A delegation from the Humphrey Institute for Human Relations held a forum to discuss its participation in last month’s United Nations conference on racism.
From Aug. 31 to Sept. 9, delegates from around the world met in Durban, South Africa, to address issues of racial discrimination and fear of outsiders, or xenophobia.
“The conference was central to the work I do in the classroom and the community,” said African-American studies professor Rose Brewer, who attended the U.N. conference and spoke at the forum Thursday. “I’m teaching a freshman seminar on race and ethnicity, and there is a close fit between some of the issues raised at the conference and those in the classroom.”
Brewer said there is a strong connection between the concerns of those at the conference and those of some Minnesotans.
“I think its important for the citizens of Minnesota to put this issue of racial discrimination in a much broader context,” she said.
“We had a situation where people of color from all over the world were saying, ‘we are stigmatized; we are singledout because of how we look,’ which is what racism is,” Brewer said. “So it’s not simply a U.S. black-person issue. The people of Minnesota should understand that.”
The lone student-delegate from Minnesota, St. Olaf College senior Nick Wallace, said the experience made him aware of other forms of discrimination, such as the oppression of the Dalits in India.
“As a male of color, I’m used to facing certain types of discrimination,” he said. “Going to the conference allowed me to see it in a completely different way.
“It also showed me that we are all dealing with the same essential issues, no matter where you are.”
Youth organizations at the conference worked toward constructing a network to disseminate information in the fight against racial discrimination, Wallace said.
“It helps you not to lose faith; to not lose courage because you know that there are other people out there working toward the same goal,” he said.
More than 100 people attended the forum, which featured six Minnesota delegates.
Ron Myers, executive director of the Roy Wilkins Center for Human Relations and Social Justice, said local officials need to pay close attention to documents produced at the conference, including one that offered steps toward combatting racism. He said that document is pertinent to Minnesota because it defines the state’s most common forms of discrimination: institutionalized and covert.
U.S. officials said prior to the South Africa conference they would not attend because of proposed discussions about slavery reparations, as well as attempts to equate Zionism with racism. Government officials attended the conference but left early in protest.
Although they viewed the conference as positive, the Minnesota delegates said they were disappointed with the U.S. government’s withdrawal.
“I was very saddened that the U.S. government didn’t at least recognize the need for a conversation,” Brewer said.
“If there are people who are saying, ‘these are burning issues and our survival depends on the world taking (them) seriously’ and you don’t listen, this creates a context that is very volatile,” she said.
Brewer said she is optimistic the current political situation might help promote discussions about issues raised at the conference.
“I think it’s a good time to begin making these connections and opening up a discussion about some of these issues,” she said.