March 13, 2014

Reconfiguring Racism: Conference Review #1

This is part one of a series of three posts reviewing Reconfiguring Anti-racism; Tolerance, Harmany, Inclusion or Justice an international conference hosted by the Centre for citizenship and globalisation at Deakin University, Melbourne December 2013  attended by Elena Meredith.

Associate Professor Yin Paradies, Chair of the organising committee, noted that “this multidisciplinary conference brings together scholars from disciplines as diverse as anthropology; applied theatre….social work; and sociology……[to] debate epistemologies, theories, policies, practices and aporias pertaining to anti-racism as a global phenomenon”  (Conference Programme,  p3).

The possibility of exploring this continuum in an Australian context, where I myself had never had or heard such a discussion in either personal or professional contexts, both intrigued and attracted me. As a member of Treaty People Network and as an educator for early childhood teachers, I was keen to extend and broaden my understanding of both current research and thinking on anti-racism, as well as meeting and “debating with” a broader range of peoples actively engaged in anti-racism work. So did we one-hundred or so ‘delegates’ find this event “insightful, thought-provoking and even inspiring” (Ibid)?

The Tandoori people of this land opened the conference in the “welcome to country”. We were told that visitors to this region needed to obtain permission to stay and use the resources. This was graphically presented to us in a ritual using vegetables as resources, broken spears as protection and fire and smoke for cleansing. Throughout the two days I returned to this opening in my mind, wondering if we visitors were indeed “cleansed” and were shifting the power dynamics around those precious resources. Dr Heather Came in her plenary address referred back to the recognition of  rights and access to resources for indigenous peoples and concluded by saying that she hoped next time she visited Melbourne she would “see fewer of them begging on the streets” (some intake of breath at this!!).

The plenary and concurrent sessions throughout the two days explored the anti-racism continuum from “tolerance to justice”. The chance to “debate” in the public fora was limited both by numbers and the strong focus on “academic discourse” which generally ensured that activist and alternative voices were not heard in these sessions.

So how was each of these configurations of anti-racism covered in the conference?

Tolerance

In his keynote speech, Dr Tim Soutphommasane(the Australian Race Discrimination Commissioner) described the “tolerance of hate speech as a psychic tax on those least able to pay”. Associate Professor Yin Paradies began Day Two with his keynote referring to Hage’s (1998[u1] ) view  that ”only the powerful can tolerate while the powerless are forced to endure.” In the course of discussing “whither anti-racism?” Paradies wondered if there could be “anti-racism through stealth”, where the tools of neo-liberalism could be co-opted and used against its advocates through appeals to human rights and economic efficiency! Something for us to ponder also in Aotearoa, where we feminists clearly understand the effective strategy of reclaiming language. He wondered if we needed any of the suggested terms at all and affirmed Habermas’s (2003) belief that [the] racist should not be tolerant, he should overcome his racism.

Harmony

Many of the specific research projects presented used language such as “intercultural civility”, “cultural diversity” and “multiculturalism”. A number of researchers described small-scale research projects which sought to increase harmony [side by side civility] by “building bridges” and “promoting intercultural contact between young people in a range of projects”. I personally found many of these ‘soft-edged’, with an apparent almost complete lack of engagement with indigenous peoples. It seemed to me that many still made dominant discourse assumptions about what “harmony” would look/sound/feel like and who would really benefit from this work.

harmony

To be fair, there was some very limited discussion on how to reconnect academic researchers with policy makers and workers, noting that academics need to engage with anti-racism in the real world. It was mooted that often now instead of “teeth-gritting tolerance, there is shoulder-shrugging indifference” which could be mistaken for “harmony” as it did not involve either avoiding or confronting others.

Other presenters (such as Yin Paradies and Fetihi Mansouri) suggested that in a contextual approach there is a place for relationships, a place for action and that conflict and challenge can indeed be positive, especially when seen as an expression of a “contemporary collective obligation to the colonial past”.

The next post in this series will examine the conference discourse around inclusion and justice. To read parts two or three of this series, click on the ‘Reviews’ category or the ‘Elena Meredith’ tag.

 

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