Reformism upholds White supremacy

Yes, you read that right. 

We often talk about policy change, and the importance of this in making a difference. However, when we are influencing policy, we often do this by tweaking existing policies to make them a little less harmful to some people. This is reform.

When we reform or tweak a policy or system, we don’t question why the policy or system exists in the first place, and we instead just normalise it as the status quo. What we fail to do is interrogate how the modern world is built on White supremacy, so the question we need to ask is why are we content to reform or tweak it? 

White supremacy manifests itself in numerous ways. It’s commonly thought of as simply the idea of the White race as superior, often in reference to genetics. While this belief is held by many White supremacists (consciously or unconsciously), White supremacy should be more widely understood as the racist and imperialist legacies of colonialism that shape the systems and society that shape our world. It is also important to understand that this can be upheld by Black, Indigenous, and People of Colour (BIPOC) who have internalised Whiteness and racism. 

What even is ‘reformism?’

Reform is the primary mechanism of creating ‘change’ in our society. It involves incremental steps that do nothing to alter the fundamental issues behind certain policies. Campaigns have called for a 28-day limit for detention to oppose the current status of indefinite detention. Whilst reducing the time someone is held in detention may seem like the logical change to seek, it also reinforces the idea that detention is an acceptable and necessary tool for the state to use. 

In Britain, reformism was used from the 1980s to undermine anti-racist movements by replacing systemic change with a focus on individual prejudice, and abolition with representation within ongoing structures. In a nutshell, reformism has its origins in the British Empire’s attempt to suppress racial justice movements. 

Wait, isn’t it a bit extreme to suggest White supremacy is linked to reform?

Quite simply, no. Systems are built on Western imperialism and were designed to oppress. Reforms of systems, processes or policies do not challenge the oppression itself, and instead allow the oppressive status quo to persist and replicate itself. Reforming it is not enough. It must be overturned. 

So, why are we talking about it in the context of migration?

In the migration sector, for example, the bulk of advocacy work focuses on amendments and reform to immigration policies. Immigration detention is a good example of reformism upholding an inherently violent and White supremacist mechanism.  The truth is reformism can never work towards dismantling the detention state for good. Slight amendments to anti-migrant legislation are often framed as lessening harm, and this bolsters the idea that harm is acceptable on some level.   

White supremacy has shaped, and continues to shape, exclusionary migration legislation through racialised notions of worth and belonging that have come to be a defining feature of modern day bordering, and our policy initiatives.

Stop dismissing idealism

Transformational change and a world with freedom of movement are often dismissed as ‘idealistic’ by critics. Transformational change and justice addresses how all oppression is linked and forms the basis of existing structures. It aims to respond to these harms without engaging in harm reduction measures which reinforce violence or oppressive norms.

In regards to migration systems, the survival of oppressive norms is arguably only the case because the majority are content to uphold the foundations of the nation state and its borders.

The underlying concept of the European Union provides a glimpse of what this world could look like. The right to free movement sets out that all EU citizens and their family members have the right to move and reside freely within the EU. While highly imperfect and restrictive, the freedom of movement principle is a fundamental aspect of the EU.

Dismantling White Supremacy and decolonising the sector

White supremacy is the foundation of the systems that form society, including the immigration system. An abolitionist approach is therefore essential. In practice, this looks like supporting measures that reduce the power of an oppressive institution and acknowledging the system cannot tackle the crises that it is responsible for creating.

This means first acknowledging and accepting that the migrant and wider charity sector will also uphold White supremacy. So, as a start, dismantling White supremacy in the charity sector also involves decolonising it, especially migrant advocacy. The charity sector is implicated in White Saviourism and upholds colonial relationships of knowledge production i.e.  where White people create their own version of facts and history, and this is presented as universal truth. To remedy this, we call for those in the charity sector to place lived experience and the values of anti-oppression and liberation at the centre of their work.

Decolonising the charity sector means working towards making ourselves obsolete; if we truly believe in liberation, then our work must undermine the oppressive systems that necessitate our existence. Otherwise, our work is counterproductive.

We must stop attempting to tweak a system that was, and can never, be designed to serve the people. It must be dismantled. 

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