- and very often abuse that mandate to further stereotypes. In ECRI, we feel that politicians should be subject to the same hate-speech restrictions as other people are faced with- that they should be prosecuted if they advocate violence or discrimination. They should also regulate themselves in this regard! Most parliaments have codes-of-conduct with regards racist or intolerant speech which are not often adhered to. The same holds true with media. Hate speech in the media should be prosecuted- but the media should be self-regulating. If I was trying to address tolerance outside Europe- this is how I would start. Socioeconomic development is also clear- if you have an economic dimension to a conflict, it makes it that much harder to solve.
Q: What do you think is the role of international institutions such as the UN and ICC in the resolution of racial conflict and discrimination?
[Prof. Muigai] Increasingly- all nations realise and appreciate the need to integrate with the international political, economic and social system. That has given a leverage to multilateral institutions to be able to exact some pressure on how countries want to run their own domestic agenda. To my own mind, apartheid would never have been conquered at the point in time that it was, if international opinion was not so strongly against it. There are many other practices today- including contemporary forms of racism- which are good indicators of this. Increasingly countries are called upon to account to their fellow world citizens about their conduct on these issues. This is a positive thing. I see positive changes! I have travelled to many countries and spoken to many governments… they worry about how they are perceived on these issues! I have never visited a country who says, “…we don’t give a damn what people think, we are racist and proud of it.”
I think the international criminal justice system is a step in the right direction insofar as… of course in historical times, the accountability of perpetrators of human rights violations on a gross scale was never always assured under domestic forums. To the extent that we have developed a secondary level of accountability, that is a good thing. However…. the problem we confront today is the fact that these processes are, themselves, political process. Who is arrested, who is judged etcetera…. have very clear political overtones. Is that reason enough to abandon those processes? I don’t think so. Do these processes eventually create some comfort? Do they engender some comfort in the mind of victims that this may never happen to them again because those individuals may be arrested and charged? I would imagine so….
Q: What is the role our education systems play in promoting more diversity and inclusion?
[Lord Herman Ouseley] Education is the key to tackling prejudice and ignorance. Multi cultural education is not about some creed that is designed and intended to force minority cultures onto majority cultures but to enable us to learn with each other, about each other, from each other.It is the key to integration and good community relations. And it is as much about white working class people having the opportunity to understand their own history and culture as it is about Minority communities understanding how their historical presence and contributions to Britain have been airbrushed out official accounts of British history. Segregation in admissions to certain schools and denial of education opportunities to learn multi cultural environments in the biggest obstacle to progress in building community cohesion.
Q: What do you think is the role of youth culture in the levels of racism and discrimination experienced by a given society?
[Prof. Muigai] This is amazing. I have travelled to many countries in what I will refer to as ‘The Former Eastern Europe’. You find generations of older people who have no strong racial views, who were socialised in an ideology that- at least nominally- recognised racial equality. I have found in those societies now, young people who are extremely racist. I think two major concerns emerge from this. Firstly is youth culture- some of it driven by open criminality and second is the xenophobic political discourse of right wing political parties and politicians. That is a very serious problem in Europe today, I can tell you that!
The most dangerous individual in society is a young male. A young unemployed or under-employed male… the level of aggression that generates conflict within communities from this is astonishing. If you look at the drug culture in many countries around the world- it is driven by this same profile of individual. The same is true of child soldiers in militia, and in all these places where we have serious security problems globally! I am not surprised that even in fairly ‘tranquil’ societies, that these are the same people driving anti-social behaviour.
Q: What we can [as individuals, communities and leaders] do to tackle racism in our society?
[Lord Herman Ouseley] We have a responsibility to tackle racism by ensuring that we confront our own personal prejudices and those of others, to be better informed, to mix more with people from all backgrounds, always report racially abusive incidents and all discriminatory actions and practices. Throw down the challenges to politicians, the media, the law and decision makers.
Q: What is the role of sports in tackling racism in our society?
