Why are white people so great

(Anti) racism

Rarely do white people feel so attacked, misunderstood and alone as when they or their actions are called "racist". The word seems like a watering can full of shame, poured out over the named. Because the shame is so great, it's rarely about the racism itself, but about the fact that I attribute racism to someone. White people have so little practice confronting their own racism that they tend to react angrily, start crying, or just leave. For many people, the R-word feels like killing a fly with a baseball bat. When I call someone racist, that person usually doesn't hear what I'm saying to him or her. What he or she hears is, "You are a bad person. You are bad. You are a Nazi." This is also because people have a one-sided idea of ​​what racism is.

Racism, so the common assumption, is only open hatred and contempt, and has only occurred sporadically since 1945. Hardly any other country has tried as hard as Germany to come to terms with its own racist past, they say. That's why it's good now. And anyway: Racism against blacks is a problem in the USA anyway - or Great Britain or France.

There are different definitions for racism. The historian Ibram X. Kendi, for example, defines it as "any concept that regards a particular ethnic group as inferior or superior to another ethnic group". [1] But in a world of inequality, racism is also unequally weighted. Many people assume that basically anyone could be affected by it. These people see racism as a purely individual attitude. How a single person organizes the world for himself initially has few consequences. But racism is a system that was created with the intention of establishing a certain world order. It was built over centuries and is powerful. The hierarchy of racialized groups was laid down in it, and it reads, roughly, as follows: 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 be reflected in the 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. This system is called white supremacy ("white supremacy").

One person who explained this long before me is the writer and anti-racism activist Noah Sow. She noted that racism doesn't start with the thought of inferiority. Racism nowadays is "the belief that people have certain predispositions (dispositions) of any kind". [2] So if you were to say that white people would speak with a high voice and black people with a low voice, then there may be no evaluation at first. The statement is racist anyway.

If you see racism as a mindset that is purely conscious and with malicious intent, few people are racists. But racism is more than that. 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. Racism is in our system. So much so that it often happens unconsciously - especially so-called everyday racism.

Small moments, big effects

So you can't get rid of racism just because you claim not to be racist. It can be, for example, that you demonstrate against racism during the day - and still get scared if you run into 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 wouldn't make much 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.

These little moments seem like mosquito bites. Hardly visible to bear in detail, but in the sheer sum 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. But also negating and denying one's own perspective and experiences is part of it. Many people don't believe me when I say that some people are scared of me and think I'm a thief. Ignorance is also a form of microaggression. Whoever avoids dealing with the topic can always excuse himself with ignorance and thereby reject any responsibility.

Just because you have never consciously thought about your origin, skin color and identity doesn't mean you walk around without prejudice. You just don't notice that you have these prejudices. All of these behavior patterns help maintain the racist system. These differences in everyday life between white people and people affected by racism are rarely noticed and addressed by whites. Because in most cases they don't seem to be worth mentioning.

But they can still have great effects. There have been some studies on the effects of racism on mental health. Some suggest that racism can induce stress, depression, chronic fatigue and anger, and thus can lead to physical discomfort. [3]

Invention of the races of man

Racism is the fairy tale about innate traits, the assumption that we are naturally different. All you need is 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, a rash prejudice - it all comes from the same story, from the same historical roots. And this is just sprouting and germinating properly. Things that seemed frowned upon a few years ago have long since become socially acceptable again.

In order to be able to talk better about racism, one thing above all else is important to understand: there are no human races. There is, however, the invention of the human races - racialization. It serves to establish a hierarchy between groups of people. Aristotle already did this. He wrote about the "barbarians" and meant peoples who, in his opinion, were culturally inferior to the Greeks. Later it was especially raced according to family affiliation. During the Crusades and the Reconquista and the associated Christianization, the concept of bloodlines was more firmly established. Aristocratic families secured their status in this way, but it also served to continue to distinguish between "real Christians" and, for example, former Jews or Muslims. At the end of the 15th century, a new era of racialization began. As they explored the world, Europeans began to create a global order based on skin color and ethnicity. This thinking was hardly doubted until the 20th century. So for a long time Europeans' understanding of the world was based on this contrived construct. The "scientifically-based" racization from the 17th century onwards, which was intensified again in the 19th century during the period of imperialism, made a particular contribution to this. [4]

In so-called race theory, roughly speaking, there were two different approaches. Some researchers actually assumed that different human races were not related to one another. This thesis is called "polygenesis". Others advocated the theory of "monogenesis", according to which all human beings had the same ancestry, but were developed or degenerated to different degrees. Many were of the opinion that man was born white and perfect and that he moved further and further from his origin. [5] Whether poly- or monogenesis, everyone came to the same conclusion: There was a hierarchy among the "human races". At the top were white people.

