Tag Archives: racism

Who are the real Child Abductors?

A police photograph took over the news last week: a tiny girl sitting between her parents, all of them staring blankly into the camera. It is not a flattering picture: the man and woman seem tired,old and dead-eyed, and the little girl looks squeezed uncomfortably between them, with questioning eyes and tangled hair – like a dishevelled version of Maddie McCann. But none of this would have ever sparked anyone’s interest, if it hadn’t been for the fact that the little girl looks white, and her parents brown. Something has got to be wrong with this picture!

Or so the Greek police must have thought, when they found this family in a Roma camp they were raiding. In this environment, being a pale-skinned child that cannot speak Greek is deemed suspicious and reason enough to take her away and submit her to DNA testing. The results seemed to confirm the fears: Maria and her supposed parents were not related, ergo, she must have been abducted. The media was quick to conclude: “Once again”, those criminal vagabond gypsies had stolen a white child! The police, the charity organization responsible for Maria, and the news media started frantically searching for her parents. Where could they be found? Scandinavia was suggested as Maria’s likely origin, because, well, look at her! Continue reading

What is Solidarity for Women of Color?

On Tuesday I attended an event organized by the National Organization for Women NYC chapter in response to the hashtag #solidarityisforwhitewomen. The hashtag, as I understand it, incorporates a variety of complex, interrelated issues, but perhaps this interview with the hashtag’s originator Mikki Kendall (@Karnythia) is a good place to start.

The event itself has already been briefly summarized by panel member Lori Adelman (@Lori_Adelman) on Feministing, so please read it and check all the links to get the relevant information on the speakers. I would just like to mention a few points that I gathered from the debate: Continue reading

How to be Granted Asylum: Just be a white celebrity

The always insightful Flavia Dzodan (if you don’t follow her already, you should do so now) has pointed out on Facebook that while the whole world is concerned with one white dude’s asylum decision, hundreds and thousands of refugees are constantly dying trying to reach the EU, and no one pays attention. Their bodies remain mostly anonymous. Continue reading

“The immigrant body is a gendered body” – The full interview with Flavia Dzodan

Flavia Dzodan is a business developer, writer and public speaker, currently residing in Amsterdam, the Netherlands. Her writing has been featured in The Guardian’s CIF, xoJane and on Gender Across Borders. She also frequently blogs at Tiger Beatdown and on her own blog Red Light Politics. Her main interest lies in the intersections of race, class and gender in a European context. Flavia was born in Argentina and came to the Netherlands in her twenties, where she has lived ever since. I spoke to her about immigration in Europe, the role of the political parties, and her own experiences and projects. An edited version of this interview was previously published on Gender Across Borders for a series on women and migration.

Henrike Dessaules: How did your own experience of coming to Europe influence your writing and activism?

Flavia Dzodan: For me the biggest shock was to go from being totally unaware of how certain immigration issues play out in Europe, and then to be here and to be labeled by the state as the “Other”. That was my starting point: to try to understand what was going on. A lot of what I write stems from that need to understand and unpack that structure that we see in place across the entire EU. What I’m interested in is unpacking a system where we have one group of dominant culture, which is white (for all intents and purposes, this is a system of whiteness), and you have a system of “Other”, which is the immigrant, the foreigner, the alien. What is happening in the EU since 2001 is that this “Other” is almost always invariably coded as Muslim. This is nonsense, because immigration is not just Muslim, but in order to actually get away without accusations of racism, they use this code word of immigrant, when actually what they mean is Muslim.

HD: Have you noticed a particular change in that over the most recent years?

FD: Very much so. I see it escalating. Every election cycle in Europe this escalates and gets worse, with more aggressive rhetoric, with more outlandish ideas of how immigrants should be treated, and there’s also this obscuring of what really goes on. You probably saw what I wrote about the internment camps where immigrants are kept. Well, all of this is obscured in the media. You don’t get to hear that there are these blatant human rights abuses. So, on the one hand the rhetoric increases, and that is the visible aspect, but in the background the policies that make these human rights abuses legitimate are enacted and passed as legislation. Of course, there is an increase. I would say it started around 2001, but it has only gotten progressively worse. And these people have more legitimacy as well. More mainstream legitimacy. What in the nineties would have been unthinkable, for someone like Jean Marie Le Pen, say, or Geert Wilders, now is a matter of daily occurrence in the media.

