Racial Justice, Climate Activism, Self-Repair: building a new paradigm with Esther Stanford-Xosei

In August 2021, I attended an event in Brixton, London, hosted by the Stop The Maangamizi Campaign, in partnership with the Afrikan Emancipation Day Reparations March Committee. This event was supported by XRISN, an arm of the climate activist group, Extinction Rebellion. Several impressive community leaders spoke about creating a paradigm shift. One woman, Esther Stanford-Xosei, particularly struck me.Radiating a humanity and warmth that was underpinned by a razor-sharp intellect, Esther's speech was hard hitting, but noticeably free of the polarisation and ideological positions that frequently straitjacket serious conversations on climate and race. A few months later I had the opportunity of interviewing Esther for 3rd Space. We discussed the climate crisis and her work, and its place in connecting the social movements of de-colonisation, racial justice, and climate activism with discovering healthy identities,new ways of being and relating.

Planet Repair – Pre-Figuring a New World

3rd Space: Welcome to 3rd Space, Esther. I am going to dive straight in. (Smiles) Given the current systemic and existential crisis we’re facing globally through climate change and ecological breakdown, could you tell us about your work and how it relates to this crisis?

Esther: That is a big question. But it’s an excellent question. I’ll begin by explaining my work as a ‘reparationist’, which basically means a reparations scholar, activist, and campaigner. When people think about reparations, it’s usually narrowed to issues of financial compensation. But essentially reparations is about stopping harm and repairing damage. And as a reparationist, one of the lenses of my work is advocating for planet repair. 

When safeguarding the rights of past, present, and future generations, it is necessary to proceed from the nexus that exists between reparatory, environmental, and also cognitive justice. To holistically repair our relationship with and inseparability from Mother Earth and the environment, we need to recognise the fact that indigenous knowledge stands in contrast with Western or Eurocentric Enlightenment ideals. The latter separated humanity from nature and thereby justified capital accumulation at the earth’s expense. So “planet repair” is the remedy for this system – a globalised system of inequality and injustice. White supremacy, neoliberal globalisation, or simply capitalism are other ways that people define this system of destruction and death; a system that is about extracting and extractivism, about commodifying people, Mother Nature, the very planet that we live on. 

This mindset has dominated political, economic and legal systems justifying plunder, dispossession and exploitation. The antidote is planet repairs. This is not only about stopping the harm being done to specific groups of people through historical or contemporary injustice. It’s also about recognising the harm done to our Earth Mother, sustainer of all life. So, my work is about a paradigm change from one of extractivism, exploitation, competition, and hierarchy; whether on racial, gender, sex or class lines.

It’s also about looking at how we bring about a new world, a new world order. I refer to this as a post-reparations global order. It’s one based on a state of balance and equilibrium, on knowing how to stop when we’ve taken enough. It means knowing we not only have rights, but we also have responsibilities. We have duties. There is a symbiotic relationship between human beings and all other beings, including non-human (beings) in the cosmos. Indigenous people refer to these as “relations”.  

This is really what my work is about. It’s a huge area because it has no limits or boundaries. A reparations paradigm and lens is one that is totally holistic. It’s about stopping contemporary wrongs, harms, and abuses. But, it’s not just about resisting the system. It’s about prefiguring a new world, new relations, new communities, new ways of being and relating to all life forms.

Movements of Resistance: The Power of Cross-Cultural Dialogue

3rd Space: When I first discovered your work, what drew me was the holistic nature of it. This clearly has a foundation in your own heritage. Our current global paradigm, as you have said, is deeply entrenched in a worldview based on separation. What are the steps to bridging the gulf between reality as it is, and a post-reparations world? 

Esther: The goal that we’re seeking is not necessarily the end, but it’s a vision of a different world. And so, to accomplish this objective, I work in a very interdisciplinary way. I work with many different groups, organisations, and movements. Because ultimately, any type of progressive social change requires people. And that’s why for me, movements are important. 

My work straddles several different movements. This includes what would be called African reparations movements, environmental movements. And I would also say social justice movements – looking at issues of inequality amongst and within groups. All the work being done by movement-builders contributes to creating a critical mass necessary to bring about change. This is being done through people embracing alternative ways of seeing, being, and relating – actually embodying their own humanity. It can also be through collective power holding powerful institutions harming not only people, but also our planet, to account.

All of this is important in terms of building the people power to be the change, right? We cannot rely on those who are benefiting from the status quo. We cannot expect them to want to end the benefits they are getting, voluntarily. That’s going to take people power. This is why it’s important to work across many different groups and organisations who are making a contribution, creating ripples. 

I do a large part of my work within African heritage communities, globally. I’m based in London, but my work is international. I work with communities on the continent of Africa, in Abya, Yala (the so-called Americas), across Europe, in the Pacific, and also Asia. But I do this through many different structures. One that’s been critical to support African heritage community organising, has been the work of Extinction Rebellion Internationalist Solidarity Network. This is a section of Extinction Rebellion (XR) in the UK. It’s developed by African and Asian heritage communities and others, to look at how we can merge rebellions. 

Many of our communities are in resistance and have been in resistance for centuries. This goes back to the time we experienced colonisation, dispossession of our lands, enslavement, and the despoilation of Mother Earth. Now it’s neo-colonialism. The Extinction Rebellion International Solidarity Network (XRISN) was created soon after XR (UK) was formed in 2018. It recognised that true rebellion needed to learn from communities who’ve been in resistance for centuries in the global south. So, we worked with XR co-founders to form the only space that’s really led by what we call “majority communities”. This specifically looks at how we can merge the rebellion practices of different communities; and how we can affect different types of internationalist solidarity.

