Four guests met with members of the Williams community to talk about racism and intolerance in a global context on Sunday. The main focus of the panel discussion was an examination of the World Conference Against Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and Related Intolerance, which was held in Durban, South Africa last September. The discussion is especially pertinent in light of recent events in the United States.
Panel members included Milton Allimadi, a journalist and specialist on western media representation of Africa; Anita Hodgkiss, an attorney and a Williams alumna; Hoda Zaki, a political science professor at Hood College; and Jane Sapp, a musician with expertise in conflict resolution.
Several student groups sponsored the discussion, including the Black Students Union (BSU), the Multicultural Center, the Chaplain’s Office, the office of the President and the Lecture Committee. The Durban Conference Panel Discussion was one of several College events planned in celebration of Martin Luther King, Jr. Day.
The discussion’s organizers hoped to both make more people aware of the Durban Conference and to apply some of the global perspectives on racism and tolerance to issues faced in the College community.
“It is important to have this panel discussion. The Durban Conference was a significant event that did not receive the media coverage that it merited,” said Alex Willingham, chair of African-American Studies and an instrumental figure in the planning process.
The panelists echoed Willingham’s sentiments concerning the importance of proper media coverage. Allimadi spoke about the long history of Western explorers and reporters writing documents that were grossly subjective. Through his extensive research, Allimadi has uncovered similarities between the racist letters written by New York Times reporters who visited Africa and the stories that they actually wrote for the paper.
The two panelists who attended the nongovernmental portion of the conference, Hodgkiss and Zaki, spoke of their individual experiences as a way of proving that the worldwide summit was useful and important.
Both women mentioned workshops that they attended or heard about on a variety of issues concerning discrimination and its consequences, from affirmative action to hate crimes to the healing process to gender.
Both spoke of the marginalization of the Durban Conference in American publications. Saki labeled the conference a “venue for the United States to break down an isolationist, if not imperialist mentality and to realize that we can learn from other nations on certain issues, such as the death penalty, gender discrimination, the lack of migrant workers’ rights, the disproportionate number of minorities in prisons, and now Islamophobia.”
Hodgkiss also expressed her belief that many things were accomplished at the Durban Conference. “In coming together in Durban, seeds for change were formed,” she said. “After Sept. 11, it became clear how much we need these seeds in order to reaffirm basic humanity.”
Sapp, the final panelist, brought the issues of the conference to a local level. She began by singing a song that involved everyone in the room in order to accentuate the universality of struggle. She described her participation in a conflict resolution program at Brandeis University that focused on a small-scale non-political solution in which people just talked about the experiences of their lives.
“We were able to open a window and see how we all lived in the fullest sense of living,” said Sapp. “We were able to develop a process that aided the breaking down of some of the layers and walls that surround us in many of our interactions with other people.”