This episode’s guest is Liz Fekete, author and director of the Institute of Race Relations. In this episode, we are in conversation with Liz on the history of the Institute of Race Relations and how they have changed within the 50 years they’ve been around. Liz also discusses the interventionist work of the Institutes first director, Sivanandan and how that impacted the work of the Institute.
Episode Transcription available here
Host: Ry O. Siggelkow
Producer: Adam Pfuhl
Podcast Engineer: Michael Moua
Music: Kavyesh Kaviraj
Episode Recorded on October 24th, 2022
In Conversation with Liz Fekete
Ry Siggelkow [00:00:00] Hi everybody. I'm Ry Siggelkow and I am the director of the Leadership Center for Social Justice at United Theological Seminary of the Twin Cities. Today, I am thrilled to be in conversation with Liz Fekete. Liz is the director of the UK based Institute of Race Relations, which just celebrated its 50th anniversary. Congratulations.
Liz Fekete [00:00:25] Thank you.
Ry Siggelkow [00:00:27] Liz is the author of A Suitable Enemy: Racism, Migration and Islamophobia in Europe, published in 2009 with Pluto Press and Europe's Faultlines: Racism and the Rise of the Right published in 2018 with Verso, which won the Bread and Roses Award for Radical Publishing in 2019. Liz, thanks so much for joining me on the podcast today.
Liz Fekete [00:00:54] It's an absolute pleasure.
Ry Siggelkow [00:00:58] Liz I thought we could begin our conversation today by talking a bit about the work of the Institute of Race Relations, which I suspect will be mostly unfamiliar to many of our listeners. You're celebrating your 50th year, and I know you've just released something like a full length video documentary of the institute, which folks can find online. But I'm wondering how you, as the director of the institute, would describe the work that you do there and perhaps where you see the institute going in the years and decades to come?
Liz Fekete [00:01:32] Well, that's a big question, right. And it's three questions rolled into one. In the sense that I'm happy to describe the work of the Institute. But in order for that to make sense, I have to roll back a bit through time and also to explain the nature of our 50th anniversary, because we had a big conference a weekend or so ago called New Circuits of Anti-Racism, and that was celebrating 50 years of the transformation of the institute in 1972 from a rather dry and objective race relations study of race relations in the UK and abroad organization to a more old organization with a more radical and transformative approach.
So just to briefly give you a kind of snapshot of the work we do, we're an anti-racist educational center, a charity. We produce the journal Race and Class, which is the more sort of scholarly wing of the institute. It's a journal on racism, empire and globalization. We have a black history collection with the Home to the Black History Collection, which is actually an archive of the black and brown community struggles against racism since the 1950s. We do research into pressing issues of racism both in the UK and in Europe. So we kind of work from a maxim of doing research that speaks from the vantage point of the most vulnerable people in society. So that's the short answer.
And now I'm going to give you the long answer. Everything we do comes out of our history. I mentioned that there was a transformation within the Institute in 1972. The old institute was set up in 1958, and we used to say it was set up by the Lords, the ladies of humankind, mostly the Lords, to be frank. They were representatives of multinational companies. They were people who were in the Houses of Parliament and the Houses of Lords. They were people from media conglomerates. And their view of race relations in 1958 was first, it was a problem in the newly emerging countries of the decolonized world.
So multinationals were worried about where to place their investments because, in their words, there were problems of race conflicts. They were also concerned about the influence of the communist bloc on countries decolonizing. So that was kind of where they were starting from. And in the UK, of course, it was a time of migration of people from Africa, the Indian subcontinent, the Caribbean, who were British citizens; that came as British citizens. That's the difference, I think, between the UK and some parts of Europe, obviously the United States. But because of the colonial relationship with Africa, Caribbean, India, the people who came to do jobs that nobody wanted to do anymore were Commonwealth citizens.
So the attitude of the old race relations wasn't that there was a problem of structured racism in this society, but there was a problem of attitudes and there was give and take on both sides. So the host community had to be more tolerant. The immigrant community had to learn how to integrate. And I think some of that thinking, that old fashioned thinking you see coming back today in contact theory, the ideas of people like Robert Putnam.
