Monday 22nd March, 2004

Leela Ramdeen
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Challenging racism

There is only one race, the human race. Humanity exists as a single human family. Yet racism, hatred, intolerance, discrimination, feelings of superiority among and between certain ethnic groups continue to hinder human development. The fight against racism/racial discrimination in our world is urgent.

Yesterday we marked the International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination. As the Head of the Holy See delegation at the UN’s Organisation on Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and Related Intolerance said in 2002:

“No one can deny that today, the family of nations needs a concerted programme of action to address racism. We need to explore new ways to foster, for the future, the harmonious coexistence and interaction of individuals and peoples, in full respect of each other’s dignity, identify, history and tradition.”

Pope John Paul II (2001) rightly stated that we need a culture “in which we recognise, in every man and woman, a brother and a sister with whom we can together walk the path of solidarity and peace.”

The UN recognises racism as a persistent phenomenon that recurs in different forms as societies develop, economically and socially, scientifically and technologically and in international relations. Our leaders must do more to foster understanding and reconciliation among various ethnic groups in our country/world.

Although the impact of racism/racial discrimination in certain countries is much greater than in T&T, we also have our problems here that need to be addressed more vigorously. We should not sweep these under the carpet hoping that they will go away.

We should be alert and address racism/racial discrimination in our country explicitly and directly. Of course, this would require the development of a culture in which people listen to each other’s views without becoming defensive, are more empathetic, are prepared to work to build community and the common good and so on. For this to occur we need to work and pray for a conversion of hearts.

T&T is populated by individuals from many ethnic groups. None of our faith communities preaches racism/racial intolerance. And yet, as a dougla, I have found myself in discussions, particularly with people of Indian and African descent in T&T, where I have had to address discriminatory comments made by one side about the other.

Often when I challenge these statements I am told: “You’re OK, you’re one of us.” As though that statement grants me a way into the “club” and seeks to encourage me to desist from challenging racism/racial discrimination.

Racism/racial discrimination is an affront to human dignity and hinders mutual understanding between peoples. With all the complaints about patronage, favouritism, nepotism based on ethnicity, our Government must do more to build confidence among citizens that it operates on principles of fairness.

It is critical that such principles are developed and publicly subscribed to by everyone. Indeed, principles of fairness must form part of a national plan of action to combat racism/racial discrimination and other forms of discrimination at appropriate levels of society, eg in terms of gender, class, religion, age and so on.

Our Ministry of Education and educational institutions can do much to raise awareness among our youth about the dangers of this hydra-headed monster called “racism” and to build a culture of peace and harmony in our society. I commend the Minister of Education for her initiative entitled “Project Peace”, which was launched with the aim of reducing violence and indiscipline in schools.

The programme “Forty Days of Peace” should have commenced in all schools after Carnival. The Minister is advocating that this period should be one of reflection, introspection and inner search for peace within oneself—by reflecting on how we interact with others and treat each other; peace in our families, schools, workplaces, churches, mosques, mandirs and other places of worship; peace in our neighbourhood, communities and in our nation. There can be no peace without justice—including racial justice.

Recently I ran two Lenten retreats in the parish of Tabaquite/Gran Couva on the theme of “The Beatitudes.” To live as people of the Beatitudes we must all become “peacemakers;” we must all “hunger and thirst after justice”—for right relationships. Only then will we be “filled/satisfied.”

The Beatitudes are Jesus’ road map for Christians. In them He laid out how we should live our lives if we want to be happy and yet, at times, many of us fail to live within this framework.

I recall being invited by a principal to address 1,200 children at a large Catholic secondary school in East London. The school recognised that it needed to address racism/racial discrimination among its students who were mainly Caucasian/white and African-Caribbean. These students were constantly beating up Bangladeshi children in the neighbourhood. It had become the “fun thing” to do because they were seen as the “other”/“alien,” “different.”

Interestingly enough, in other settings within that geographical area those same African-Caribbean children and their families faced the brunt of racism on a daily basis.

As I looked around the school there were wonderful friezes that the children had displayed, demonstrating how they should live as Christians. One in particular stated: “Down from the Cross, out of the grave, and into the world.”

I asked them to share with me ways in which they were living their lives as followers of Christ in the world. How were they acting as instruments of Christ’s peace in the world? It is only through a planned intervention programme that we succeeded in turning that school around.

I urge schools, particularly principals, to be vigilant; to develop, implement, monitor and evaluate programmes that will seek to break down any barriers that may exist between children/families of different ethnic groups in our schools; and to promote racial justice and racial harmony among student, staff and the wider communities that they serve.

The teaching and learning process does not occur in a vacuum. Children learn what they live and they will certainly be exposed to racism in their homes and/or in the wider society. Let’s empower young people to recognise and fight racism within their communities and within themselves.

The media should play its part to increase the level of awareness among the public about the scourges of racism/racial discrimination and their consequences. A responsible media will pull the plug on some of the overtly racist radio programmes that currently exist in our country. Some of our politicians also need to desist from whipping up racial hatred in T&T and serve all our people.

There are good grounds for hope.

—Leela Ramdeen is Chair of the Catholic Commission for Social Justice





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