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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