So as I mentioned before, to cut a long story short. In 1972, the staff took on the management. They took on the Lords of Humankind because they were very influenced by social movements, by Black power in America, the anti-racist, anti-imperialist struggle in the UK, feminism, all sorts of social movements emerging at that time. And they were just saying the reality that they were seeing, that they were recording in the press of police harassment, racial violence on the street, segregation in schools. This was not reflected in the Institute of Race Relations. So the struggle came to a head over the question of research, and the staff managed to take over the Institute at a meeting. At that point, all the money went and the staff had to make lots of redundancies, and were left with very few members of staff.
From that point onwards the philosophy of the Institute was, we think in order to do. Which raises a wider question of what sort of thinking and what sort of doing. So the thinking was around seeing racism as a structural problem, understanding that it wasn't something, of course there is a subjective element to racism. There's an internalization of racism, there are issues to do with interpersonal relations. But the whole ethos of the institute was to see the material reality of racism and very much to change people through changing society. So from this struggle passed down the principles of the Institute, but we continue to work around who we are writing for is who we are fighting for. Speak not from, but to, by which may mean that we're not trying to get a seat at the table of the policymakers. We're trying to bring our research in a way that amplifies the voices of those who experience racism. So Sivanandan who was the new director of the new institute used to say at that time that we're more like a servicing station assisting people on the way to liberation, putting gas in their tank, so to speak.
So very quickly, to get the final part of your question, what are we doing now? I actually took over from Sivinandan. And then as the director, we had a transition period where we worked together for a long time. Sadly, Siva passed away a few years ago. But I'm now getting to be an elder. I'm 62 at the moment, so I think it's up to the younger generation at the Institute. We have a fantastic younger generation of staff and volunteers. It's up to them now to do the heavy lifting and my word, they are doing the heavy lifting. They are responding to the issues, the pressing issues that are facing black and brown communities. Gypsy in Rome, traveler communities, Muslim communities on the ground. A lot of that at the moment in the U.K. is around police harassment and deaths in police custody. Extreme epidemic of racism amongst the police.
We're also working on issues of gentrification and how that is impacting all communities. But we've also got a very important project that probably will touch upon a few times in this interview, in this interview around reproductive racism. And that's been carried out by my colleague Sophia Siddiqui. And what she is looking at, the way that the attack on women's rights, queer rights, trans people's rights, migrants and asylum seekers overlap and interlink and form an essential part of popular right racism. And what she means by this is we're looking at how in Europe, across Europe, white women are incentivized to give birth, while migrant women are vilified as a threat to the purity of the nation. At the same time is having to do the care work that reproduces the nuclear family, etc.. So this is part of a wider project around anti-racist feminism, which I think is incredibly important in terms of bringing people together.
Ry Siggelkow [00:10:38] That's very exciting. It's great to hear of some of the new directions that you're headed in and the younger scholars and the younger organizers involved in the institute and taking it in new directions. You spoke of the impact of Sivanandan and what the impact he had in moving the Institute in this new direction in 1972. Siva is not someone who is widely known in the US context, even in academic circles, in my experience. But his work and legacy have been extremely important I know in the UK not only or even especially in the Academy, but in grassroots organizing and struggles against racism and fascism. I wonder if you could share a bit, Liz, about Siva and what anti-racist struggles today in the UK and beyond could learn from him.
Liz Fekete [00:11:30] Siva was a big man. So that's going to be a big question with a very long answer. Siva was a person who made history. I would say he was an agent of social change. One of his books, he wrote many books. He was actually a former- he was from Sri Lanka, so he was a former colonial subject himself. And he came to the UK after race riots in Sri Lanka, started off as a librarian in the old institute and obviously central to that transformation that I mentioned. So that was one bit of his history making. He went on to write several books, including a novel called When Memory Dies, which is a historical novel about Sri Lanka. And one of his books was called Catching History on the Wing, which for me exemplifies what I'm trying to say to him.
