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April 2007


“We all wear tinted glasses”

- Edited by Alan

Doudou Diene. Photo by AlanDoudou Diène is UN Special Rapporteur on Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and Intolerance. He is also a member of the International Advisory Council, and it was in that role that he visited Auroville in February. Here is an edited version of a talk he gave at the Town Hall.



In my capacity as UN Special Rapporteur I visit many countries. I'd like to share with you some of the conclusions which I have shared with various governments.
Firstly, the level that xenophobia and racism has reached worldwide is very worrying. Violence against foreigners or against different ethnic groups is increasing. What makes this even more disturbing is that some political parties, particularly the far right parties, are using racism to gain votes. Such parties are now setting the political agenda in some countries, using issues like immigration, asylum seekers and the threat of terrorism to promote their aims. In the process even the programmes of mainstream democratic parties are influenced by their ideology.

Another disturbing dimension is the intellectualisation of racism. We are now witnessing scholars from key institutions writing books and articles which openly or subtly legitimise racism and xenophobia. Recently, for example, a book was published in the US by a Harvard professor in which he argues that the increasing demographic presence of the Latinos in his country is a threat to the American identity.

So what should be done to combat these tendencies? I worked for UNESCO for twenty years on intercultural issues and I learned that simply denouncing racism and discrimination is not enough. You have to understand and analyse the complexity of the situation out of which racism arises. For all manifestations of racism have a long history and are the result of social, cultural, political, religious and philosophical processes. Racism has very deep roots.

National identity

Not only is it deep, it is also universal. All communities, nations, wear cultural glasses; they all look at other communities through lenses tinted by prejudice. And if you look at the worst examples of racism; genocide – in Nazi Germany, Rwanda or Bosnia – you realize that at the heart of these extreme manifestations of hostility is the issue of national identity. National identities are always artificially constructed. The dominant class uses archaeology, culture, philosophy and a much distorted version of a country's history – all history books are filled with prejudice – to define their national identity. In the process, national minorities or foreign cultures are often marginalised or demonised.

For example, how come in India the Muslim and Hindu communities fight each other? How do you explain the marginalization of the dalits? All these attitudes are engrained in the long-term construction of the Indian national identity. I hope one day there will be an exhibition in India of how the Indian psyche and mind has been constructed, and how Indians' attitudes to their minorities have been formed.

There is also the economic motive. In recent history, discrimination against black-skinned people can be traced back to the North Atlantic slave trade. The Europeans needed a workforce to exploit the New World and suddenly realized that Africa could provide the labour. So the export of slaves was industrialized and systematized. But then the European leaders and thinkers had a crisis of conscience – how could they, as Christians, capture and sell other human beings? It was then that philosophers like Voltaire came to their aid by propounding the theory that the blacks are the natural slaves of others. And this was further legitimised in the so-called ‘Black Codes' which legally defined slaves as ‘goods'.

You cannot combat racism by simply saying it is bad, inhuman. You have to begin by deconstructing it, by tracing it back to its roots, for all forms of racism are constructions. This begins at the personal level. We all have tinted glasses, but we are unaware of it. We need to look at how our national identity has impregnated the most subtle layers of our sensitivity, thinking and perception, and how it tints even the way Aurovilians look at each other in a place like Auroville, which has the high ideal of human unity.

Identity tensions

For I have come to see that whenever two communities – or even individuals – meet, by the mere fact of their differences there is an ‘identity tension', and it's the way that this tension is handled that determines whether it translates into hostility and hatred or into attraction and love. This tension has to be worked on continually, and religion, philosophy, the media etc. play a key role in determining whether communities are marginalized or integrated. Unfortunately, the lesson of history is that, because of power issues, economic interests or religious ideology, diversity is generally instrumentalized into hostility and hatred rather than understanding and love.

But we must be clear what we mean by integration. The form of integration practised by many countries today is no more than ‘striptease' integration. Immigrants are expected to ‘undress' at the border, to undress themselves of any kind of specificity, whether it be religious, cultural or ethnic, and to put on the clothes of their new country. In other words, integration is not conceived as an interchange but as a forced giving-up of one's previous identity. Integration, practised in this way, is just another form of discrimination.

For diversity is a key concept in genuine integration. However, it's always a challenge for a nation to accept and promote the diversity of its different communities for it fears for its unity. In fact, this tension between unity and diversity has not been solved by any country in the world.

A permanent fight

The fight against racism and discrimination is a permanent work because racism is a mutant – it is always changing its forms – and it's like an iceberg in that its visible manifestation is only a small part of the whole. My work as Special Rapporteur is even more complex since 9/11, because there has been this amalgamation of race, culture and religion as certain communities are now considered a threat to national identity and security.

So what should be done? Positive discrimination, also known as ‘affirmative action', can be a useful tool when discrimination is profoundly rooted and institutionalised, and where the map of socioeconomic and political marginalisation coincides with ethnic maps. But while political and economic empowerment is important, it is only a first step. The next step is the complex process of weaving the different threads into one fabric, of promoting multiculturalism. There is an African proverb that says, “In the forest, while the branches of the trees are fighting each other, the roots are kissing”. The branches are the visible diversity of religions, ethnicity etc. but the invisible roots are the universal values of love and compassion. So the challenge is not to cut the branches, because in that way you kill the tree, but to revitalize the branches, to make them strong, while linking them ever more closely to the trunk, to common core values. Society is like a garden, and gardens are beautiful only when each flower glows with its own light.

Be more universal

Auroville has this wonderful dream of human unity, of unity in diversity. I admire you tremendously for the efforts you are making. When you ask what more you can do to achieve human unity I say you should continue to live the Dream that brought you here. At the same time, Auroville needs to be more universal, to reflect more the diversity of the world, if it is to realize its basic values. But working on diversity does not mean working on the entire cosmos. The first step is to work on the way you interact with and empower the local inhabitants. This is the ‘cleaning of one's bowl', the modest task that each of you can practise every day. It's not easy, but it's indispensable
As to the larger work, all of us have inherited things which are negative and positive. As Jean-Paul Sartre put it, ‘The important thing is not what history has made of us, but what we are making of what history made of us.'


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