[Lord Herman Ouseley] Sport is an area where there is visibility of activity and participation and it is hard to use discrimination to exclude individuals on grounds of race, when performance determines selection. However, there has been a history of holding back the development of Black and Asian sporting talent but now it is restricted to the areas of coaching, managing and governing. Tackling racism in the national sport, football, with its vast following and participation, was a challenge for me because it was naked, vile abuse of Black players and fans with very little action to curb it and players who felt powerless to stop it. Setting up the campaign to kick racism out of football was a no brainer but all the clubs and authorities were in denial, either saying that it was a reflection of society and not a problem for football or that I was creating a problem that did not exist and, in any event, it would vanish in time. After two decades of struggle you could say that football is now better regulated to tackle the worst excesses of racial abuse and discrimination at the professional level, has much to do to change attitudes and opportunities at grassroots level and is completely in the dark ages when it comes to administration, coaching, management and the boardrooms.
Q: What is the role of arts, culture and sport in the battle against racism?
[Prof. Muigai] This is an amazing part of the schizophrenia we exhibit as societies. If you look football in Europe, for example, it’s a great unifying force. People go to football stadiums to watch these games- Africans, Asians, Whites and more… They’re quite happy except for the occasional flare-up! They are very proud of their teams! If you look at athletes who adopt other countries as their homes, wherever it may be… they are embraced and lionised… the countries are proud of them. I have experience of this in Kenya and feel that these phenomenon will really help us to get to the bottom of problems such a racism.
[Nikesh Shukla] Art can change the world. It can carry powerful, universal, stories that talk about our differences.
This word ‘diversity’ (which is very overused) is not just about having a couple of Black writers who write about their experiences with identity, it’s about having a heap of Black writers- some of whom do write about their experiences, some who just write crazy sci-fi, some who may write drama, some who may make a musical…
White people have the opportunity to be mediocre all the time. A mediocre film made by Black Director can fu** their opportunities because it wasn’t excellent. Meanwhile, Bradley Cooper- one of the mediocre actors in the world- gets chance after chance to be mediocre.
My parents came here to make money… they looked at lots of industries and saw the ones that were for them and the ones they weren’t. They saw the arts weren’t for them because they didn’t perhaps see themselves reflected in that world. In Zadie Smith’s ‘White Teeth’ she wrote, “There was England, a gigantic mirror, and there was Irie, without reflection. A stranger in a stranger land”
Our parents didn’t see themselves reflected, and went for professional careers which made money and were stable- rather than the arts, which didn’t make them feel like they wanted them….
Now, things are different… We’re getting more young BAME people who want to make art, and who are prepared to go on that journey to make it. The internet and other places offer the space and the platform to explore art in a more democratic sense than institutional art-spaces that often have gatekeepers.
Q: What is the state of diversity in our businesses; and the impact that has?
[Lord Herman Ouseley] Businesses reflect the same problems that football clubs, which are businesses, have. Institutional discrimination is locked into the power structures and those Black and Asian employees who are allowed to get into senior positions do nothing to challenge the status quo with regard to discrimination as they have to look after their interests. With light touch regulation, employers know that there is very little challenge to their policies and practices and they can do virtually anything they wish and get away with it, in spite of their diversity policies and publicly promoted commitments as progressive employers.
Q: What is the state of diversity in politics; and the impact that has?
[Lord Herman Ouseley] There are many more Minority Ethnic MPs but how many challenge racism, ever discuss it in Parliament and are only concerned to toe the party line and safeguard their seats a and their positions.
The Experiences of Auschwitz
Q: What did you recall about the outbreak of war, and when did you realise the severity of the conflict?
[Iby Knill] It goes back to Spring 1938, when Hitler occupied Austria in the Anschluss. My father had relatives in England, and he and I were on the point of going to England when the Anschluss happened and we couldn’t go, and we were stuck in Slovakia.
