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What have we learned from Mandela? Race and ethnic relations around the world and here at home


Visionary ConversationsWhat have we learned from Mandela? Race and ethnic relations around the world and here at home

Some of you may be asking: “Why is a white woman standing up there talking to us about race?” My answer is that the history of race relations impacts all of us and all of need to take responsibility for them, for what we have inherited and what we do now. Tokenism in any form is part of the problem, not the solution.

I began my career by looking to Australia for ways to understand Canada. Growing up in Hamilton, Ontario, even as a young girl I could see how class, religious, sexual, and racial oppression were linked and affected most dimensions of our everyday lives. A little later, I began to think about what it meant to live in a settler colonial society in which indigenous peoples were marginalized and stereotyped, and their history and cultural achievements denied.  I looked to Australia and the history of other colonized countries for a way of understanding that history, because we need to know our past to avoid repeating it. I turned to literature and culture to find alternative forms of remembering and creative ways to move forward together.

My work now asks how we can learn to see difference as a positive contribution to national resiliency. I believe national community needs to be reimagined beyond defensive and fearful reactions against others. Mandela began to show us how. We need to find new ways of re-negotiating community beyond the kinds of ethnically -based violence that continues today. Appeals to race and ethnicity often function as the excuse for the seizure of power or the maintenance of economic control.

Because of colonization and exploitation, racialized people need to reclaim their dignity, their personhood, and pride in their heritage. That cannot be accomplished by making scapegoats of others. Nelson Mandela understood that. He would be saddened by the violence against immigrants from other parts of Africa in South Africa today, but he would also understand how such animosities are used to keep South Africans from addressing the structural inequalities that make their country one of the most unequal in the world today. Combatting inequality in our own communities and in our global interactions requires vigilance that is alert to the changing forms of racism today. 

Mandela’s vision of a fully democratic South Africa is now described by critics of the ANC’s neoliberal turn as a “dream deferred” but it remains a powerful symbol of how certain racist governance structures may be exposed and dismantled without recourse to violent revolution. We cam honour that vision and mobilize it for changing times. We can also recognize the civil society groups working within South Africa, such as Shackdwellers South Africa, that are continuing to assert their right to self-determination and democratic decision-making, often in collaboration with international partners.

We know that hierarchically-based racialized thinking has a real and negative material impact on peoples’ lives and how societies work. As a literary critic, I study the stories people tell about the very real and hurtful impact racist practices and stereotypes have on their daily lives, and the creative ways they develop to address such harm. As someone who specializes in the links connecting colonialism, racism, and globalization, I will stress several points for further discussion arising from my research.

1.How we talk about race matters. I distinguish between race and racializing processes because it helps us understand that racism is a process constantly undergoing change. Furthermore, that process is enabled by legal and governance systems, by scholarship, and by other ways of imagining who people are and whether or not they can live together. I deliberately speak of people as racialized rather than as belonging to a particular race. This matters because when we understand that racism is a system for managing populations and for understanding the world, it is easier to resist claims that locate racism in the individual or nature alone. Of course, individuals can internalize racist beliefs but they are encouraged or discouraged from doing so by larger societal forces, including the media, governments, and schools.

In fact, by ignoring certain stories and privileging others, schools can actually teach approved forms of ignorance. When I studied American literature at university, there was nothing by blacks or women on the course. For English honours students, there was nothing by people from Africa, the Caribbean, Asia, or the South Pacific. There was nothing by indigenous peoples. It was hard to know where to turn to find their stories.

2.Race has a history. People did not always categorize each other in terms of the ways in which we now use race. Groups have always thought in terms of “us” and “them,” insiders and outsiders, but justifications for such divisions only took racialized forms in the modern period. It is society that slots people into races, and that kind of slotting can change over time. One particular form of racialized thinking depends on chromatism; that is categorization on the basis of skin colour. It can seem very natural. People do look different. Yet looks can be deceiving. In North America, groups now considered white were once categorized as black. The Irish and Ukrainians, for example. Quebeckers who spoke French in the mid twentieth century were told to “speak white.” Students of racism agree, then, that race is a category construction that has proved fluid throughout history. Insofar as it relies on magnifying difference between us and them, and then setting up hierarchies of value based on those distinctions, we need to be more creative in seeing the limitations of such thinking.

3. Race thinking has tended to see whiteness as the norm for the fully human, so that white people are just human while people from other places are categorized according to race, or increasingly by ethnicity, culture, or civilization. Each of these terms operates to distinguish between groups of people but according to different criteria. One problem they all share is the tendency to classify individual people in terms of large, homogeneous categories, as if all members of a particular group may be lumped together as sharing certain tendencies. In this system, only white people still retain the privilege of choosing their affiliations. Others are seen as trapped by their race. Critical whiteness studies is a field that explores this problem of continuing white privilege.

4. In North America, race is often connected to stereotypes of African peoples based on the history of the Atlantic slave trade. Constructions of blackness today have been heavily influenced by the struggles of black people in the United States, the Caribbean, and South Africa against legislated apartheid systems that diminished their humanity and severely limited their freedoms and agency.

