Is ignorance ever an excuse for evil?

Identities (7/7)Why white people love to be the same

It is whites who benefit from the construction of racialization to this day. And it was they who made it all up. But having a conversation about it is often so uncomfortable for them that they use a wide variety of methods to get around it: for example, by referring to another problem, with an emotional outburst or simply with ignorance.

What do such reactions do to those affected by racism? And how do you manage to get over it?

Alice Hasters, born in Cologne in 1989, lives in Berlin. She studied journalism in Munich and works for the "Tagesschau" and the RBB, among others. Her podcast "Feuer & Brot" (together with Maxi Häcke) is about feminism and pop culture. In 2019, Hanser published her book "What white people don't want to hear about racism. But should know."



I found that after writing a book about racism, things change a lot. The small talk, for example - it becomes even more uncomfortable than before. Last year I was at several weddings: a hotspot for introductory talks with a wide variety of people. The groom's aunt, the friend of the former classmate, the cousin who now lives on the other side of the world. One of the most common questions that comes up during such conversations: What would I do for a living? "You just published your first book, that's exciting! And what is it called?" Usually follows my answer. This is often the turning point of the conversation. If I answer: "It says: What white people do not want to hear about racism, but should know", the superficial, friendly conversational tone is over. Afterwards, I can often see the title of this book being confirmed. For example, when people change the subject very quickly afterwards.

My book is called that because I realized one thing: White people don't like to talk about racism and do a lot to keep the subject off their feet. Many say they are so tired of talking about it - we haven't really started talking about it yet. What makes you tired is to ignore the topic all the time.

We talk too little about racism. And when we do, it's mostly with the wrong focus. It is often discussed whether it actually exists or not, with a keen interest in being able to answer this question with no. Every day we miss opportunities to better understand and fight racism.

Recognize the thought structure behind racist actions and statements

That this is the case is actually not surprising, because most people have already understood that much: You shouldn't be racist. A common assumption is namely: Racism is only open hatred, contempt, and occurs only sporadically, on the right edge. This became particularly clear recently when a nationwide debate broke out about Schalke CEO Clemens Tönnies, who tried to be funny by saying that one should prevent the increasing population growth in Africa by building power plants - because in the light they would be fewer there Children beget. After that, it wasn't about why such racist stereotypes about Africans still exist, but whether one should call Tönnies racist or not: "If we now put everything in the 'Racism' drawer that one thinks is thoughtless, yesterday and Altherrengewäsch holds, then you declare a lot of people in Germany to be racists. Then you let the boundaries blur. Then you allow disgusting, publicly dangerous racists and hate preachers to submerge in the crowd ", it was for example in the" Tagesthemen-Comment " on the Tönnies case.

Nobody wants to be a racist. Really nobody. Even supporters of right-wing groups keep asserting that they are not racists. "I'm not a Nazi, but ..." is a popular beginning of a sentence in German discussions and serves to justify ambivalent behavior: You want to be able to express racist thoughts and at the same time distance yourself from racism.

People who argue like this are making a mistake: They do not differentiate between racism and right-wing radicalism. These are not synonyms. Where right-wing radicalism is always racist, racism is often not radical. It is not the intention that qualifies an action or a statement as racist, but the thought structure behind it. Recognizing them requires education about history and social structures. But the explanation is often missing. One reason for this is convenience. Dealing with racism is exhausting. Also for me, who is affected by racism.

Systemic racism has been firmly anchored for a long time

So what is a sufficient definition of racism? For example, Ibram X. Kendi defines it in his book "Brandmarked" as follows: "Any idea that considers a certain ethnic group to be inferior or superior to another ethnic group."

Many people assume that basically any person could be affected by racism. These people see racism as a purely individual attitude. How a single person organizes the world for himself initially has few consequences. But in a world full of inequality, racism is also unevenly distributed. Racism is a system that was created with the intention of establishing a certain world order. It was built over centuries and is still powerful today.