The result of the Anschluss was that Czechoslovakia mobilised and- at that time- the army were on bicycles not in tanks! All of the bicycle manufacturers were in the Sudetenland, and those factories refused to supply the government with bicycles directly for their mobilisation! I can remember quite vividly that my father arranged a huge quantity of bicycles from the Sudetenland, and then- as a business- sold them to the government for their mobilisation. The particular reason I remember is that all the bicycles had to be black, and not have any shiny surfaces. That’s what I remember about how things started!
Next came the horror of the occupation of what is now the Czech Republic, and the creation of the puppet-state of Slovakia- which shook us to the core.
At the time I was only 12-14 years old, and at that age- you don’t take note of politics as such. Also, you don’t have the same communication systems. You didn’t have mobile phones, television and so on- and not everyone looked at newspapers. Radio gave concerts and plays, not news. The amount of information of what was going on was minimal.
Q: What do you recall about the events that led to your arrival at Auschwitz, and did you know about Auschwitz before then?
[Iby Knill] We heard of camps but I certainly didn’t realise what the implications were.
We [Jews] were told that after the age of 16 you should no longer have any intellectual pursuits and that you shouldn’t go to school any more- so our education was interrupted. The Nuremberg Laws also enforced a curfew from 8pm to 6am.
We [Jews] weren’t allowed to sit down on public transport or park benches because they thought we would contaminate them. We couldn’t go to any places of public entertainment, and we had to wear the yellow star.
My family was not religious, and so I hadn’t realised that we were Jewish! As a young girl, I was angry… I thought it was very unfair. I didn’t think we were any different, and was angry that we were being treated differently.
When we were told to leave school, we were then told to learn a practical trade. As a girl in the 1930s as a girl what was I going to learn as a practical trade? I was not going to become a bricklayer or a plasterer, so I took a course in graphic design! This actually worked out rather well as eventually in England I had a successful design business- so no learning is ever wasted from that point of view!
When the German soldiers came, we had to leave our apartment as we were in the area- near the Embassies- where the Germans wanted to live. They allocated us a one bedroom apartment on the outskirts of town. We obviously couldn’t take most of our possessions. At the time we had maids and cooks who came from one particular village. When they got married, their children or relatives came- it was a family progression. One of our maids who got married… her husband came with a horse and cart and loaded up all our furniture. My mother, with much forethought, filled a suitcase with photos and personal items and hid it in a barn on a farm, behind bales of straw and other such things. We got all of that back after the war.
This all took place in the winter of 1941. In February 1942, I escaped over the border into Hungary because they were rounding up the Jewish girls. I was hidden first by my cousin, and then after he was called up by the Hungarian army- I was hidden by the Marky family. We tried to escape via the routes used by air-crew who were shot down and unfortunately we got caught. There were 428 of us who got arrested. They interrogated us at the police station, and I ended up with a 3 month sentence at the Women’s Prison in Budapest. When they released me I was re-arrested as an illegal immigrant and sent to a detention centre, an immigration centre, and eventually a refugee camp in Northern Hungary. When you were arrested as an illegal immigrant, you were classed as a political prisoner and released on parole. This happened to me in March 1944.
On the evening of D-Day, there was blanket bombardment- probably to divert the attention of Germans. They had never anticipated air-raids in Hungary, so we had no trenches or shelters. People were told to stay in their homes and not to go out. During that night lorries drove up with German Einsatzgruppen, accompanied by the Hungarian police, and rounded up all the Jewish people in the area. They rounded up about 3,000 people- I had just been visiting there and so was at the wrong place at the wrong time. I finished up at a brickyard, and from there we were taken to Auschwitz Birkenau. We left of the 12th of June and arrived in Auschwitz on the 17th of June.
Q: What are your key memories of Auschwitz?
[Iby Knill] I remember the back of the lorry being pulled open, and being told to leave. They said that they were taking the old and ill people to a hospital, and everyone else had to get out- men to the right, women to the left. There were five of us women including two doctors. We jumped out, linked arms and- I know it sounds crazy- but we sang the Hungarian national anthem. At the time we thought [in a sick way] that it was funny. We were then shown the door into Auschwitz Birkenau.