You say he's not so well-known in academic circles. I think that's changing. You know, people have a life and then they have an afterlife. And I think there is a lot of excavating that's being done. And Siva is becoming much better known in academic circles. But in his life he never wanted to write academic papers. You know, it wasn't important to him to be known in academic circles. He always used to say that I'm a pamphleteer. Everything that he wrote was an intervention at a particular point of time. So he intervened in the seventies in essays like Race, Class and the State to show people how immigration controls were an aspect of state racism. They discriminated on the basis of nationality. And once you have laws on the statute that discriminate, you can talk about state racism. He intervened to write a history of Black and Asian struggles against racism that came out in a little pamphlet after the 1981 uprisings in the United Kingdom, which were massive, massive events. So he used to say that that was what was important to him, to be a pamphleteer, to be an interrupter. And each intervention was seminal.
He was a mesmerizing speaker. I mean, there's very few people that I've known who could be such an inspirational speaker. So a lot of his interventions then came out in the various books that I mentioned. Now, Ry, you said that he's not so well known in the US, which is true now. But I think that is beginning to change as well. Our Gender, Race and Class, it's an English language journal is actually very well received in the United States, and there was always a relationship between the U.K. and the United States. One thing on a policy level in the UK, what happens in the United States in terms of race policy or in terms of responses, urban policy in particular tends to come to the UK five years later, then it travels on to other European countries. So you've got that aspect to that. But there were all these relationships which were there between key people in the United States and us in the UK. And can imagine for me it was so thrilling.
I joined the Institute as a young woman when I was about 22, 23. I was not highly educated. I did a first degree, but I haven't got a Ph.D. in any of those things. It was thrilling for me to be part of the institute when I always used to think it was like a railway station, there will be fantastically interesting people passing through. So Cedric Robinson, author of Black Marxism. Manning Marable, editor of Souls. Jan Carew, incredibly important artist and writer, an activist historian of the Caribbean. Barbara Ransby, the author, historian of Movement for Black Lives. All these people were passing through the institute. So I think that relationship with the United States is being escalated. And I know there's a biography of Cedric by Joshua Meyers, which again, has escalated a lot of Siva's relationship with the United States.
In the UK, his legacy was to give us a material analysis, analysis of racism. Famously, he denied that there was such a thing as anti-racism in the sense of an orthodoxy. There is no anti-racist orthodoxy. There's just different ways of fighting racism. He challenged factions and fads within run through racism. What he was concerned about was the theory and knowledge of people in struggle. Because we know knowledge is not just produced in the Academy, it is produced in movements, it's produced in civil society. There's a huge amount of knowledge. Siva termed these communities of resistance. And that's what he wanted to capture and that's what he wanted to amplify and that's what he wanted us to service by making us into this kind of servicing station. Part of that, Siva, that's very well known for his aphorisms. We've launched as part of our 50th celebrations, we launched a website about Siva, his life, his record, his writings, all collected there: asivanandan.com. And he's very famous for these aphorisms, the most famous of which again, has traveled all over the world- y'know we're not just a UK organization. His aphorisms have wings. Most famous being: "We are here because you were there" or "We carry our passports on our faces".
Ry Siggelkow [00:18:03] That's all very exciting. I love the reference to sort of the connection between theory and praxis in Sivas' thinking and you know, I think of the title of his book, Communities of Resistance, right? There was a strong sense, I think, in his work that knowledge, as you say, is something that is not produced in the academy, but knowledge I mean, there is knowledge produced in the academy. But the knowledge he was interested in, seems to me, was the knowledge produced within the context of communities and struggle, communities in resistance.
Liz Fekete [00:18:40] That's true, Ry. But I would nuance that slightly from what I've just said. That doesn't mean that Siva didn't value people in the academy. Race and Class, as I said, is our most scholarly journal, but the people who tend to contribute to Race and Class are what we would term scholar activists. They have a practice. It's really, really important that theory and practice merge and scholar activists are very important for that. And Siva always recognized that. And, you know, people like Cedric Robinson was an amazing scholar and he had a home at the institute and he had a home in Race and Class.
Ry Siggelkow [00:19:25] In recent episodes, I've been in conversation with several people about how national borders really shape our imaginations. It strikes me that this is perhaps especially true today, at least in the United States, when it comes to struggles against racism. I mean, we know that racism and struggles against racism happen elsewhere, but people in the US tend to think about racism as a kind of internal national problem. Does that make sense?
