by Divya Badri
We are living in exceptional times. In the midst of the Coronavirus pandemic, there are reports of racism against the Chinese.
Elimination of Racial Discrimination: The Fight
The fight against racism is the focus of this blog. I am inspired by an event called the “International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination” , 21st of March. Why do we need to fight racism, a belief of one being superior to another? It is a complex and hazy picture.
Racist slurs like “nigger”, “chinky”, “curry”, etc. were being used in the 20th century. I wonder, are students of color in white-majority schools still being excluded from extracurricular opportunities, while using public infrastructure like the library, gym, etc.?
Some would imagine that the answer is probably a no, thanks to anti-discrimination laws that have been set in place by most governments.
Have acts of hate, that were openly expressed, become acts of exclusion? We now have – what’s called microaggressions , that do feel very much like racism by those who feel aggressed. Today, people do not like to be accused of being a racist. As the Nigerian author, Dr. Chimimanda Adichie, reminded all of us, when she was at University of Fribourg for receiving her honorary doctorate, in today’s world, racism exists in the world, but there are no racists. Racism has become covert. Today, China and Chinese people are being named and blamed for one of the most frightening crises the globe faces. Apart from the many issues with it, the coronavirus pandemic has a racism problem. So, how do we combat social evils that express hate whether openly or covertly?
Racism: How did it begin?
In order to get to the root of this problem, we would need to go back to the past. Racist theories came out of eugenics, which received a lot of funding by colonizer nations in the late 18th and 19th centuries.
There was scientific racism by scientists and theorists like Louis Agassiz. White Man’s Burden was a poem written by Rudyard Kipling about imperialism in colonies. The title of the poem became a euphemism* for imperialism.
Today, for those of us who know that these theories on eugenics have been disproved, it is easy to question the colonization and civilizing missions’ activities of the past. However, not all of us are aware of these things. With this blog, I hope to increase awareness. I will focus on the awareness-building activities in Switzerland.
Switzerland and Racism
The week against racism in Switzerland coincides with International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination, which is the 21st of March. Several cantonal governments and the Office of Integration join hands with NGOs and offer activities that increase awareness.
Social evils do not disappear by themselves. If I ask myself what can I do as an individual to fight social evils, at first, it seems impossible. However, the fight against racism is a fight that needs to be fought not just at the institutional level but also at the individual and community levels.
Here are some ways I found out that an individual and the community can engage in Switzerland:
- There is work being done to include colonial history from the perspective of the colonies to update school texts and pedagogical materials . Spread the word!
- During the week against racism (semaine contre le racisme in French / Aktionswoche gegen rassismus in German/ settimana contro il razzismo in Italian), various State actors and NGOs organize workshops, walks and talks. Find out about these activities by following them on social media or calling their offices. **
- The topics of these activities range from colonial history to prejudice & implicit bias to even music, dance & culture! While most activities take place in Swiss national languages, organizers and other participants volunteer to translate for you. Participate in these activities that help discuss a difficult subject openly!
Once you are aware of the activities, what’s next ? Awareness about colonization and racism helps us understand how some of the global inequities of today came to be. This kind of awareness can help us all work together towards a more sustainable world. A world with reduced inequalities. Let’s focus next on what happened to me when I attended these activities myself. Basically, I realized that awareness leads to learning. And what learning it turned out to be! I was in for quite a few surprises.
Awareness about colonization and racism helps us understand how some of the global inequities of today came to be.
The Fight Against Racism – A Glance Through the Past
We read earlier about some of the awareness-building activities that happen in Switzerland during the week against racism and racial discrimination. Many of these activities focus on historical events. This is because history can give us many insights into our present-day financial, economic and social situations. They can help us understand how certain acts in history led to the propagation of racist theories.
While White Man’s Burden, was the poem that justified imperialism, there were other events in international trade that contributed to present-day racism. For example, Switzerland has never been a colonizer nation, but it has benefitted from second-order colonization. I understood this when I went on a walk called “On the Traces of Colonialism” to witness Swiss history. I went on a walk organized by the Integration Office of the Canton of Fribourg.
How the Swiss were involved in the triangular trade between Switzerland, Angola and Brazil and its connection to the textile trade with India, was eye-opening! It fascinated me to learn that what I knew to be block-printed cotton Kalamkari in India, used to be called “Indienne” (French) or “Chintzes” (English) in Western Europe. At one time, the new material got so popular in France, that the king banned it as a protectionist measure for the local manufacturers of French textiles. This ban led printed cotton manufacturers, who historically had brought the trade secrets from India to Europe, to flee to Switzerland and continue production.
Eventually, “Swiss Cotton’s” popularity grew with big names in the business like Du Pasquier, Deluze, Chaillet, and Bosset.
According to historian Bernard Jacqué, in mid 18th century, this cotton was then carried by Basel trading house Burckhardt to Angola and Congo on the ship Le Necker. Swiss cotton was used to trade slaves from the African continent for the new European colonies in South America. A social evil like slavery was an important contributor to a very profitable business model for some Swiss. International trade since the 18th & 19th centuries formed a basis for its current economic strength in the 21st century. However, this meant that on the other side, African countries were facing slavery. Countries like India, on the other hand, had their textile industry witness international competition from Europe.
Watch: How do we raise awareness about racism?
Racism: Can We Do Something?
Armed with this knowledge, I thought to myself, can individuals join the fight against racism? The good news is yes, it is possible. Here are some ways you can act against racism :
1. #KnowYourHistory . For example, the Swiss National Museum has an exhibition on the theme “Indienne”. This is a French term known as Chitnze in English and familiar as Kalamkari to Indians. Visit the museum!
2. #FindOutMore by approach your local integration office or other NGOs fighting against racism. They regularly organize activities. Participate in these activities that help discuss a difficult subject openly!
3. #LearntoListen to minority voices, to refugees, to people of colour, to those who do not belong to the majority. When they share their experiences, refrain from jumping in and minimizing or turning away from their feelings.
This is just one small part of a complex issue. Coming back to the title of this blog, perhaps we do not want a vaccination against racism. We do not wish to become immune to a social evil. I think we need a cure, not a vaccination. We want to deconstruct the social constructions. Also, there is so much more to know about our global past. However, how does this knowledge of history help us understand present-day situations pertaining to racism? A lot of information is new and could take you by surprise. It does take a while to be able to connect the dots. Nevertheless, it definitely can begin your journey of deconstructing the society you see around you.
The Fight Continues…
Swiss Learning Exchange allows for you to learn in many different ways. Use their blended learning approach to learn about societal constructions. Swiss Learning Exchange has a tagline that says Accelerate Learning and Drive Innovation. They allow you to blend different ways of learning : online, real time and through community-led engagement via Skill-up, Mastering India and SDG Plus.
You could learn by watching their many videos on YouTube or Instagram. They have long-form videos which share insights as well as short, fact-based videos. For those who like reading, read their blogs on their website or on Linked In. Follow Swiss Learning Exchange and ask yourselves the right questions about your role as an individual in the community and society you live in.
*Euphemism: An indirect word or expression substituted for one considered to be too harsh or blunt when referring to something unpleasant or embarrassing. In this context, the word imperialism is a negative act, which is why the expression “white man’s burden” was used.
** During the coronavirus pandemic, social distancing measures are being respected in Switzerland, which may lead to events above 5 people getting cancelled. You could instead follow online courses on history.