I remember that we were told to strip and stand on little stools. All the hair on our body was shaven off and around the room SS men and women were laughing and joking at us. It was frightfully degrading, and was our first glimpse at being dehumanised. You were not treated as a person- but rather as a thing. They made you feel that you weren’t a person, but rather- to all intents and purposes- that you were a sheep being herded.
We came to realise- pretty soon- the real purpose of that place [Auschwitz]. First of all, the smell of the place… the smell of burning flesh…. it stays with you forever. It may sound strange, but to this day I don’t particularly like barbecues as a result… The smell was there all the time, it stays with you. Smells are very evocative, and remind you of things very much.
We were quickly made aware of what was going on. We were told that if you didn’t stand up straight, and if you didn’t look fit, you were just taken away and never seen again. The gas chambers and crematorium were smoking continuously. Thousands and thousands of people from Hungary were being brought there at an incredible rate.
Somewhere along the line, we were each given a number. There were so many of us, it was the only way they could keep track. The machinery broke, and I was not given a number. Mine should have been 75,245.
Q: How did you feel towards your captors, and those involved in running Auschwitz?
[Iby Knill] The huts themselves were run by Capos (trustees). Fortunately I was a linguist, and the Capo in the hut that I was were Czech and I could communicate with them. All the others in the hut were Hungarian and could not speak any other language. At this stage, you just thought of survival- the five of us stayed together, and because I could communicate I got maybe a little more soup than other people- a blanket that was slightly bigger. Because I could speak German, I could also communicate with the Germans, which was also an advantage. Being able to communicate with people was an advantage, and you took advantage of that fact to survive. Your only aim in life at that stage was to live one day longer.
We knew that the D-Day landing had taken place, and we were hoping it would not be that long before the Allies won the war and we would be liberated. We were now in June 1944, quite a way into the war- and close to the end. We were holding on and trying to survive.
Q: Did your experiences at Auschwitz change your views of death?
[Iby Knill] I honestly don’t know.
We were simply concerned with the moment, just surviving one day at a time. We could only live for today… there was nothing you could do about yesterday, and tomorrow may not exist. You were living in the here and now. It’s a state of mind that stayed with me. You can only deal with things as they are now.
Q: What did your experiences at Auschwitz teach you?
[Iby Knill] The most prominent lesson was that there is only today.
You have to live for today and make the best of today. Maybe at the end of the day you will feel like you have not hurt or damaged anyone or even that you have done some good. It’s been the lesson by which I have lived the rest of my life.
You can plan for the future, but not anticipate it. In reality there is only today, nothing else.
Q: Did your experiences at Auschwitz change your sense of identity?
[Iby Knill] Initially, after the liberation- everyone felt survivors guilt. Why did we survive when others didn’t? What do we now have to do in order to earn and deserve the fact that were still alive? This is common with survivors, and colours the way you look at life and your own actions. You evaluate things on that basis- and you try to be a better person. You try not to harm person… and try to not damage or belittle others, because you have experienced yourself what it is to be belittled.
I had a nervous breakdown for the first three years. Had it not been for a very understanding husband, I don’t think I would have survived. My late husband had been a soldier in the First World War and experienced trench warfare. He understood the trauma of what I was going through.
It took several more years to get some form of balanced mental state. I wrapped up those memories into a Pandora’s box, threw it in the sea and threw away the key. I would never talk about it or refer to it, nor would my mother who had also been in a camp. We would never mention to each other- anything about it. You pretended that period of time never existed.
During my time in Auschwitz, it was impossible to isolate good from bad- and so that period disappeared. To the extent that for those years afterwards, I could not speak German- which had previously been my main language. It is only now- since 2002 when I started my book- that I concluded that it was time to put down what I had experienced, and bear witness to it.
Q: What was the importance of sharing the stories of Auschwitz, and what can society learn from your experiences?
[Iby Knill] It’s very important for people to realise that you mustn’t allow a culture of us and them to develop.
