It’s been just over two weeks since the US Presidential election, and like many around me, I’m still gathering my thoughts. At some point, I think I’d like to think more carefully about some of the things running around my head - but for now, here are some main thoughts, in no particular order.
The last few weeks have seen growing protests “against Islam” across Germany, which made me feel surprisingly uncomfortable here in Berlin - until I saw how willing and supportive Berliners were against such discriminatory, fascist behaviour.
Part two of a few of my favourite things from 2014, (see here for Part 1); this time Feminism, Diversity + Inclusivity, Bangladesh, and All-women lists.
Earlier this weekend, I came across this reddit post, entitled ‘Being a black woman in Berlin’. It’s a sad endictment on society here in Berlin that someone is experiencing such awful treatment from those in the city; sadly, though, I’m not surprised, judging from my own experiences. I’m also finding both the original post and the following comments to be revealing about German society in general.
In the original post, an African-American woman describes her experiences of moving to Berlin, and facing constant harassment and racism here in Berlin, specifically while living in Moabit. While obviously I can’t comment on the experience of black women in Berlin, I can from my own perspective as a British-Asian woman living here, and there were a few key things that she wrote that I can strongly sympathise with.
“That guy just said something really racist* to me.”
“Really? ...but he seems so nice!”
[*Throughout this post, you can replace the word “racist” with basically any type of prejudice or discriminatory behaviour, and everything will still be relevant.]
I've had this conversation more times than I can count, upon telling someone I'm with about the behaviour of someone else around us.
Every time I hear this response, I'm filled with utter disbelief. Do people think that racist idiots somehow look or act different to the rest of us, most of the time? That they have green horns sprouting from their heads, or walk around with a sign on their head advertising their particular form of bigotry? Or that they begin all conversations by explicitly stating their prejudices?
Let me save you some time; they don't.
In fact, most of the time these people function as a regular, perfectly pleasant human beings in society. And, if you don't happen to fall into a group against whom they discriminate, it's highly likely that you might never have witnessed their ugly behaviour. It makes sense, doesn't it? For them, you may well be exactly the right skin colour to fit within their bigoted views – so, clearly, you'll be seeing their very best side ( in effect, the person that they could be to everyone, were it not for those prejudices – isn't that sad?).
To state the very, very obvious: you are likely never going to personally experience a type of discrimination which is manifested against people who don't look/seem/act/behave like you.
But, and this is crucial, the fact you haven't personally experienced it doesn't mean it didn't happen, and it definitely doesn't mean you shouldn't believe that it did happen.
If someone is telling you about an unpleasant experience they've gone through (which is undoubtedly what happened for them to have started a conversation like the one above) – please, never question them. Listen to them.
It's already awkward and difficult to have to be the one who points out that someone at the party you're at, or in the social group you're in, actually holds ugly and offensive views. It's even more horrible to be put immediately on the defensive once you do bring yourself to tell an ally about it, let alone to have someone you thought you could depend on then actually defend the person in question, using the utterly farcical argument of:
“But they've never behaved like that towards me!”
A personal aside: every time I hear this, inside I'm screaming OF COURSE THEY HAVEN'T, YOU'RE WHITE...and outside, I explain my inner screams in the most socially appropriate way I can. Because, realistically, that's probably the most constructive and pragmatic thing I can do, right?
If you find yourself on the responding side of the situation above, anything you're going to say that starts with “but....” is a bad idea. No “but's”, just, I'm sorry that happened to you. Ask if they need anything, or if they would like that person to leave, and do what you can to support them.
It's not the responsibility of the person who has been a victim of said discrimination to “convince” you of the veracity of what they're saying; if they are telling you this, it's also likely that they trust you, and you should trust them too. And for God's sake, get over the naïve idea that bigots will somehow be anything but regular people, just like you and me.
“I'm not racist but...”
began a conversation between myself and a German man last Sunday, while at an afternoon brunch party with a mixture of people I knew and people I didn't, all of them white.
He was of the opinion that people of colour couldn't be “British” or “English”, and that this was an title reserved only for white people. I was of the opinion that he was being bigoted and racist, and I proceeded to tell him so, getting more and more worked up as he revealed increasingly racist views.
After 10 minutes of our 'discussion', during which I had asked him to define racism, used this to explain why his views were racist, and realised that he actually genuinely thought of me as having fewer rights than himself and his white friends based purely on my skin colour, nobody else at the party had joined our conversation.
The funny thing was, though, that I know that a lot of the people at that party would consider themselves politically engaged, liberal and open minded people. I would even wager that if there were a politician voicing the same views as the man at the party, or a policy about to be passed along the lines of what he was saying, they would do what they could to stand up against this prejudice, be that by signing a petition, voting, or attending a protest.
But in this case – when the social pressures of being at a party were apparently first and foremost at play – they were simply embarrassed at the perceived tense attitude that had been created, and unwilling to challenge him. They were feeling uncomfortable at the situation, and tried to steer the conversation into less polemic ground.
When I left the party soon after with a couple of friends, I discovered that they too had been shocked by the opinions voiced. The difference was, though, that they felt like it hadn't been their place to say anything, that they didn't want to make the other guests or the host feel uncomfortable, and that they didn't really know what to say. This lack of willingness to challenge something they knew to be wrong shocked and hurt me.
