Lead image by THE CANADIAN PRESS/Christopher Katsarov

By Evelyn Namakula Mayanja

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons licence. All photos provided by The Conversation from various sources.

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

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

People seen with placards.
People gather in solidarity with the George Floyd protests at the Canadian Museum for Human Rights in Winnipeg in June 2020.

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

Mechanisms for addressing racism

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

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

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

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

What is human dignity and personhood?

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

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

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

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

Yet clearly, factors beyond these have shaped our societies.

A woman seen with a microphone in front of sign 'I can't breathe.'
A disconnect exists between notions of human dignity and racialized violence. A protestor speaks in Montréal in June 2020.

Greed, capitalism and racism

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

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

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

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

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

A man seen wearing a mining light.
A man who used to mine cassiterite, the major ore of tin, poses for a portrait at the entrance to a mine shaft, at a largely-abandoned mine, in eastern DRC in 2012.
(AP Photo/Marc Hofer)

Dismantling racism

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

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

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

‘Obligations to the collective’

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

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

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

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

A crowd of people seen holding signs.
Dismantling racism requires cultural and social change that involves every individual. Protesters in Montréal in June 2020.

Need for liberation

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

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

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

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

Protesters seen kneeling down in front of city hall.
Racism affects us all. When we understand this as individuals and as a society, then we have a chance of effectively challenging it. Protestors seen in Toronto in June 2020.

Racism affects us all

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

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

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

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

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The Conversation

Thursday, April 13, 2023 in
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