Only a small sign next to the old building’s doorbell indicates that I’m in the right place: at SOS Racismo’s headquarters. As I knock on the door, Mamadou Ba, head of the association, opens first the old-fashioned peephole, checks who’s coming and then lets me in.
SOS Racismo will soon celebrate its 30th anniversary, and it is the best known anti-racist association in the country. The association’s office has shelves full of anti-racist literature and filing cabinets packed with documents concerning issues such as racist police violence cases – the European Council recently urged Portugal to tackle police violence that often targets those of African descent and immigrants.
For Ba, education is one of the principal areas of anti-racist work, and it has been on the agenda of the association since its foundation.
“Racism survives because of the education system. If the system was radically anti-racist, we would have advanced much more by now,” he says. As that is not the case, there is much work to be done.
What is anti-racist education?
For Mamadou Ba, there are two efficient methods for fighting racism: the first is to put an end to white supremacy, and education is the way to do that. The second consists of public policies that intervene in structural racism.
But what is anti-racist education and how can it be supplied? The first step is to acknowledge that racism exists.
“There is a certain elite that has been formatted to think that racism disappears if we don’t talk about it, and that the best way to deal with it is to transform it into a taboo,” Ba says.
Cristina Roldão, a sociologist whose work concerns education especially from the perspective of black students and who provides anti-racist training to teachers and future teachers, also brings up the issue of silencing racism as we talk on Zoom.
“It is essential to stop being ‘colour-blind’ and to acknowledge the structural and political dimension of racism,” Roldão explains. The idea is to focus on these dimensions instead of considering racism as a simple moral issue, resulting from ignorance or fear. “Racism is integral to how capitalism and nation-states are organised.”
Both Roldão and Ba also underline the necessity of critically discussing Portugal’s colonial history from various perspectives, and deconstructing the idea that the Portuguese were exceptionally humane colonisers, an opinion that is still strongly present.
If we had quotas in Portugal, it would send a strong message: racism exists and it is structural.
Hence, anti-racist education means creating space for critical discussion, revisiting history and unlearning. Roldão also sees media and laws as important channels for education, and mentions racial quotas in education as an example. “If we had quotas in Portugal, it would send a strong message: racism exists and it is structural.”
The work done so far has not been in vain. Roldão sees that there has been a shift in the last five years, and especially the younger generations are more prepared to acknowledge the existence of racism and discuss it.
After our conversation, more good news emerges: the National Council of Education in Portugal has published a recommendation regarding citizenship and anti-racist education including 10 different measures, such as collecting data on the racial and ethnic backgrounds of the pupils, which would enable the detection of inequalities related to structural racism.
The recommendation also suggests a wider, more critical discussion regarding colonialism and creation of a national programme of anti-racist education.
The council judges that anti-racist education should be considered part of citizenship education, as racism is a threat to democracy.
Alternative models and spaces of education are needed
Much of the discussion regarding anti-racism and education focuses on schools, but how can adults be reached?
Ba shows some materials SOS Racismo has created over the years, such as an argumentation guide and a cartoon. Many of the materials are for adults. The association also organises educational events, such as yearly anti-racist training that lasts a few days.
“We bring together people who think outside the box. We discuss topics such as what it means to live in a diverse city, and how this diversity can be reflected on an institutional level.”
Ba also considers it important to value knowledge produced outside the Western canon, and to include the contributions of various cultures in education. This is why SOS Racismo is currently working on a dictionary of invisibilities that aims to bring up knowledge that has been excluded from the current system of education.
Moreover, according to Ba, it is also important to pay attention to spaces of learning, as many of the traditional Western methods and settings do not support inclusivity and equality. “We need to reformulate the offer and also to use informal channels,” he says. “The more generations we can reach, the greater difference we can make.”
There are adults everywhere, so anti-racist education should take place everywhere.
The necessity for comprehensive anti-racist adult education is also brought up by Danilo Cardoso, a history teacher and PhD student. He moved to Lisbon from Brazil five years ago and is one of the founding members of Grupo Educar, a platform of anti-racist educators.
Educar organises regular meetings, and the approach is horizontal and collective, influenced by the methods of the Brazilian educator and philosopher Paulo Freire, known for his work Pedagogy of the Oppressed.
“The format is a circle where we get to know each other, have a conversation and where listening is more important than speaking”, he explains. Cardoso himself has been working with joining art and learning and creating collective pieces of art, which are also methods employed by Grupo Educar.
He also points out that it is important to pay attention to vocabulary. “We need to create appropriate terms, and stop using vocabulary that reflects colonial imagery.”
When I ask him in what kind of spaces anti-racist adult education can take place, his answer is simple. “There are adults everywhere, so anti-racist education should take place everywhere from work places to museums, health services and the border control agency SEF,” Cardoso says. “The state should be committed to anti-racist education.”
Currently Grupo Educar is organising a cycle of meetings that focus on discussing whiteness. For Cardoso this is an important shift, since it allows discussion of the structures that maintain racism instead of focusing only on the experiences of racialised participants.
Whiteness in the context of anti-racism refers to a social construct, not skin colour as such. It is often discussed together with white privilege, which means being free of certain disadvantages that racialised people have.