In this system the hierarchy was established on the basis of constructed human races and that is, very roughly: whites at the top, blacks at the bottom. So if someone believes that blacks are inherently superior to whites, then that is theoretically a racist idea - but in practice a very ineffective one. There is no echo chamber for this, this thought will not reshape the social structures of our world. It is different if someone believes that white people are superior to blacks. This notion feeds the already existing system. The echo chamber for this is huge. It has been built up over hundreds of years to legitimize the enslavement of black people and to justify global colonization by the European powers.

White people have established the theory that character traits, cultural and social skills are related to biological traits. This system is called White Supremacy.

When I speak of racism, I mean this powerful, systemic racism that is capable of suppressing people. It has been so firmly anchored in our history, our culture and our language for so long and has shaped our worldview so much that we cannot help but develop racist thought patterns in our world today.

Overall, microaggressions cause unbearable pain

For example, you might demonstrate against racism during the day - and still get scared if you come across a black man at night. Or that you are briefly surprised when a woman in a hijab speaks perfect German. Even if those who cross to the other side of the street or are puzzled for a moment don't think about it any further and believe that this one second, this one harmless act, would go unnoticed and make little difference, it does. For those affected. A German hijabi gets puzzled looks every day when she opens her mouth. A black man sees hundreds of scared faces in his life as he walks the streets. You notice. I notice

These little moments, they look like mosquito bites. Hardly visible to bear in detail, but all in all the pain becomes unbearable. These mosquito bites have a name: microaggressions. There are also different levels of this. These can be attacks or insults such as the use of the N word or statements such as: "We are here in Germany." It can be unconscious actions, for example when a woman grabs her bag as soon as I sit next to her on the train.

And it is also part of the fact that those who are affected by racism are not believed. Many people don't believe me when I say that old women are scared of me and think I'm a thief. That is why arguments about racism are often exhausting and not very effective. Because in the end, it's often me who should apologize for even bringing up the topic. There is a word for this dynamic: perpetrator-victim reversal - and during the conversation it is expressed in different, mostly passive-aggressive attitudes.

"Racism is not only racism when it is meant to be evil"

A popular method is entanglement. An example: In order to be able to explain clearly where I encounter racist acts in everyday life without them being consciously carried out, I often tell of the fact that people have been grabbing my hair all my life. Often unsolicited and before they even know my name. Almost all black people with afro hair are familiar with this type of abuse. I then tell you how uncomfortable it is and how I feel like I'm being pushed into a submissive position when someone grabs my hair. I then ask why people think that is okay. They obviously assume that I find my own hair every bit as unusual and funny as they do. This is because white people define themselves as the "norm" and expect everyone else to do the same.

But many white people, especially those who feel caught describing my experience, find it exaggerated that I am bothered by it. After all, the fact that people want to touch my hair is a compliment. They then tell me that this is happening to me because people think me and my hair are so pretty and that I could be happy to get so much attention.

These people want to convince me that this is a sheer misunderstanding and that I have not experienced discrimination but rather preferential treatment in my life.

Some also tell me that they love black people. How they look, how they dance and sing, their music, the whole culture, this zest for life and this coolness. That they wished they were black too - or at least had hair like me. So how could they be racist? Why do I spoil their joy, take away their impartiality, maybe even their admiration for myself or other black people?

They do not even realize that they are reproducing racism when they enumerate the talents and character traits that distinguish black people from white people. I'm not automatically happier or cooler because I was born with brown skin. Racism is not just racism if it is meant to be evil.

Other people react to my hair stories in the opposite way: Instead of emphasizing that the special reaction to my hair is just a form of admiration, they assert that these experiences are by no means special. After all, other people would get their hair too, including white women with curly hair, for example. Redheads would be exposed to as many stereotypes about their hair as blondes would.

People who make this argument want to convey to me that I am too self-centered, too infatuated with my racism narrative, that I just want to make myself special. While in truth everyone would struggle with the same problems, regardless of skin color.

The fact that black people experience their hairstyle being grabbed without being asked is just one way in which they are discriminated against because of their afro hair. Black people have already been denied access to jobs or schools because of their hair. It is not for nothing that the US state of California passed a law in 2019 that prohibits discrimination on the basis of natural hair structure. This law was designed to protect black people from not being hired with their afro curls, dreadlocks or braids.

