Racism across the Diaspora: Personal Narratives from South Africa, UK and USA

Open to Everyone
Free to Attend


Dr Maina Chawla Singh

Scholar in Residence, American University, Washington DC

Hannah Lowe

Hannah Lowe, Research Fellow, Dialogue Society

Prof Kehinde Andrews

Academic, Activist and Author

Prof Ruba Salih

Department of Anthropology and Sociology, SOAS University of London

Prof Xolela Mangcu

Department of Sociology, University of Cape Town

The second panel discussion in our Racial Equality Panel Series will take place on the 24th of June, at 6pm, and will focus on “Racism across the Diaspora: Personal Narratives from South Africa, USA & UK”.

This panel discussion aims to create a space for personal narratives of racism to be shared, relating these experiences to the wider racial politics and history of the UK, USA, and South Africa. As three states with distinct racial histories, this panel intends to shine a personal light on the impact of historical and political racism that pervades the lives of BIPOC. Focussing on these three countries will provide a foundation for a comparative case study on the lived realities of racism. As part of a series that aims to highlight the multi-faceted and layered dimensions of racism, we are excited about this challenging, engaging, and important discussion.

Racism across the Diaspora: Personal Narratives from South Africa, UK and USA


Prof Xolela Mangu’s presentation focuses on different approaches to dealing with and responding to racism. Highlighting that while not unique to South Africa, there have been two dominant approaches throughout South Africa’s history. Firstly, there is the black radical, black consciousness approach influenced by Steve Biko. Then there is the integrationist, non-racial movement which is associated with Nelson Mandela. Professor Mangcu notes that people talk about Mandela to the exclusion of figures like Biko which is a shame because there is so much in the writing about race in South Africa that comes from these other individuals, and this then leads to an imbalance in the overriding narrative.

Professor Mangcu grew up during the black consciousness movement influenced by Steve Biko, and explains that central to the black consciousness movement on the one hand is the challenge of fighting racism on a policy and structural level, but also a question of how we deal with how racism affects us as individuals and as communities. Therefore, there is this outer-directed approach, but also this inner-directed approach, however, the latter is often left out of conversations. Professor Mangcu explains this issue further by saying that when we focus on the structural dimensions of racism, we run the risk of reinforcing white supremacy by giving white people too much power. He argues that in addressing white people there is always the risk of reinforcing that sense of supremacy over black people, as the more you say ‘I want this from you’, the more you give people power over you.

So how do we deal with fighting racism but also provide within the black community an armour or a buffer? How do we protect ourselves as black people against dehumanisation and degradation?

Professor Mangcu goes on to focus on the role of identity within the struggle for racial equality, highlighting that when your identity has been questioned you foreground, by definition, the notion of identity. Professor Mangcu demonstrates the importance of having a secure identity within yourself, noting that even as he walked into white spaces, he always had a sense that he mattered and that he was not going to be defined by other people. He wants to inject that dimension identity into the conversation, but not at the expense of the outer-directed dimension.

Professor Mangcu then begins to address issues of racial equality in America, commenting that typically the concept of American exceptionalism has affected the way that the movement itself approach questions of racism. As whilst there is a reflective culture in America, it tends to reflect on American history to the exclusion of what has or is happening across the rest of the world. Professor Mangcu states that one of the successes of the anti-apartheid movement was that it was a global movement and received a lot of international support. Therefore, the second thing he would like to see in the conversation on racism is a turning of the gaze from the United States to a focus on mobilising the international community to spotlight what is happening in other countries as well.

To conclude, Professor Mangcu emphasises that there are limits to what we can do, stating that to certain degrees we can convince other people not to hate us, but ultimately you have to generate your own self-respect without depending too much on what other people think or do not think about you. Professor Mangcu finishes by stating that it is on that basis you can wage the fight against racism without depending on white validation.

Dr Maina Chawla Singh starts by shifting the conversation a little to speak about the Indian diaspora, in particular, American Indians in the U.S. Speaking about their community position as Indians, as Asians as Americans and their embeddedness in US society and within US politics, their racial exclusions and how that is experienced. Dr Singh has had very close interactions professionally and personally, across generations and ideological divides with the Indian American community.

