Education, Acknowledgement, Action.

This simple summary encapsulates the 2021 theme of the UN International Day of Remembrance of the Victims of Slavery and the Transatlantic Slave Trade which falls on 25th March. Despite racism being discussed more in the past 12 months than ever before (at least in the UK), neither this “awareness day”, nor “The International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination” on 21 March appear on many “awareness day” calendars, at least in the UK. Said calendars did however mention that as I write it is “Client’s Day” (Friday 19th) and last Monday was “National Napping Day” in the UK. Why does this matter? Well, many people use awareness days as inspiration for content across conventional and social media – such is our voracious appetite for content. But it appears that some major  opportunities to raise awareness about the more uncomfortable things get missed.

I’m a bit conflicted about awareness days in general. Whilst I’ve taken parts in events for many, they are undoubtedly good for raising awareness at least temporarily, can create a sense of community and visibility for people united by a common experience (e.g. World Down Syndrome Day on 21st March) and in some cases can raise a great deal of money for charity (I sent my 11 year old to school wearing red for Comic Relief this morning), they can also lead me to ask – what happens on the other 364/5 days of the year? Do we not care about women unless it is March 8 (International Women’s Day)? The same concern is present even if the awareness period extends to a month, such as Black History Month or LGBT History Month. And I can’t help wondering whether “awareness day fatigue” is a thing, and whether by having days for all sorts of things somehow diminishes the whole concept?

My advice to the organisations I work with is by all means join in with whatever awareness day is relevant to you, AS LONG AS THAT ISN’T THE ONLY DAY YOU THINK ABOUT the issue it is raising awareness of. If running a set of Black History Month events is the sum total of your work on race equality, that’s not enough. And I probably won’t be working with you for long.

Despite the irony of a blog post questioning the point of awareness days then talking about them, in the spirit of “Educate” I’d like to remind you of the origin of the two UN days relating to race this week. (There were lots of statements made by UN agencies around the International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination yesterday but it just doesn’t get the same traction on social media.).

The International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination is observed annually on the day the police in Sharpeville, South Africa, opened fire and killed 69 people at a peaceful demonstration against apartheid “pass laws” in 1960. The awareness day itself came about as part of a programme of activities adopted by the UN General Assembly in 1979 and originally marked the start of a week of solidarity with the peoples struggling against racism and racial discrimination.

The most recent UN principle of equality proclaims:

“… any doctrine of racial superiority is scientifically false, morally condemnable, socially unjust and dangerous and must be rejected, together with theories that attempt to determine the existence of separate human races…

(Note, just because there is no scientifically justifiable evidence of racial superiority, nor are there any defensible theories of the existence of separate human races, does not mean that racial discrimination or racism does not exist.)

Whilst progress has been made (not least with the cessation of the apartheid system in South Africa) and we are close to achieving universal ratification of the International Convention on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination, recent world events have highlighted that there is still much to do in nations of all shapes and sizes. The 2021 Theme is “Youth Standing Up Against Racism”, inspired by the involvement of youth in the BlackLivesMatter protests during 2020, and perhaps also by the more general theme of youth activitism (e.g. on climate change).

The International Day of Remembrance of the Victims of Slavery and the Transatlantic Slave Trade.  is even more infrequently mentioned, though I am wondering whether that might be different this year. Every year on 25 March, the International Day of Remembrance of the Victims of Slavery and the Transatlantic Slave Trade offers the opportunity to honour and remember those who suffered and died at the hands of the brutal slavery system. The International Day also aims to raise awareness about the dangers of racism and prejudice today. The 2021 theme is “Ending Slavery’s Legacy of Racism: A Global Imperative for Justice” therefore bringing the two days close together. This theme has three components:

  • highlighting the importance of educating about the history of the transatlantic slave trade and slavery,
  • bringing about an acknowledgment of slavery’s impact on the modern world,
  • and action to address its long-lasting effects.

The transatlantic slave trade was the largest forced migration in history, and undeniably one of the most inhumane. The extensive exodus of Africans spread to many areas of the world over a 400-year period and was unprecedented in the annals of recorded human history. From 1501 to 1830, four Africans crossed the Atlantic for every European that did so. The legacy of this migration is still evident today, with large populations of people of African descent living throughout the Americas in particular.

Education, Acknowledgement, Action. Sounds simple. And yet numerous governments, organisations and individuals have failed to do any one of the components for centuries. Here in the UK, whilst there is much more talk around racism, attempts to increase the amount of Black British History taught in schools came close to being made illegal by our own government. I fear that current curricula do not allow for education from different perspectives for the majority of our young people.

Attempts at acknowledgement fare no better. The National Trust was reported to the Charities Commission on the grounds that research and subsequent report on the relationship of slavery to the many properties it owns was outside the remit of being a charity. Kew Gardens has been accused of “growing woke” for acknowledging that the narrative of plants being “discovered” by European explorers is false in the sense that native populations had been using them for some time AND that many of the specimens brought to the UK did so as the result of systematic ransacking of other nations.

What hope is there for action? Perhaps it returns us to the theme of Youth –my own children speak about inequality much more eloquently and passionately than I would have at their age. This does not absolve the rest of us from action however, we need to support the youth to stand on the shoulders of those who have gone before, to take action on racism, inequality (and indeed climate change).

Perhaps if awareness days were “Education, Acknowledgement, Action” Days – I’d feel more positive about them? Perhaps if we all pledged to do one thing in each area – being active rather than passively “aware” we might move forward more quickly? Unless it is National Napping Day of course.


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