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Reflections of a poet: non-racialism versus racial inclusivism

Dumi Senda is studying BA (Hons) International Relations & Peace Studies at Leeds Beckett University as well as being an internationally acclaimed award winning poet, children’s author, and peace activist. He is also an Ambassador for the Zimbabwe Educational Trust. In this blog post Dumi reflects on how his poetry has promoted notions of non-racialism as a way of fighting racism. Dumi is a guest speaker at the forthcoming Annual Race Lecture at Leeds Beckett.

Racism seems like a straightforward issue to address; in a very ‘commonsensical’ way ‘getting rid of it’ would be the obvious thing to do. However, when one considers what ‘getting rid of it’ actually means, it becomes apparent that there is no one ready-made solution which can be a panacea for the age-old problem. Therefore, I do not claim to have a solution here, only a perspective informed by my experience as an activist who uses poetry as a tool to fight racism.

Put in other words, this piece represents a ‘mental battle’ or an individual attempt to grapple with concepts of non-racialism and racial inclusivism, which have emerged as key, distinct, and sometimes competing themes in my poetry.

Almost second-naturely, my poetry has tended to promote notions of non-racialism as a way of fighting racism. This is because my thinking, and therefore my poetry, is influenced by my culture, which is underpinned by ideas of Ubuntu or Hunhu. This is a philosophy or ‘way of being’ predominantly found in Southern Africa, including Zimbabwe where I was born and raised before moving to Britain in my late teens to pursue my studies. As a result of my upbringing, I internalised the understanding that human beings are inter-dependent beings whose humanness is mutually reinforcing and potentially mutually distracting.

Therefore the phrase, “I am because you are!” rings through my poetry like a burglar alarm during a storm.

In other equally significant ways, my poetry is influenced by the legacy of people such as Bob Marley and his “One love” mantra, Mandela and notions of ‘forward-looking reconciliation’ and Martin Luther King and his “I have a dream”. The ideas embodied by the ‘lived experiences’ of these social revolutionaries propound the idea of a ‘race neutral society’. Broadly speaking, such an idea is not without merit, given that racialized approaches to fighting racism unwittingly legitimise racialism; a social construction created by humans to divide and dominate other humans.

This construction of ‘racialized identities’ is achieved through differentiation of humans by their phenotype or skin colour, presuming that such differentiation is biological. This ‘biologization’ of race conceals and legitimates a sordid agenda of ‘heirachization of identities’, creating a Marslow of scientifically, historically, intellectually and morally ‘dishonest needs’ to ‘civilise’ the ‘genetically inferior beings’.

What is worse, this social ‘mal-engineering’ is not without purpose; slave trade, colonialism, genocides, inter and intra-state violence have resulted from and been justified by it. In addition, it also results to and justifies less blatant forms of human on human subjugation such as corporate imperialism, which need this ‘social ordering’ as a winter fire needs logs. Indeed, similar heirachization has been used to justify delusions that have churned and turned the belly of power hunger by individuals such as Hitler, Pinochet and Idi Amin to great destruction.

However, the issue is not so much that differentiation by skin colour is used as an instrument of heirachization, pre-emptying human atrocities, as it is that heirachization occurs at all. Put in other words, differences in shoe size or height could be used to achieve and justify heirachization and potentially lead to no less severe atrocities. This argument moves us further away from non-racialism, without completely abandoning it in as far as it rejects the biologization of race, and closer to racial inclusivism. In this regard, it leads us to understand racism not so much as a problem of the ‘differentiation of humans by skin colour’ but one of heirachization of humans following differentiation by skin colour.

Thus, in essence, it should not matter that human beings choose to use skin colour to differentiate groups of people; the problem is the valuing of one group over another. Similarly, identifying people by their different shoe sizes or height or any other physical attribute does not, in itself, lead to human atrocities. Problems emerge when the designating human attribute is ascribed higher value than others, leading to behaviour which justifies the perceived value deferential between different groups. For illustration purposes, using the above examples, this could lead to shoeism or heightism for instance.

The realisation of the limitations of non-racialism was a prick to my preverbal balloon; I began to doubt the veracity of my poetry, wondering whether by avoiding to ‘confront’ the ‘racialized and racializing world’ on its racialized terms, I was inadvertently excusing its injustices. The problem with the ‘race neutral society’ narrative is that it is denialist, utopian and apologetic; we cannot deny that some people have blonde hair while others have black or brown hair, in a similar way that we cannot deny that the world is economically and politically dominated by middle aged white men. Pretending that people all over the world are homogenous has the unintended consequence of glossing over inequalities suffered by people who are perceived to be of an inferior demography.

However, this is not to suggest that, for instance, we should accept that middle aged white men are more dominant than other groups because they are biologically superior. To do so would be to be duped into a false narrative that constructs and justifies the existence of an unequitable world. On the contrary, accepting the realness of the socially constructed world which attributes dominance to middle aged white men allows us to accept the realness of the problems such a world creates. It is this which can spur us to challenge the presumed inevitability of inequality, and to reject the assumptions used to mould and justify the heirachization of the racializing and racialized world.

Conversely, racial inclusivism acknowledges that race is a social construction, but it does not reject that it is a social reality, which by virtue of having been constructed exists and therefore should not be denied. In this regard, racial inclusivism can help us to understand racism as a problem of ‘racial exclusivism’ and not one of mere differentiation.

However, accepting the heirachization underpinning racism as an existential problem is only a first step; ultimately what will ‘get rid of it’ are concerted efforts through the ‘lived experiences’ of our and future generations of social revolutionaries of all colours, genders, heights, shoe sizes etc., who have the benefit of being able to learn from achievements as well as shortcomings of social revolutionaries of old. This places value in a ‘praxis approach’ to fighting social injustice, which is to say it matters little what theoretical category my poetry fits into; its true essence will remain in those undying principles and values of Ubuntu, “One love”, “Forward-looking reconciliation” and “I have a dream!” which inspire me as a poet and peace practitioner.

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Dumi Senda

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