The headlines around the world say it all. US boycotts UN racism conference, says BBC World. US boycotts racism conference, says Al Jazeera from the Middle East. Australia, Netherlands join U.N. race meeting boycott, says Europes’ Reuters. Western boycott grows against UN racism conference, writes Canada’s Globe and Mail which reports that Canada was an early boycotter of this international conference. Significantly, Britain is sending a delegation if not any government officials.
The reasons? Unease with criticism of Israel seems a common theme among the boycotters as well as a strange reference to “defamation of religions.” There has been a lot of discussions, some countries dragging things year after year about about the wording of a working document, a step toward an international covenant for the elimination of racism. It comes from conferences beginning in Durban, South Africa, in 2001. That was where most of the world’s post-colonial, non-industrialized, non-European population – that part of the world that the West claims to want to listen to – began to walk out because they didn’t like hearing their own Indigenous populations given vent to centuries of racism by their national governments. The excuse then, as now, is criticism of Israel and the possibility of anti-semitism.
“Regrettably, we cannot be confident that the review conference will not again be used as a platform to air offensive views, including anti-Semitic views,” Stephen Smith, Australia’s foreign minister, said.
But listening to criticism from the rest of the world, including criticism from their own Indigenous populations, is precisely why they should attend the UN’s racism conference, to review Durban and other conferences. I fear the rest is a convenient excuse to continue willful ignorance and denial.
Years ago, I taught a course in diversity in journalism that, by necessity, touched on racism. Race wasn’t the focus of the course because diversity deals with issues of gender, sexual orientation, age, social status, poverty, ethnicity, physical or psychological condition, religious belief, and a lot more including race. In other words, this course on diversity in journalism tried to find out what topics journalists tended to avoid almost as much as where they failed, and where they might improve in their everyday jobs. The students wanted the course cancelled.
Every year, they wanted the course cancelled. I joked that they wanted to burn me in effigy, to erect barricades, to boycott my class. In fact, I was half-joking. Many of the course’s students signed petitions asking the university to kill the course if not the teacher. The reason for the petition, which the petition itself didn’t spell out, was racism, or reverse racism, or aversion to discuss racism, depending on which student you asked. The other topics (physical ability, religion, etc) were apparently non-issues.
Although I didn’t take the rejection personally, I was left confused for a long time after I left the university about what sparked this student revolt. None of the people who came in to help teach the course were flaming ideologues or given to flinging about accusations of racism. They were not all people of colour, female, or advocates of one group or another. They were, however, all then- or former-journalists who were concerned enough by Canadian journalism’s appalling lack of diversity, its blinkered view of Canada and Canadians, that they felt compelled to try to help improve things.
The course materials had been produced by other journalists who felt their own work had failed in certain respects, or who found blatant examples of exclusion that defied easy explanation. Other material identified trends in words, phrases or the misuse of words as well as offering possible alternatives for discussion. In other words, the course wasn’t designed to hit anybody over the head with racism, nor to point fingers. I thought it was actually a very tame course that didn’t go far enough, given examples of diversity courses at the many schools of journalism in the United States. Canada, by comparison, had no other course in diversity in journalism anywhere.
So what ticked them off? What got the students so averse to discussing issues of diversity, and in particular those issues surrounding race? First, how could I be so sure that it was about race, beyond what some students had told me?
A simple assignment: within a clearly and strictly defined area of the city, pick one of the various areas of diversity, research and focus story ideas, present them to the working group in that area of diversity, and begin work on a feature article about this issue for publication. At least, it seemed like a simple assignment.
All kinds of things went wrong. The defined area surrounded the school of journalism and even the furthest point was within easy walking distance. It contained many if not most of the diversity issues discussed in the course with a significant mix of religions, ethnicities, nationalities, rich and poor, vibrant cultural neighbourhoods – a microcosm of the city and the country. The students were not nearly as mixed. About 60 percent could be described as middle-class whites, with more females than males.
It shouldn’t have surprised me then – but it did – when about two-thirds of the class chose to head to the gay village. Of 300 or so students, only about 10 (about 3 percent) ventured into the significant immigrant and refugee communities of mostly Caribbean and African Blacks. Most of the remaining gravitated to gender, reilgious or social status stories but within fairly safe and familiar boundaries – essentially with people who looked pretty much like the students themselves or reflected similar backgrounds and values.
I was appalled. And confused. Why would so many students choose the gay village? Why would almost all of them avoid the other neighbourhoods and stories? Were the 60 percent or so students heading to the gay village because it was mostly white? Was it that simple? Did the majority of students find gays more familiar or less threatening and therefore more comfortable than Black, Middle Eastern, South Asian peoples and their neighbourhoods? That might be the easy answer. But would it be the right one?
It took a long time for me to figure out that the students weren’t rebelling against me, against the course, or against what it was trying to do. They were pulling back from what they might find or need to confront within themselves. This feeling was later strengthened, for me at least, when one of the other teachers who stayed after I had left the course said that some students confided their fears to him. They feared they would come to see their own families, their mother or father or uncle, perhaps their siblings, as bigots or racists if they took the course to its logical conclusion.
Of course, this wasn’t at all what the course had intended to do or was designed for. At best, and as simply as possible, the course was supposed to encourage people to begin a journey of exploration; to widen personal and professional horizons, to get people to step outside comfort zones and introduce themselves to other people in Canada and get to know them better. In the process, the course would make better-rounded students and hopefully get better journalists and journalism.
What does any of this have to with the boycott by Canada, the U.S., Australia, and the Netherlands (so far)? I’ve read their stated reasons but find them empty. Where officials of these nations say they are all standing on principle, I hear denials and fears similar to those of the students I once had. They’re avoiding self-examination of their own policies and actions.
Significantly the three main countries so far boycotting the UN’s International Conference on Racism (Canada, U.S., Australia) are also three of the four nations in the world that have also refused to sign the UN’s International Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. Aotearoa (or New Zealand) is the fourth and it will be interesting to see if it will boycott.