We need to know that history, and to address it in productive ways, but we also need to be careful about how it is used. I support the current Caricom legal initiative to seek reparations from several European states once involved in that slave trade. If we associate the Atlantic slave trade with the evils of a past we have now risen above, it is harder to see its continuing impact in US, Canadian, and African societies today. It is also harder to see the ways in which contemporary forms of slavery still exist, involving more people than ever before. Slavery today may not be so obviously race-based (although it sometimes is) but it still relies on the belief that some people are less human than others. Some people are disposable.  It can take age-old forms in places like Mauritania, India, and Pakistan, and newer forms, in complicity with contemporary capitalism, in places like Brazil, Eastern Europe, and North America. Insofar as globalization encourages the trafficking of people, it also encourages new forms of slavery. My point here is that race always needs to be analyzed in relation to other forms of discrimination, violence, and abuse.

5. Racism is produced by the decisions we make, as a community, at all levels of our coexistience. Derogatory stereotypes of other races persist, often because limitations have been legislated on their agency, their education, their employment, and their movements. It is easy to forget the legislated restrictions on the lives of the colonized under colonialism, including here in Canada. Critical race philosophers call this form of forgetting, “epistemologies of ignorance.” In other words, ignorance is actively encouraged, through ignoring how racist privilege is maintained and discrimination is enabled. These forms of ignorance help reify sexual, racial, and colonial hierarchies and create exclusive forms of national identities.

6.Today, racial prejudice still exists but it has also migrated into consideration as culture or civilizational difference. It is not helpful to talk about a “clash of civilizations.” Some of the tropes of racial discrimination remain in these new forms. Sometimes others are infantilized, seen as developmentally delayed, as children, or even worse, as trapped in a time bubble, dominated by their cultural traditions, which are seen as incapable of change. That form of racism persists in categorizations of Muslims today. It persists in a formula described by Gayatri Spivak as “white men saving brown women from brown men.” That formula describes the plot of many Hollywood movies and television shows, and was used to great effect in the invasion of Afghanistan.

7. Race and ethnicity-based thinking thrive in times of financial crisis, insecurity, and rapid change. New racisms are coalescing around immigration and refugee policies and leading to the creation of spaces in which human rights are suspended. Guantanamo Bay is the best known example, but Australia too has created island spaces where refugees deemed security threats may be incarcerated, without recourse, indefinitely. Hostility to immigration is on the rise globally.

8. What can we do? As a community, we need to attend to the ways in which we, as Canadians, find ourselves involved in supporting the conditions overseas that force people to flee their homes in search of a better life here and conditions locally that foster human rights abuses.. We need to work together to imagine ethical forms of internationalism through genuinely reciprocal team building with colleagues overseas. That will mean abandoning forms of charity and development work that have served us more than them in the past. What else might it involve? I invite your comments and advice. Moving beyond racism must be a communal task.

Further Reading

Ashcroft, Bill, Gareth Griffiths and Helen Tiffin. “Race” In Postcolonial Studies: the Key Concepts. Third Edition. London: Routledge, 2013. 218-25.

Bales, Kevin. Disposable People: New Slavery in the Global Economy. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1999.

Bales, Kevin and Becky Cornell. Slavery Today. Toronto: Groundwood/Anansi, 2008.

Boehmer, Elleke. Nelson Mandela: A Very Short Introduction. Oxford: OUP, 2008.

Crenshaw, Kimberle et al, ed. Critical Race Theory: The Key Writings that Formed the Movement. New York: New Press, 1995.

Goldberg, David Theo, ed. Anatomy of Racism. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1990.

Henderson, Jennifer and Pauline Wakeham, ed. Reconciling Canada: Critical Perspectives on the Culture of Redress. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2013.

Lee, Jo-Anne and John Lutz, eds. Situating “Race” and Racisms in Space, Time, and Theory: Critical Essays for Activists and Scholars. Montreal and Kingston: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2005.

Murji, Karim. “Race” In Tony Bennett, Lawrence Grossberg and Meaghan Morris, ed. New Keywords: A Revised Vocabulary of Culture and Society. Oxford: Blackwell, 2005. 290-295.

Nixon, Rob. Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2011.

Razack, Sherene, Malinda Smith, and Sunera Thobani, eds. States of Race: Critical Race Feminism for the 21st Century. Toronto: Between the Lines, 2010.

Razack, Sherene H. Looking White People in the Eye: Gender, Race, and Culture in Courtrooms and Classrooms. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1998.

Rethmann, Petra. “After the Thrill: Global Capitalism and the Search for South African Autonomy.” Globalizations. 6.3 (September 2009): 365-378.

Sullivan, Shannon and Nancy Tuana, eds. Race and Epistemologies of Ignorance. Albany: State University of New York Press, 2007.

One Comment
  1. Andrea Machado de Almeida Mattos permalink

    Thanks, Diana. This looks great!

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