24 February 2011
CHICAGO REFLECTION: a Delegation Leader Ponders Racism and
White Privilege in Kurdish Iraq
by Claire Evans
As Christian Peacemaker Teams has introduced Undoing Racism
into all aspects of our organization over the past few years, I, as delegations
coordinator, have been integrating the topic into orientation materials for
delegates. “Racism is often a root
cause or at least a significant factor in war, and unless we have a clue about
that, our work will be superficial, or worse, deeply damaging,” one document
reads. Specifically, the materials
cite racism of White, European, and European-descended people against people of
color as a cause of war. Undoing
racism means that those of us who are White have to first see and then take
responsibility for that privilege.
Thus, when I led a delegation to the Kurdish north of Iraq
last fall, I tried hard to encourage delegates to ask questions about racism,
and its corollary, White privilege, when interpreting what we were learning
about the situation in northern Iraq.
Not everybody “got it.” After visiting sites of Saddam Hussein’s brutality against
the Kurds, where thousands of people lost their lives, they could see that
Kurdish people were victims of atrocities because of their ethnic identity. But racism of White people against people
of color? Where could we see that?
I knew that European powers had created Iraq after World War
I with little regard for the impact of its borders on the people who lived
there, and I felt sure this racist action had repercussions in the current conflict. I also believed that the United States
would not have so easily declared war in 2003 if the people like George W.
Bush, Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld had not felt the ingrained effects of
White privilege, which caused them to consider the lives of the people of color
populating Iraq worth less than people who looked like them.
However, even though I knew these aspects of racism, I was
chagrined to find that I could not better articulate the way that White
privilege had molded conflicts in the region for the three White delegates. (The
young Kurdish delegate, however, readily understood the concept.)
Compelled by this feeling of inadequacy, as soon as I got
home I began to research more thoroughly the history of Kurdish Iraq.
Quil Lawrence, in his book Invisible Nation (1), outlines how the relationship of the U.S. to
the Kurds has been opportunistic for most of the past century, encouraging and
affiliating with Kurdish leaders when it has been advantageous to the U.S. and
having no respect for earlier communications, agreements, or relationships when
it was not. A case in point is how
the U.S. implied after the 1991 Gulf War that it would support a Kurdish uprising
and then did not. Would the U.S.
have been so cavalier about a relationship with a country whose population was
Barry Lando, in Web of
Deceit (2), indicates a shocking continuity of thought by British and U.S.
military men regarding Kurds and Arabs in the region over the decades. British
officers told Parliament in 1925, “The natives of a lot of these tribes
[Kurds] love fighting for fighting’s sake. … They have no objection to being killed.” (3) During the 1991 Gulf War a senior
U.S. Air Force Officer, commenting on the U.S. bombing of civilian targets in
Iraq, said, “The definition of ‘innocent’ gets to be a little bit unclear.” (4) Would these men have said the same
concerning the lives of their own loved ones?
What do we White citizens of the world do with this
information? Letting go of
defensiveness is probably the first step. Gaining insight a second. Admitting our complicity. Working to hold our governments
accountable. But some action is
necessary. Inaction is a default to the current situation. And if we want to move the world toward
justice and peace, this default is simply not acceptable.
(1) Lawrence, Quil. Invisible
nation: how the Kurds’ quest for statehood is shaping Iraq and the Middle East.
(2) Lando, Barry. Web
of Deceit: the history of Western complicity in Iraq from Churchill to Kennedy
to George W. Bush. Other Press, 2007
(3) Lando, p. 17.
(4) Lando, p. 187.