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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A country of masters and servants

DSC00628„Today we are washing the dishes“, says my German friend as we are sitting in the middle of the desert after a great meal prepared by our two Bedouin guides Sameh and Sayed. „I don’t like being served“, she continues and I know exactly what she means. I have been feeling like that countless times during the weeks and months that I spent in Egypt. After some discussion – and because we were lazy – we figured: If we were in a restaurant in Germany we would also see no reason to help in the kitchen after our meal. Sameh and Sayed are being paid for doing this job. And yet, there is something that just does not feel right about it.

I think about this a lot in Cairo, because my Grandmother has a driver, Hassan, a maid, Mona, and a cook, Soheir, who work for her regularly. I like them all very much and they like me, too. Maybe because I behave differently than other Egyptians that could afford employing them. I always sit next to Hassan, never in the back seat. He is almost like a grandfather to me. I never give orders to Mona. I sit with Soheir in the kitchen and learn recipes from her. And these things are not to say that I am such an awesome, generous person that is even kind to the servants. No, it means that these people to me are not servants, they are people who are employed at my Grandmother’s and who are in every way equal to me. But unfortunately that is not how society sees them, sees us. Continue reading

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In my university’s cafeteria the dish of the day always comes with three side dishes. I do not know many people who actually finish their side dishes or even the main dish. Yet, I do not know anybody who chooses to take only one or two side dishes in consideration of the fact that they will not finish them anyway. People do not think that way. If they pay for something they want to have it, whether they need it or not. We live in a pay-less-get-more society, where we are constantly searching for better offers to accumulate more stuff that we do not actually need. Continue reading