The Sycamore Tree: The right way to anti-racist work

Albina Hipp

As a panelist in an antiracist seminar in Abo Akademi University in Finland recently, with participants from the faculty and students, a question was posed to me. I considered it key for anyone with interest in understanding the centuries old human problem of race and racism. The question was: “What is the right way to anti-racist work?”

My reply was that there is no specific or prescribed way. What really matters would be individual values and intentions which determine the choices, and to a large extent the individual’s capacity to contribute in solving this problem. For example, when one witnesses, or senses racial injustice, violence and inequality, such as bias, assault, marginalization, segregation, denial or human rights and dignity based on the skin color of the individual.  In such situations, it is necessary to take a clear stand, take appropriate action according to one’s ability at that material time that would avert the action, such as record and report the action. In addition, it is important to document its impact especially the harm, displeasure, inconvenience this racist action would generate to those who witness, or are in close proximity to such violence. It is equally important to assist, give support to the victims who for no fault of theirs are violated and denied the right to be treated and viewed as human beings.

Racism and its ramifications, is the act of defining who fits the category of being human based on the color of their skin. It is also the act of defining who deserves to be accorded or denied human dignity and the right to be classified as a human being.

Racism also defines who has the right to perform fundamental human activities such as trade, work and travel. In addition, it allows an individual the free access to education, health, housing, clothing, security, and to acquire wealth, and pursuit of happiness.

If any of these human activities and fundamental rights are denied from a person because of skin color, this is racism.

Therefore, to question, create awareness, and take action; to stop and seek redress against any violation mentioned above is in my view part of antiracist work. There is no prescribed right way, because race and racism is socially constructed and exists within human activities at all levels and types of human interaction. As social constructs, race and the act of racism are taught, learnt, and therefore a product of socialization. For example, the way individuals in different societies and social groups creates distinctions and boundaries of “us versus them”, which in turn establishes categories either intentionally or unintentionally of those who belong, or those who are entitled within a society based on skin color. Through these process of categorization, behavior patterns, and stereotypes for those who do not belong within the preferred categories are dehumanized, alienated, segregated and exterminated.

At first, the act of racism is opportunistic in nature. It thrives when the dynamics of the majority, power, and hierarchy are in play, especially when it comes to matters concerning power, control and allocation of what is deemed as limited or scarce resources. It manifests itself through pockets of micro-aggressions either through individualized or group dynamics such as bullying, harassment, ostracization amongst other violent acts. Usually, with the intention to make it extremely uncomfortable for those deemed unworthy to function or engage in any or in all of these human activities. Once these micro-aggressions get entrenched and are considered normal within the functions of human activity and the institutions that govern these activities, and the psyche of those with power. The act of racism becomes overt and more violent in nature, and this is when policies, laws are created to deliberately lock out, contain or eradicate those deemed as unworthy. It is at this point when all societal machinery used to govern a society invest heavily on the use of force, incarceration, segregation and extermination. It is also at this time when the society and its agencies of socialization, especially in its educational system and mass media, promulgate and seek ways to explain “why us versus them” and how such conclusions of who is human and who is not, get arrived at. A good example is the system of apartheid is South Africa and Jim Crow in America.

It is, therefore, important to relearn, create new ways of thinking that are inclusive, equitable and critic such dominant knowledge through liberative education or education of collective consciousness.

Each and every one of us must chip away at racism, its institution and its agencies in every way we can. Like a sycamore tree, that grows initially like a vine, around a tree.

As it grows, it digs down roots to the ground as it entwines itself around the tree. Each root becoming a stem over time, until the host tree is completely covered and choked by the stems of the sycamore tree. So, if each and every one of us act as a root of the sycamore vine, and more and more of us dig roots and stand for humanity, as we get stronger, and our socialization processes that emphasis the awareness that all humanity is equal become entrenched. Then the tree racism will be slowly choked and leave behind a strong tree like the sycamore, called human that has several strong roots and stems that are extremely difficult to uproot or destroy. Because it is an inclusive collective of humankind.

In conclusion, there is no particular way of antiracist work. All efforts give strength to other efforts. What is important is to start dismantling racism from whatever position and situation one finds themselves in, irrespective of whether the individual belongs to the dominant and the privileged within the society, or belongs to those who are marginalized, exploited and segregated based on the justification of race and other basis of discrimination. This in my view is the right way.

The author is a PhD researcher at Åbo Akademi university.


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