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. Continue reading

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Come take my hand: thoughts on white supremacy and the refugee crisis

When I was young, my second cousin, who is about fifteen years older than me, used to play with us during our summer holidays in Cairo and Alexandria. A few years ago, when I met him at a family gathering in Egypt, I was told that he would not shake my hand anymore, because I am a woman and he and his wife do not touch people of the other gender. At the time I felt a little irritated, maybe even insulted, and – to be honest – I ridiculed their decision. Maybe that is how Europeans are feeling now about the papierarrival of a great number of refugees with all their cultural peculiarities. Maybe that is why Switzerland has issued a law obliging students to shake their teachers’ hands if requested. Maybe that is also the reason why Germany is discussing the ban of the so-called ‘burkini’—a full-body swimsuit used by veiled women—from public baths.

Thinking about it now, I realize that my cousin did refuse to shake my hand, yet he never asked me to follow his example and stop shaking hands, neither did he ever force any of his beliefs onto me or even ridicule me for having my own cultural quirks. I was the one being intolerant and judgemental all the while considering myself superior for being secular and liberal. I hear people in Germany worrying about all the Arabs and Muslims coming here, because ‘we don’t want to apply the Sharia here’ or ‘soon we have to celebrate Christmas in a Mosque’ or ‘they just don’t want to integrate and learn our values’. I am confused: where are the mobs of Muslims demonstrating for an implementation of the Sharia in Germany? I haven’t seen any—none of the new-arrivals, none of the third generation Turks, Iranians and Arabs living in this country. Where are the veiled women throwing burkas over bikini-bearing Germans or at least boycotting public baths due to the unfamiliar nudity? Where are the Syrians or Iraqis or Afghans forming political parties to abolish handshaking in Germany? Last time I checked, it was Europeans forcing their allegedly superior values onto the newcomers, being intolerant of other people’s religious freedom, supporting racist, xenophobic generalizations about ‘the Muslims’, refugees, Arabs etc.. Last time I checked, it was Europeans who felt irritated and insulted, because someone asked for the freedom not to shake a hand without ever trying to make this a general law (by the way, I hardly know any Muslims who don’t shake hands). Continue reading

Stop Fighting on our Bodies

I spent New Year’s Eve 2015 in Egypt, one of my favorite places on the planet, a source of great inspiration and self-fulfillment; at the same time, a place of pandemic sexual harassment, a country that often has me cringing with frustration over the way women are treated inside the family or out in the public, a country that was also the inspiration for my Bachelor thesis about sexual violence against women in the political realm.

Now, on that same New Year’s Eve, Cologne in Germany became a staging ground for mass harassment and even rape of women by allegedly North African men, possibly refugees, possibly living in Germany for a couple of years already—the details remain unclear as news of false accusations surface while others are proven to be true. What is very clear, however, is the public debate that arose from this incident and the instigative way that it was portrayed in the media. Süddeutsche Zeitung, one of the most read and respected German newspapers posted an image of a black arm reaching between white women’s legs (they later apologized for the racist way this could be interpreted); FOCUS, a .. well, let’s say not the most unprofessional, and equally popular German news magazine showed a similar image on their cover of a white woman’s naked body with black handprints on it.

focustitelSo returning to Germany after my holiday, I had no desire whatsoever to engage in any debates on the topic, because I knew that I was going to face a front of hysterical white people. And by white I don’t mean skin colour, being quite pale myself. By white I am talking about people who grew up in Germany and understandably have little or no experience with Arabic or Muslim societies. And whether they are ignorant racists that protest against refugees using public swimming pools, or fairly open-minded students of political sciences, most of them will easily fall for the rhetoric of the barbaric Arab man who just does not fit into our civilized, progressive culture, where women are supposedly empowered and free and respected… Continue reading