Discrimination is not a competition

Structural problems are often played off against each other through what is known as "whataboutism". This is an attempt to hierarchize social problems and discourses. So the discussion moves away from the content to the organizational: Wouldn't it be more important to talk about other structural problems first?

Discrimination is not competition - and the boundaries of discrimination are fluid. You can't stand up for gender equality and ignore racism - otherwise you won't stand up for everyone affected by sexism. This also applies to other forms of discrimination. The keyword here is intersectionality and means multiple discrimination.

Just because white women are affected by sexism and red-haired people have been exposed to structural discrimination throughout history and possibly something similar to what happened to me as a result, does not mean that my experiences are not still a form of racism against blacks. At the same time, it does not mean that my experiences have nothing to do with sexism. For me, racism and sexism are not two separable categories, especially not in everyday life. As a black woman, I am always affected by both. I experience sexist racism, racist sexism. This is another reason why the question of what is worse - racism or sexism - is nonsensical.

Recognize racism in order to be able to eradicate inequality

The attempt to equate is often accompanied by the accusation that my discourse on racism divides me. The naming of black and white is the problem. Only by addressing racism would racism arise. It has often happened that even when I have presented my interlocutors with different facts on the topic to support my argument, they end up shaking their head and asserting that they would not understand how it all can be: "But we they are all the same - it doesn't matter what skin color ", it then says," black, white, these are totally unnecessary categories, I don't think so. "

The statement: "I do not see skin colors" does not prove the inability to be racist, but the inability to recognize racism. If you don't see skin colors, you don't see racism either. Anyone who tells me he or she doesn't see skin colors is actually saying, "I refuse to acknowledge your perspective. I refuse to acknowledge that centuries of colonization and enslavement have shaped the world and created structural inequality. I refuse to take responsibility for it to take over to abolish this inequality. "

A slightly different version of this attitude is the statement: "In my eyes you are not black at all." That, too, is usually meant nicely when it comes from white people. Mostly they want to say to me: "For me you are simply human." Conversely, however, this means that I cannot be human as long as I am black. As if these categories were mutually exclusive. It also means that they do not want to recognize my identity and my self-designation. I've met a lot of white people who don't like the term "black". For example, you would prefer to call me "colored". But the term "colored" is not a self-designation but an external designation. Black, on the other hand, is a term, an identity that I, like many other blacks, have chosen myself. Therefore, unlike the color, I capitalize it.

Fight for the sovereignty of interpretation

So it is also about language, it is a fight for the sovereignty of interpretation. Privileged people are used to interpreting the world the way they like and to see it aligned for themselves, without this condition being questioned. Discriminated groups, on the other hand, are used to moving in a world that is not aligned with them and in which they are not the focus. However, if discriminated groups defend themselves against this, for example by giving themselves their own names and thus claiming to be able to help shape and determine society, then this is a direct attack on white interpretive sovereignty.

The hypocrisy of those who like to believe themselves to be innocent in ignorance is particularly evident in debates such as the N-word in children's literature. The fact that not all white people noticed the N-word in Jim Knopf, Pippi Longstocking and the Little Witch as racist may be difficult for me as a black person to understand, but I'm still ready to give a leap of faith here. But it is quickly withdrawn when people actively speak out against removing racist language from children's literature. It is one thing to reproduce racism because you don't recognize it. It is different to reproduce racism because you do not recognize other people's perspectives.

Whites are never victims of racism

Another common method of equation: When white people feel cornered and can't help but agree that I am actually experiencing racism, they often refuse to accept that they cannot have the same experiences.

They then tell me about their vacation experiences in countries that are not mostly white. How they were stared at, how people would touch their hair and take pictures with them. These anecdotes are intended to serve as evidence that white people can also be victims of racism. Or that fear or curiosity in the face of strangers is something completely normal. All people would have the same experience as soon as they no longer look like the majority.

I believe these people that their experiences were unpleasant and that they might be able to help them a little bit to empathize with "being different". But the so-called "racism" experiences of white people are not the same as those that I have.

