IRR50 Conference: New Circuits of Anti-racism

“We are over here because you were over there”

A. Sivanandan

Written by Iram Sammar

Date: 20 Rabi Al Awwal 1444 AH (Sunday 16th October 2022)

On Saturday 15th of October, a transformational event enriched the souls of those seeking to improve the way anti-racism is understood, exercised and foreseen through discussions of racism, imperialism and new lines of resistance. As a teacher of geography and doctoral student, I was keen to benefit from the event to develop a sense of what it means to move cautiously into the future to encompass praxis and research into anti-racism. I found the event was not only for academia, but essential for teachers/educators in earlier phases in the education system from primary, secondary and beyond. The whole event was electric with amazing speakers and volunteers, all who made the experience warm, comfortable and inclusive. The programme for the day clearly defined and shaped how anti-racism research and education can give hope to not only those entwined in British society, but to our global links and solidarity with the international community. Educators do need to ask the question: where does our knowledge production come from? Is it solely from academia and historically white colonial narratives? What does it mean to decolonise really? Does IRR have some of the answers?

In the introduction, Sophia Siddiqui highlighted that “anti-racism today is so incredibly important, and it must be defended”. The discussions and conversations were truly inspirational and will and should spark even more important conversations in the years to come. There were many thoughtful conversations with even more thoughtful questions, answers and comments that followed each of the sessions. Adjacent to the main lecture podium was a unique stall where many of Sivanandan’s books and classic IRR publications and impressive merchandise were available for purchase. It was indeed a nice way to celebrate the important work the IRR has been engaged with historically and more recently.

IRR50 and the revolutionary act

From the very first panel discussion, you develop an understanding of the historical events and struggles that led up to anti-racist thinking and mobilising “because we don’t know where we are going until we know where we have been” (John Narayan the chair of this panel). The deputy editor of Race and Class, and wife of Sivanandan, Jenny Bourne, and the ‘legendary’ chair and joint editor of Race and Class, Colin Prescod provided a very thought-provoking conversation on the transformation of the IRR and what it has entailed since. 

The IRR has seen radical changes over the past fifty years that take us beyond the ‘add-on’ narrative of what decolonising and anti-racism actually does and is, in the complex structures of society and its institutions. It can be said that the IRR itself is an example of a truly decolonised institution, however institutions in the UK have an extremely tough job to keep up with this model – who is the Sivanandan of your institution? Even the IRR began as a neo-liberal imperialist think-tank, as its structure was rooted in scientific research through links with multinational companies, failed government initiatives and various other influential bodies driven by power and capitalist ideology. Something extraordinary happened in 1972. The actual workers of the IRR mobilised and overthrew the damaging dichotomy it was founded on, only to become the biggest anti-racist think-tank organisation to date. It just shows, working together through collaborations and in solidarity brings communities together.

To reflect on the history of the IRR, the panel brings to light the struggles of the 1970s felt by the ethnic minority communities in Britain, through extensive research and educational praxis.  Some of these struggles still stand the test of time, thus Jenny points out the following important ideas:

  1. Racism does not stand still – it changes its contours and impact all the time.
  2. There is no anti-racist blueprint, no orthodoxy – it is organic.
  3. Racism does not impact equally – we have to look to the groups and areas where its impact is felt most and where other important factors, such as class, rightlessness, gender and other characteristics that are linked are represented.
  4. IRR, as an organisation aspires to speak from the most oppressed, not to the policy makers and most powerful.
  5. IRR, pledges to think in order to do – looking to change things.

Much of the above comes from Sivanandan himself, with a strong reference made to Liz Fekete, who has been carrying on the legacy by keeping the IRR abreast of the new and existing issues as and when they arise. Colin Prescod amplifies Jenny’s words and emphasises that the conference is not to “reminisce” Sivanandan, but rather to “recommit” in the hope that the audience follows through with what the original struggles of the institute aspired to achieve. The founding members of the new and reformed institute were clear in their premise that, it was an organisation for the workers, where working together and as a collective was paramount to its new look. It was to work for the new migrant settler Black communities in the 1970s. How did the IRR achieve this?

  1. Taking sides with the new migrant settler Black communities campaigns on various issues that they faced – including equal rights within work, housing and education.
  2. Supporting their right to challenge the status quo on their existence – empowering asylum-seekers and new and existing migrants.

This was not an easy task. Many of these communities faced injustices everyday of their lives. Their everyday geographies were embedded in horrific injustices that would often lead to imprisonment, homelessness and austerity. My own parents stumbled on such struggles, which I felt as a child growing up and still feel as an adult living in Britain today. Some of these personal experiences can be explored here. Colin addresses how racism often resulted in injustices for Black communities. Sivanandan (1990) talks about two types of racism “the racism that discriminates and the racism that kills.” Whenever people would ask him what the IRR is about he would respond by saying “we do not speak to but from”. His most iconic phrase remains “we are over here because you were over there” – one I have used many times in class before any discussion about ethnic minorities in Britain. It is a phrase that sometimes creates gasps of bewilderment, and other times smiles and laughter, particularly within a multi-ethnic/cultural classroom setting. Another one is “we all wear passports on our faces”. My own interactions with anti-racist pedagogy in teaching geography have been explored in the GEReCO forum with Dr James Esson and Dr Angela Last. I am born to a family who endured the kind of racism Sivanandan wrote about – unfortunately ‘very little has changed’, as Paul Gilroy stated in his inaugural presentation early in 2021.

Screen shot.from IRR

I jump to the keynote conversation between Barbara Ransby and Derecka Purnell, as it was also nothing short of breath-taking to say the least. They discuss the New Lines of Black Resistance in the US: undoing racial capitalism and the carceral state. This intergeneration and global conversation explores abolition and political growth in the US. The key ideas push towards coalitions and being unified – by recognising our differences through anti-racisms without homogenising the true essence of communities. Although this article should give an account of every speaker equally, I have highlighted only some key moments that were uplifting for the soul. In the discussion of Radical Internationalism and shifts in global order, the panel talked about the decline of western hegemony, war and imperialism, crises in capitalism, where the question asks what is the impact of these changes, and what does it mean to be radical internationalist today? The depth of arguments presented can only be justified by watching the full discussions here.

Finally , on the roundtable discussion of Antiracist Organising Today powered up the afternoon with key authors and anti-racist organisers below. The latest books on anti-racism, abolition, feminism and the role of the academy can be explored to help you improve your understanding of race and racism.

Thank you for reading, I do hope this reflection inspires you to engage further in anti-racist praxis and thinking – as you decolonise your curriculums, institutions and minds.

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