The White Man’s Burden

I am sorry, but if you are a white man, you don’t get to define what racism is.”

adichieNot everyone would agree with Chimamanda Adichie’s statement in a video circulated on social media recently. Who gets to define what racism is? How far away from ‘white’ should you be to have a say? How much discrimination do you have to experience for your opinion to be valid?

Don’t try to answer any of these questions, because they are total nonsense. The real question is: why are people even arguing about what is and is not racism? I often come across highly emotional discussions about whether or not racism – and other types of discrimination – are widespread problems or not. Mostly, these arguments involve a white or otherwise privileged person trying to assert that they are not part of the problem, or that things really aren’t that bad after all.

The last time I witnessed this, was at Amnesty International’s panel discussion on racism in Germany. I attended the event to learn more about institutional racism and the rise of openly xenophobic positions in German society. I had expected all participants to agree on the fact that a problem existed in the first place.

Not Stephan Mayer of the CDU/CSU. He confused the panel discussion with a platform for political campaigning. Sure, he said, there is right-wing extremism in this country… but there is also left-wing extremism! And Islamist extremism! “Germany is a pluralist country! Germany has proven to be very cosmopolitan and tolerant!” Empty phrases. It immediately became clear that Stephan Mayer had a very limited understanding of racism – and he had no interest in expanding it.

Racism is not just the fact that there were more than 1000 attacks on German refugee camps in 2015. Racism also means feeling less safe when passing by an Arab looking man on the street at night; being kind of surprised that your doctor is black; asking a German citizen where they are really from, just because they have a darker complexion; calling a Roma ‘gypsy’, because “for me that is not a negative word”; assuming that Chinese have a different understanding of hygiene than we do.

Racism is much more subtle than the National Socialist Underground murdering ten persons of foreign descent between 2000 and 2007. Racism is the fact that the police never even suspected a racist motive behind the crimes and therefore failed to solve them. Racism can be very subtle, often unintended and even unnoticed by those who are lucky enough not to experience it themselves.

But even if Stephan Mayer didn’t get that, I was confused: how did a regular conservative politician end up downplaying right-wing violence? Why did acknowledging racism become an attack against him personally? Why did he deny and not try to tackle the problem? Why could he not even accept the reality of a black woman, who was sitting next to him on stage and talking about her experiences? It seemed, that he was not there to talk about existing problems and possible solutions. Instead he was trying to ease the minds of all the potential voters who were sick of being blamed for a racism they failed to see.

Stephan Mayer might sound like an extreme(ly annoying) example but his approach is no exception. I have had arguments with friends and acquaintances, who were sick of being that ‘white male’, who is always blamed for everything. Some react by downplaying or denying the problem, some try to justify inequality with a strange moral. Others get defensive and don’t want to talk about it. They argue that they already accept everyone, every color, every gender, they don’t give a shit and isn’t that enough? But why do they even feel attacked in the first place?

I used to feel guilty about my socioeconomical background, having access to education, not being bullied, finding a job etc.. Guilt, however, paralyzes. Guilt made me defiant. It made me try to deny an existing crime, because I felt that – not being the victim – I must be the criminal. In the end I got so caught up in defending my innocence that I totally forgot about the original cause: supporting people who experience discrimination in their everyday lives.

Now I argue that being privileged is not in itself a sin, and feeling guilty is a total waste of time. Inequality exists, but that does not mean that I created that inequality. It is simply a reality that I need to acknowledge. Only then can I detect racism in everyday life and perhaps make a difference – at least in my own behaviour. Denying the problem to make myself feel better, means maintaining that inequality and turning away from those who try to change it. Don’t get angry when someone complains about white men. Even if you have a penis and light complexion, they are not talking about you. They are talking about white men who deny that they are privileged and who explain to marginalized people that their concerns are not valid. White men are those who refuse to change their behaviour, because they do not consider it discriminatory. The mistake lies in identifying with them, instead of solidarizing with their opponents. If you are generally against discrimination, be an ally, not a critic.

Karen Taylor who represented the Initiative of Black People in Germany at the Amnesty panel put it this way: “Racism is not about intention, it is about consequence.” Even if I am against inequality, it is still an objective reality. I might be maintaining it while having the best intentions. So, if a black person stands in front of me and tells me that my behaviour was hurtful to them, I just don’t do it again. It is not about proving a point or being right, it is not about me. It is about deconstructing a racist reality. Likewise, opposing racism is not accomplished by considering myself open-minded, but by acting that way. And a black woman’s experience of racism is just more valid than the opinion of a white politician.

If I make a form of discrimination, that I have never experienced, about me, then I am approaching it from the wrong end. When I focus on intentions and disregard consequences, privilege can turn into guilt. Discriminated people become an ugly reminder of an inequality that I am not suffering from. Then I end up fighting accusations instead of injustice. Guilt is an extremely self-centered and passive feeling.

However, if I am not by nature the perpetrator, then I can put my energy into actually changing something or at least opening up to those who try to do so… instead of washing my hands clean. Just because I did not throw someone into the water, does not mean they are not drowning. But it also doesn’t mean that I cannot help them get out.

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