The political architecture of colonialism is structural racism. Racism is the house, which is to say it is the brick and mortar that frame and structure the rooms, the corridors, and ultimately the whole house. It is education and values that made the house into a home for colonialism in many African countries. An artificial line is often drawn between racism and colonialism. Typically, racism is discussed within the scholarship and practice of discrimination in the national body politic, while colonialism is confined to spaces in the global south where colorism, such as blackness, does not frame identities of the dispossessed and marginalized. To put it simply, racism is seen as a national phenomenon while colonialism is seen as global. Therefore, the absence of individual color identity within a nation indicates an absence of racism.

It is not uncommon for many Africans to say that they did not know they were Black until they came to the US or Europe. While such individual revelation may suggest to the person that racism does not exist in their country it is actually a confirmation that structural racism was hidden to them in plain sight. My previous blogs (i.e.,Black Male Phobia; We are all Tuskegee; Of Racism and Shitholes, etc. at blogs) have mostly been about global structural racism. It operates by causing many Africans to measure their self-realization by how far they distance themselves from the very core of their cultural being. Colonialism was deployed for years as part of the tools of structural racism, implemented using political and educational instruments to sustain itself. You cannot decolonize without anti-racism strategies. This is why we need to build alliances with groups and institutions committed to anti-racism.

There is a joke I believe may have been told first by Bishop Desmond Tutu, which goes like this. The white man came to Africa and they said to us, let us pray. So we closed our eyes. When we opened our eyes, we had the Bible and they had the land. Bishop Tutu, of course, is an optimistic man and he assumed that just like himself, others actually opened their eyes. He may very well be disappointed to realize that today, many Africans continue to keep their eyes closed. It is possible they believe that the longer their eyes are closed, the closer they will get to heaven. Whatever the reason for keeping their eyes closed, the result of that initial encounter has been for many Africans what Cheikh Hamidou Kane captured brilliantly in ‘the Ambiguous Adventure’ as the journey of learning to forget. It is not so much about learning new information, though important, but rather, teaching that the new information must be acquired at the expense of one’s cultural values and ways of knowing. Therefore, the very first part of educational structures erected were the walls that continue to stand between African spirituality and the new religion. The ensuing political walls were structured to ensure that the educational systems were fortified in structural racism where books and literature celebrate what to forget (African culture) as much as what to embrace (Western culture). During official colonialism, therefore, those walls of racism where turned into homes with rooms for the Bible and the Guns while pushing Orisa, and other spiritual nurturers of brotherhood/sisterhood, toward, first the corridors of the home, before they are eventually dispossessed. In colonialism, the Bible came first and then the guns. To sustain structural racism, as we have now learned in the action of President Trump, the guns come first and then the Bible.

So many of us came to the US and Europe on the promise of freedom from the darkness of those eye closing encounters. We believe that we are now free from colonial oppression as colonialism was and for many, remains the only oppressive instrument known to us. Believing that distance protects us from the clutches of racism, we say that we found out we were Black only when we came to…Then the devaluation, rejection and ultimately killings of Blacks like us start to get closer and closer, until they are close enough that colonialism no longer offers sufficient explanation. Only the explanations that come from Race and racism do. Structural racism helps to explain the action of murderous police officers in the US. We mourn today and demand justice for the racism that claimed the lives of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor and George Floyd.

Black and Brown brothers and sisters in the global south need to wake up and understand that racism is global. This is our time to begin building and strengthening alliances with groups and institutions working on anti-racism across the globe. In my current work and partnership with coalition of scholars committed to anti-racism work and led by the UCLA Center for the Study of Racism, Social Justice & Health, we have committed to 4 actions moving forward.

  1. First, Self-Monitor how we within the research community, especially those of us who purport to hold a commitment to health equity and anti-racism work, employ tools/skills that align with racial capitalism, settler-colonial, and imperial efforts. If we fail to consider the ways in which our work can be co-opted, we too are complicit in state’s use of violence to counteract the petitions socially marginalized communities make for a better world.
  2. Second, Track the nation’s alignment with global principles about violating the abilities of diverse communities to self-determine. We will be monitoring three things in particular:  (a) the extent to which the nation and certain regions are forcing particular communities to go to work, knowing that doing so places them at higher risk of infection and death; (b) how the nation is responding to people’s resistance to legacy and ongoing structural racism and structural violence through policing; (c) how the nation is taking advantage of the pandemic to expand its law enforcement powers and the surveillance state.
  3. Third, Organize to hold governing bodies, such as the American Public Health Association (APHA), accountable to formally stand against the growing dependence on carceral (i.e., military and/or law enforcement) solutions to public health and social problems. We also urge such bodies to advocate and support other, specifically community health-centered tools, instead.
  4. Finally, Act in alignment with what is needed to develop and strengthen community power for the purposes of self-determination, which we believe is the only way to facilitate racial and ethnic equity.

Audre Lorde reminds us that your silence will not protect you. Dr. King reminds us that not protesting against evil means that you are accepting it. You may understand that racism is evil, but do you understand that racism is global? What is your commitment? Wherever you are in the world, from global north to global south, it is time to WAKE UP!

Collins O Airhihenbuwa

Professor, Georgia State School of Public Health