Are we conditioned to be racist?

(Anti) racism

Christoph Giesa

To person

is a freelance publicist. Most recently he published the book "Real Heroes, False Heroes. What Makes Democrats Strong Against Populists". He hosts the podcast "Streitbar" for the Friedrich Naumann Foundation. [email protected]

In February 2014, the British journalist Reni Eddo-Lodge published a post on her blog entitled "Why I'm No Longer Talking to White People About Race". [1] The contribution received a lot of attention and ensured that Eddo-Lodge published a polemic with the identical title - in German "Why I no longer speak to whites about skin color" - in book form, which developed into a bestseller ] Eddo-Lodges Statement has meanwhile developed into a catchphrase. And it describes the perception of the fronts in the debates about racism quite aptly: on the one hand there are the victims of racism who are tired of having to do educational work all their lives, on the other there are those members of the white majority society who are not can or want to understand that society has a problem with racism. The only question is: what about all those who are neither on one side nor on the other?

I belong to exactly this group. I am white. I never had any disadvantages in Europe due to my skin color or origin. Discrimination - racist, sexist, anti-Semitic, homophobic and also hostile to disabled people - I have observed time and again, but never had to experience it firsthand. So I'm not a victim. Nor am I someone who does not accept that Germany too has a problem of racism that goes far beyond marauding Nazi gangs. I am convinced that structural racism exists in German authorities. I see and hear that many people are far from being accepted as equal citizens of this country by many other people just because they have a German passport. And I consider the talk of "passport Germans" and "real Germans" not only discriminatory, but also societal explosives. [3] I have often enough seen friends of mine being turned away at doors where I was greeted in a friendly manner and otherwise ignored. Over and over again. Because I am white and she is not. Because I don't want to live in a society where all of this is accepted with a shrug, I get involved. But what role has our time intended for people like me?

I am convinced that reality is usually more complex than a few pointed formulations can depict. Which brings us back to Reni Eddo Lodge. She followed the title of her blog post to the statement that it did not apply to all white people, but only to those who refused to accept the existence of structural racism and its symptoms. Eddo Lodge is therefore quite different. But what is really stuck in her thoughts? The headline, of course - the rest is often lost in the further debate, both among those who support the statement in essence and those who fundamentally oppose it. The discourse is then relatively quickly dominated by radical positions. There is hardly any space left for thoughtful voices, whether the author wants it or not.

Monolithic blocks instead of heterogeneous experiences

In the German-speaking debate on the subject of racism, too, the tendency towards abbreviations can unfortunately be observed. "There are different definitions for racism," writes the journalist Alice Hasters in her book "What White People Don't Want to Hear About Racism". Among other things, she cites a definition by the historian Ibram X. Kendi, who formulated that racism is "any concept that considers a certain ethnic group to be inferior or superior to another ethnic group". [4] Only one paragraph later, however, she explains that she only considers one definition to be relevant which deals with "effective, systemic racism", because ultimately this is not without the idea of white supremacy, the "white supremacy". [5]

The problem with this is once again that there is no longer any space left for the everyday fallibility of humans. In this reading, anyone who says or does something that can be understood as racist is automatically part of a racist system of oppression. In case of doubt even without knowing anything about it. It doesn't go below that anymore. At the same time - again differentiated Eddo-Lodge - all well-meaning people should be interested in accepting "that there is a difference between ignorance and malice - although the former can feel (and become) like the latter". [6] Anyone who, apart from radical forces who are more interested in conflict than in real coexistence, may be interested in lumping someone who says the N-word out of sheer ignorance without ulterior motives with someone who does this specifically, to provoke and hurt?

In addition, the negative trait of discriminating against other people because of their origin or appearance is not reserved for white people alone. The Islamic scholar and journalist Nabila Abdel Aziz, for example, stated in a contribution to Bayerischer Rundfunk: "The devaluation and structural exclusion of blacks [is] a problem that exists all over the world, in Asian and Arab countries as well as in Europe." ]

Why am I highlighting this? Certainly not to relativize racist behavior by white people. Rather, it is about making it clear that experiences of racism can differ. People with a history of migration are at most abstractly a group with similar experiences. A black man, a Turkish woman, and an Asian woman may all have racist experiences alike. However, these differ enormously in detail. Anyone who believes that the term "People of Color", which is still quite fresh in the German discourse, can form a monolithic block from all non-white people, which in the next step also develops a common view of things, is moving into a collectivist dead end. One, mind you, that the United States, from where most of these debates are carried over to Europe, has long been stuck in. Perhaps now would be the right moment to pause together for once and to be aware that the social structures and the historical charges are quite different on this and the other side of the Atlantic. Otherwise it will hardly be possible to avoid the fact that the next debate [8] will soon also be held in Germany under the term "Colorism", which actually does not belong here. Because if shades of blackness are now also defined, with which differently violent experiences of discrimination are linked, this is a further step in a direction that leaves no more room for the personal experience of individuals, their independent deductions and their individual reactions and only group affiliations knows. Whether you want to belong to the respective group or not.

Is there racism against whites?

Anyone who only sees groups and rulership structures must almost inevitably come to the conclusion: "There is no such thing as racism against whites". This sentence experienced a surprising boom at the height of the debate in the United States after a police officer killed the African American George Floyd in an operation. From the "Tagesspiegel" [9] to the online magazine "" [10] there were comments to be read whose authors claimed exactly that. This statement could also be read again and again in the comment columns of the online media and on social networks such as Facebook and Twitter. And the reactions to it have been heated, to say the least.