And so struggles against racism are often reduced to questions of inclusion and representation within the national body. Within the struggle to make, say, America perhaps not great, but a little better or perhaps a less racist place. I suppose I've been wondering about the limits of thinking about the struggle against racism in this way. I worry not only about the parochialism of it, but also about how a strictly national framing of racism tends to miss other important global dynamics of racism and racisms, which are, of course, complexly intertwined with histories of imperialisms and colonialisms of various stripes.
At the same time, however, and this is one of his aphorisms, "We need to struggle where we are", as Siva put it, and we indeed live within national states. So clearly an attention to how racism takes place at the local level in particular locations and contexts matters tremendously in terms of how we act concretely and organize practically. But I suppose I'm wondering about the relationship between the local and the global in terms of anti-racist struggles and the role that borders have in sort of cutting us off from imagining a more planetarium, more kind of global network of solidarity against racism. Do you see what I'm getting at here?
Liz Fekete [00:21:18] I do see what you're getting at Ry. As with all your questions, you'll look because it's not really it's not questions, is it? We're having a conversation and you framed so many important things there. There's the question of parochialism in our movement if we become too focused on what's just happening in our national context or within our own communities, and we don't join up with other communities. There's a question of what's happening in the borders. And then there's the question of a relationship between the local and global. But what I feel very much in what you've just said. What I respond to in what you've just said is something that I feel is coming more from your heart. In the sense that you're responding to an urgency that you see all around you, an urgency in terms of suffering, oppression, exploitation, victimization. And you're saying, how can we join it all up? And this is something that's been gnawing at me for a very long time. And I've been asking myself how can you fight one form of racism without disappearing another? And also how can you avoid creating a hierarchy of oppression where one form of oppression is deemed more important than another? And also about, you know, the times that we're living in.
I'll speak a bit more about this and the work that I'm trying to do, trying to understand imperialism, particularly in the context of a Russian aggression in Ukraine and also the NATO response. And it just seems to me that we don't have the luxury anymore of only being local. We have to be global. But at the same time, I firmly believe that a division between the local and the global; it's like a mirage. That division doesn't exist. The global is implicated in the local. So I want to make the point that I said about not responding to one racism, responding to one racism and disappearing the other. I just want to make that concrete, because I've worked on issues of European racism at the Institute for the last 30 years.
I’ll give you some examples from Europe. I mentioned the police harassment, the police violence mainly against black British communities, but also Black Asian Muslim communities very much affected by counter-extremism policies. Equally subject to identity checks on the street, the racism there is so manifest and tangible it's in health that within that we could see it during the COVID pandemic. It's structured into education. But in other European contexts, which didn't have the same colonial relationship. What happens in the UK is very similar to France, to Spain, to Portugal. But countries in central and Eastern Europe tend to be different and thereby racism is much more towards the Roma community. Antisemitism is much more overt. There's also the racism that came out of the war on terror, which for a number of years, that's what I was responding to. I was responding to the war on terror and the anti-Muslim racism. That, too, on Islamophobia, i.e., a hostile mindset towards the Islamic world. And I became very aware when I was working on Islamophobia that there were all these race and class issues in the community that had sort of disappeared and I wasn't working on. But at the same time this connects to your question of borders.
In the European context the racism at the border towards refugees, mainly from countries that we have intervened in. American imperialism. Western imperialism. The refugees from Iraq, refugees from Afghanistan, refugees from Syria are those that experience the sharp edge of the border. Whether it's being pushed back, left to drown in the Mediterranean Sea, held in the most awful conditions in detention. But there's also an internal racism within the EU towards migrant workers from Eastern Europe. And one of the things Sivanandan and I worked on before his death was an article on the emergence of xeno-racism. And this actually came at a time of a breakup of the former Yugoslavia, when refugees were arriving from Bosnia, Serbia, Croatia, Kosovo, etc.. The newspapers would say that we know this story doesn't include racism- they're white. And at this point we started saying that there was such a thing as xeno- racism and it was a non color coded racism in that it was a racism directed against foreigners irrespective of the color of their skin. But it was structured racism because it meant that migrant workers, refugees from these countries, later from other countries like Ukraine, like Russia, have a common experience. Russians and Ukrainians have a common experience in Europe as migrant workers of xeno-racism. But what I'm trying to get to is that what happens at the border isn't just what happens at the external borders. It's the bordering that happens, it's the internal controls. It's the way that teachers and even people working in the charity sector like me, have to check people's passports before we employ them. If you go to the National Health Service, you have to prove that you have the right to use those self-service so borders are also internal to a country. And this is where we saw the fact that you can't treat these aspects of racism in silos. They aren't divided. We had a particularly harsh experience in the UK, something called the Windrush scandal. Are you familiar with that, Ry?
