Recently I had a conversation in which – once again – it was claimed that we all have the same chances to be successful, regardless of the color of our skin. The example was given that George Floyd, a criminal who took drugs, should not be celebrated as a “hero”. There are two points about this assertion that I find highly critical.
Problematic statements I hear over and over again:
- “I don’t see colors.”
- “We are all the same.”
- “Any person can go from washing plates to making millions if only a mighty effort is made.”
- “Black men and men of color are just more criminal too.”
- “Black men do drugs.”
„All Forms share a common Foundation: Prejudice and Power.“
– Ellen Wagner
„All Forms share a common Foundation:
Prejudice and Power.“
– Ellen Wagner
„All Forms share a
Prejudice and Power.“
– Ellen Wagner
Seeing no color
If we don’t see differences between people, we don’t recognize the barriers that deny people access to spaces and resources. What does this mean in concrete terms? Because of various forms of oppression, so-called “-isms,” we do not all have the same starting conditions. In addition to racism, these forms include, for example, discrimination based on religion, gender, physical or mental abilities, and age, among many other characteristics. All forms have a common basis: prejudice and power. This can be identified at four levels, which are interrelated – “The 4 I’s of Oppression”.
- Ideological: The belief used to create a system of inequality in which people with certain identities have power and others have less or none (societal prejudices such as that non-white people are worth less).
- Institutional: An organization or system of organizations that reinforce or perpetuate an ideology (e.g., racial profiling in the police or the exclusion of applicants with foreign-sounding names in the job application process).
- Interpersonal: The interaction between people that perpetuates an ideology (e.g., microaggressions toward a Black person born and raised in Germany “You speak good German.”, “Where are you from?”, or grabbing the hair of a person of color without being asked).
- Internalized: How an ideology shapes our worldview and beliefs, which ultimately affects our relationship with ourselves and all other people (e.g., my Black daughter’s perception that her skin color and hair were not beautiful. One day she came out of kindergarten crying “I don’t want to have this skin color or this hair.”).
So the more we conform to the so-called “norm” of the country – in the context of racism: German by birth, white, and accent-free German – the less to no racism we experience. If one of the characteristics falls away, we are considered “white passing” and may be read or seen as ‘German’. Nevertheless, we experience exclusion or discrimination because we do not quite belong. This principle can also be applied to all other forms of oppression. In the context of people with disabilities, we may be read as not disabled, yet have a chronic condition such as diabetes or suffer from depression.
Stereotypes and the Danger of a Snapshot
Ever heard of the “confirmation bias?” For example, if we think that Black people are more likely to be criminals and poor compared to White people, we are also more likely to perceive what we think we already know, thus confirming our assumptions. This means that we are more likely to perceive criminal Black people in the media or Black homeless people on the street, even though this is statistically incorrect.
Our brain plays many tricks on us that we are not even consciously aware of, which is why these cognitive perceptual biases are also called ‘unconscious’. If we are fed with the same stereotypes over and over again (see the representation of black people in Hollywood movies), these images inevitably anchor themselves in our consciousness and lead to the fact that we inevitably put people into pigeonholes and in the worst case devalue or discriminate against them.
If we only evaluate what is superficially visible in situations, we overlook structural problems that have led to a problem. If people are denied access to a good education and thus have reduced opportunities in the labor market, they do not have the same opportunities and access to wealth as privileged people who belong to the middle class, for example. If the police disproportionately control non-white people, this naturally gives the impression that they are also more criminal – although this is statistically wrong (see source 1 and source 2).
It is complex. And discussions on the subject of racism and other forms of discrimination are very exhausting – for those affected as well as for those not affected. Nevertheless, my appeal to all those who have not yet dealt with the issues: Educate yourself! Even if the topics (seemingly) do not concern you at first: If you do not actively oppose the oppression of people, you are complicit in discriminating against others and perpetuating the system of prejudice and power. Some benefit from the systematic oppression of others – but we all benefit much more from a world where discrimination no longer has a place.
„Nothing in life worth having is entirely free, but it won’t cost as much as you think.“
– Robert Livingston
Start today. Share this article with your network. Attend my anti-racism workshops or those of my fabulous colleagues and actively work to make the world a more just place for all – even baby steps are okay.