HD: How do you think it plays out in particular in the Netherlands?

FD: Well, in the Netherlands we have Geert Wilders. He was one of the pioneers of this movement. He has a genealogy of politicians that came before him, that also peddled his ideas since the late nineties, but he’s the most visible and he was the first across the EU to come up with this rhetoric of hatred and racialized politics. It would be absurd to call him names or to call his supporters names. People usually are very simplistic; they say: ‘These people are dumb and that’s why they follow him.’ That, I’m afraid to say, is very simplistic and not a nuanced analysis. These people have legitimate reasons to feel disenfranchised and to feel left out, and to feel that the system has failed them. Wilders exploits this very legitimate anger by giving them lies. But people are not stupid. It’s not that they believe him because they’re uneducated or they don’t know better. They believe him because for years they haven’t been addressed. Nobody has actually taken the time to listen to what are very legitimate complaints against globalization, against the growth of capitalism, in every sphere of our lives. And how they feel left behind because they cannot consume at the pace that society tells us; that in order to be a full subject, you need to consume: fashion, culture, etc. And his supporters come in general from areas with legitimate poverty indexes, with struggles to find jobs, and that with a model of every-day social life that is no longer what it used to be twenty years ago.

HD: Ironically, I’ve read that the supporters of Marine Le Pen, for example, are primarily from the areas that are further outside of the cities, so where actually there are not that many immigrants at all.

FD: It’s the same with Wilders, exactly the same.

HD: And one argument that always comes up in the immigration debate is this sort of the-boat-is-full rhetoric, that we just can’t have everyone coming. What would you reply to that?

FD: I’d say that it’s a very historically flawed way of looking at what has happened between Europe and the global South for the past 500 years. I mean, let’s not forget the very long, painful and brutal history of colonization of Europe in the countries where all these immigrants come from. So you have a continent that, with very few exceptions, went to these countries and ravaged resources, created a system of dependency, created a system of oppression for entire populations, and these have been perpetrated until not so long ago. In the last 50 to 100 years Europe has decolonized. And now they have these populations who have no access to resources, who have no access to funds, and Europe does not take any responsibility in the creation of these systems, so yes, sure, Europe is full. I’m not going to debate that because I’m not a demographer. […] So let’s grant these arguments some validity. Even if that was true, how do we address this system of inequalities that Europe created in the countries where these people come from? We created a welfare system in the EU across the entire continent on the back of the colonized countries. And now, when these people 50 or 100 years later say “Hey, we also deserve a portion of this pie”, we tell them “Oh, but it’s full”.

HD: So what do you think would need to happen in the near future? What do you think are the most pressing issues at the moment?

FD: I think that the racism in the EU must be addressed. Unless it’s tackled and actually fixed from the root, it’s only going to lead to more problems. I’m not even talking about a comprehensive immigration policy that contemplates all of these issues, which is another necessity. But even before that, I’m talking about something that is urgent and immediate, and that is to address the system of institutionalized racism. I give you another example from the Netherlands: When you look at the statistics of unemployment rates for under 25-year-olds in the Netherlands, for Dutch white natives the rate is at something like 5%. For Moroccan natives under 25 years old, the unemployment rate is at 25%. And for males under 25 of Surinamese origin, which is a former Dutch colony, and it’s mostly an Afro-Caribbean population of mixed heritage, the unemployment rate is at 27%. So when we look at these inequalities, I’m sorry, the only possible explanation is that system of institutionalized racist practices. Unless we address this, unless we tackle the mentality that makes these unemployment statistics possible, I don’t see us fixing anything in the near future.

HD: That’s really interesting, that you mention the unemployment rates for young men. I think, usually migrant women tend to suffer less from unemployment, but they are also in more precarious jobs. Do you think that immigration affects women differently from men?