Ry Siggelkow [00:28:28] Yes, a little bit.
Liz Fekete [00:28:29] Yeah. So this was basically the impact of a hostile environment towards undocumented workers that began to affect black Britains who came in as Commonwealth citizens in the 1950s. But they came on their parents passports and they were being asked to prove documentation. They were being denied services. They were being given deportation orders. This was a massive thing in this country. At least 164 Black British people with every right to citizenship, they were Commonwealth citizens, became our citizens. They were actually detained or deported. Hundreds of others were made homeless or denied medical care. Many have died waiting for compensation for the injustice that was done to them. So basically, these borders, this bordering process follows a logic that begins to impact us all.
Finally, the most difficult aspect of your question for me to ask is the national question. I think I've already said that I don't see how we can separate the treatment of African-Americans in the US to the refugees from whether it's Nicaragua or Mexico or Guatemala. Everybody. There are variations, of course, in the racism that they experience. But it's the same system. It's the same overall system. It's one system that creates multiple injustices. And I think in terms of refugees, it's a global system that creates displacement and creates refugees in the first place. It has everything to do with the global system, with imperialism. But I think merciless imperialism and a xenophobic nationalism go hand in hand today. And what we see, I think, in the United States with this idea of American exceptionalism, what I see across Europe with their various nationalisms and goodness me, we have a very nasty nationalism in Britain, basically an English nationalism. And ever since Brexit, it's been pretty horrendous.
So we have to start in our local situations challenging that nationalism. But at the same time, as I've said, the global is indicated in the national and I think this is really clear for me on policing issues because police forces across the world, they learn across each other. They are sitting in international forums exchanging strategies. The same thing, of course, with borders, with the walls, all the walls going up. It's the same companies and security companies that are doing that. So states learn across each other. So we have to learn across each other as well. And the clearest example where I think that is actually happening at that moment is around policing. It is coming from the abolitionist movements, the defund and divest movements because those kind of strategies that are coming out of the movement for Black Lives in the US, which are percolating down or percolating across, whether it's in Brazil, whether it's in the United Kingdom over its course across Europe is us learning to start local but to think global.
Ry Siggelkow [00:32:34] In the mid 1980s, Siva wrote a deeply polemical article called Rat and the Degradation of Black Struggle, in which he offers a scathing criticism of racism awareness training or RAT. He traces the historical origins of such training to a US military base in Florida at the end of the 1960s. A Defense Department response to the Black rebellions taking place across America at the time. What was needed to fight racism according to this Defense Department training was a better understanding of, "minority cultures and history, together with an understanding of personal racism". Racism at this point began to be treated as a behavioral problem and specifically a white behavioral problem. As such, the responsibility for fighting racism fell on to the so-called white community.
This framework, this is what Sivanandan argues in this essay, gained a certain prominence throughout the seventies and eighties. The idea was that if white people could change the behavior of other white people through extensive training programs, then white attitudes would eventually change. And so too, eventually society would change. But Siva identified an important reduction as to how racism was being understood and treated as though it were a kind of free floating essence, almost like a disease, or to use a theological term, that he actually uses a form of original sin that somewhere, at some point in the midsts of human history, something called racism was deposited into the white psyche and took root in white culture.
