On Racism and Othering

The following text is partly in response to friends or anyone really who is rightfully upset and hurt by ongoing racism in the world. My fear is that this pain makes it more and more difficult for us to engage openly, and to challenge ourselves and our prejudice, or if you like: myself and my prejudices. I sense that a lot of people on the receiving end of racism are fed up with finding themselves in a position where they are asked to explain or end racism or are asked to forgive, more so than those who commit acts of racism, directly or indirectly, are willing to do the work to overcome it, or even look at potential racist behaviour, or to admit to their position of privilege.

It’s become longer than I thought, and I believe what truth there is in it is personal, thus not necessarily The capital-T Truth.

I believe that to truly understand racism requires more than merely a knowledge of statistics and power mechanism and such like. Racism is irrational, and to rationalize it usually works for racism (see the popular Momondo video and its dubious background revealed here [only partly in English]). Indeed, the tendency to categorize rigidly, the inhumane signature of Western science, has made a significant contribution to the proclaimed -ism of mere prejudice based on melanin concentration in one’s skin. Understanding racism truly requires an experiential knowledge of what it means to be an unpriviledged, discrimated-against minority (the latter at least in terms of power, not necessarily number). Therein lies the problem: we cannot know “what it is like to be a bat”, as American philosopher Thomas Nagel put it, unless by becoming a bat, or something close to that. To understand racism therefore you must know what it feels like to be discriminated against for who you are, that is: for who the racist makes you. Day in, day out. For the last four, five hundred years or more. The magic trick involved in battling racism (and any other form of discrimination really) is establishing an empathetic understanding, for which you must have indulged in the experience of a given role. You must know, at least broadly, what it feels like. Most racists enjoy privileges to some degree which they usually are not aware of, exactly because being a racist is based on your experience of your world as normal – the default, a majority-culture phenomenon. It is difficult to intervene with this perspective.

David Foster Wallace put it nicely in the opening lines of his famous commencment speech This is water (audio here, transcript here.):

There are these two young fish swimming along and they happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way, who nods at them and says “Morning, boys. How’s the water?” And the two young fish swim on for a bit, and then eventually one of them looks over at the other and goes “What the hell is water?” … The point of the fish story is merely that the most obvious, important realities are often the ones that are hardest to see and talk
about. Stated as an English sentence, of course, this is just a banal platitude, but the fact is that in the day to day trenches of adult existence, banal platitudes can have a life or death importance.

Whether or not, or in how far it is indirectly possible to intervene with the default comfort of majority existence (for instance through reading – not statistics, but suitable novels, say Yaa Gyasi’s Homegoing, through watching movies and plays, and so on) may be debatable. The most efficient way, I believe, is exposure: become, if temporarily, an unprivileged minority, and experience what it feels like. (BTW, I fail to understand underprivileged. In my estimate there is privilege or the lack thereof. To talk of being underprivileged seems to me a symptom of the wrong, i.e. condescending and sugar-coating kind of political correctness.) Herein lies a first crux: the privileged majority needs contact with the non-privileged to even see their privilege. Failing that, say, because communities become more and more exclusive and secluded, the status quo will be cemented, it seems, for eternity. 

For someone who is a member of a majority group (again, not necessarily in terms of numbers) it is virtually impossible to truly know what it means to lack privilege. My personal experience as an East-German within unified Germany – and that means: under West-German norms, with largely West-German identity narratives – has offered me the opportunity to develop a deeper, that is: empathetic understanding of what it means to be a minority. Nowhere near the experience of racism, for sure. Yet I have learnt that, in essence, you are at the receiving end of Othering: your history is strange, your behaviour is less reasonable and so impossible to understand – it needs to be explained and defined. In fact, your whole culture, history, beliefs need to be rationalized and defined in order to be … tolerable, acceptable? And to define means to contain. A showcase in a museum. While, of course, majority culture and its self-narratives are acceptable in and of themselves, and not in need of defining. It is a form of peculiar historical irony that Othering in the German setting surfaced as a redress to the fiction of “German national unity”, largely a denial of difference, or historicization thereof. Othering through claiming sameness, the powerful embrace that erases the peculiarity of your personal and group experience.