Instead of deepening the discussion at this point as to whether this statement is right or wrong - I consider it the latter - it makes sense to think about what use the dispute can have in this case. What can be done for the better with the debate? Even after thinking about it for a long time, I can't think of anything. Rather, the dispute seems to me like a clash of different schools of thought that agree on at least one thing: Whoever wins the authority to interpret terminology, wins the debate in the end. What is not taken into account, however, is that in a democracy you will not get very far if you hold debates while largely excluding the public. But that is exactly what you do when you narrow the debates themselves so much that for a large part of society there are no longer any points of contact in the reality of life.

The argument about whether pejorative behavior towards white people is about racism or "just" about discrimination is just such a debate. Because even if - which sounds utopian - in the end all experts could agree on a point of view, this academic definition would still not provide any solutions for what happens to people of different skin colors in this country. Is discrimination suddenly less painful just because it is not seen as racist? I do not think so.

In order not to be misunderstood: Of course, non-white people in this country are much more often affected by discriminatory words and actions than white people. Anyone who tries to put this into perspective by reflexively responding to every description of racism they have experienced with a "But there is also racism against whites" wants to end an important debate. Either because he is uncomfortable with it, or because of a racist worldview. The wise answer to this, however, cannot be to relativize oneself and to forego differentiation. The debate about whether there can be racism against whites at all symbolizes this mistake.

Dangerous under-complexity

If you turn this discourse a little further, it becomes even more dangerous. In July 2020 I designed and moderated a five-part series of web talks entitled "Focus on Racism in Germany" for the Friedrich Naumann Foundation for Freedom. Even before the closing event of this series, there were allegations on social media that the podium was once again typical of what comes out "when white people put together a discussion group on the subject of racism". Because: "Three people not affected and one affected person should talk about racism," one commentator was convinced. Such criticism is now permissible for the time being. And in some cases it actually makes a difference. Just think of the criticism of the cast of a program by Sandra Maischberger on the subject of racist police violence, for which initially no victims were planned as guests. The Afro-American professor of German studies Priscilla Layne was only invited in response to intense public pressure. [11]

In the case of the series I designed, however, the criticism rather shows how thin the line is on which this debate, which is essential in itself, is currently walking. Because it is true - only one of the participants in the discussion group described had a history of migration that was evident from his skin color and his name. Another discussant, however, was white. But he was Jewish and, because of his experience in this country, had something to add to the debate. [12]

A discourse which, as an answer to racism itself, propagates the assessment of ethnicity on the basis of face-to-face, is dangerous, even if the quoted commentator certainly did not intend this.

Anger as a bad advisor

Of course I can understand the anger that many people feel who are attacked, insulted or otherwise discriminated against for racist motivation over and over again. It is one of the things that make us human: We can, to a certain extent, empathize with others, feel empathy, understand feelings. Even if we have never been in the same situation ourselves. As a non-affected person, I can also understand that rape is more than physical trauma, or that parents who lose a child go through hell. I don't have to share the scars on my soul with anyone to understand that they hurt.

But even if I understand all of this, anger is not a good advisor. Anyone who is angry at a majority society that is perceived as racist may dream of letting "the whites" taste their own medicine for once. But what would such a society look like in the future? And above all: would it then be more liveable than today's? I do not think so. Perhaps it helps to keep the considerations of the sociologist Aladin El-Mafaalani in mind, who writes in his book "The Integration Paradox" "that the glass has never been as full or as little empty (...) as it is at present" . [13] It is a good development that racism is now visible, that it is named as such, where previously hardly anyone would have flinched, that voices from the most varied of minorities are getting louder and are being heard more and more often. And one that would have been unthinkable just a few decades ago.

For the majority of people in Germany, there has long been no turning back behind many of the fundamental insights that underlie the liberal and open society. This applies to the "marriage for everyone" as well as to the statement that German can of course also be who has a Turkish or Arabic surname and whose parents have their roots on other continents. But that also applies to some linguistic developments. In my youth in the West German provinces, idioms such as "Celebrate until the gassing" or sayings based on the motto that the world is an N-village were common and hardly problematized. Today you can only hear these sentences from very old people. Or from people with a clearly anti-Semitic or racist view of the world. The majority of German society has long been smarter. Frequent homophobic or transphobic statements or exaggerated re-drilling à la "Where are you really from?" no longer hide it.

All the more arguments are now about the details of how to deal with one another. That is good in itself. But one should not forget, firstly, what has already been achieved, and secondly, that the next steps cannot be taken successfully if those who share a common goal - namely a society that is as non-discriminatory as possible - retreat into the trenches along the way their ethnicity and verbally smash each other's heads.

As a white man, I do not claim any special rights in this country. I want foreigners living in Germany, Germans with a migration history and Germans without a migration history to be curious about each other, to talk to one another, but in no case to degrade one another because of their history or their appearance. I do not claim to speak with my gaze for all white people in this country. I only speak for myself, even if I know from many conversations that at least many of the people I deal with personally see this in the same way or in exactly the same way. What I do claim, however, is a place at the table where the important social discussions are held and the guard rails for the society in which my children will also grow up are defined. Even if I am not directly affected by discrimination. This is not a white privilege thinking, but rather a matter of course in a liberal democracy that takes itself seriously.