I want to read this passage from Siva's article for our listeners because I think it's a really profound passage from this essay Rat and the Degradation of Black Struggle, he says. "Racism, according to Rat, has its roots in white culture and white culture, unaffected by material conditions or history goes back to the beginning of time. Hence, racism is part of the collective unconscious, the prenatal scream, original sin. That is why, in the final analysis, whites can never be anything more than anti-racist racists. They are racist racists to begin with, born as they are to white privilege and power. But if they do nothing about it, collude consciously or unconsciously in the institutional and cultural practices that perpetuate racism, then they are beyond redemption and remain racist racists. If, on the other hand, they take up arms, or in this case rat against such privileges and in opposing them in their own lives, at least they could become anti-racist, racists. Racists, However, they remain in perpetuity".
Siva then goes on to argue that this is a circular argument bordering on genetic and biological determinism. Racism in some is culture, and culture is white, and white is racist. And the only way that RAT can break out of that circle is to acknowledge the material conditions that breed racism. But then it would no longer be RAT. Now, it's pretty remarkable to think that Siva wrote this almost 40 years ago, because it is as if he were writing about so many of the books, OP ED's, workshops and initiatives that are in vogue today in many progressive circles. I mean, on the one hand, we have seen a remarkable surge in awareness among white people that racism is an urgent problem and that white people need to address it. And I don't want to discount that in any way. And the amount of people who took to the streets here in Minneapolis and really around the globe after the murder of George Floyd was simply incredible.
But I've also been struck by the way the discourse has emerged and now congealed around racism as something that is almost inexplicable, something that is vaguely cultural, inherent, even something that is almost biologically enmeshed in it or a part of white people. In fact, that is as if we are seeing today the emergence of an identity politics that almost reduces race and racial identity to biology once again. And this notion of racism as a white behavioral problem, it seems to me, has really taken hold in a powerful way that has effectively categorized in a deeply prohibitive way what people can and cannot do to fight racism, how they must do it, and which assigns certain pre given roles or positions for different identities. Notions like intersectionality are invoked but are often dehistoricized. Reduced to questions of personal identity and behavior and attitudes. This has become almost common sense, at least in the United States, within mainstream progressive discourse. I mean, intersectionality has become part of corporate DEI strategies. It's within the literature. It's within the training. But Siva fundamentally rejected this approach to anti-racism as not only a distraction from material issues, but as fundamentally conservative, even reactionary in its political orientation. I wonder if you could explain why he was so critical of this approach to anti-racism and how you read this piece in today's climate. I know that's a tough question, but I've been struggling with it as I've been watching what's going on and seeing the discourse and going back to some of these older essays by Siva.
Liz Fekete [00:38:09] I'd like to answer the question on two levels. One, which is to answer the question, why did he write that? But I'd also like to sort of answer the more existential points that you raised and the way that Siva's views on the psychologicalizing of race or the reducing of race to an attitude or, as you say, an original sin. I'd like to sort of talk about that on a more existential level. And I'd also like to turn around what you've said, because I hear what you've said. I think all those things are there, but I think we're on the cusp of something different. I think we're on the cusp of a breakthrough into a new way of organizing. So I want to turn it round and focus a little bit on the positives.
So in terms of your first question,Siva- I mentioned at the beginning that everything that Siva wrote was an intervention. That he considered himself as an interrupter of anything that tried to take anti-racism away from this beautiful, creative, massively revolutionary, if you like, attempt to abolish all social relations in society based on racism, because that's where we want to get. We don't want to get to a situation where we're saying that we can't get rid of racism because it's an original sin, we want to believe that we can transform society and we're not going to be able to transform society if we don't believe that we can transform ourselves. Because, you know, that's the first step, isn't it?
But think about this as, say, in relation to a specific problem, which was I mentioned there was the most significant event, which was the uprisings of young Black and Asian people in 81 and 85. These were uprisings against the police and against the state. They were clash riots. They were in response to an intolerable level of police racism and harassment. And after 81, you know, with Margaret Thatcher, 85, she was in power and she began to plow a lot of money into urban aid, into urban policy. You know how I said this was going to sound familiar from the US situation? So a lot of people were actually getting quite a lot of profit out of this situation where the young people who burnt down both cities were either languishing in prison or, you know, devastated without an income or still living in the same rotten conditions that they lived in. So RAT was right, as it says, so much in racism awareness training.
