They say that you have to educate children about racism, but kids can sometimes teach a good lesson to grown-ups. When my daughter, Song-Mee, was four years old, she asked me how to tell who was Korean and who was not. Trying to keep it simple, I told her that most Koreans had black hair.
A few days later, my Ethiopian friend, Belkis, visited. Song-Mee came running to me after meeting her and was very excited. “Oma (Mother),” Song-Mee said, “Belkis is Korean! She has black hair!” Until she was seven years old, Song-Mee continued to classify people by their hair color.
In some ways, she was scientifically correct–or at least as incorrect as almost everybody else. In anthropological terms, race as a concept based on skin color doesn’t exist. The criteria for the classification of the human species is arbitrary and often contradictory. Pick a hair color in any classroom, and you might have three so-called “races” of red, brown, and blond students. Use skin color as the indicator, and many Brazilians would be in the same category as Egyptians. If we used blood types for classification, we would be divided into “races” of A, B, or O types. The bottom line is that if we rely on scientific evidence, race as a biological phenomenon does not exist at all.
However, racism does exist as a social evil, sometimes with deadly consequences. This challenges the feminist and women’s movements to take action. At the 1995 NGO Forum on Women in Beijing, women from many cultures went beyond condemning racism. They truly confronted the issue of diversity in the women’s movement and turned it into a rallying cry for unity.
How different this was from only a decade before, when governments agreed on the Nairobi Forward Looking Strategies passed in 1985. In that document, various “special groups” are discussed at the end of the document, almost literally as an afterthought. These “special groups” include youth, indigenous peoples, older women, and refugees. In contrast, the 1995 Beijing Platform for Action (BPfA) emphasizes the diversity of women’s needs, backgrounds, and circumstances. It recognizes that although all women may suffer discrimination as a whole, some are at a greater disadvantage than others.
Much of the credit for this shift in emphasis goes to women of color who were not content with racism mentioned as just another human rights issue. Indigenous women in particular saw racism as a key factor in the creation of their poverty and political inequality. They worked long into the night at the UN Fourth World Conference on Women to bridge the gaps between their significant cultural differences and to arrive at consensus statements.
One of the key lessons from the BPfA is that putting diversity in the limelight can help build unity. While racism and other forms of discrimination still exert their power, the international women’s movement is strong and determined to counter-act. For my part, I tell my daughter that she has the right to be any color she pleases. She just should make the most of it.