Education is Power When it’s Rooted in Unlearning

Céline Semaan

Céline Semaan-Vernon for Common Interest - Issue No. 01

The word ‘unprecedented’ has been thrown around a lot lately. You can find it everywhere, from social media to corporate marketing efforts and commercials on television. But there is nothing unprecedented — something never done or known before — about these times. 

History has shown us time and time again that racism is a longstanding, far reaching pandemic; the murder and exploitation of Black, Brown, Indigenous, and minority ethnic people have been omnipresent for thousands of years. It forms the basis of our media platforms, governmental, healthcare, educational systems and so much more. These are all things starting to unravel in the public sphere, thanks to the dedicated and longstanding work of organisations like SLOW FACTORY 1, which I co-founded in 2013, and the brave voices speaking up about their mistreatment. People in my community have been talking, screaming, into the void about these issues for years. We’ve been called activists and professional troublemakers. Why is fighting for an equitable humanity seen as revolutionary or troublemaking? 

Under the framework of colonialism, white people have been taught to turn a blind eye to their aggression and prioritise successful lives often over dutifully fighting for the humanity of others. Learning through the lens of whiteness means politeness and order, manifesting as a culture of silence over confrontation. Confrontation is seen as impolite, uncomfortable, and culturally inappropriate. Silence overrides cries for justice and categorises opposition as violence. Throughout history we’ve seen how systems have been designed around the idea of othering 2, which has been used to justify the exploitation and oppression of different communities. Power protects and shelters people from seeing and advocating for the livelihood and humanity of all beings. This is the very essence of learned privilege. For too long knowledge has been activated and disseminated through the lens of whiteness. Plus, knowledge has intentionally only been reserved for an elite few. Education is a powerful weapon and tool for change, one that can and must be utilised if we’re going to finally build a sustainable world centred on compassion and community, a place that embraces anti-racism. 

I’m not talking about education in the traditional sense, as the institution is hundreds of years too late in educating our children and ourselves of a fast evolving society, market and professional fields that never even existed ten years ago. Have you ever heard of a TikTok curator? We need peer-to-peer educational solutions that centre the expertise of individuals — or groups of individuals — and allows for the sharing of accurate, anti establishment information that is directly applicable to the workforce.

Before we get to broaden the movement, we must allow this movement to exist for and by Black people themselves; not to co-opt it or to capitalise on it. But to let it exist without white hands or voice touching it. This is why I’m launching an open education initiative that centres Black, Brown, Indigenous, and minority ethnic people educators and learners. ONLY THROUGH OPEN KNOWLEDGE WILL WE BE ABLE TO FIND A WAY FORWARD THAT DOESN’T REPEAT THE PAST.

From racial injustice to climate chaos, we must prioritise centring Black, Brown, Indigenous, and minority ethnic people, scholars, thinkers, philosophers, scientists and start decentralising power, and wealth in order to effectively drive humanity towards progress.

Many white people are waking up to the insidiousness of racism, and coming to terms with how the systems in power have kept communities of colour marginalised and vulnerable to violence, in both overt and covert ways. Unlearning one’s role in these systems and coming to terms with how your very existence has invalidated the existence of these communities will take a lifetime. This is the work of being anti-racist. And this is why knowledge and education are the foundations of change.

Unlearning misconceptions around race, identity and power means unlearning colonial discourse that has been indoctrinated into our worldview. The idea of unlearning isn’t something foreign to scholars engaging in research, tabula rasa, or table rase. This is a philosophical exercise in which everything one’s learned is erased in order to learn without judgement and without projecting previous knowledge onto the new set of information. Greek philosophers popularized this concept and based their entire body of work surrounding Western Philosophy on this exercise of creating a blank slate before apprehending new information.

Human beings are born without preconceived notions of the truth, and in the quest for the TRUTH WITH A CAPITAL T, philosophers, spiritual leaders as well as various thinkers have engaged in active unlearning as part of their teachings. Access to education is, in and of itself, an act of resistance and an act of redistribution of power. We want to learn from our own people and dismantle thousands of years of colonial discourse together. It’s time to unlearn what the oppressor taught us. It is time to decentralize funds and power; actively so. Fund open education and our first fundraiser. Fund education for all because information is power.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Céline Semaan-Vernon is a Lebanese-Canadian designer, writer, advocate and public speaker. She is the founder of Slow Factory Foundation, a 501c3 public service organization working at the intersection of environmental and social justice, which produces a conference series promoting sustainability literacy called Study Hall, and the first science-driven incubator in fashion called One X One. She is on the Council of Progressive International, became a Director’s Fellow of MIT Media Lab in 2016, and served on the Board of Directors of AIGA NY, a non-profit member- ship organization that helps cultivate the future of design in New York City from 2016-2017.

@celinecelines
New York, United States of America

FOOTNOTES

Tabula Rasa

In Western philosophy, the concept of tabula rasa can be traced back to the writings of Aristotle who writes in his treatise De Anima (Περί Ψυχῆς, ‘On the Soul’) of the ‘unscribed tablet.’ Today, tabula rasa has come to be the theory that individuals are born without built-in mental content, and that all knowledge comes from experience or perception.

1. SLOW FACTORY is a 501c3 public service organization working at the intersection of Climate & Culture; building community and growing global movements through education.

2. Othering refers to the process whereby an individual or groups of people attribute negative characteristics to other individuals or groups of people that set them apart as representing that which is opposite to them.

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