Fighting racism and building a fairer future

The death of George Floyd and the protests that followed in several countries brought renewed attention to racism, its roots and reproduction. Education must be a central plank in our efforts to build a better and fairer future that does not end up in frustration and despair, writes Paul Stanistreet

@ UNESCO/Anne Muller

‘Not everything that is faced can be changed,’ wrote James Baldwin, ‘but nothing can be changed until it is faced.’

Events of the past weeks, stemming from the tragic death of George Floyd in the United States, have been a catalyst for reflection on how our societies and the people who live in them can change and challenge racism.

Anti-racism protests in major cities across the world have obliged public opinion in various parts of the world to confront past and present injustice and racism. In the United Kingdom, for example, the toppling of the statue of a seventeenth-century slave trader in Bristol prompted national reflection on the legacy of the country’s involvement in slavery and how this is taught in schools and understood in wider society. While in Belgium, a statue of King Leopold II in Antwerp was removed in acknowledgement of his brutal colonial rule of the Congo. There are calls for other statues of King Leopold II to be taken down.

These issues are being discussed more openly than they have been for some time, inspired by the Black Lives Matters movement. Such debate is legitimate. But there is a danger too that this process of self-interrogation and reflection could lead to frustration for the protestors and their supporters if they cannot find channels through which their desire for a better world can begin to be realized.

Education leaders, within institutions and within the classroom, have an important role in interrogating values and attitudes on racism and in creating a safe and inclusive environment for staff and students. More efforts are needed to realize the potential of education as a tool in fighting racism and other forms of injustice and discrimination. This includes reflecting on how history is taught in schools. It is also about promoting understanding of different cultures and inclusion of people from different backgrounds.

It is not just about educating children, however. Intolerance and racism originate in the adult population and are often reproduced within families. Adult education has been found to promote tolerance and understanding, across cultures and classes, facilitating conversations and encouraging learners both to find a voice and to listen to others, including, crucially, those different to them. It also gives people a space in which to debate issues of critical social importance and to reflect on how to change things for the better, making the link between local concerns and global issues such as inequality and injustice.

Global citizenship education (GCED) can be a powerful means of making such connections, within a framework of human rights and respect for diversity. GCED aims to empower learners of all ages to assume active roles, both locally and globally, in building more peaceful, tolerant, inclusive and secure societies, as envisaged in target 4.7 of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. UNESCO advocates a  renewed  understanding of GCED centred on the concept of ‘learning  to  live  together’,  and  builds on  the  local  and country  context.  Furthermore, it proposes  focusing  on  the development  of civic engagement and active citizenship skills, critical thinking skills, and media literacy  skills. Building learning, inclusive and sustainable societies demands not just informed citizens, but also citizens who are open-minded, critical and engaged in addressing contemporary challenges.

These qualities are essential both in overcoming difference and division and in making sense of the profound challenges we face, from inequality and racial injustice to climate change and the current health crisis. It is important that we come together now to learn the lessons of current crises and use them as a foundation to create a better future.

Paul Stanistreet is Head of Knowledge Management and Communications for the UNESCO Institute for Lifelong Learning

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