Associated Press (AP) recently cropped Ugandan climate change activist, Vanessa Nakate, from a group photograph in which she appears with her peers at the World Economic Forum. Anthony Adauka SJ points out that incidents like this are not new, and are indicative of the underlying racism that continues to exist. He argues that we cannot speak about care for our common home and equality until we’ve eliminated all forms of exclusion.
“But they don’t know it is also risen, with a risen body,” replied a good friend of mine sarcastically. This was a snapshot of our conversation on racism; and it is interesting how racial discrimination has become digitalised and even more elusive in our global world. A South African song on racism, Senzenina, which means “what have we done?” has a line that says, “sono sethu simnyama” (our only crime is to be black).
An article recently appeared on the CNN website that featured Vanessa Nakate – a Ugandan climate activist – alongside her peers, Greta Thunberg, Isabelle Axelsson, Luisa Neubauer and Loukina Tille in the just concluded World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland. Not only was Vanessa’s message left out during the press conference that followed, but her image was cropped out by Associated Press news agency (AP).
Does this mean that the world Vanessa is fighting to defend is not her world as well, or did someone just remind her that she doesn’t belong? My first emotional response was that of anger. Anger, not for the sake of anger, but at the outright injustice that this reality inflicts on our collective humanity.
Fr Bryan Massingale, during his 2018 Winter Living Theology series, correctly says: “The question of racism and racial injustice should make any reasonable individual angry because when we talk about the real reasons for racial injustice/racism we have to be uncomfortable, nervous, defensive, angry, embarrassed, and ashamed.” By deliberately cropping out Nakate’s image, is AP suggesting that Nakate is fighting a fight that is not hers simply because she is black, or that the crisis of climate change does not affect blacks so she has nothing to contribute, or that she happens to be just a victim of circumstance? Racism shames our humanity.
This is not new. During the 2005 hurricane, Katrina, the same AP news depicted a black boy as looting a grocery store in New Orleans. Another report spoke about two white people finding bread in a local store. These are separate individuals struggling for their life in the same situation and in the same environmental conditions, but one is a looter and the other a survivor. The value judgement that played out in the reporting was based on the colour of their skins. It is disheartening and sad that this kind of racial discrimination and injustice continues today.
“You didn’t just erase a photo. You erased a continent,” says Nakate on her Twitter handle with a sense of pain and disappointment. Another sad, but not surprising thing, is that the force with which racial injustice is talked about does not generate the same enthusiasm as the passion we use to talk about the climate crisis. If we save the world, would it be for only certain groups of individuals?
Of course, the AP management condemned both incidents and apologised for their careless reporting. Yet the same management of AP, in a statement that was meant to be an apology, still referred to Nakate as a person of colour. “We regret publishing a photo this morning that cropped out Ugandan climate activist Vanessa Nakate, the only person of color in the photo.” Is referring to Nakate as “a person of color” meant to correct a wrongful act motivated by racism, or is it meant to remind her that she is different? The damage has been done and the undertone of racial discriminatory messaging is clear.
Racism is a culture
We hear of people being racially profiled in different parts of the Western world, especially in the US, to the point that it has become normal and part of the daily experience of these unfortunate individuals. You rather keep quiet and endure the pain, or risk being accused of playing the “racist card”.
The big question then is: What is normal about racism? The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) says that racism “occurs every day, in cities and towns across the country, when law enforcement and private security target people of color for humiliating and often frightening detentions, interrogations, and searches without evidence of criminal activity and based on perceived race, ethnicity, national origin, or religion”.
We call the world our common home and we fight for equality, but how can we speak about an end to marginalisation when racism is alive and active?
The reality of these incidents draws our attention to the fact that racial injustice and discrimination are both real and alive. The situation calls for each person to make a conscious effort to avoid the various categories that dehumanise individuals. It shows that, despite the progress we have made and the constant promises of a coming technological paradise in the future, our world is still radically broken and in need of healing. Racism is a culture, and until we consciously refuse to live by it, we will continuously be robbed of our humanity.