feels able to counsel others - most recently Armenians and Turks
- to work through their pasts “in a way that is honest, open and
constructive.” Otherwise, he cautions, unresolved history “can be
a heavy weight.” And
yet Obama decided to leave his own country’s past unresolved by
boycotting this week’s international conference in Geneva, convened
to review progress (or otherwise) since the World Conference Against
Racism held in Durban, South Africa in 2001.
This is a big step back from
engagement with the international community, which the Obama administration
had seemed to be promoting quite vigorously. And the U.S. move has encouraged other
Western nations to boycott, further weakening what should have been
an important forum.
All peoples of all colors have
practiced slavery, race, oppression, and/or discrimination with
varying ferocity. These are uncomfortable subjects at the best of
times, but that’s no reason not to talk about them. Otherwise, they
are indeed a heavy weight.
Besides, by boycotting the conference,
the United States
is unlikely to stop the international movement for justice for the
Palestinian people or end African American demands for reparations
for slavery - two of the main reasons why the administration is
said to have decided not to go.
Even though the U.S. administration is not participating in the
Durban Review Conference in Geneva,
Americans and others can still take a moment for some personal reflection.
Why does racism still lurk within
so many of them? Or, rather, within so many of us - few members
of the human race are immune. And what actions can people take when
governments don’t act?
A first step in dealing with
the racist within is to become more conscious of the use of language.
Among Arab Americans, for example,
it is common to hear the expression “She’s pretty, even though she’s
dark.” Or “Whiten our face,” meaning, “Do us proud.” When the implications
are pointed out to them, some resist the accusation; others do change
their speech and behavior.
At the same time, Black Americans
account for the largest ethnic group among Muslims in America, some 30% of the total.
The religion’s openness to embrace races and ethnicities is an aspect
of Islam that is not sufficiently acknowledged in the U.S. public sphere.
Black Americans, a shared experience of oppression does not necessarily
translate into race-free relations. There are tensions between diverse
ethnicities; different values are attached to skin shades and hair
types. As her husband’s race for the presidency grew more serious,
Michelle Obama’s hair grew straighter, part of a makeover grounded
in a belief that Americans still ascribe a lower value to “kinky”
The truth is, even as people
struggle valiantly against slavery, racism, and colonialism, the
features of the oppressor can insidiously come to be seen as superior.
Conscious effort is needed not just to promote emancipation and
end Jim Crow laws but also to change social mores.
For many peoples, the struggle
against colonialism has created a strong sense of solidarity. In
a recent example, powerful for its symbolism, South African dockworkers
in Durban, outraged by the attack on Gaza, refused
to offload goods on a ship from Israel.
Many Black Americans have also
supported the Palestinian struggle, some putting their careers at
risk to do so. Although Arab American organizations reach out to
Black, Latino and other communities, the Arab American community
itself does not yet express sufficient understanding of and support
for Black, Latino or other minority causes.
Prison would be a good place
to start working on shared solidarity. The United States has the world’s
largest prison population - over 2.3 million people are in jail.
Black Americans account for a disproportionate number of prisoners:
one of every 15 Black adults is in jail.
Palestinians could certainly
resonate to these data. Some 11,000 Palestinian prisoners are in
Israeli jails. It is said that nearly a quarter of the population
has been jailed by Israel
during its 42-year occupation.
As both communities know to
their cost, the larger the number of the people oppressed, the more
invisible they are. Many people know the name of Israel’s sole prisoner in Palestinian hands; hardly
anyone outside of their families can name one of the 11,000 Palestinian
And people find it far easier
to blame the victim than the perpetrators or the conditions that
create victim hood. Racist explanations abound as to why so many
Black Americans are in jail.
Discussions of race and oppression
are often divisive and disruptive, but the road to freedom and real
equality begins there. The Obama administration, which speaks so
often of seeking justice at home and abroad, has set us all back
with the roadblock it erected on the road to the Durban review conference.
The real heroes of Durban are the South African dockworkers.
Guest Commentator. Nadia Hijab, is a Senior Fellow at the Institute
for Palestine Studies. This commentary was syndicated and distributed by
Agence Global. The Institute has produced authoritative studies
on Palestinian affairs and the Arab-Israeli conflict since 1963.
Its flagship Journal of Palestine Studies is
published by the University
of California Press. Click here
to contact Nadia Hijab.