When you look at young people- they play together regardless of their colour or background. Somewhere along the line they start to feel that other people are different to them. I’m not saying we should all revert to childlike innocence, but rather that this feeling of equality should remain… that we feel that under the skin, we are all the same…
I find it very important to talk to young people about it, and make them aware what the end result can be of this sort of culture of dehumanisation can be. I spend a lot of time talking to young people about the fact that people being different only makes life more interesting, and more valuable. It would be very dull if we were all the same.
Q: Do you think the messages from Auschwitz could prevent such a horror from occurring again?
[Iby Knill] Here’s hoping!
Unless young people get actively engaged in treating people as they wish to be treated themselves, it’s a very dark outlook for mankind. If we aren’t careful, we will destroy mankind.. I find it very frightening…
Q: How can we build resilience against racism in our communities?
[George Takei] Most people still don’t know that chapter of American history where loyal American citizens were imprisoned, just because of their race. We need to remember that chapter, learn from it, and not repeat it again.
We must always be mindful of the fact that we’re fallible human beings, we will make mistakes, but we mustn’t repeat the mistakes of our history.
[Patrisse Cullors] Over the next 4 years, we have to make sure Trump is not re-elected. We have to move away from this two-party movement we have in the United States and we have to move towards an ‘inside’ and ‘outside’ strategy; we need to be working with people inside elected office to work on the policies and people that are impacting our communities so badly alongside amplifying and making our movement bigger.
The news media have given Trump a platform. They gave him a platform before he was elected and allowed their network ratings to be a marker for them to continue to show Trump and his cabinet, and this has caused a dampening of existing movements in our country.
We’ve also seen a rise of amazing Black representation in the United States. We have Directors like Ava DuVernay producing huge movies, and many artists engaged in the cultural renaissance of the Black Community.
This is a deep contradiction. On the one hand you have the media obsessing over Trump, and on the other you have popular culture which is amplifying the voices of Black People and the most critical conversations our communities face.
The Black Lives Matter movement has been important in creating infrastructure for these conversations at the intersections of culture and communities.
Q: How do movements make a difference?
[Patrisse Cullors] We need to build a movement in the millions. We need to remember those at the margins and bring them to the centre, allowing them direct, narrate and introduce their world into the movement. It really matters that people at the margins are engaged and uplifted they are often those facing the most severe injustices in our society.
Q: What would be your advice to the next generation?
[George Takei] We need to know our history, and we need to have role-models we can learn from. We need to put the spotlight on those who have contributed to making our democracy a better democracy and underscore why our democracy is getting better- and believe me, in the face of everything, we are getting better.
When I first went to London as a young teenager with a backpack on my back, I got one of those double decker buses. At the time, you were charged your fare based on the distance between the stops you were travelling between. There was a young blonde, white boy who came by and told him where I got on- where I wanted to get off- and he quoted me a fare. The person sitting next to me started ranting and raving about the Irish, how the Irish were embarrassing us in front of these foreigners, the person looked this boy right in the face and said, “I know where he got on, I know where he is getting off, and you’re overcharging him you Irish scum…” – I was baffled! They looked alike to me! He was a young blonde-haired kid, and this was an old English man who had a visceral hatred of this young boy. I tried to re-assure the boy, and the old-man intervened, “You shut up!” It is ignorance and a sense of fear and insecurity that makes people racist.
We need to educate ourselves and make people’s lives better so they don’t feel insecure or fearful about people that may be different to them.
Some time ago, my husband and I were in Japan. We’d been eating a lot of Japanese food, and on one particular day we had travelled to a different city by train, and were in a taxi going to our hotel. Near our hotel we saw a sign that said, ‘Ristorante Italiano’ – we hadn’t had Italian food for a long time so we checked-in, got cleaned-up and walked to the restaurant. It was extremely busy so we sat at the counter. The woman serving us was a friendly Japanese lady who had a strange accent. Chatting with her I found out she was from Peru! She was a Japanese-Peruvian, who came to Japan looking for job opportunities. We started chatting away initially in Japanese, then in Spanish. Here we were, a Japanese-Peruvian and a Japanese-American, speaking Spanish at an Italian restaurant in Japan.
