Education is key to deconstruct racial narratives

23 March 2018

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© UNESCO / Olivier Marie

The role of education at all social levels and in particular of young generations, remains one of the best ways to stop the proliferation of racist and discriminatory discourses and to foster intercultural exchanges. This is the message of experts who gathered on 21 March at UNESCO in Paris for a Round table on Deconstructing racial narratives: challenging assumptions and fostering diversity, organized in the context of the International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination.

The event started with a presentation by Evelyne Heyer, Professor of the National Museum of Natural History of France, who explained the scientific evidence against the notion of race, which has resulted in practices ranging from discrimination to extermination of “the other” throughout history.

“Races do not exist in the sense we thought in the 19th century, but even if the word ‘race’ is removed, racism will continue to exist. The term ‘race’ has a history, so we need to use this concept, if only to deconstruct it,” said Heyer.

According to the professor, the DNA of all human beings is 99.9% identical, and we all are of African origin, dating back 100,000 years. With only 0.1% of differences in the genomes of people from across the world, the notion of race is not justifiable, she says.

“Racism is not just about skin color, but about discrimination against individuals who are physically, culturally or morally different,” Heyer explained, adding that our genetic diversity is the result of adaptations to environments and our geographical origins.  
Three key components are at the basis of the definition of racism: categorization, hierarchization and essentialization. Categorization is a mental operation that simplifies the world. People classify individuals based on their appearance, their religion, their geographical origin, etc. Hierarchization involves a value judgment based on regarding one group or category of individuals as being superior or inferior to another. Essentialization is a process by which individuals are reduced to moral characteristics, intellectual faculties or psychological traits alleged to be an immutable and inherited feature of that particular group.

Victoria Tauli-Corpuz, UN Special Rapporteur on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, described racism from the perspective of indigenous communities and movements.

“Indigenous peoples have experienced racism and discrimination since colonization. Racism was used deliberately to make them feel inferior and to take the resources from their lands. The strategy was to make them forget who they are,” she said. “The good news is that indigenous peoples are waking up, asserting their identities, and using the legal framework to protect their lands and fight against discrimination.”

For Rita Izsák-Ndiaye, expert member of the Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination, the fight against racial discrimination starts at home, in our own families: “I am a white Roman Christian and my husband is a Black Muslim. When I look at my family, I see that, because of love and being bound by the same values, we can deal with intercultural and interreligious tensions.”

Noting the spread of hateful messages and the reinforcement of stereotypes through social media, Izsák-Ndiaye says it is necessary to stimulate constructive debates. “We cannot remain quiet in the face of hatred. We need a critical mass of anti-racist people active on social media fighting against the wrong discourses,” she commented. “Everyone owns society. Education, arts, music, literature and science need to include everyone.”

At the end of the panel, the discussants agreed that the only way to fight racism is through education and action. “At the early stages of education, children need to be taught that they should look at others as equal to them. Promoting intercultural exchanges is crucial for the education system to build more harmonious societies,” said Tauli-Corpuz.

The event was followed by the inauguration of the abridged version of the travelling exhibition “Us and Them – From Prejudice to Racism” with welcoming remarks from André Delpuech, Director of the Musée de l’Homme. It offers a journey that deciphers the reasons for racist and discriminatory behavior during certain moments of history and sheds light on racist behavior and prejudices. Conceived by the National Museum of Natural History of France, and shown at the Musée de l’Homme from March 2017 to January 2018 under the patronage of UNESCO, the exhibition will travel to different member cities of UNESCO’s International Coalition of Inclusive and Sustainable Cities – ICCAR.