A recent ‘scandal’ in the German blogosphere has lead to a minor shitstorm among the social media-savvy networkers. It was triggered by a rather sad event, the collision of well-intentioned activism (the organisation of an anti-racist festival at a university) and baffling ignorance. You can read about the highlight, or rather lowlight, of the story here.
Basically, the black activist and writer Noah Sow was invited to give a lecture at the aforementioned festival, but upon arrival she was confronted with organizers who seemed unprepared and unfamiliar with her work. When she was introduced to the location for her lecture, she couldn’t help but notice that the student café was “adorned” with an offensive colonial lamp, whereupon Sow cancelled the event and left, a decision which was critized by many as an overreaction.
But this blog entry is not about the event itself, rather it is about the discussion it sparked. Most articles on this subject matter (for example here, here and here, all in German) were debated quite heatedly with comments in the hundreds and accompanying tweets. The opposing sides and their arguments could be loosely divided into two camps: on the one hand oversensitized sociology and humanities students who see discrimination everywhere, on the other the liberal-minded everyman (also occasionally everywoman) who just wants to be left in peace.
To be fair, both groups are annoying. I can say that because I am one of those hyper-sensitized humanities students and I know for a fact that I can be annoying, with my constant bickering about the world’s inequalitites. It just doesn’t make for nice family lunch conversations. But what distinguishes both camps most obviously, in my mind, is self-awareness. While one group is very capable of it, maybe excessively so, the other lacks true self-reflection in a complex society.
I get it. We are all tired of the so-called oppression olympics. I’m sure every single one of us has experienced discrimination or humiliation at some point in their life, be it for being considered too young or too old, too ugly or too cute, too extroverted or too shy. But can we please all agree that certain “inevitabilities” prevent us from being exposed to certain forms of discrimination, for example that being a bio-woman I am considered more socially acceptable than a trans-woman, that being white I will never face institutionalized racism? See, it doesn’t hurt to admit that in many ways I am better off than others and that that’s not okay.
sometimes it takes kanye west to illustrate privilege (still from video "runaway")
And being the privileged white girl that I am, I am also prone to have prejudices and to make inconsiderate remarks, that can be offensive and hurtful to others. And I know that they are wrong, but they still happen, sometimes. Bad habits die hard, but I am not proud of that and I take full responsibility. Which is why I would get very defensive if someone called me a racist or homophobe – I know that’s just not true – but that doesn’t prevent me from saying racist or homophobic things. Awareness and acceptance are the first step, an apology the next.
But alas, I am just an overly sensitive feminist, constantly assessing my behavior and my flaws. Those liberal-minded folks posing as the mainstream, however, they don’t like to have their noses rubbed in it all the time. Because being young and educated and left-wing, they are quasi tolerant and open-minded by default. And they are tired, tired of the p.c. talk, tired of being reminded of their privilege which is, after all, not their fault, they claim. But try to take it away from them, their privilege, and they get all defensive (see any discussion about quota laws, yes means yes, immigration…).
What they need to realize is that this defense mechanism is precisely what perpetuates inequality and power relations and prevents progressive social change. Instead, we should all aim to be the best person that we can be, which does not imply that one should try to please everyone. Frustration and anger are important sentiments, but they need to be channelled in the right direction. Sometimes toward oneself.
Admit to your privilege, admit to your assholery, and then try to make things better, so you won’t have that privilege, so you won’t have to be an asshole.