FD: Of course I do. Especially in Europe there is this sexualization of the immigrant. The immigrant body is a gendered body. The immigrant woman in her visible difference becomes a threat. And of course, because she is the child-bearer, she’s also the one that’s going to bear the brunt of the racist hatred. She gives birth to these children that are taking over “our” society. She is the one that wears the markers of difference, and that is most visible in the case of the Muslim immigrant woman. She obviously doesn’t look like us, and she doesn’t speak like us. So she becomes this embodied threat that the system presents as someone that needs to be saved constantly. And how do European governments treat the immigrant woman? As someone that needs to be rescued from the perils of her own culture. You have the burka debate, you have the birth rates around immigrant families… There is a whole set of coded “issues”, and I say “issues” with huge quotation marks, that are ascribed to immigrant women specifically. They do have another whole set of real issues, of course, I’m not denying that. But, you know, it’s always the woman who carries the burden, because we have to deal with a white savior complex as well. The burka debate is all code to save these women from themselves.

HD: Yes, definitely, and I think that these kinds of arguments are also used more and more these days by the so-called political left, by pandering to ideas about women’s rights and the rights of homosexuals, and by saying that certain immigrant groups reject the ideals of our Western society. Do you think that there is a swing to the left as well with anti-immigrant sentiments?

FD: I want to be completely honest with you: My biggest disappointment in European politics comes from the left. My biggest disappointment. Because from the right I come to expect nothing different. I don’t expect them to change the tune of what they have been saying for the past 60 years, you know. […] But the left, I blame the left collectively. And I put myself in this as well. I’m not pointing fingers, as if I’m not part of the system. We all are. We all live in this society. At the beginning, in the late nineties and early 2000s, especially after the World Trade Center debacle, what the left did was at first not pay attention, so as not to legitimate this racist xenophobia, so they dismissed it as a fad, as something that would eventually go away. That silence actually was counter-productive, because they didn’t resist with the emphasis that is required to oppose these ideologies. These ideologies were left to grow and develop and become more nuanced and more legitimate, and eventually when the left reacted to this, it was too late. So now what do we do? The left  jumps on that bandwagon, to try to steal voters from the right. We don’t have an emphatic and clear opposition from the left, to people like Wilders, to people like Le Pen, or to the variety of xenophobes. The left opposes in principle the very caricature-like expressions of racism, like the neo-Nazis. They are like cartoon characters. It’s easy to oppose them. Who wouldn’t oppose them? And they are also for me the least dangerous threat, because they are so obvious and so blatant, that we can see them coming. And the left opposes that. I’m sorry, that serves little purpose for a structural change in those unemployment rates, in the mentality, in the institutionalized practices of hiring and human resources. And the left does nothing to oppose all of that with a clear and very strict rhetoric of standing against it. And I’m very, very disappointed. I vote here in the Netherlands, of course, and I struggle every election to find a party that represents me.

HD: And after all these years, do you feel like you’re a bit Dutch now, or do you still feel Argentinian?

FD: First and foremost, I’m Hispanic and Latina, and my struggle in terms of my immigration status, in terms of my status as “Other”, is the same as everyone’s from Latin America. We have to bear this burden of a racialized system, where we are constantly “Othered”. I am Argentinian, of course I am. That goes without saying, but I also look at what that means pan-regionally. I write about politics, about policies of immigration, and for me the interesting thing is how the EU creates patterns to racialize and to “Other” groups of people. This is not something I have any hand in, but I am coded as Latin American. And I’m fine with that, I mean, that’s what I am, after all. Am I Dutch? No, no. I love this place; this is home, and this where I live. But I’m never going to be Dutch. This has nothing to do with how I feel. When the state hands me my documents, I am a special category. Even if I acquire the Dutch citizenship, I am coded as foreigner and my children, if they are born, they are also foreigners. And this is a state category. This is not something that I choose. I don’t “Other” myself. The state does that for me. It doesn’t matter how I feel. The state tells me I’m not Dutch. So how I feel is irrelevant here.
[…]

HD: What’s your next big project going to be?

