Tackling Our (Racist?) Biases

 

I have recently read Fatima El-Tayeb’s book Undeutsch (‘Un-German’) [1]. As the book’s subtitle explains, the book looks at the construction of the Other in a post-migrant society [2]. The society in question is Germany, so I was particularly interested in this perspective on the country I have recently returned to.

 

I was not surprised by El-Tayeb’s observation that in Germany, too, there are many processes by which people are turned into ‘the Other’ and thus excluded and marginalised. What I was surprised by, however, was that despite my determination to not be part of these processes, in many instances I had not even been aware of them. Some are so natural, well-meaning even, that upon first reading them described as having racist undertones in the book I rejected the notion. Take the term ‘Deutsch-Türken’ (‘German-Turks’). This is the term used to describe people of Turkish descent. What could possibly be wrong with that? It’s actually an improvement on the language used when I left Germany 20 years ago. Back then, ‘they’ were generally just called ‘Turks’. Great, I thought consequently: finally Germany and its language reflect a migrant reality. These folks are German, with Turkish roots. Splendid.

 

Except, El-Tayeb argues that this linguistic construct (German-Turks) places the emphasis on the second part: they are and always will be Turks before they are German. While in the American construct (‘German-American’), the ‘German’ is merely a distinguishing adjective to a shared identity (‘American’), in the German construct the adjective is what binds us. If it is taken away, what is left is ‘the Other’. And the exclusion does not end there: this linguistic device also subtly constructs the ‘real’ German, for lack of a better word, one who doesn’t need the adjective to be German, but one who simply is German.

 

It is easy to dismiss the above as innocent language development, and El-Tayeb’s analysis as hypersensitive. It’s certainly easier than acknowledging that there may be truth in it, and that in using this language, possibly thinking we were recognising and honouring diversity, we may actually have perpetuated a subtle form of Othering. However, our good intentions do not absolve us of their negative outcomes. We don’t have to be abuse-shouting racists for our actions to have racist undertones.

 

Take another of El-Tayeb’s examples: She writes of receiving an invitation to a conference on the impact of contemporary racism in Germany. She declined to speak when she realised that all other speakers were white men. To her objection the conference organisers responded that the conference was not about the political, but the scientific engagement with racism. In other words: those affected by racism were treated as if they could speak only from the perspective of personal emotion. Others had to contribute the scientific analysis that they were thought incapable of.

 

El-Tayeb does not offer further insights into why the conference organisers responded in this way. However, we see such marginalisation a lot when the experiences of minorities challenge our self-image as open-minded, forward-thinking actors in society. While understanding and compassion for the ‘personal grief’ is readily offered, it is just as readily rationalised away. El-Tayeb points to one such mechanism when she writes about ‘Majority-German’ perpetrators of terror being dismissed as a mere ‘minority’, as not being representative of the country at all – as being ‘Undeutsch’. A ‘silent’ majority that abhors such actions is evoked to prove that despite minority experiences to the contrary, the country and its people at large are ‘good’. The underlying message is clear: we are not the right addressee for your grievance.

 

But we are. I am. El-Tayeb’s book makes it clear that we are looking at a problem of structural racism that doesn’t stop with a linguistic construct like ‘Deutsch-Türken’. The concepts reach deep into our heads and it is there that we need to start tackling these issues. We all have biases, even if rationally we don’t want to have them. And we all have a natural and understandable instinct to want to see ourselves as ‘good’. Yet we must resist the urge to become defensive as soon as someone criticises something about us or about our country. This still happens a lot in our profession – maybe especially in our profession, where the very root of the philosophy we have been raised on is a near-metaphysical good that is hardly ever questioned: protection, understanding, appreciation. If we serve this good, how could we possibly partake in racist structures? It seems near inconceivable, and yet the reality is that we do. What is more, in our profession the impact of our beliefs and actions carry far beyond our own personal sphere. For this reason, we have a particular responsibility. Maybe it is time we spent less effort on fixing ‘others’ through what we offer them, and more effort on ‘fixing’ our biases.

 

Notes

[1] El Tayeb, F., 2016. Undeutsch. Die Konstruktion des Anderen in der Postmigrantischen Gesellschaft. Bielefeld: transcript Verlag

[2] The German Federal Centre for Political Education defines a post-migrant society as one in which:

‘(a) Social change towards a heterogeneous underlying structure has been acknowledged (“Germany is a country of immigration”) regardless of whether this transformation is seen as positive or negative, (b) Immigration and emigration are recognized as phenomena that have a tremendous impact on the country, which can be discussed, regulated and negotiated but not reversed,

(c) Structures, institutions and political cultures are adapted ex post to the identified migration reality (i.e., post-migration), resulting in, on the one hand, greater permeability and upward mobility but, on the other hand, also in defensive reactions and distributional conflicts.’ (source: http://www.bpb.de/gesellschaft/migration/kurzdossiers/205295/post-migrant-society. Accessed: 19.11.2017)

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