Abena Ampofoa Asare © A Asare

Not backing down
Abena Ampofoa Asare dismantles the structures supporting racism, a fight we should not give up on
1 May 2024

Abena Ampofoa Asare is an Associate Professor of Modern African Affairs & History at Stony Brook University, New York. As an author of the book Truth Without Reconciliation: A Human Rights History of Ghana, and expert on African social and political progress, she is well versed in discussing her views on how global institutions, such as the UN, can help to counteract racism and racial discrimination.

How can you define institutional racism in an organization such as the UN?

Part of why I wrote The Silencing of Fred Dube for the Boston Review, was to show that the gag order on pro-Palestinian speech on US university campuses is not new. The article exposes a tradition, passed down generationally, of enforced silence about the Israeli state’s violence – and then asks us to consider the consequences. Before 7 October, before the creation of Hamas, there was Fred Dube, a South African anti-apartheid activist and New York professor who was viciously targeted for posing questions about whether racism was part of political Zionism. 

At the time, Dube’s questions were such a threat to the Zionist lobby that he faced harassment, house vandalism, death threats, and eventually termination of employment. Today, racism has been so co-opted by corporate and neoliberal interests that anti-racist action is misconstrued as a hiring plan to bring more people of color in to participate in colonial and corporate violence. The writer James Baldwin predicted and warned against this turn when he asked us to consider whether we really want to be integrated into a burning house?

The task now is to rescue the language of racism from its embrace by institutions that drain the concept of its analytical and political power! I have come to define racism as an ideology that justifies the death and suffering of portions of the human community. We misunderstand racism when we reduce it only to personal skin color prejudice, or other aesthetic or social preferences that pique the liberal sensibility. 

The United Nations, in practice and rhetoric, is very much in the business of demarcating how we value deaths across our human community. 

This uneven sorting is glaring in moments like the one we are living through, when the scale of preventable human suffering and death in Gaza, in Haiti, in Sudan and in Congo is staggering, and the UN, in the face of all of this, seems predictably feeble.

E. Tendayi Achiume and Gay McDougall have published a concise overview of why this is; of the ways the UN is distorted by the death-bias of racism; I encourage everyone to read it. As an organization birthed under the leadership of colonial and former enslaving powers, the UN is deeply entangled in the global racial hierarchy.

A brief look at the 2001 Durban conference and other attempts to pursue anti-racism under the UN flag make it plain: the organization’s structure does not depart from a modern political order where racism and colonialism grease the wheels of progress and development. 

How do you think the UN can eliminate racism and racial discrimination? 

We must not throw up our hands and give up! My 2018 book, Truth Without Reconciliation: a Human Rights History of Ghana, emerges from the radical testimonies that some Ghanaians submitted within a troubled and much-criticized national truth commission. 

These petitioners did not reduce their testimonies of suffering to what was prescribed by the truth commission form; they inhabited the form but used it to articulate strikingly bold visions of a transformed Ghana. I think this is what civil society and activists from around the world have always been doing with UN structures from the beginning.Despite the history of the organization, they nevertheless enter and inhabit the arena!

I have an essay in The Los Angeles Review of Books called Who Owns Human Rights? about the difficulty of breaking through the self-congratulation, casual Eurocentrism, and invested inertia that keep the UN bound to its roots in colonialism and racism. Returning again to Baldwin, I think about his description of US racism as a type of malignant innocence. We must guard against the wide-eyed gaze of those who “have destroyed and are destroying hundreds of thousands of lives and do not know it and do not want to know it.” This is the place to begin: refusing to be innocent about the UN’s history and legacy. 

After shucking off this narcotic innocence, the question facing the UN is one that so many organizations and institutions confront: how to uproot legacies of racial violence. And, by the way, do we even believe that uprooting is necessary and possible?

What projects are you currently working on to illuminate the issue of racism and racial discrimination?

Recently, I’ve been thinking a lot about sankofa, a wisdom-symbol from the Akan adinkra tradition, as a pathway, a subterranean tunnel of sorts into the dilemma of historical justice. Are we forever tied to the shackle, coffle, and their sequelae, or might we dream outside of and beyond the legacies of violence. I wrote about this as a question for history teachers recently in the Los Angeles Review of Books, but it is also relevant for institutions. 

All the projects I’m working on now, in some form, reflect this preoccupation: how might we relate to the blood-soaked past (and present) apart from the scripts of imperialism and post-colonial nationalism? We need new practices, I think, of writing and living our histories. 

* Prisca Chaoui is the Editor-in-chief of UN Today.
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