“It is whiteness that maintains this failed system,” says Cardoso. “We need to proceed from the phase of acknowledgement of privileges and do something about the privileges.”
For him, breaking the silence surrounding whiteness and racism is a significant challenge, but openly discussing it brings benefits. “Portugal has nothing to lose”, he says.
Cristina Roldão brings up the concept of white fragility. She says that, when she is giving anti-racist training to teachers, the first part of the day is often needed to dismantle defence mechanisms and resistance to discussing racism. White fragility causes these obstacles.
There is also a necessity to fight against the racism that black people have internalised.
“The trainees feel that they are being personally attacked. It is necessary to explain that it’s not about them as individuals; it’s necessary to explain what institutional racism is, that it’s about the system. I explain what segregation in schools means, and what the issues are with school books,” says Roldão. “The reactions can be very emotional. People cry, get angry or leave the room.”
Roldão adds that giving these training sessions can be consuming for her too; she hasn’t yet figured out how to protect herself. However, she considers that it is important for the trainees to have dialogues with racialised educators.
Anti-racist education for racialised people
Towards the end of our conversation Roldão reminds me that anti-racist education is not only targeted at white people. Anti-racist education also means creating tools and circulating information that is useful for racialised people who encounter many forms of racism.
“The initiatives that exist within social movements are often ignored, but we should pay attention to informal training sessions and lectures organised in black communities, literacy education for black women in a manner that doesn’t disregard their life experiences, reading clubs of black women, media channels targeted principally a racialised audiences, and so on. All these are spaces for learning and often targeted at adults,” Roldão points out. “There is also a necessity to fight against the racism that black people have internalised.”
Much of SOS Racismo’s work is directed at racialised communities, too. For example, they work closely with Portugal’s Roma communities, which are heavily discriminated against.
Mamadou Ba says that all the current leaders of Roma activism in Portugal have at some point participated in SOS Racismo’s activities. They have then moved on to create their own, autonomous associations whose work has, for example, resulted in more Roma people accessing university education.
Ba also says that more black people are becoming aware of institutional racism and often get in touch with SOS Racismo when they are denied their rights at the workplace or access to public services. Previously they often sought advice only in situations of violent racist aggression.
“It’s very comforting to see that we have managed to do something, even if we didn’t change the world,” says Ba.
Background: Why is anti-racist education in Portugal particularly urgently needed right now?
The anti-racist association SOS Racismo has recently been growing fast, according to Mamadou Ba, the association’s leader. “People get in touch with us from all over the country and they are very eager to act against racism,” he says.
While Ba is happy about the situation, the reasons behind the growth are grim.
There have been many anti-racist protests in Portugal in 2019 and 2020 as a response to incidents such as the violent death of a Cape Verdean student, Luís Giovani Rodrigues, in Northern Portugal, police violence against a black women, Claudia Simões, and the murder of the actor Bruno Candé, shot dead by a man shouting racist slurs.
A protest in Lisbon following George Floyd’s murder was the largest anti-racist protest in the country so far, and protesters also shouted the names of the Portuguese victims of police violence.
Last year was the first year that a far-right party, Chega, had entered the Portuguese parliament since the revolution that put an end to a dictatorship in 1974. The party’s only MP is its leader André Ventura. “We can thank André Ventura for the flood of new membership requests,” says Ba mischievously.
In August, there was a protest in front of the building against SOS Racismo’s work: a group of people with torches and their faces completely covered in white masks appeared at the building at night. It was organised by a far-right group.
“We have always been targets of the far right. The attacks have grown significantly with the rise of anti-racist activism, and the far right see us as the face of this activism,” Ba explains.
Ba, a visible figure of anti-racist activism in Portugal, has also been targeted in person by many forms of harassment. “No-one should have to get used to violence, but I am used to it,” he says.
He was one of the people who received a message in August saying that he had to leave Portugal in 48 hours or he and his family would suffer the consequences. Among the other recipients of this message were two recently elected MPs, Beatriz Dias and Joacine Katar Moreira, both black women.
Ba underlines that, even when he is the direct target of the attacks, for him it is all about the community that has stood by him and demonstrated solidarity in difficult moments. “I am not alone in this battle, and attacks against me are attacks against the community, attempts to weaken the anti-racist fight,” he says.
While the above-mentioned incidents have gained much attention, they are only the tip of the iceberg. Ba mentions as an example how the pandemic is being used for justifying heavy policing in neighbourhoods where most of the residents are racialised, as if they were to blame for the situation.
Moreover, Romaphobia, discrimination against the Roma, is also widespread. For example, a few years ago a Roma community in Santo Aleixo da Restauração, 200 kilometres from Lisbon, was attacked: houses, cars and a church that the population visited were set on fire, death threats with swastikas were written on the walls and coffins were placed outside houses.
Roma children have also been discriminated against in schools, and there has been news about the segregation of Roma pupils. In Portugal, the Roma population lives in particularly bad conditions, often without access to running water, electricity and public services, and excluded from the rest of the society, the European Union Agency for Fundamental Rights noted this year.
Ba explains that this extensive, ancient and structural Romaphobia is fed and used to advantage by figures such as Ventura, who was recently fined for discriminating against the Roma.
“Portuguese democracy isn’t mature yet,” says Ba. In this sense, anti-racist education is also work towards stronger democracy.