A Garment You Cannot Take Off: On racism and how young people can teach us important ethical lessons

"It is as it is, Ma!" There is probably not a fragment of a sentence that shook me more than this. A few years ago, my then teenage son shared a revolting experience. A policeman had followed him all along on his way back home from school. At a road juncture, the policeman intercepted him and harshly asked him to lean against a fence, to put down his backpack, to lift his arms and spread his legs. After having subjected him to a full body search, he opened his bag, throwing at him: "Quite heavy this bag! What's in there?", only to look at him in a mixture of surprise, disappointment and embarrassment, mumbling a half-loud apology, when he saw my son's school books falling out of his bag.

Undoubtedly, racial profiling would be the appropriate term to utilise to describe this incident. This form of discriminatory decision-making of law enforcement agencies especially against adolescents and young men of African descent, subjected to identity checks, detailed searches and presumptions of criminal acts based on colour and ethnic origin, is well evidenced across a wide range of national contexts. In the United States of America, for example, racial disparities have led to an increase of arrest rates among black youth. Studies show that implicit racial and ethnic misperceptions (overestimation of black youth age, presumed criminal and violent tendencies, aggression potential, etc.) lead to increased rates of racial profiling incidents. These are not only to be seen as cases of professional misconduct and lack of integrity – this alone would constitute a wide terrain for social ethical investigation. They are also sources of societal disintegration and psycho-social burden for a generation of young people of African descent growing up with the pervasive experience of being a suspect and the omnipresent fear it is accompanied by.

Ta-Nehisi Coates describes this fatal nexus profoundly and poignantly in his seminal work Between the World and Me (2015: 17-18), addressing his son: "To be black in the Baltimore of my youth was to be naked before the elements of the world, before all the guns, fists, knives, crack, rape, and disease. The nakedness is not an error, nor pathology. The nakedness is the correct and intended result of policy, the predictable upshot of people forced for centuries to live under fear. The law did not protect us. And now, in your time, the law has become an excuse for stopping and frisking you, which is to say, for furthering the assault on your body. (…) However you call it, the result was our infirmity before the criminal forces of the world. It does not matter if the agent of those forces is white or black – what matters is our condition, what matters is the system that makes your body breakable."

Therefore, it is not so much about the appropriate terminological choices, but most importantly about understanding and dismantling the underlying systemic biases. Uncovering these systemic biases of racism is not a feather my generation can claim to put on our hats. We, the second Diaspora generation with black ancestry, have learned to adapt, to make our compromises and to find our paths through the systems. This is not to say that we have not made our own, literally skin-deep experiences with both elusive and open racism, but it is the grief for our children's pain that serves as a catalyst. These young people open our eyes for what counts: human dignity is not attached to skin colour. However, the paradoxical truth is, that it is only through narrating how the individual stories of young black bodies are reflected in the stories of the millions of black bodies who endured undignified treatment rooted in racist ideologies and motives, that we can render this experience into a tangible experience, also for others who do not share the same historical legacy. At the same time, it opens up to a humbling, reverse educational journey or a reverse chain of transmission: learning from youth to capture the moment, to channel the sensitivity for injustice into a vital and transformative force.

Young people sharing their stories of racism become our educators. They teach us important lessons on actualising what it means to be alive and responsible. A responsibility that is neither susceptible to ideology nor to any moralizing exhortation, but responsibility that gains its vital and transformative power through sensitivity for being in the world in one's own fullest bodily, spiritual and intellectual existence without falling into the trap of wanting to reduce the other to one's own self.

These young people also help us to understand that we are not only memorizing the past, but more critically so, envisioning the future. Remembering the destructive legacy of racism and the way it marks asymmetric relationships, in history and in present times, becomes thus an active verb for not forgetting the past and shaping the future. It calls all into the responsibility of remaining vigilant for the subtle intrusions of racism.

At the occasion of the upcoming International Youth Day on 12 August, invites its network and all people of good will to reflect afresh on ethics as a framework of thought and action that assist us to unveil the hidden and yet so destructive impact of racism, especially on youth.

these words are dropped into a world of elevated, resilient and courageous voices articulating, amidst the rampant ineffability, what needs to be said about the pain, the wounds, the rift, the separations.
              Amélé Adamavi-Aho Ekué, Poem "A Song of Resistance" (2020)

It is perhaps a propitious moment, as societies grapple to re-arrange life under the pandemic experience, to reach a new normative consensus on how to address the age-long pandemic of racism. Ethics fills the gap between the ‘world-as-it-is-Ma' and the world how it ought to be. It preserves the delicate balance between reality, hope and engagement. It consoles and encourages me to see the resilience of young people in the face of racism, for whom Ta-Nehisi Coates' words "…that this is your world, that this is your body, and you must find some way to live within the all of it." (ibid, 11-12) seem to resonate. It is this vibrant resilience young people exude that becomes a true teachable moment, and a moment of reconstruction, that revitalizes through confronting racism by the undeniable and irrevocable dignity of the humane in all its splendour – like a garment you cannot take off.   

This is how ethics ultimately challenges us. It leaves no space for indifference: you, I, and all of us have to position ourselves. We have to articulate – and more importantly live out – the values for which we stand. Here, there is no in-between: either we believe and stand up for dignity, equality and non-discrimination, or we fail as human family – the only race, if at all one wants to continue using the term, that will ever exist.

Amélé Ekué, Academic DeanAmélé Adamavi-Aho Ekué
Academic Dean 

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