As part of its digital outreach and engagement, United Nations Academic Impact (UNAI) hosts a series of dialogues with scholars, educators, researchers and students to discuss priorities for the future, obstacles to achieving them, and the role of global academic cooperation in addressing global challenges. On 18 March 2021 UNAI hosted the latest webinar in its Digital Dialogues Series entitled “Countering Racism through Education.”

Ahead of the  International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination  UNAI hosted a webinar entitled “Countering Racism through Education” to examine the crosscutting impacts of racism including social, economic, political and legal challenges, how the COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted and exacerbated racial disparities, and the role of institutions of higher education in advancing concrete measures to promote racial diversity and inclusion, with particular focus on education, student engagement and work at the community level to counter racism.

Dr. Ahmed Reid, Member of the United Nations Working Group of Experts on People of African Descent and Associate Professor at the Bronx Community College of the City University of New York (United States), warned that amidst the COVID-19 pandemic “New global risks and existing structural racism have further exacerbated the intersecting forms of oppression creating racial disparities.” The expert on slavery resistance and abolition said that institutions of higher education can and should build an anti-racism infrastructure, review traditional teaching methods, provide funds for research centers and prioritize the employment of people of African descent. Dr. Reid also explained that curricula must be “decolonized” for them to reflect the “diversity and reality of societies,” while decolonizing campuses as well.

Dr. Stephanie Shonekan, Co-Director of the Michael A. Middleton Center for Race, Citizenship and Justice at the University of Missouri (United States) and co-editor of the book ‘Black Resistance in the Americas’, highlighted systemic racism and the need for interdisciplinary approaches at the university level to counter it. She also emphasized the relevance of empathy and using day-to-day examples to teach about the real-life consequences of systemic racism. “Societal constructs are created, man-made by society, to establish hierarchies of power and the only way of fighting back against that is to get close to them through the arts, the humanities and the social sciences,” Dr. Shonekan added.

Prof. Vincent M. Southerland, Executive Director of the Center on Race, Inequality and the Law at New York University (United States), discussed the history of racism and race in the United States and how the concept of race in that country was constructed with various elements such as who is a criminal and who is not, who is a citizen or not, and more. Prof. Southerland highlighted racial disparities in a number of fields and outlined what universities can to address them. Universities and colleges “have the obligation to equip students, faculty, staff and colleagues with the tools they need to dismantle the racist practices and policies that have driven and reproduced racial inequalities” while also helping to “change the culture” by committing themselves to advancing anti-racism and producing racial justice.

Dr. Yasuko Takezawa, Professor at the Institute for Research in Humanities of Kyoto University (Japan) and author of the book ‘Racial Representations in Asia’, deconstructed the myth of Japan as a mono-racial society and outlined how the postcolonial legacy and an increase in immigration to the country have both led to discrimination against certain groups who are not deemed to fit the specific idea of who is Japanese. She said there is a shortage of data collected on the racial and ethnic makeup of the Japanese population and therefore it was difficult to understand when racial profiling and discrimination occurs as racism was so narrowly defined.

She suggested that universities can play a part in combating racism through an academic focus on prejudice and human rights. “There should be more education on what racial discrimination can mean,” Dr. Takezawa said.

Dr. Federico Navarrete, Professor at the National Autonomous University of Mexico (Mexico) and author of the book ‘Racist Mexico: A complaint’, noted that in some case educational systems played a role in perpetuating systemic racism while also discussing the need for education to be more inclusive for students from African and Indigenous backgrounds and economically disadvantaged students. 

Dr. Navarrete said that while it has been argued that there is no racism in Latin America, this is far from true. He also referred to the fact that prevalent social inequalities in the region are “deeply racialized” in light of the “pigmentation” of the society that comes from the strong correlation “between skin color and social status, wealth, education and position.” The notions around social classes are somehow “reinforced” by racial theories resulting in a wide array of exclusion for some groups.  

The final speaker, Dr. Rachel Sharples, is a Senior Researcher at the School of Social Sciences of Western Sydney University (Australia) and author of the book ‘Spaces of Solidarity’.  She discussed instances of racism in Australia and discrimination against Aboriginal people, which in her opinion, is rooted in the colonial roots of the country and the violent taking of land that came with it. These tensions are often “unacknowledged and unresolved” and Australia is torn between promoting multiculturalism and cultural diversity and groups that have emerged who are opposed to this diversity. 

Dr. Sharples argued for a multilateral approach in tackling racism with education at all levels, including the need for research among communities affected by racism and the use of innovative tools, such as audiovisual materials, to emphasize the positive impact of anti-racist behavior. Academic skills can provide contextualization to inequalities faced by societies and education can create “an evaluative component so work is both responsive and consultative.”

During the Q&A segment, participants raised questions about how to decolonize campuses, the need for accurate and disaggregated data, how training can help to shape the criminal justice system in order to avoid racial disparities,  and the need for universities share best practices to counter racial narratives, including using available information and communication technologies.

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