So you had people setting up training companies and making a lot of money out of making white people feel guilty. In that quote that you read, and I'm so glad you read it, it's great to hear it again. There's one bit that you said that is even less polite. He used to call it potty training for white people. That's what he used to call racism awareness training. So he was really angry that a whole class of people, entrepreneurs and business people and trainers were making money out of what had happened in 81 and 85. But I think there's also a deeper level. Some people will see Siva as an Orthodox Marxist, as a materialist. But Siva was always concerned with the existential. He was always concerned with the meaning and politics of human existence. In fact, my favorite essay from him, I know you love RAT, Ry, but my favorite essay of all time is The Liberation of the Black Intellectual, which really works on that existential level. And he reacted against racism awareness training because something very deep in his soul -that he couldn't stand guilt. He literally, I mean. Siva was like this. Cedric Robinson was like this. We worked in a mixed way. White people, Black people, Asian people. None of them ever made me feel guilty about being white. It would have been seen by them as something that they wouldn't do. They would educate me, bring me along. But Siva hated the emotion of guilt because he saw guilt as something that lessened people that he had a great belief in the power of people to grow. He loved people. He believed in personal growth. That made him a difficult man. Because sometimes, you know what? I didn't want to grow. I just want to feel sorry for myself when he wasn't going to have that.
But one of the first books that he used to give us was something by Helen Merrell Lynd. This was called On Shame and the Search for Identity and Helen Merrell Lynd had similar views about guilt being a destructive emotion that closes you down, whereas shame opens you up, can be ashamed of what you did, and because you're so ashamed of yourself, you can transform yourself. You can be ashamed of British imperialism. You can be ashamed of American exceptionalism. But what you will do from that is to reach out and want to have solidarity with a community that has been impacted by the thing your society has done that was shameful. So the basis of his politics of existence was always solidarity. One liberation is bound to another. Who you are is what you do. And that's why he didn't like RAT. Race and awareness training.
Now, I think this part of your question, this kind of almost like a challenge, what would Siva have fought today about white privilege theory, for instance. Now. I can't answer that question. I think it's pretty easy to see from racism awareness training what he would have thought of that. However, the circumstances today are different. Siva always used to love the poetry of Keats. And I was reading Keats' letters last night because I was thinking of Siva doing this interview, and I found some quotes that I really liked. And it said, "Circumstances are like clouds continually gathering and ghosting". So the circumstances today are different. And Siva would have been wanting to speak to those circumstances. So I don't think that a lot of the stuff around white privilege, which is similar to racism awareness training, is quite the same in the sense that racism awareness training was an industry, it was about profits, whereas some of the similar psychologicalizing of race or introducing it into interpersonal relationships is something that is part of our movements. It's part of the strategies of people in movements. It's not that they're making a profit or out of it. Of course, there are some people who are using it to their own advantage. So I think we have to look and this is what many writers are doing. They've taken up that article, the RAT article in the ways that you have, but they are interpreting and using it in their own way. And there's a very strong article in Race and Class by Myriam Aouragh, who wrote an article on White Privilege, Short Cuts to anti-racism, which points out that white privilege theory is a useful way of us checking our own personal privilege, but that it mustn't become the be all and end all.
And as I said, I wanted to focus on something positive because I believe that in our movements, whether it's in the United States or the United Kingdom, we are beginning to see an uptick in struggle. And we are beginning to see people longing for new organizational forms and maybe this element where movements have become inward looking and concerned, that's subjective. Maybe there's aspects of it that have replenished us and have helped us think more carefully about how we treat each other, which I think is a positive thing. Because when I was a young activist, I have to say we may have been involved in communities of resistance, we may have challenged the state, but we didn't always treat each other very well. So there's aspects that I feel have come from the sort of interpersonal discussions that are very positive.