FD: Actually, I’m writing a book about anger. Political anger, to be more precise. Because as women and as feminists, especially when you’re not white in a very white environment, anger is a very scary emotion. You are constantly told that anger is not the way to engage politically. I believe this is counter-productive. There is a whole set of women who have come before me, who have written about this, like Audre Lorde or Sara Ahmed, people who are way more knowledgeable than me on this. I’m not pretending that I am original here. What I’m trying to do, is to write about it in a European context. Because a lot of the things that we have are very much American-centric. And I’m fine with that. I believe that this work that all these women have done before us is very useful as a reference, but we don’t have a history of racialized Europeans within feminism. […] European feminism presents itself as pretty much white. Let me rephrase that: non-racialized. Which, you know, means that it’s white by default. That’s a disservice, because that’s not the reality of what we live or what’s going on. And my approach in the book is to write about anger, and anger in relation to this European way of looking at politics and the politics of engagement.

[…]
HD: Thank you so much.

Admitting Privilege, Admitting Assholery

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.

Invisible Racism

Racism exists. Surely, no one would deny that, except perhaps right-wing extremists and, um, GOP presidential canditate Herman Cain. People of color are the victims of hate crimes, hate speech, discrimination in the labor market, discrimination in the housing market, harmful stereotypes etc. The list is long and outrageous, and I am going to add to it.

This rant is about another kind of racism, that I am going to call invisible racism. It is invisible in two ways:

1. It renders people of color invisible.

2. White people are often unaware of it, meaning they just don’t see it. In fact, some PoC might even be unaware of it; Herman Cain, for example.

Here is what I mean: not all forms of racism directly harm people. Racism can work a lot more subtly than that. Because it is so deeply embedded in our daily lives, it has become normalized.

But how can this be normal? In European countries where the population of people of color continues to grow, how is it normal that characters in popular movies are almost exclusively white? Most of mainstream cinema stems from the United States, so this shortcoming on their part is just as sad, if not sadder. But even in Europe the national productions largely favor white actors and actresses. In Germany, for example, the top 100 movies watched in 2010 include 14 German productions, none of which seems to feature more than one person of color among the leading characters.

But this is just one example. We all consume hundreds of advertisements and commercials on a daily basis (whether we want to or not) and the large majority of them feature white people. This has very little to do with proper marketing, but a lot more with racism and race erasure. After all, it’s not like people of color aren’t consumers and don’t need to be considered as a potential customer base. Rather, their wishes and desires are supposed to be implied in the white lifestyles the ads represent, and the white characters are considered universal templates for identification. Just like man is the default sex, white is the default race. As a woman, I have at least a slight idea of the schizophrenia these circumstances produce.

Then again, sometimes other races are in fact excluded as customers, which becomes obvious when walking into the cosmetics section of any old supermarket chain. All the products on offer are for white people: make-up items for light skin, hair products for white people’s hair. As a white person who doesn’t need any other products, you will never know that something is missing. And people of color open up their own specialty stores, food markets, hair salons and barbers, and in the end they get accused of not assimilating enough.

"make-up for every skin tone" - or not.

This is normalized racism which we all partake in without questioning or criticizing. Adequate representation is more than just minority quotas in political parties etc. We have to focus on the everyday things we take for granted. We have to look for the invisible and paint it in signal colors. Only then will we begin to fathom what constitutes racism and how to effectively fight it.

Remembering 9/11: A Personal Account

Today, exactly ten years ago, a terrible tragedy happened that would change Western society’s attitudes and mental state forever. The social and political implications of this event have yet to be dealt with; some are surfacing just now, others have occupied us for years. And while this topic may offer all sorts of fodder for conversation and reflection, I find it interesting to reduce it to the most individual level: my own personal account of how I experienced the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001.

I know that’s not terribly original, but I have never done this before, at least not in written form. And it may mean nothing more or less than that this moment shaped me in different ways for the rest of my life. Everyone old enough to store a vivid memory of what happened will be able to tell you exactly where they were, what they were doing and how they reacted when they first heard the news. Here is my story:

In September of 2001 I was 15 years old and I had never been away from home for more than a few weeks, yet of all the places that I could have been on that particular fateful day I found myself in the United States of America, in a small town close to the Bible Belt but far away from any liberal urbanity that I had grown up with.

