The recent protests against police brutality towards black people in the United States have reverberated around the world and shone a light on the deadly impact of racism globally, including in Australia and New Zealand.
Médecins Sans Frontières/Doctors Without Borders (MSF) is an independent medical humanitarian organisation. For almost five decades we have offered medical assistance to people based on needs and irrespective of their race, religion, gender, or political affiliation. We also speak out, including when we witness acts of violence, or deprivation of care, directed towards people simply because of who they are.
But MSF is not immune to racism. In Australia and New Zealand, where racism is an ongoing problem that directly affects many, MSF knows we must do more. MSF Australia and MSF New Zealand are committed to preventing racism and discrimination within our organisation, and to strengthening our diversity and inclusion approach for all.
MSF is known for speaking out about how our patients are suffering. Right now, we are also listening. We wanted to share with you a personal testimony on this matter from two MSF colleagues, Charity Kamau, MSF lab advisor and Arunn Jegan, an Australian MSF country director.
I, Charity, am a black woman, and I, Arunn, am a person of colour. We work as humanitarians, and it’s not always okay.
It’s not okay to be a proud humanitarian who does not see colour/race. While racial colour blindness sounds innocuous at face value, it provides a great excuse to ignore structural inequities, and you can’t help fix something you can’t see.
It's not okay to acknowledge the system needs to change without interrogating how we play a role in perpetuating this system.
It's not okay that our colleagues have to ask whether we've experienced racism when racism is an inevitable part of our day-to-day experience as BIPoC (Black, Indigenous, & Persons of Colour).
It is not okay to question the spirit of our commitment because of where we were born. We are humanitarians.
It’s not okay if you think that just by having BIPoC friends/or team members, you can claim to have no bias when it comes to race.
It is not okay to avoid all conversations involving race because you might say the wrong thing, and it’s not okay to think those conversations take away from the core mission of humanitarian work.
It is not okay if we view racism on its own without looking at the interconnected nature of race, class, and gender.
It’s not okay to think that BIPoC "benefit” because of diversity and inclusion policies at the expense of everyone else. Organisations benefit from having employees with diverse and varied backgrounds.
It’s not okay to be smug for hiring BIPoC, especially if you still subtly think they are less qualified than others and therefore have different expectations.
It’s not okay to be content with an organisational structure where the majority of the employees are BIPoC, but only a handful of them hold any positions of influence.
It’s not okay to expect us to be permanent educators on matters of racism or to be the ones to always call out racist conduct. A variety of resources and opportunities to be educated are already available.
It’s not okay to help fight the effects of conflict, poverty and disease globally but remain blissfully unaware of racial privileges and exclusions that colour the world around us. The same principles of humanity that birthed our collective determination to support people in crisis, animates the struggle to overcome racism.
It is okay if we all acknowledge that these conversations are uncomfortable and that they are both necessary and overdue.
It is okay if we recognise division without reinforcing it. There are dangers in narrowly categorising humans, or singular identities. The hope of harmony lies in a clearer understanding of our sheer diversity and seeing each person’s background as a lived experience, rather than a static destiny.
It is okay if intersectionality is the prescriptive lens for this stigmatism.
It is okay if we try to understand the lived experience of BIPoC, to listen to them, and use this moment to educate ourselves n what structural racism is and our role in it.
It is okay if we acknowledge our own organisational history, the dangers of any ”saviour complex” and to continuously address the lingering legacies of this.
It is okay if we ensure our diversity and inclusion policies are not tokenistic, but instead are the normal, lived experience of all humanitarian staff, with trust given and earned uniformly.
It is okay if each of us stops reflexively reassuring ourselves that "I am not a racist”, and instead asks “how am I upholding racism and what honest and tangible steps am I going to take to start reversing this individually, institutionally, and in our work”.
It is okay if we, as humanitarians, stand in solidarity, raise our voices against racism and most importantly look inwards to address this individually and organisationally with urgency and commitment to a tangible action plan.
They say “the best time to plant a tree is twenty years ago, the second best time is right now”. So let’s plant a tree.
- Charity Kamau & Arunn Jegan