East-German products on display

My key moment was when, some 5 years ago, I visited the Inner-German-Border Museum at Tettenborn near Bad Sachsa. The museum is located in Lower Saxony, which adds to the perspective I’m taking here in so far as the defining function of the museum finds its locale topographically on the outside. Note that to define means ‘to draw a border’ (< Latin finis ‘end, border’). Like other such museums the exhibition showcases the topography of the German-German border, and invariably (I believe) such a museum has a room in which life in East-Germany will be displayed, trough packages of produce and some iconic medals, diplomas and such like. Mostly packages though. In my case, I noticed nostalgia arising in me, surprising recognition of things I hadn’t seen in a long time. And almost immediately afterwards a longing to see the West-German room. That did not exist. It never exists in these museums (or does it?). I felt like in a zoo, on the wrong side of the fence. Exposed. Defined. From the outside. And this is part of the German-German experience these days still, and may explain some of the rather unpleasant political developments in the East now (keyword: Pegida, and see below). Being East-German is being the Other, but within unified Germany this must be contained, historicized, and thus it finds its place on the fringes of society, politically mostly.

What are the symptoms of these Othering encounters? When you talk to someone from the majority, normative culture (here, West-German), they will often claim knowledge of who you are. If they are scientifically inclined, they may even claim the superiority-qua-‘objectivity’ of the outsider’s perspective, who thus has definitive, i.e. defining knowledge. They will have strategies to contain you and your experience, for instance by drawing a sharp line between then and now (whole memory cultures develop around this with public holidays etc.). References to your experience become per se nostalgia, and “thank god, those days are over!” Well, sorry, you’ve just cancelled out a large part of my life! Your experience needs explaining and containing, it needs closure, not theirs.

In an African context it may mean that, specifically as a black African, you travel to Europe and although people have no clue where exactly your country lies, they know exactly what it feels like to be living there – poverty, diseas, war etc. Or so they think. Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s The Danger of a Single Story is largely about this.

That experience triggered something in me, and since then I am acutely aware of encounters between members of normative, majority cultures and those on the receiving end of that power play. Of course, my relationships and friendships with people from different African countries has deepened this awareness, and also my awareness of myself belonging to – depending on context – a normative, for a long time unquestioned majority culture: white, male, mostly heterosexual. Nevertheless, through this experience I like to claim for myself an experiential knowledge of what it means to be Othered, and it has opened my eyes, awakened my senses for what it might mean for others. And I hope it prevents me from Othering others, or at least to be open enough to accept the possibility that I may do, and perhaps correct myself when I become aware of it. Again, especially my relationships with people from Africa has shown me more often than I would like to admit that I harbour prejudice and stereotypical thinking which bear the risk of me othering another human being, and prejudice may define even our first encounter. But I know now.

While I believe that my involuntary minority situation has strengthened my awareness for such processes, and I have thus profited from it and it has increased my humanity, this need not be the case for everyone. In essence, I believe that the fact that I was lucky enough to be economically secure facilitated this, or may even have made it possible. All other things being equal, I may have ended up as a nazi now if I’d been unemployed for years, living in a non-privileged part of, say, south-eastern Germany. Maybe, maybe not. For take away economical security (perceived security!), a majority group easily turns aggressive, behaving as if they were a suppressed minority. Welcome Trump’s USA.

But back to the role of empathy for a moment. The German dramatist Lessing concerned himself with the concept of empathy with respect to the role the theatre stage may play in the establishment of a largely middle-class based, civil society that could no longer draw on the ideals and the code of honour embraced by aristocrats (more on this by Breithaupt in Kulturen der Empathie). Civilian empathy, he would hold, requires two things: the ability to feel with someone (empathy in its strict sense, and largely a psychological phenomenon), and a strong sense of self, strong because it is a self aware of itself. The latter is necessary for you to know who you are, and that the suffering you are witnessing (the tragedy that enfolds in front of your eyes on stage as in real life) is not your suffering, but someone else’s. Only this, given you are psychologically able to empathize, prevents you from breaking down next to a person that may need your support. The ability to empathize would also help you develop morals that prevent you from doing harms to others knowingly, because you know experientially what it feels like to be hurt. In Lessing’s view, going to the theatre could be helpful to develop these skills in the citoyen, on whose shoulders civil society and its morals would necessarily rest.

