PFF and Social Justice
August 4, 2020
The Paper Fig Foundation has a unique place in the conversation about racism. Our mission is to empower communities in East Africa through fashion and the arts, and we believe that we do so in a sustainable and equitable way. However, it is much more complex than that. First of all, our foundation was created by a white American woman looking to use her position of power and privilege to empower others. This paradigm exists because of systemic racism that is difficult to unpack. The trope of the White Savior traveling into predominantly black areas to "help" is one we seek to break. The Paper Fig Foundation does not see itself as a group of saviors but colleagues and partners looking to work on long-term solutions to the extreme poverty that exists in East Africa. Why that poverty exists so profoundly in that region is one that requires the western world to be honest and open to their own responsibility in the global distribution of wealth.
This is only one part of the conversation, however. In Uganda, racism doesn't have the same place in society as it does in the US, Europe, and other predominantly white places. Where the Paper Fig Foundation works in Kasese, the society is still almost entirely Ugandan. So young children growing up there to not face race as a defining part of their identity on a day to day basis as people of color do in America and elsewhere.
The Paper Fig staff lives in two places: New York and Kasese. These two places have very different demographics and different issues surrounding race. Therefore, as we seek to participate in this crucial conversation, it's important to acknowledge that "we" are coming from different experiences of race. "We" are white New Yorkers, black New Yorkers, poor Ugandans, rich Ugandans. "We" are coming from a wide range of perspectives, but whether we have been hurt or helped by systemic racism, we condemn it with all our strength.
Black Lives Matter might be an obvious statement in a place where almost everyone is black. But in a place where people are killed for being black, it is necessary to make the statement. Black Lives Matter is a movement in opposition to the systemic racism that affects black Americans every day, and our African friends and colleagues can support the movement and align with the movement, even if their experience of racism is not the same. Some members of our team in Uganda say they've never experienced racism at all, a reality that few black Americans would claim. Stephanie Busari, a Nigerian-British journalist, noted that "George Floyd taught her about her race privilege as an African".
However, the implications of race on the entire continent of Africa cannot be denied, as the continent has been repeatedly disenfranchised through the slave trade, the diamond trade, and other industries and historical events that have done lasting damage to victims and their ancestors. While black children in Uganda may not face the day to day racism that black children in America face, they are still living in a country, and a world, that has been deeply impacted by racism.
From this precarious place, we at the Paper Fig Foundation are committed to listening, learning, and helping to dismantle these damaging systems which have existed for far too long.
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