I went to high school like every other 15-year-old, and my first class each morning day after day was World History with Dr. Sch., who had German ancestors and immediately took a liking to me, perhaps because I was German, or because I was the only one in the class actually willing to learn something. The morning started like every day: open the book, start reading a chapter and take notes. No one suspected anything, not even when the head secretary came in and went over to Dr. Sch. to whisper something into his ear. When she had left, Dr. Sch. turned to us and said in a casual manner: “Guys, I’m going to turn on the TV. There’s something happening in New York City.”

I found out later that we had been the first class in the whole school to watch the news, because our room was closest to the secretary’s office. The others were informed only later over the speakers. I think I must have watched about ten minutes of live coverage before I had even the vaguest idea of what was going on. And before I was able to process anything, the second plane hit the second tower, right then and there, right in front of my eyes, even though I was hundreds of miles away from where it happened.

I remember watching the impact. I remember watching the towers collapse, a while later. I don’t remember what I was thinking about during that time. But I will never forget my teacher’s voice: “Guys, remember that you are witnessing a historical moment.” He had a sense of pathos, good old Dr. Sch., I thought.

During lunch time everyone was talking about it, but not with fear or anxiety. They were excited, they were giggling. I remember wanting to ask them: “What does this all mean? What does it mean to you, to your family, to your culture.” But they didn’t seem interested. Do you have family in New York? Will the gas prices go up? Are we going to go to war? These questions didn’t become relevant until much later.

Back home after school the TV was on the entire evening. That was nothing unusual, except that the home shopping and cartoon channels and the wrestling championship had been replaced by the news, and nothing but the news. It would stay like this for many days, and I watched the same footage over and over again, while the names of dead people were streamed on the bottom of the screen.

One might have thought that the consequences would be felt immediately, but little did change over the next few months. Sure, some people resorted to hoarding, the sermons in the local churches became more dramatic, and some believed the Antichrist was coming in the shape of Osama Bin Laden, but overall the population in rural America seemed to remain calm. The creeping paranoia evolved much slower and more subtly than one might have expected, but it erupted in sudden irrational reactions, for example when after a near-by gas explosion the high school refused to let us go home and made us stay in our classrooms for hours. Another time my host family started asking me really weird and personal questions about my father. It turned out that they had found strange spam on their computer (“Win a greed card!”) and accused my father of spamming my emails, while he was trying to enter the states illegally.

Other than that things went back to normal very quickly, and I couldn’t say how much those events had affected me, if it wasn’t for two very different things:

I became aware of my own mortality, and it made me paranoid. I’m not sure if it happened long after the attacks or before them, but I know that I have developed a fear, a fear of dying in a terrorist attack, that is slightly irrational and that prevents me from living the carefree life that I used to know. I get slightly uncomfortable in crowded spaces, especially in airports and metro stations. I start noticing people that look slightly “suspicious” in that they seem nervous or carry strange luggage. I get anxious when I find seemingly unaccompanied bags or other items. I have left rooms and other spaces because of that. I have decided to not get on the metro and wait for the next one instead. I know how silly I acted but I couldn’t help it. I couldn’t fight the fear.

I find myself noticing suspicious people, but they are not necessarily Arab, not necessarily “foreign-looking”. However, it wasn’t until 9/11 that “Arabs” or “Muslims” entered my mind as some sort of category. I used to be familiar with immigrants, with the Turks living in Berlin, but I never thought of them as a particular group of people in terms of culture or religion. I didn’t know any personally and so they never entered my radar. I understand that this naiveté was based on ignorance but also on a certain innocence. Not having an opinion meant at least I didn’t have a bad one.

All of a sudden they were everywhere, those “Arabs”, those “Muslims” with their strange laws and customs and religion, but now they had become dangerous, a constant threat. Careless ignorance had developed into suspicion and hatred.

Today, I find myself defending “them” (as if they were a homogenous group, but unfortunately they are often being presented as such) against islamophobic bigots, racist immigration policies and critics of multiculturalism. Even though we seem to have so little in common. Yet somehow I know that there is something more important at stake here. Something that not only threatens our security, our well-being, but our basic humanity. 9/11 didn’t cause this. 9/11 triggered certain sentiments that had been brooding for a long time. 9/11 has done a lot of damage to us all, but it has made me the person that I am today: anxious, worried, but also angry and reflective and striving to change things, while not letting fear get the better of me.

Feel free to leave your own story in the comments.