A Different Kind of Day: Thoughts on International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination

Macmillan Employee
Macmillan Employee
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By habit, I woke up early on March 21st ready to start my morning routine from my bed to the bathroom and then to my home office to start work. As I sat up, I realized that today was a company-recognized holiday and my morning ritual was to be suspended for one more day. But this holiday morning was different from the others. 

On the 4th of July mornings, I’m thinking about my invite list for an intimate cookout at home with friends. On the morning of December 25th, these days at least, I’m grateful to have all of my adult kids home for a holiday filled with gift-giving, sweet potato pie, and nostalgic laughter.  This holiday morning was different. As an odd silence passed over me in my bed, I realized that this was a day of remembrance, the International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination.

On March 21st, as had been done internationally since 1966, the world was called to recognize and remember the 1960 massacre in Sharpeville, South Africa, where 69 Black South Africans were killed and 180 were injured by a racially charged police force as they peacefully protested against the apartheid pass laws.  Pass laws were an internal passport system that the Afrikaner government used during apartheid to segregate the population along racial and economic lines. Pass laws severely limited the movements of black African citizens, and other people as well by restricting them to designated areas. 

Sitting there in my bed, I thought about the segregation that my mother and my grandparents had escaped in the American south just five years prior to the Sharpeville massacre. I thought about how much courage it takes to stand in defiance of a racist régime, knowing that your life is in imminent danger the moment you choose to stand in principle in the light of justice.  My grandparents chose to save every nickel, dime and quarter they had in jars over the course of two years, pick a spot on the map in a northern state, and escape the flaming horror of the south by night in 1955 with their then four children and all they could pack into a borrowed Buick. 

I thought about the real choice that Black people had during that time, whether you lived in Beauford, North Carolina like my mother and grandparents or Sharpeville, South Africa, the courage to stay and fight and the courage to escape to in search of a better life elsewhere were both heartbreaking alternatives to the idea of a system of government and a society at large deciding by its own moral conscience to accept you as an valued human being with the equal rights of a full citizen.

I realized that the choice to stand up peacefully and resist apartheid in racist South Africa and the choice to flee Jim Crow in the racist American South was really not a choice at all, as much as it was an ultimatum presented by authorities who felt compelled to stratify Blacks at the very bottom of a constructed social order that refused to recognize their humanity and right to life under the protection of freedom and justice. I realized that morning that racism, at its core, is not really about casting feelings of shame. It’s not merely about microaggressions, and minor indignations in office places and in social settings. Racism is a disease resident in power structures and systems of authority that is used as justification to eliminate the rights of a people and subjugate them in the pursuit of social, political and economic dominance. And in the middle of that dynamic, power and dominance is enforced with a constant campaign of fear, intimidation, and violence towards people whose backs are constantly against a burning wall.

I sat up in my bed that morning on March 21st , after all of this reflection and deep realization, and could hear my two sons moving about in the hallway outside of my room. Neither of them was given time off to observe the holiday, as one was fumbling through the kitchen to pack his lunch for school and the oldest was  scrambling to get dressed for work.  I realized that they had both grown up in a world where racism, although banished from the written laws of the free world, does still rear its ugly head in an attempt to threaten their young and hopeful lives as they navigate the fragile social environment of our country and our world.

I am hopeful that each day, on March 21st, as we observe the International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination, we can recognize that we must all fight to eliminate the bigotry, racism, and discrimination that exists in our institutions and in our communities so that no one will have to endure the ultimatum to either stand in resistance to, or flee in terror of, racist authorities that threatens to divide our society and a world ailing from the legacy of division and strife.