The race that matters: The UK Government's Race Report is a powerful tool for equality and dialogue
*A version of this blog has been published in Blasting News*
One of my favourite parables is that of the hummingbird (Yahgulanaas, 2008). In this story, which was inspired by the Quechan (an aboriginal American tribe), Dukdukdiya, a little hummingbird is watched by the burning forest’s animals flying back and forth, carrying one drop of water each time in an effort to put out the fire. When the animals ask Dukdukdiya what was the meaning of her efforts, warning her of the life-threatening dangers … the little hummingbird answered:
“I am doing what I can”
I have been working in the human rights field for almost 20 years. During this time, I have been inspired by a good handful of individuals who like Dukdukdiya did “what they can” to put out the fires that threaten our homes, communities and way of living. You will be surprised to hear, however, that what inspired me the most was not their intentions and good efforts to put out the fires, but their genuine sacrifice to put others first by stepping down from their high ivory towers of power and control, and by joining the communities they wanted to help. I’ve always believed that the process that leads to self-reflection and the overcoming of our own power abuse is the most difficult journey that we will ever take in our fight for equality.
Since the publishing of what many have called “the government’s race report” or more accurately the March 2021 Commission on Race and Ethnic Disparities: The Report, I have witnessed in silence an increasing dispute, and the spending of considerable resources and time between its advocates and adversaries. Race and other equality and human rights champions and NGOs would appear on TV, radio, print and online media to condemn the report and its authors in a genuine hope that they can counter-balance its messages and “hidden agendas”. As the controversy and conflict were increasing, the passing of the Duke of Edinburgh distracted the media, but like most TV breaks, I am expecting this emotional, thriller series to continue shortly.
I therefore take the opportunity to watch myself and develop a self-critique in the hope that I can expose the race that really matters. And this is neither the race to win the race debate, nor the race that divides communities. But the race that racialises us all.
Personally and professionally, I have no issues with the Commission’s report. I say this knowing the risks that are associated with such a broad statement. And we like broad statements because it means that we do not have to read the details behind them, including the data and the numerous research studies that informed the arguments from both sides condemning or defending the report. I have no issues with the report simply because it is a much-needed stepping stone in our path to equality and justice. It gives us an opportunity to debate but not with antagonism and through division. Restorative justice offers values based dialogue by asking us to share the power that we all have and through the principles of equality, fairness and dignity listen to each others' pain.
Complacency and defeatism are the two pillars of persistent inequality and disadvantage.
What I do have an issue with is the race to claim racial justice and racial equality battles as life achievements, and as lived experiences that must be acknowledged and respected in the name of others. These self-praising statements simply manifest the very reasons that lead to the divisive narrative of the “them and us”. Yes, they help us get a sense of reclaiming power even for a second. But to what end?
Power abuse is the fire that everyone feels, but no one sees. Our forest, our homes and communities are being burned by it, and yet we chose to talk about the colour, race, or background of the little Dukdukdiyas who are trying to put out the fire. This is by no coincidence.
I am aware that my way of approaching power relations and their interaction with race may create discomforts. It is with the outmost respect for the race equality movement that I take my thesis. In fact, I deeply believe that race equality work has been undermined by several powers that have often pushed it into isolation and silo working. I am also conscious that these discussions are more acceptable in certain cultures and settings, than others. However, discomfort does not trouble me. Don’t we need to be negatively affected in order to set things in motion for a better end?
The invisibility of power abuse is not the result of one person or institution. It is the long-term outcome of our own inability to raise the mirror of responsibility and see the true reflection of the persistent inequalities that we themselves manifest onto others including ourselves. It is also the result of conscious and elaborate efforts of those in power as they know that awakening leads to change. Race debates and the kind of arguments that I have witnessed over the last few weeks simply serve the powerful status quo, and reinforce the very reasons that lead to continuous power abuse and the burning of our forest.
But alas, the powers of control and fears of upsetting power relations and dynamics keep us blinded from what is clearer than a morning on a bright sunny day.
I believe that it is because of these powers of control that we fail to unite and indeed fight for each other’s differences, including race. Just like all other equality strands, race equality is manipulated by the same forces of power and control, and thus solutions must move beyond silo thinking, and towards consensus through power sharing and dialectic approaches.
Power and its abuse are not limited to one institution, or a few individuals. It is a fluid set of social relations impacting and involving everyone, including you and I. We are all prone to combat, domination, and antagonism. But we are all impelled to associate with each other and to constitute ourselves into a series of (often rival) groups. These groups are what we now call “societies” with their historical, cultural, social, financial, and ethical complexities. We must learn to co-exist and become accustomed to living with our fellow citizens in a civitas. Power is neither just about politics, culture, civil society, knowledge nor money. It is an everyday, socialised and embodied phenomenon, which is personal to you. It is exercised consciously, or subconsciously.
And thus, I must you. If power is everywhere, then who is subject to the consequences of power abuse, and what have you done to rebalance the distortions of power that lead to inequality and poverty? Understanding and using power are not so much about social change, but personal change from within. Hence the personal tone of my writing. We can all strive for a more balanced power in society, where the poor have more saying, and the powerful are more understanding and giving. But if we work towards these goals without a clear understanding of how power manifests itself within us and through our actions (or inactions), then our efforts will remain mere procedural actions of short-term impact. There is only one way we can save the burning forest, and this is neither by being bystanders nor by stroking our ego. We must transform into hummingbirds of hope, courage and responsibility.
But this article is not about feeding to our existing despair. It is about hope and empowerment. Armed with a belief in our potential for change, humility and humanity, with this note I ask that we all enter into a journey of self-questioning.
As we awaken and watch ourselves, we will notice that something is not right. The scales of Goddesses Themis have been tipped, and yet we accept reality without questioning. We are blinded by forces of power that want to survive and grow. But change is possible. The process of getting there involves the questioning in which we are now partaking. In this journey, the individual, you, matters.
Martin Luther King Jr. said something similar:
“If I cannot do great things, I can do small things in a great way”
 I have written extensively on this matter including my latest monograph Gavrielides, T. (2021). Power, Race & Restoration: The dialogue we Never Had. Abingdon: Routledge