Because of the colonization, the construct of white supremacy also exists where the majority of non-white people live. However, white people do not experience racism, but rather their privileges. Nevertheless, they remain the powerful, the superior. That doesn't mean that all encounters are positive. But the major difference is that white people may be assumed to be wealthy, or they may be perceived as particularly attractive. Perhaps to an extent that can be uncomfortable or even threatening. But nobody usually considers them criminal or otherwise dangerous because of the color of their skin. The attributes that are ascribed to me as a black person do not ascribe me any position of power. So whites are never victims of racism.

To be able to ignore racism is a white privilege

It is incredibly tedious and time-consuming to have all this information about structural racism ready and to have to convey it so that people believe me. As well as being able to and must be able to identify and name the exact distinction between different forms and experiences of discrimination. I don't automatically know about the law in California or the school strikes in Pretoria just because I'm black. Neither have I always known what intersectionality is or have been able to articulate why white people are not affected by racism. I read it up. White people could do exactly the same thing. Yet one of the greatest and most violent forms of white privilege is being able to ignore racism.

It shouldn't be my job to do educational work on the side in everyday life, especially since I'm already struggling with the discrimination itself. But I have to do it to defend myself. Recognizing my perspective is not a matter of course, it's a struggle.

I lead it not only with the white majority society, but also with myself. Because I, too, am shaped by racist structures and grew up with the view that racism is only right-wing radicalism. For all the other things, for the mosquito bites in everyday life, I had no word. But because I kept hearing that I shouldn't or shouldn't get angry with insulting, generalizing statements about black people or abusive behavior, this had consequences for my self-image. I saw myself as a deviation from the norm and learned to figure things out with myself. I had to train myself to listen to my feelings.

But it gets even trickier when people who are discriminated against jump to the side of those who discriminate. For example, when a woman says she thinks feminism is stupid or black people think racism is a pipe dream. These people often claim that they have never experienced discrimination and often conclude from this that you create the conflicts yourself because you need attention or are effeminate. These people think they know better how to counter structural disadvantage: you can avoid all of this if you only behave "right".

They then say, for example, that they would not find the N word offensive. Like pop star Roberto Blanco, for example, who defended Bavaria's Interior Minister Joachim Herrmann when he described him with the N-word - and wanted to pay a compliment. Behind such defenses lies the assumption that the world is just the way it is and that instead of changing it, one should change oneself. One should adapt. These people make themselves complicit in a mindset that works against them. And if you hear things often enough, then they also work.

Silence doesn't make racism go away

The fact that white people play down their own statements and react sensitively is the reason why I often say nothing when I encounter racism in everyday life. Instead, I swallow anger, sadness, and the frustration caused by mosquito bites, both large and small. But that's unhealthy. Racism makes you sick. This is proven by studies and confirmed by psychologists. The accumulation of these small mosquito bites can lead to exhaustion and even depression.

"Your silence will not protect you" - your silence does not protect you. This is what the black poet and activist Audre Lorde wrote. Breaking silence makes you afraid, precisely because there is a risk of being misunderstood or hurt. But things still need to be said, says Lorde.

That silence does not protect seems clearer in my life today than ever before. Silence doesn't make racism go away. All that was needed was a certain context, the right mood and a chain of events - racism is no longer just bearing fruit on the right-wing fringes, but is rampant everywhere. A stupid joke, a secret thought, an ill-considered prejudice - it all comes from the same story, from the same historical root, and it is just doing it properly. Things that seemed frowned upon a few years ago have long since become socially acceptable again.

Today we are discussing whether there is any need to save human lives in the Mediterranean. We don't mind if non-white people are put under general suspicion, for example after the attacks on New Year's Eve 2015/2016 at Cologne Central Station. In this mood I began to wonder how much longer I had to laugh along, be silent, and talk well. How many more mosquito bites I have to endure. How heavy the burden would be before I could start complaining. But I realized it was the wrong attitude. I could have waited a long time. The real question was, why do I have to bear any burden at all? Why can't I let my anger out?

Today I think that the people who cause this anger should know about it. In the end, it takes less emotional energy to openly address conflicts than to deal with them alone. Even if I have to reckon that white people often don't believe me. What it takes is courage. Courage to show yourself vulnerable and to expect others to feel just as uncomfortable as you do yourself.