That Other Virus: Our Humanity in Crisis
There is a massive breakdown of trust around the world. The COVID-19 pandemic has exposed inequities as never before. Many parts of the world are rising up against a history of oppression, discrimination and violence against people of color. How can each one of us make a difference?
On 6 August, we hosted a panel webinar titled That Other Virus: Our Humanity in Crisis, facilitated by International trainer Rob Corcoran. Letlapa Mphahlele, Miranda Shaw and Rev. Sylvester “Tee” Turner took turns sharing their responses to racism, prejudice and discrimination, within us and around us globally. Here we’ve highlighted some of the key points from the conversation, as well as messages of inspiration.
How can we engage in truth-telling and address privilege, unconscious bias and the legacies of colonialism without blame or accusation?
Reverend Turner – I have learned, not only from my own personal experience, but I have also learned from the experience of others. One quote by John, a Richmond bridgebuilder, that I always paraphrase is: ‘You have to build a bridge strong enough to carry the truth to the other side. First of all, you have to get yourself out of the way to do this work. This work is never about you. This work is about you being a servant to others.
When you are a servant to others, you will be able to tame your emotions. When you have that covered, you will have to understand the history of what you are addressing. The history is always in the room. If you understand the history, you know how to unpack it. You will have to be able to tell the unvarnished truth. This means telling the history how it really was, not as how it was written.
With the protests going on, how do we go beyond the removal of statues and false narratives? What is the deeper work that has to be done?
Reverend Turner - The goal that we need to keep before us, is how do we address the social construct of these institutions that are in place to sustain the hierarchy that we are fighting against. I have never heard the word institutional racism being used as much as now. Which is important. But this issue is so deep and so wide, that if we do not address it in sections or in areas, we will miss this opportunity. We have to be focused in all of the areas, and not try to have a broad stroke in addressing them. They are alike in many ways, but they are also different in many ways.
Your country Miranda (the UK) has played a big role in exporting racism to the world, so how do you approach the question of truth telling, justice and healing?
Miranda - As for me, I start with looking at myself first, unpicking my own oppressive behaviors as a white person, and looking at how I interreact with the world around me. It is about how we have to unpack the narratives that we have been taught.
In the school curriculum in England we are not taught about colonialism, or if we do, it is in a positive light. So, I have been educating myself about what the real stories look like. I think it is important for me to rewrite the stories that I have been given, and that I have been shaped by, in a country that is very much home to colonialism. It is hard to create new stories that are not based on the old stories, if we do not relearn them.
Personal authenticity is key. How do we walk the talk? How do we tell stories? Data points are easy to forget - it is the stories that people remember and can relate to.
Reverend Turner – Too often we impose truths on others, but the reality is that change comes when people discover that truth themselves. What we need to do for that is to create a space in which we can confront the depth and the width of the issues we are confronted with, and address it in a way that we can heal. Because if I inflict a pain on you, I am hurting as well. You need to realize that we are all affected by the issue.
Where does white privilege or institutional racism actually affects people? What is the ‘aha moment’ for people to realize this?
Miranda – This is something that I live with through all levels of my experience. Something I realized quite late. I grew up with a black grandfather, so I assumed I could not be racist. Only when I was challenged by a friend who asked me ‘but what about all of the structural racism’? And I realized, yes that is right, I am part of that. That was my big ‘aha moment’ about a decade ago.
Reverend Turner – We worked with Peggy McIntosh, an American feminist, anti-racism activist, scholar, speaker, and Senior Research Scientist of the Wellesley Centers for Women. She always talked about this invisible backpack. Whites walk around with this invisible backpack. The sad truth is that white privilege is something that you operate in every day. Even if you are working towards making society a better place, you walk around with it. You use it unintentionally, but the reality is that you as a white person will always have privileges that I will not have. It is not that you intentionally use those, or unintentionally use those, it just is like that. When I talk about the depth and the width of racism, that becomes a part of your package. This is something we have to realize. You as a white person and me as a black person, even when we are on an equal playing ground, are viewed differently. That is white privilege. That is a part of the package that comes with you as a white person. Now the question is how conscious we become of it, without being awkward. The consciousness that we have of it when we make decisions, or when we all sit at a table together to work together. It is something that you are going to travel with throughout your life. That is not something that you have to be ashamed of, it is just the reality.
Unfortunately, Letlapa was no able to participate in the discussion because of connectivity issues, but we thank him, Reverend Turner and Miranda for their participation.
The Trustbuilding Program is aimed at addressing divisive issues at the international and national levels, on the premise that only those who have undergone the internal process of becoming trustworthy themselves can close gaps across the globe. The Program was launched by Initiatives of Change International in 2019 with projects in Kenya, Canada and France.