Difficult Conversations: Why International Practitioners Must Do More to Address Racism at Home
We’ve worked together for years on peacebuilding, conflict resolution, human rights, social responsibility, and sustainability. We’ve grappled with some of the most intractable questions – how to build durable peace, support the shaping of equitable societies, and strengthen rule of law in the face of weak or despotic governments. We’ve compared notes on effective engagement of communities in Latin America, Africa, and Southeast Asia. We’ve guided companies, governments and civil society in building inclusive institutions and protecting the wellbeing of communities around the world.
But today, we cannot talk about racism at home.
The United States of America is experiencing what might best be called a flare up of civil unrest in response to extrajudicial murders and unjust use of force by the police against Black people. We are witnessing – many for the first time – a moment of acute reaction to a problem that has existed for hundreds of years as latent tension punctuated by regular incidents of brutality and occasional protests. A large portion of our citizens – people of color, women, LGBTQIA+ – suffer injustice daily. And, as the disenfranchised take to the streets to call for change, some local and national leaders have responded with violent crackdowns and use of military force in an attempt to silence demonstrations. The U.S. is a nation in crisis.
But, it’s not just a U.S. issue or a Black person issue. This is a human rights issue.
It’s not just happening in the U.S. This is happening everywhere.
In our deeply interconnected world, violent conflicts have global impacts and cannot be overlooked by any sector of society. We must recognize that the issue extends far beyond the borders of the U.S. Imbalances in power and systemic inequitable treatment – particularly racism – is a deplorable reality in every country. It’s not just the Black man in the U.S. staring down the barrel of a police officer’s gun. People all over the world regularly feel the oppressive and inhumane effects of discrimination. Each day, injustices hurled at minorities create trauma, steal people’s voices, and impact the health and wellbeing of the entire community.
We know society is only as healthy as its most marginalized and vulnerable persons. If injustice is happening to our neighbors – our Black, Inuit, Aboriginal, Indigenous, First Nation, religious and ethnic minority, immigrant, refugee, female, and Trans brothers and sisters – then no one is safe from injustice. We readily talk about these injustices as they exist in other countries – the aged woman chewing betel nut on her porch as she recounts her experience of ethnic conflict and forced labor at the hands of the military, the indigenous leader surveying his ancestral lands lamenting his community’s forced eviction as the government made way for corporate investment, the human rights defender afraid to drive home at night for fear of being disappeared.
So why do those of us who have dedicated our careers to making sure marginalized groups are respected and treated with equality often feel a degree of powerlessness to address systemic injustice in your own backyard?
We can no longer afford to stay silent. We cannot pretend that the problems faced by our Black neighbors, while lamentable, are not our problem. Because the truth is, it is not Black peoples’ responsibility to fix the problem.
Imagine telling the old ethnic minority she needs to fix the military police, the indigenous leader it is her fault her community was evicted, or the human rights defender to take responsibility for the actions of armed militia. That’s absurd. Rather, we would go straight to the source of the problem and advocate for change or use public platforms to draw attention to these misdeeds. But, while discussion on race and institutional inequities is reaching a tipping point in the U.S., the topic remains conspicuously absent from our fora.
Racism, discrimination, and structural violence are allowed to persist because we avoid difficult conversations. When we are willing to work on injustice in far off places, but too uncomfortable to talk about its existence – and our role in it – at home, our silence signals willingness to accept living in a country where Black people are dying at the hands of the police on a daily basis.
I urge us to consider the privilege we have of not being confronted with these challenges every day. Although we might not all feel the impact of racism each day in our own lives, the problem of racism is ours. We must remember that if our neighbors’ rights are being trampled, our own rights are under threat.
We must start, individually and as a group, by asking what we can do to help address these issues and contribute to a sea change toward equality. Indeed, it may be easier to play a role in solving foreign problems, where it is clear we have not contributed to the genesis and perpetuation of the conflict; however, we are accountable for reflecting on the role we play in the conflict in our own community.
If nothing else, let this letter ignite a conversation among us. I do not purport to have all the answers; this must be driven by all. Can we commit to:
- Open up the conversation – Create safe space to have the open and uncomfortable discussions. Be the conversation starter, such that it does not perpetually fall on the shoulders of People of Color to call attention to the need. Be willing to challenge your colleagues to think critically and reflect on their role, and act as a constructive counterpart to support each other’s process.
- Check our own privilege – Examine our role within the system and how we can do more to support and localize efforts towards change. Think about how the language we use perpetuates inequity and further “others” the problem. Practice ‘Do No Harm’ at home and abroad and hold our colleagues and partner organizations to the same standards, such that the righteousness of our work does not lead us down a perilous path of self-righteousness.
- Speak up, speak out – Take a stance, as an industry of peace, social performance, human rights, and development practitioners, against racism and other injustices. While it might not be necessary for every organization to publish a Black Lives Matter statement, we must look at what our respective institutions are doing to be anti-racist, to actively identify, address and change racist language and behavior.
- Address diversity and inclusion where we work – Take the lead in balancing representation in the room, on the conference panel and in the office, such that our discussions cease to be led predominantly by White People, with People of Color or people from the Global South playing a tokenistic role.
- Start with what we already know – Leverage the experience and resources we have developed over the years for bringing equitable balance to communities around the world to address the injustices in our own community. It is not enough to wait for domestic grassroots organizations to be the ones to address it and guide us on what to do.
We have the power to affect change. It is not easy work, but to live up to the principles we espouse and to maintain credibility with our NGO, community, government, multilateral and corporate partners abroad, we must confront the challenge head on at home.
What more can we do to advocate for change within communities, institutions, and the political realm at home?
Dost Bardouille is a Senior Associate at CDA focused on sustainability and corporate affairs. She has written extensively and contributed to numerous articles on business, human rights, peace and conflict-sensitivity. You can follow Dost on LinkedIn or Instagram @dostbardouille.
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