There is a long-standing European internationalist solidarity tradition. It goes back to the campaigns against chattel enslavement and colonisation, anti-imperialist movements and so forth. So, our work is twofold. It’s about catalysing resistance, supporting and amplifying the voices of resistance of different community activists in the global south. It’s also about working to help communities in Europe remember their own heritage of abolitionism, and to find common pools. 

The XRISN’s mandate is to foster mutually respectful, cooperative and beneficial connections with people from grassroots communities of resistance. That is, those on the frontlines of the climate and ecological crisis, in both the global south and global north; those working on environmental justice. The purpose is, one – to get these perspectives represented through XR UK in its strategy and tactics on waging rebellion. But also very importantly, there is a two-way learning between XR UK and people from these communities of resistance. It’s learning through action. This challenges notions of ‘white saviourism’, as in “there’s a planet and ecological crisis, we’ve got to save the world”. 

People (of the global south) are saving themselves. But mass media focuses on NGOs. It doesn’t focus on movements of resistance on the ground that are challenging the whole paradigm. This includes the charitable and aid sectors. Those movements are about restoring sovereignty and self-determination, so people can renew and regenerate their own ways of being in the world. For centuries these have been more harmonious than what we see as the dominant paradigm today.

Disrupting White Saviourism

 3rd Space: The coalition you describe is so important; especially because it’s based on respect for the experience and knowledge that exists in the global South. I do have a question though. In challenging the posture of ‘white saviourism’, how do we navigate the deeply embedded position of entitlement in Western culture? To what degree can we dis-embed from this without understanding our own history? Here I mean specifically the destructiveness of colonialism and its active legacies today? There’s a lot of talk about white privilege. However, in my experience, unless one’s examined the moral reprehensibility of a large part of our history, it’s hard to disrupt that fundamental sense of entitlement.

Esther: You’re right. As an African person born in the diaspora, we talk a lot about mis-education. We’re all mis-educated under the same dominant paradigm. Even in many of our homelands, where supposedly we have independence, the structures of coloniality remain. These permeate our systems of law, politics, governance, religion, and education today. So, you’re right that self-learning needs to be embarked upon across the board. At the moment we’re in an era of cancel culture and political correctness, so people learn the basics. And the basics are you’ve got to know about white privilege. But unless people are personally prepared to do a deep study of themselves and their own lineage, what happens is that those racialised as white (whether from Europe, USA, Australia, Canada, or South Africa), don’t necessarily go through that process of internal self-repair and decolonisation.

Coloniality is expressed in the way people are taught to think of themselves. Directly or indirectly, having systemic power that is globalised reinforces distorted notions of self-grandiosity. White supremacy gets internalised. And so this work of reparations actually begins with self-repair, self-transformation. And that is a mutual obligation. It’s not just for people who have been colonised directly, because we know that colonisation has happened in Europe. In the UK, the legacies of this are still very present today. It’s a myth to think that communities racialised as ‘white’ haven’t experienced colonisation. But they’ve experienced it differently. So, a large part of the work that I do with others, as a reparationist, is about building across communities. It’s about dialogue and creating networks so that we can explore these paths together. 

People need to have the space to go through this themselves, according to their own group or their own identity. But what is important is to have that exchange, that dialogue. Because what we often find is that we’ve all been through something; but the myths that we’ve learned and inherited are told slightly differently to you, as they were to us. And this reinforces the notion of separation, division, superiority and inferiority, the notion of guilt and shame. We talk about “black shame” and “white guilt”. This is the shame of going through something like enslavement or colonisation. It’s the guilt of knowing that members of your group have perpetrated these systems of domination. These historic experiences leave a psychological, psychic, spiritual legacy, an impact on both groups.

3rd Space: I understand that guilt can be paralysing and obstructive to dialogue. But I sometimes wonder about the aversion to healthy shame. I’m talking here about the ‘white’ side of the paradigm. Speaking personally, I feel there is something deeply shameful about my own cultural history. And there is something profound about letting that in. It’s an ongoing process. I don’t think you do it once.

Esther: Yes, it’s lifelong.

3rd Space: Exactly. And the more one engages, it helps disrupt that visceral sense of superiority. Even with an intellectual knowledge about our history, there can be a subtle sense of superiority based on ideas that the West is more ‘advanced’ …our superior material wealth etc. From my experience, unless one lets in that we’re (the West) standing on an enormous amount of blood, there can be a layer of pride even about being on the liberal ‘edge’ of things…This is a whole other topic.

Esther: No, it’s very connected. In fact, one of the organisations that I’m a patron of, is called the Racial Justice Network. And one of the programmes I am mentoring is a course for people racialised as white, doing precisely what you’ve been speaking about. 

The mentors are all people racialized as non-white, in particular of African heritage. And we’re there to provide a degree of quality control. But the sessions are for white people, and that is where this kind of self-exploration is being done. The question then is how does this translate into action? Into movement building, showing genuine solidarity, into helping be the change. That’s where people like me, who are connected into live struggles, become important in the process. For someone whose gone through this work, it’s not just about a personal psychological awakening. It’s about embodying this understanding in a way that’s material. One that is a contribution to the struggles of different communities who’ve experienced racism or other forms of imperialism, enslavement, colonisation, or genocide. 

I’ve also done work with mental health professionals which was part of a Race and Equalities training. However, I didn’t just do the standard stuff. The training also involved professionals going through an exploration of their own identity – who they are, what is the history and baggage they might carry? What I found was that a lot of the white people never actually had the space, or thought it was important, to discuss identity because they were the ‘norm’. The conversation often went: “Well, I’m not ‘white’. I don’t identify with that. I don’t even necessarily identify with the country I was born in.”  This, itself, becomes a base for exploring privilege and power, and why it matters. But it also involves looking at the processes of developing a healthy white identity.

Listen to the full interview in the podcast here

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