I sometimes use the metaphor that someone being overtly and offensively racist to me feels a bit like I've experienced physical violence; when someone treats me like a lesser human being than my white counterparts, it really does feel like being punched in the face. I'm shaking afterwards, often almost unable to speak, and feel overwhelmingly exhausted.
What I tried to explain to them is: you shouldn't have to be the one being punched in the face to do something about it.
They, as white people living in Germany, had never been on the wrong side of racism, and consequently had never experienced that biting, intensely personal rage that I feel when someone treats me, or other people of colour, in a discriminatory way. As far as I'm concerned, never having experienced it personally makes no difference to whether you can challenge discrimination or not; consider yourself incredibly lucky that you haven't been put in that position, and use your voice to stand up for those who are, at every occasion that you can. As a woman of colour, it is not my responsibility to shoulder the burden of challenging sexism and racism and xenophobia and god knows what other kinds of discrimination I might face, on my own.
Prejudice manifests itself in all sorts of ways, through offensive policies affecting the lives of millions, through exclusion or discrimination on an institutional level, and, in this case, through one man, voicing his bigoted views at a party. All of these examples are dangerous and discriminatory, and all of these people need to be held to account.
Just because you happen to be a white person, or cis-gender, or a man, or any kind of arbitrary categorisation that bafflingly means you might not face a certain type of prejudice yourself does not mean you can switch your 'good citizen' or 'social responsibility' buttons on and off dependent upon the social situation you find yourself in. I've faced prejudice in all kinds of situations and, believe it or not, the environment in which it happens doesn't make it hurt any less.
I don't get to choose where I come across these offensive and bigoted people; why should you get to choose where you challenge it?
The worst kind of creep is he who thinks of himself as a Good Man.
He who has dedicated his life to making the world a better place, but not in a self-righteous way; merely in a pragmatic, no-regrets, taking moral responsibility kind of way.
He who is highly renowned within his field, who has done brilliant work, and had some innovative and great ideas, which have had a positive effect on the lives of many.
He who has built up a professional and personal reputation as being tolerant and respectful of others.
He who has long-established relationships with other key members of the community; supportive, positive relationships, where he's proven his loyalty on numerous occasions, and always been there for them.
He who comes across, upon first, second or third meetings, as a fascinating man, with lots of valuable experience and a willingness to share this with others, for mutual benefit.
He who listens and sympathises with others relating tales of discrimination, harassment, or creepy people.
He who, if cases of his creepy tendencies were to come out, would plead misunderstanding, and publicly apologise profusely, all while remaining convinced that his actions were misinterpreted through zero fault of his own.
He who genuinely can't fathom the idea of himself being a creep.
He who does it again, and again, and again.
Recently, I've been coming across a misconception that I'd like to address – that prejudices like racism and sexism don't exist in the so-called “developed” world.
I told some friends yesterday about some blatant sexism another friend of mine has been facing in her job in an investment bank in London.
“Seriously? In the UK?! That's unbelievable!”
Yes, believe it or not, sexism exists in the UK. Crazy, eh? You mean it didn't disappear after the Industrial Revolution?
Another example. One of the worst examples of outright sexism, or racism, or whatever you want to call it, that I've experienced came from a lawyer. Instead of putting out his hand to shake mine at a meeting, he gave me a 20 euro note, and told me to get him an avocado sandwich.
“Oh, you're not a secretary? Err... great. I'm still hungry though. And thirsty, actually. A coke would be great.”
And he, this great human rights lawyer, was from the United States.
One last story. A British friend of mine recently got back from Saudi Arabia, and he commented that while it was a good trip on the whole, he found it difficult to be in a place with such terrible domestic violence and terrible women's rights. Of course, women have far more civil liberties in the UK than those in Saudi Arabia, but are Brits really in a position to be judging others when there were 2.0 million cases of domestic violence in 2011/2012 in the UK?
His comment also reminded me of an article I had recently come across, citing that “More than a third of all women worldwide – 35.6% – will experience physical or sexual violence in their lifetime”. I've just been back to look at the article, and:
“Even in high-income countries, 23.2% of women will suffer physical and/or sexual violence from a partner in their lives”
It's the use of the world 'even' that I'd like to talk about here.
There seems to be a belief that people living in countries which are lucky enough to have developed infrastructure, who might happen to be further ahead with the Millennium Development Goals than other countries, who have access to water and high living standards, are inherently less prejudiced than those living in other parts of the world.
This belief is entirely misplaced. The fact you may have grown up with access to energy and water and education and food does not have any relation to the way in which you treat your fellow human beings. In fact, I have faced far more compassion and open-minded attitudes from strangers in global south countries than in the UK, where I grew up, or in Germany, where I live now.
The sexism and racism I've faced in my professional life has overwhelmingly come from people who grew up in, or consider themselves to be from, “developed” countries. Let's be clear here; the word “developed” refers only to living standards- high, or low. Access to water, a roof over your head, enough food to feed your family; that's it. It means that by some lucky fall of the dice, some of us have enjoyed higher living standards than others; nothing more, nothing less. Shockingly, there isn't a magical point at which an economy grows to a certain point and then racist and sexist people suddenly see the light.
Prejudices like racism and sexism transcend borders, cultures and societies. Sure, there are some countries or cultures who have worse track records in these than others; but to assume that wealth and living standard are the deciding factors in this is to ignore a whole range of other considerations. Assuming that we, in what we like to call “developed countries” are immune to such offences is naïve, offensive and plain wrong.