One of my favourite parables is that of the hummingbird (Yahgulanaas, 2008). In this story, which was inspired by the Quechan (an aboriginal American tribe), Dukdukdiya, a little hummingbird is watched by the burning forest’s animals flying back and forth, carrying one drop of water each time to put out the fire. When the animals ask Dukdukdiya what was the meaning of her efforts, warning her of the life-threatening dangers, the little hummingbird answered: “I am doing what I can.”

I have been working in the race equality and human rights fields for almost 20 years.

During this time, I have been inspired by a good handful of individuals who like Dukdukdiya did “what they can” to put out the fires that threaten our homes, communities and way of living. You will be surprised to hear, however, that what inspired me the most was not their intentions and good efforts to put out the fires, but their genuine sacrifice to put others first by stepping down from their high ivory towers of power and control, and by joining the communities they wanted to help. I’ve always believed that the process that leads to self-reflection and the overcoming of our own power abuse is the most difficult journey that we will ever take in our fight for equality and justice.

The two pillars of persistent race inequality and disadvantage

Since the publishing of what many have called “the government’s race report” (or more accurately the March 2021 Commission on Race and Ethnic Disparities: The Report), I have witnessed an increasing dispute and the spending of considerable resources and time between its advocates and adversaries.

Race and other equality and human rights champions and NGOs would appear on TV, radio, print and online media to condemn the report and its authors in a genuine hope that they can counter-balance its messages and “hidden agendas.” As the controversy and conflict were increasing, the passing of the Duke of Edinburgh distracted the media, but like most TV breaks, I am expecting this emotional, thriller to continue.

I, therefore, take the opportunity to watch myself and develop a self-critique in the hope that I can expose the race that really matters. And this is neither the race to win the race debate, nor the race that divides communities. But the race that racialises us all.

Personally and professionally, I have no issues with the Commission’s report.

I say this knowing the risks that are associated with such a broad statement. And we like broad statements because it means that we do not have to read the details behind them, including the data and the numerous research studies that informed the arguments from both sides condemning or defending the race report.

I have no issues with the report simply because it is a much-needed stepping stone in our path to equality and justice. It triggers a much-needed debate. This is an opportunity for a restorative justice dialogue based on the values of power-sharing, equality, dignity and respect.

Complacency and defeatism are the two pillars of persistent race and other inequalities and disadvantage.

Raising the mirror of responsibility for social justice

The invisibility of power abuse is not the result of one person or institution. It is the long-term outcome of our own inability to raise the mirror of responsibility and see the true reflection of the persistent inequalities that we manifest onto others including ourselves. Race debates and the kind of arguments that I have witnessed over the last few weeks simply serve the powerful status quo and reinforce the very reasons that lead to continuous power abuse, victimisation and the burning of our forest.

I believe that it is because of these powers of control that we fail to unite and indeed fight for each other’s differences, including race.

Just like all other equality strands, race equality is manipulated by the same forces of power and control, and thus solutions must move beyond silo thinking, and towards consensus through power-sharing and dialectic approaches.

Power and its abuse are not limited to one institution or a few individuals. It is a fluid set of social relations impacting and involving everyone, including you and me. We are all prone to combat antagonism. But we are all impelled to associate with each other and to constitute ourselves into a series of (often rival) groups. These groups are what we now call “societies” with their historical, cultural, social, financial, and ethical complexities. We must learn to co-exist and become accustomed to living with our fellow citizens in a civitas.

Therefore, I must ask you. If power is everywhere, then who is subject to the consequences of power abuse, and what have you done to rebalance the distortions of power that lead to inequality and poverty?

Social change from within

Understanding and using power are not so much about social change, but personal change from within. Hence the personal tone of my writing. We can all strive for a more balanced power in society, where the poor have more saying, and the powerful are more understanding and giving. But if we work towards these goals without a clear understanding of how power manifests itself within us then the problems shall remain.

There is only one way we can save the burning forest, and this is neither by being bystanders nor by stroking our ego. We must transform into hummingbirds of hope, courage and responsibility.

Martin Luther King Jr. said something similar: “If I cannot do great things, I can do small things in a great way.”