Not long after I arrived in Britain from America three years ago, I saw a television documentary that brought home the paradoxes of racial perspective. The documentary was about children born to black American soldiers and white British women during the second world war. When the war ended and the soldiers returned to the US, the children were often abandoned to orphanages by mothers who didn't want to raise black babies on their own. In a few cases, the fathers wrote to ask that their children be sent to America. But their requests were denied.
To British social workers seeing pictures of the "colored" and "white" toilets and water fountains of the South in the 1950s, it was obvious that these children would be better off in a less segregated, less systemically hostile environment. To me, it was obvious that they would have been much better off being raised in a black community in which they would have found support and affirmation, rather than being forced to cope with racism in isolation.
The problem of the next guy's racism being so much more obvious than our own was writ large this week during the negotiations leading up to UN World Conference Against Racism. One of the difficulties with racism is that sometimes it's easier to see when you're not right next to it. The racism that's closest to you can become so familiar you don't recognize its potency, whereas the racism that's far away and foreign appears particularly vile.
Delegates are meeting in Durban, South Africa, purportedly to discuss the "sources, cause, forms and contemporary manifestations of racism" and "provision for effective remedies, recourses [and] redress". But apparently these delegates have interpreted this to mean that they will debate someone else's manifestations of racism, not their own, and preferably not that of a political ally.
So we have the US and UK twisting arms to get discussion of reparations for slavery off the agenda. And we have the US refusing to send the secretary of state, Colin Powell, to the conference because the documents contain criticisms of Israel's treatment of the Palestinians. Meanwhile, under the cover of the commotion surrounding reparations and Zionism, other countries have spent the last few months trying to get their own racist practices off the agenda - countries like India, whose foreign minister insists the caste system is not racist, and China, which is trying to erase the question of Tibet from the official conference documents.
This must be frustrating for Switzerland, which is the country that proposed that India's caste system be debated. But, of course, this is the same Switzerland that waited 40 years to approve, via a referendum, a 1955 UN convention, which had already been signed by 137 other countries, to make racial discrimination illegal. Not that this robs the Swiss of the right to condemn injustices perpetrated in other nations. But I hope Switzerland is willing to let India have a go at it for, say, the recent political successes of its far-right, anti-immigrant party.
This is shaping up to be a conference in which the wealthiest and strongest countries get to decide whose racism matters. The only thing left to discuss will be the racist practices of countries that aren't powerful or politically savvy enough to keep their problems off the agenda.
Hopeless as the conference might appear, the news is not all bad. Sometimes even the most politically tame event can have unexpected consequences. Take the reparations issue. True, any meaningful discussion of the impact of European and American slavery is unlikely. But the conference has brought this issue unprecedented international attention.
The idea of reparations for slavery has been relegated to the margins of US political life since the 1870s, but in the last few years its apparently dying embers have sparked into a political bonfire. A group of lawyers, activists and academics is planning to sue the federal government, demanding that it pay up not only for 250 years of slavery, but for the 90 years of racial apartheid that followed. What the UN conference has done is stoke the flames.
It has forced the Bush administration to acknowledge the demand and take a position. The government can run from a UN conference, but it will have a harder time running from the US courts. So if the US campaign to bring the federal government to trial makes any headway, its successes would in turn bolster efforts to look at the international slave trade.
Whether or not you agree with reparations, the process of examining slavery and its consequences is a way of forcing the most powerful countries in the world to take responsibility for long histories of colonialism and oppression. It's a way of getting the US and the UK to put their own legacies of racism into perspective.
Tara Mack is an American journalist based in London
© Guardian Newspapers Limited 2001