Skip to content

What have we learned from Mandela? Delivery Version Diana Brydon



What have we learned from Mandela?  Hope, a willingness to listen and negotiate, a commitment to the dignity and full personhood of all, and a willingness to put the larger public good above personal interests. A reminder that democracy is an ongoing process. It needs to be exercised and defended.

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 we all need to take responsibility for them, for what we have inherited, and what we do now.

I began my career by looking to Australia for ways to understand Canada. Growing up in Hamilton, Ontario, I could see how class, religious, sexual, and racial oppression were linked and affected most dimensions of our everyday lives. 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 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 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 and global survival. National community needs to be reimagined beyond defensive and fearful reactions against others. Mandela began to show us how. Appeals to race, ethnicity, and culture often function as the excuse for exercising economic control. The British ruled their empire through a policy of divide and conquer.

I study the stories people tell about the 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 nine points now that may serve as openings for further discussion.

1.How we talk about race matters. I speak of people as racialized rather than belonging to a particular race. When we understand that racism is a system for managing populations and making sense of 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.

2.Race has a history. One form of racialized thinking depends on chromatism; categorization on the basis of skin colour. It can seem natural. 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: “speak white.”

3. Race thinking sees 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. One problem these terms share is seeing individual people in terms of homogeneous categories, as if all members of a group share certain tendencies. In this system, only white people 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 white privilege.

4. Constructions of blackness today have been heavily influenced by the struggles of black people in the Americas against legislated apartheid slavery systems that exploited their labour. 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 the Atlantic slave trade. Caricom recognizes the effects of that trade continue today.

But if we think the Atlantic slave trade is over, and that it’s something we can deplore from our position in a more enlightened present, then it is harder to see its continuing impact today. It is also harder to see the ways in which contemporary forms of slavery still exist. Slavery today still relies on the belief that some people are less human than others. They are disposable.  Insofar as globalization encourages the exploitation and trafficking of people, it also encourages new forms of slavery.  Yet these attract little attention,

5. The media encourage attention to spectacular violence. What about the “slow violence” of new forms of slavery, gradual human rights restrictions, grinding poverty, and environmental degradation?

6. Racism is produced by the decisions we make, as a community, at all levels of our coexistence. It is too easy to forget the legislated restrictions on the lives of the colonized under colonialism and to neglect forms of oppression today. Critical race philosophers call this form of forgetting, “epistemologies of ignorance.” The point here is that ignorance can be taught and rewarded.

7.Today, racial prejudice still exists but it has also migrated into discussion of culture or civilizational difference. It is not helpful to talk about a “clash of civilizations” or to respond to calls for “white men to save brown women from brown men” (Spivak).

8. Race thinking thrives 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. Australia’s island spaces where refugees are incarcerated indefinitely. Hostility to immigration is on the rise globally.

9. What can we do? Apartheid was a system of legislated racism. We need to ask: what forms of legislated racism are in place today, nationally and internationally? What forms of sanctioned ignorance support these? What might Canadian forms of ethical internationalism involve?

A related post from Visionary Conversations was my talk on Culture and Creativity which may be consulted on this blog

Want to learn more about Visionary Conversations topics? After the Conversation is a home for articles, studies and links to websites that allow you to further explore University of Manitoba panel discussions.

OUR EXPERTS: Dr. Diana Brydon, Dr. Joy Chadya, Ry Moran

Leave a Comment

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: