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On International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination, we must all remember it's our duty to fight discrimination

3 min read

On this UN-created International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination, we join forces to talk about some of the darkest byproducts of identity-based discrimination.

It’s become a tired phrase these days – although repeating it many times doesn’t make it less true – that it is not enough to be non-racist, we must be anti-racist. We can’t quite overstate how vital this is for mankind. The global events of the past twelve months and the sharp media focus on the subject of race have highlighted the deep systemic issues of racism and injustice.

The dangers of believing that race, or any other dimension of identity, makes some people worth less than others, are apparent and numerous. Not only is it simply wrong, it also damages relationships, careers and health and in some cases, and most heartbreakingly, is life-threatening.

We – and we really do mean everyone - must be always vigilant against these dangers. As the global pandemic is forcing many around the world to exist within the confines of economic and biological survival, we see tensions and divisions intensify. We’ve seen a rise in extreme untruths, scapegoating of minorities, intolerance and racism. All of these divide us rather than unite us.

When we talk about racism we must remember that identity-based hostility is extremely and universally dangerous. The brutal truth of it is that some of the darkest episodes of our history have their root in identity-based hostility. If we stopped to consider what happened in the Holocaust as well as the genocides that followed it (in Cambodia, Rwanda, Bosnia and Darfur in south Sudan), we would find a commonality: people were hated for who they were.

At the start of this article we said that we can’t quite overstate the importance of anti-racism for the very fabric of our humanity. Because when prejudice is left unchallenged, it gives oxygen to division and hostility. And in times of economic hardship and heightened tensions, these divisions can be left to be exploited with misinformation and propaganda. Our knowledge of the human capacity for evil tells us that things can escalate unspeakably quickly from there. The oxygen that fed previous genocides was in part made of identity-based hostility.

Gregory Stanton, President of Genocide Watch, developed what he called the ten stages of genocide. He used this framework to demonstrate that genocide is not a single act, but a gradual process that can be prevented at its earlier stages. The Holocaust and the genocides that followed can trace their roots back to what Stanton referred to in stage one as ‘classification’. The ‘othering’ of communities whereby a division is created between ‘us’ and ‘them’ – racism being one means of 'othering’.

It is impossible for us to imagine the suffering genocide victims and survivors have endured. But we can all play a part in preventing a genocide from developing. Staying informed, guarding against prejudice, dispelling hatred and moving from being passive non-racists to active anti-racists.

In the UK, we are fortunate to enjoy so many rights & freedoms and we are not at risk of genocide. Yet we know that there are individuals and communities who experience discrimination because of who they are. The barriers to equality that have been built for centuries will not be lifted overnight. It is on all of us to actively tackle racism, with universal interest and urgency.  

Olivia Marks-Woldman OBE is the Chief Executive of Holocaust Memorial Day Trust (HMDT). HMDT encourages remembrance in a world scarred by genocide, with a mission to learn from genocide – for a better future.

Tulip Siddiq MP is the Labour MP for Hampstead and Kilburn, and a Trustee of the Holocaust Memorial Day Trust.

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