She told me she lived in a neighbourhood of Japanese Peruvians who enjoy speaking Spanish and have a community together so they can share and enjoy their culture. Their neighbours frowned on them, looked down on them, and complained about their smelly food, their noisy music… These are ethnically Japanese people, who are culturally Peruvian, and the Japanese couldn’t get along with them because of these cultural differences. This is the same nonsensical racism I had encountered on that bus in London as a teenager.
It is ignorance, and its poverty of understanding that we need to conquer if we are to get to a truly post-race world.
[Patrisse Cullors] Don’t wait for a crisis, join the movement now. We should not wait to change the course of history. We are making history every opportunity we have.
Don’t fight alone. This is not a fight to do by yourself, you should join movements and build movements to create change.
Don’t let your ego get the better of you. Be accountable to the people you are fighting for and never assume you know everything.
[Lord Herman Ouseley] Education, Education, Education and stand up to prejudice, bigotry and hate. All lives matter and the next generation is the future and a better future will rely on the next generation to make it better.
[Nikesh Shukla] You need to do what you want to do, and not pander to any perception of what you should be doing. Don’t get disenfranchised and leave, stay, fight and work your way up.
Young BAME consumers have to support and represent the artists and makers from their communities, we have to be the first consumers of this art, this product… There’s no such thing as mainstream anymore, so we have to seek and support the things that matter to us.
Diversity will come through osmosis, and will- frankly- come when the generation of gatekeepers we have retire and pass-on. It takes that generational change for change to happen.
There seem, therefore, to be many dimensions against which our species is able to discriminate ranging from cultural, biological and geographical differences to economic competition, and even historical conflicts going back many generations. It is also clear that humanity is facing a crisis of instinct versus identity. Our instinct fuels us with the primal need to be part of a group, but we are prone to define those groups by differences rather than similarities. It is thus that we, as a species, define ourselves by who we are not… rather than who we are.
“The human mind….” as Gordon Allport said in his 1954 book ‘The Nature of Prejudice‘, “…must think with the aid of categories….Once formed, categories are the basis for normal prejudgment. We cannot possibly avoid this process. Orderly living depends upon it.” Framing this in context of our social psychology (observed Scott Ploys in 2003 paper ‘The Psychology of Prejudice, Stereotyping and Discrimination‘) we see that “…an ‘ingroup’ is a group to which someone belongs, and an ‘outgroup’ is a group to which the person does not belong (hence, one person’s ingroup may be another person’s outgroup, and vice versa). Research has found that when it comes to attitudes, values, personality traits, and other characteristics, people tend to see outgroup members as more alike than ingroup members. As a result, outgroup members are at risk of being seen as interchangeable or expendable, and they are more likely to be stereotyped. This perception of sameness holds true regardless of whether the outgroup is another race, religion, nationality, college major, or other naturally occurring group. Research also indicates that when people experience a drop in self-esteem, they become more likely to express prejudice….” and prejudices, as Voltaire wrote, “…are what fools use for reason.”
Arbitrary dimensions such as race, religion, wealth, ethnicity, gender and so forth can (with reasonable accuracy and cognitive ease) define who we are not… but to answer who we are, we must adopt a more philosophical standpoint. We are six billion souls who (for a brief time) share the experience of being human. We are all born, we will all go through the pains of growing up, finding a purpose in life, mourning our loved ones, celebrating our successes, having likes, dislikes, and more. These are the multitude of shared experiences and shared values which bind our civilisation together, and for every dimension against which we differ- there are hundreds which we share. “We may have different religions, different languages, different coloured skin….” said Kofi Annan, “….but we all belong to one human race.”
To conclude and illustrate this from the point of our own human experience, I would like to quote my 2009 poem “Anonymity” :
I see you, You see me.
We are strangers, But connected.
I am like you, But I am not you.
I am me.