Researchers interpreted their race theories according to their own interests. They created these constructs in order to find a justification for exploiting and appropriating other people: "The Europeans did not become slave traders because they were racists. (...) They became racists in order to be able to enslave people for their own profit. They needed an ideological underpinning, a moral legitimation of their worldwide looting industry. In short and striking: They wanted to sleep well. "[6]

White people have declared themselves a "superior race". They carried this theory to almost every corner of the world during the colonization. It is true that white people also feel the effects of racism, but - unlike me - not as disadvantaged, but as privileged people. What may be uncomfortable is the undeserved positive attention. 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 the attributes that are ascribed to them are positive and superior. The attributes that are ascribed to me are negative and subordinate. So whites are structurally favored by racism.

These findings unsettle many white people in particular. Often they express concern that one no longer knows what to say. This attitude is a de-legitimization of the perspective of those who are discriminated against. The "culture of indignation", it is then said, creates a threatening atmosphere for everyone who could potentially discriminate. Freedom of expression is threatened, there is talk of "language police" and even "thought police". Mostly this is expressed by people who are not discriminated against. It gets even trickier when people who are discriminated against themselves jump to the side of those who are discriminating against.

These people seem particularly interesting for many media. They are happy to be invited to talk shows or to write opinions in which, for example, a woman says that 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 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 just behaved "right". They are then happy to give advice, such as "Then close your blouse" or say that they are not offended if someone calls them the N-word. Behind this is the assumption that the world is just the way it is. And instead of changing the world, it's better to change yourself. One should adapt. They make themselves complicit in a mindset that works against them.

Eurocentric billion dollar market

Norms around the world are influenced by a Eurocentric perspective. Even where there are not predominantly white people, "white" is the ideal of beauty sought. Structural discrimination is internalized not only by those who benefit from it, but also by those who it disadvantages. This internalized oppression causes the racist dynamics to continue within racialized groups. For example, there is structural discrimination even among black people. The African American author Alice Walker named this dynamic "Colorism" in 1983. She defined the term as "unequal treatment due to skin color between people of the same race". [7] However, not only skin color but also hair texture as well as face and body shape play a role.

The closer you get to the Eurocentric ideal of beauty, the greater your chances of advancement and representation in the media, the more desirable you are. However, this not only includes appearance, but also factors such as origin. The higher the proximity in European countries, the more privileged one is. BIPoC (Black, Indigenous and People of Color) from other European countries, the USA or Australia have a structural advantage over those in South America, Asia or the Caribbean. And these, in turn, are even higher than BIPoC from African countries. The parent constellation also seems to play a role: A study in the USA showed that black people are perceived as more attractive if people assume that they have a non-black parent. [8] Another study found that prison sentences in the US were on average longer for black women with dark skin than for black women with light skin tone. [9] Overall, black women seem to be more affected by colorism. [10] This is not so surprising, because women are rated more socially than men based on their appearance.

Colorism feeds a huge market. Aside from the billion dollar business in chemical hair straighteners, tons of creams, soaps, pills and injections are sold to whiten dark skin. In many African and Asian countries, skin lighteners are advertised on television, such as in this country, wash gel for pimples. The people in the advertisements convey a message: With fair skin you are more attractive, more successful, more popular, even more hygienic. The market for bleaching agents is growing [11] - and the products are also being sold and bought in Germany. And the bigger it gets, the more the message manifests itself that bright means beautiful and clean, is an accepted norm and the way to a better life.

Real diversity instead of mascot-like symbolism

In order for BIPoC to see themselves better represented in the future and to counter such messages, the following must happen: more opportunities, more options, more images must be offered. More stories need to be told. And very important: people with different skin colors, origins, bodies, genders and sexual orientations have to have a say in the decision-making process. It is not enough to put BIPoC in front of the camera. We also need BIPoC behind the camera. You have to look through the lens, set up the lights, write the script, pick up the sound, direct, determine the broadcast schedule and manage productions and editorial offices. This not only makes them visible, but also contributes to a structural change. And that is necessary. Diversity is important because it is real. If we have diverse staff, whether in editorial offices, in the Bundestag or in the teachers' room, it is not because you want to chase a utopia. You want to follow reality.

This essay first appeared in September 2019 in the "Tagesspiegel" and was slightly revised for APuZ. It is based on the author's book "What White People Don't Want to Hear About Racism, But Should Know".