World Conference Against Racism: New Obligations to Remedy Racism

16 July 2002
July 16, 2002

Summary of a Presentation from NAWL’s 14th Biennial Conference

This presentation was a series of reflections on my participation in the World Conference Against Racism (WCAR) non-governmental organization process, and what I thought the valuable outcomes were. The title, “new obligations to remedy racism” should prompt one to wonder who is obligated, and what remedies to racism would look like. I suggested that, more significant than what governments do in the world conference process to remedy racism, is what social movements and activist communities did together in our efforts to rethink our communities.

As we saw through the WCAR process, the states will not offer remedies for racism. For this reason, public discussions on racism and intersecting oppressions are crucial. We need to continuously learn analytic strategies to understand how racism structures our communities, feminist and otherwise, and how we ourselves negotiate our own race and nation investments.

Race is a highly volatile topic because it is personal, it speaks to our emotional commitments, and it structures our relations of power and privilege. Race is one of the bases on which brutalities are enacted, and there is nowhere and no one immune from racism. The important work of advocating on behalf of aggrieved populations, while not necessarily exclusive, is also not necessarily the same as an analysis of the structures of racism and the lens of race through which we see each other.

It is also crucial that we be creatively imaginative in public discussions about race because, as Ann Stoler says, race as a discourse vacillates, it operates at different levels, it moves between different political projects, and it seizes upon different elements of earlier discourses, reworking them for new political ends. For instance, we do not live in the Euro-colonized world of 1890, but in a country that continues to colonize Indigenous peoples. We live the realities of colonial structures through the local and global distribution of rewards and deprivations, through economic globalization, migration patterns, the feminization of migration, and contemporary forms of slavery such as guest worker and live-in caregiver programs. We live in a world in which privilege within Canada translates into the dispossession of racialized women both in Canada and elsewhere–a pattern that is at least as old as European colonialism.

Law is more than a series of protections and prohibitions. Law embodies a subjectivity that speaks of a community; of whom we think we are, of who belongs and who is excluded. In speaking to and through law, our sense of community as activists and our sense of social movements have to expand beyond the narrow parameters of our race and nation investments if we are to shift the euro-centric/colonial subjectivity of international law as it stands.

And so, we need to ask: is this the kind of community to which I wish to belong? Is this the kind of community that we characterize as ethical? It occurred to me that the obligations do not solely rest with the states and governments. To remedy racism means to transform the structures in which we live. As Frantz Fanon says: “the proof of success will be to transform structures from top to bottom.”

The WCAR process was understandably controversial with such issues as reparations for the Atlantic Slave Trade and the Israeli occupation on the table. Precisely because of these controversies, the WCAR process is crucial to promoting possibilities of transforming the racial/colonial consciousness that pervades our sensibilities, and for rethinking the kinds of communities to which we wish to belong.

Liz Philipose is professor of Women’s Studies at California State University, Long Beach. Her research is in international human rights and humanitarian law and critical social movements.

about NAWL
The National Association of Women and the Law is a not-for-profit feminist organization that promotes the equality rights of women through legal education, research and law reform advocacy.
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