At times, world history may provide this stage. A dramatic political change, the fall of the Berlin Wall in my case, the end of Apartheid in South Africa, may put you in a situation in which a surge of power may help you develop a strong sense of self, it may privilege a group of people who had lacked privilege previously. But here comes the crux: if that sudden increase in privilege is not matched by the economical situation in the long run, that is, if the new privilege does not literally ‘materialize’, things will turn sour and the strong sense of self will deteriorate into egotism. Socially speaking, anti-humanism, tribalism (e.g. neo-nazism) and xenophobia will be the result. Looking at many regions in East-Germany as well as a large number of immigrant groups, including those where immigration happened two generations ago, shows that the chances to develop social empathy decrease with distance to privilege, i.e. economic security (perceived security!) and acceptance. Here’s another crux: projective identification seems to be at work even in between social groups. Subtle manipulative strategies, largely subconscious, are at work, and you become what the other sees in you. If the majority culture considers you a Turk (a case of Othering), you will become a Turk (the German situation shows that many Turks in Germany are more conservative than their equals in Turkey). If majority culture considers you an ‘Ossi’ (East-German, from the start a rather derogative term implying unsolicited nostalgia and backward thinking), you become an Ossi.

Here in South Africa, the end of Apartheid in 1994 empowered the black population for a moment, and for a number of key-figures, foremost of all Nelson “Madiba” Mandela, their previous experience in combination with economic security provided the fertile ground for heightened humanity. The promise of becoming the “rainbow nation”, the istallment of the world’s most progressive constitution, Mandela’s politics of forgiveness are witnesses of that. But then there are the masses, the still-disenfranchised black majority, for whom the political empowerment did not go hand-in-hand with increased economic security. For whom the arrogance and corruption of many new leaders meant a return to a non-priviledged situation. The result is egotism in various forms: crime and violence (sexual and otherwise), tribalism and xenophobia.

It may seem tempting to go back to Marx’s materialism and hope for an improvement through a better economical situation of many. Rwanda, quite forcefully, seems to take this path, and may actually be successful in overcoming the insane and horrible tribalism that led to the 1994 genocide. Though at the time being this is happening at the cost of democracy, and maybe it has to be this way. From a therapeutic viewpoint this makes a lot of sense in traumatized societies: as in traumatized individuals you first need to focus on building and securing resources. All else is futile. Then there may be space for the trauma to heal, slowly. Post-war Germany and its Wirtschaftswunder may actually have laid the foundation for the German war-traumas of almost unbearable shame as well as of grief (for German losses) to be heal three or four generations after the end of the war. As a corollary, German society is better able to carry out humanitarian acts (e.g. take up refugees) and to take responsibility for past atrocities (e.g. the genocide of the Herero in Namibia). And be a place of openness and joy (the Football World Championship in 2006).

What is also necessary though is for the powerful, the majority culture to do the work of learning empathy. Education is a useful first step, provided it does not only re-affirm the majority status quo (as it seems to do in Germany, for instance when discussions of Islam in school centre on questions of the role of women, on wearing hijab etc., questions that easily invite bias). Good education is humanist, and teaches you how to think and what to think about – I religiously follow David Foster Wallace, again here and  here. What is also needed is exposure to the culture of the perceived ‘Other’ (in Western cultures that means to put your proclaimed liberalness to the test beyond culinary diversity!). Unfortunately the rise in mobility among the well-faring (pun intended) nations has not led to an increase in cultural contacts. Rather, mass tourism has created western bubbles around the globe, and the dominance of western economical culture has made it even more difficult to get in touch with people and their culture elsewhere. Still, travelling – for real, when going abroad, indirectly, when befriending someone from another culture in your home area, or to a point even in your imagination – may help to build empathy. The German philosopher Peter Sloterdijk recently said with reference to ancient Greek cosmopolitanism: “’humanism’ was the tribalism of people who served or worked abroad”, and I can only agree. Through empathy, for which to develop we need a degree of economic security as well as the willingness of the majority to question themselves and their role, we can create the tribalism we need in a world that is getting smaller. A tribe whose members embrace as their absolutely dominant identity narrative the narrative of what it means to be “human”. I am human … and then some, but only then. Human first, just like you. As an East-German I have done the work, and as a white male I am willing to do the work – if you experience me as normative, my presence as an instance of majority dominance, please (please!) invite me to your world so as to help me to see mine clearer. It seems to be part of the unfortunate destiny of the unpriviledged having to help the priviledged out of their comfort zone – aggressivley through rebellion and revolution, or peacefully through being in contact. On the plus side, and I say this against the background of my  East-German experience, this prevents the unpriviledged to become what the priviledged see in them and rather be who they really are, who we really are – humans, each and every single one of us.

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