Beginning with an introduction to the Indian American community, Dr Singh states that there are four million Indian Americans, which account for only 1% of the US population. There have been some stunning first-generation success stories with the Head of Google, Microsoft and Adobe all being Indian American. They also are present as scientists in medicine, space, technology etc. 72% of Indian Americans below the age of twenty-five have a bachelor’s degree and 40% have a post-bachelor’s degree, while the national averages are 19% and 11% respectively. Most American Indians are democrats. Professor Singh highlights however that the community is not a monolith as there are also lower-income families with an estimated over 500,000 undocumented Indians in the US.

Dr Singh begins to explore the involvement of racism in the history of the Indian American community, stating that there have always been racial stereotypes, comments on dress, accents made against this community. Specifically, she mentions that during her research children have recounted personal narratives where they have been teased and bullied at school because of what was in their lunchboxes. Furthermore, Dr Singh outlines that there have also been racially motivated attacks, especially post 9/11, where the Seik Turban was often misidentified as a Muslim turban so these racialised attacks became part of islamophobia, with many Seikh Indian Americans becoming victims of this racial violence. Focussing on the personal narratives Dr Singh has heard during her research she highlights the experiences of young Indian Americans running for office, for example, Raj Goyal who ran for Kansas, and Jay Goyal running for Ohio. They were both running from small towns where there were not large Indian American populations, and highlighted how they often had to explain and justify themselves running for office during electoral campaigns and attempt to create acceptance for themselves.

Dr Singh then goes on to speak about the increase in broader anti-Asian violence which has been fuelled during the Trump years. However, Dr Singh adds that scapegoating of this kind has a long history in the US, where Asian Americans were targeted either because they were seen as coming from a country that was a source of disease or because of other negative stereotypes. Between 2019-2021 there has been a huge increase in anti-Asian bias and violence. In fact, 1 in 2 Indian Americans has recently experienced some form of racism.

Focusing on the experiences of second-generation Indian Americans, Dr Singh states that second-generation children often went to good schools and colleges, and combined with an emphasis at home on education, these second-generation Indian Americans were beneficiaries of the intellectual cross-currents at college and many of them began to question the political apathy of the previous generation. The parent generation was very shy of activism, which is where the second generation has made a very decisive shift towards political mobilisation which is quite strategically organised. The second generation was born as American citizens, they were born in American suburbia, they have navigated their minority status in childhood. So, Dr Singh states that their coming of age was really about issues of identity, race and ethnicity and of belonging, and what the US as their homeland owed to them.

The emerging narrative is what Dr Singh calls pride, politics and pushback. There is a pride in the second generation of being American and claiming that ethnicity. Unlike their parents, there is a paradigm shift in the second generation for calling out racism for what it is, and by disseminating research that actually names racism. Beyond that, the other important aspect of this shift that Dr Singh highlights is strategic political mobilisation. In particular, in the run-up to the Obama campaign Indian Americans were very active, especially the millennials, in electoral fundraising and so forth. Some of this was visible in 2010 when five Indian Americans ran for congress for the first time, they were all democrats. By 2016 there were five Indian Americans in the US congress, all democrats. Dr Singh continues by highlighting the story of Kamala Harris as an important strand at this point as she is biracial, the child of immigrants and has vocalised her appreciation for her Indian heritage. She has become an inspirational figure for the US-born children because she represents the politics of the possible.

In conclusion, Dr Singh’s research highlights the role of growing political mobilisation in pushing back racial exclusion, she sees this next generation as a catalyst for change, teaching the older generation to rethink racial solidarities.

Prof Kehinde Andrews speaks on the history of racism in the UK and the experiences of the black community in the UK. Beginning by stating that Black Studies as a subject is heavily influenced by the work of Black Feminism and the idea of having a standpoint, where your personal experiences provide a good place to start from to understand the situation, and then allow to broaden your understanding. Professor Andrews point out however that focusing on personal narratives can become too autobiographical, although acknowledging there is a long history of drawing out our own experiences and biographies and using that to illuminate different processes and systems of oppression.