I want to give you two examples where I think in organizational terms, people are going forward from this. One from the United States and one from the UK. I work quite closely with a political educator called Hilary Moore, who's Director of Political Justice at Showing Up For Racial Justice, which organizes primarily among white folks in poor communities across the U.S. and Hilary was recently in Liverpool for a big festival called "The World Transformed". So we got to meet up and I got to go to her session and I think she quite shook some people in the audience by what she said. But I think by the end of what she said, they completely embraced it. She pointed out, I mean, she said that Showing Up For Racial Justice, quite clearly we're not here because we're helping black indigenous people of color. We're here because our lives depend on it. And we're saying that white privilege, yes, it's important, but it's not an organizational strategy. It's not going to get white people out there in the fight against racism. What gets them out there is organizing around shared interests. And she herself is a victim- as a white working class person, she has been the victim of violent policing. However, she knows that in a sense that she survived that in a way that black victims of that sort of policing wouldn't survive. So she says that her organization responded to the call in the 1960s when the student violent non organizing committee allowed the white people to fight in their own communities and not assume leadership of black campaigns. I think that was really positive and I think that's something that is going somewhere.
In the UK as well we have this at the conference that we had a couple of weekends ago, new circuits of anti-racism. We got together a panel of writers, young and some a little bit older than young, but not in my generation who brought out some really important books about anti-racist organizing. And there's a recalibration that's going on in our movement. And these books are very exciting because they're basically saying, where did we go wrong? Where did we lose sight of communities of resistance? And they're challenging us to go towards new organizational structures and everything is towards this idea of unity in struggle. You mentioned the whole biological argument. The fear around the fact that in some of these strategies to fight racism. Which seems to suggest that it's almost to me, there's almost a politics of defeat in some of the things you described. It's like we can't really change society, so let's just make the best of it and get the best deal where we are. And I think we have to reject that. The times are far too dangerous. The time's are far too extreme. And increasingly the level of poverty and distress and marginalization and violence surrounds us. We have to fight this element of our society. Of social movements that go against Sivanandan's great aphorism, one of his best as far as I'm concerned is that you know "we are what we do. Who we are is what we do". And I think we do have to fight well, I would say sometimes it's a sort of fundamentalism within our movement, a fundamentalist approach to anti racism, a fundamentalist approach to feminism that cannot embrace trans people, for instance. We have to fight for an understanding of who we are is what we do.
Ry Siggelkow [00:52:23] Yeah, I would definitely agree with that. I think I think for me, it's a question of the investment in whiteness and and I guess holding on to these traditions that are interested in sort of yeah, I guess a race traitor tradition, right. That we have a long tradition of organizing and anti-racist organizing that begins with this sort of point that it's not about sort of investing, reinvesting in whiteness but divesting of whiteness. And turning against it. And I think especially during this time where we're seeing the resurgence of white nationalism, I think what's really important actually is to divest from the mythology and attachment to being white and to see white not as a biological behavioral issue. Right, but white as a politics that must be resisted at all costs. So I guess I worry about the way that the discourse tends to sort of re-insert these categories and keep people from growing. I guess it keeps people from wanting to divest from that identity.
Liz Fekete [00:53:42] Yeah. And I mean, I completely agree with you. And one of those ways to divest is to have a practice. If you're a white person and you are anti-racist and you are practicing that anti-racism, you are divesting from your whiteness. But I would have taken what you say one step further, and maybe I'm being sort of opportunist here, bringing in something that concerns me greatly, which is the tendency to use social media to survey people for what they say and to punish them for getting things wrong. And I like the way that you use that word divest, in terms of whiteness, because I think the challenge that the movement for Black Lives, critical resistance, abolition has grown up around defund and divest is not just about the structures of policing. It's us defunding it. It's us recognizing that in this authoritarian law and society that we live in, the ethics of society or non ethics of society has become about punishments. It's punitive, always punishing, and we mustn't let that get into our movements. So if we're campaigning against the way that law and order has become the fundamental way or investing in law and order, instead of investing in society instead of youth clubs and help for the mentally ill, we invest more in law and order. Then we mustn't, mustn't, mustn't internalize that law and order approach to each other. We must go back to political education, to adult learning, working with young people so that they know the history of struggle. We need to go back to those things and reject anything which comes from I would say almost kind of an unloving, unloving, uncaring approach.
Ry Siggelkow [00:56:01] Liz, thanks so much for taking time today to talk to me. It's been such a pleasure.
Liz Fekete [00:56:06] Thank you so much for your stimulating questions. I hope it's of some help.
Ry Siggelkow [00:56:12] Take care.