Professor Andrews states that the UK is an interesting space, particularly compared to the US, because of the different migration patterns that impact the UK’s racial history and politics. Specifically, because slavery happened abroad, Professor Andrews highlights that it should be very difficult for us to take a nationalist approach when talking about racism, which, as Professor Mangcu mentioned above is one of the problems with some of the African American scholarship. Rather, Professor Andrews emphasises that by focusing on the UK’s experience, you are able to see the way that global networks work and function. The British Empire was 24% of the world, the largest empire in history and because of that Britain has been a really important conduit for a lot of black radical and black political thought. For example, Professor Andrews states that it is not a coincidence that the Pan African Movement began in London in 1900. There is a long history in the country of this quite diasporic organisation and activism.

Professor Andrews then explores his personal history and connection to black politics, with both his parents heavily involved in the British Black Power movement. Stating that the British Black Power movement in the 1960s and 1970s was largely about education, Professor Andrews focusses on the bookshop movements where books were collected and curated overtime by the community. Stating that it is easy today to find information, but that in the past communities had to organise to make sure books were imported. Professor Andrews highlights that the first black book shop was London New Beacons books in 1969, and goes onto remember his experiences volunteering for Birmingham’s Harriet Tomlin bookshop which started in the 1970s, and how important simply being around information was to him as a young person.

Professor Andrews highlights the community-based movements that the UK has seen, particularly revolving around racism in education, starting by highlighting that when people immigrated from other countries, many expected that their children would get good educations and were quite surprised to find out that it was the opposite. As a result, the black community had to organise itself, and one key aspect of this was the supplementary schools or Saturday schools that would be organised by people in their own homes to boost children’s education. Professor Andrews states that that kind of activism was really important for the progress that has been made overtime towards racial equality. Indeed, education was a really important part of the British Black Power movement and these legacies have been carried on.

Professor Andrews then points out the challenge that these early community-based movements in the 60s and 70s present us with today. As you gain more access into the system, you lose that activist, locally organised background and become more a part of the institution. Professor Andrews concludes by explaining that it is this challenge, to maintain that radical work, within our institutions, particularly with universities, that we now face. Indeed, Professor Andrews poses the question that while these days a figure like Malcolm X would likely have been a professor, if this were the case would he still have been Malcolm X? Would we have lost something in that knowledge and incorporation into the institution? Professor Andrews finishes by asking the question of how we can stay true to the community based, radical roots of movements when we are now inside bigger institutions?

About Racial Equality Panel Series

Dialogue Society is pleased to announce a new online panel series on racial equality aiming to highlight the multi-faceted and layered dimensions of racism and how this negatively impacts society. Moving from individual experiences to the impact racism has more broadly in our workplaces, politics, and culture, this panel series aims to focus on positive approaches that work towards the goal of racial equality.

The series has three panels, each one focusing on a particular theme:

  1. Fostering Inclusive Workplaces – 27 May
  2. Racism across the Diaspora: Personal Narratives from South Africa, USA & UK – 24 June
  3. The Implications of Racism on Mental Health: Overcoming Structural Obstacles – 15 July

The first panel will discuss the importance of truly inclusive workplaces, what this means in practice across a range of sectors, and how such an environment can best be fostered.

The second panel will create a space for personal narratives to be shared between individuals from the UK, South Africa, and America. As three states with distinct racial histories, this panel intends to shine a personal light on the impact of historical and political racism that pervades the lives of BIPOC, as well as provide the groundwork for a comparative case study.

The final panel highlights the correlation between racism and mental health, exploring this issue through a structural and institutional lens to uncover the factors that lead to negative mental health consequences of racism for BIPOC. This panel will also emphasise the barriers that prevent BIPOC from accessing mental health treatment and aim to highlight how effective treatment can become more accessible to the most vulnerable groups.