Lecture by Simret Mahary

22. Apr. 2021

On April 21, 2021, a lecture as Advanced training was held with Simret Mahary on "Recognizing and Overcoming Racism. Steps towards a good coexistence". The lecture was part of the course Cultural Anthropology in the Master of Theological Studies program, which was translated into English and Czech. Simret Mahary is a Friedensau graduate. He studied theology (B.Th.) in Bogenhofen, Austria, and earned a master's degree at Friedensau Adventist University; he also earned a master's degree in transcultural studies at the University of Heidelberg. In addition to his work as a pastor, Simret Mahary directs an intercultural encounter center in Frankfurt.

The presentation, which was followed with interest by numerous participants, was followed by a discussion with suggestions for further thematic sensitization.

Bild der THH Friedensau
The speaker at a previous event: Simret Mahary
Photograph: Tobias Koch

Recognizing and overcoming racism. Steps toward a good coexistence.

Racism is a human phenomenon. We experience it in different forms and in different cultures that people are excluded because of their skin color or their supposed origin.

Today, we will talk about racism that started and continues to originate from white, Central European and Western people. Racism is here not limited to color, because there is also anti-Semitism, Islamophobia, discrimination against Sinti and Roma and people from Eastern Europe in the course of West/East divisions and the effects of capitalism, which produces many losers of different skin colors and cultures. All of this is part of addressing racism.

Racism is a structural, economic, historical and psychosocial problem in which we are all included. But not everyone is affected by it to the same degree. That is why today we focus on Western European racism, and the creation of racial categories that started from white people who objectified and made themselves invisible in the process. On the backs of enslaved, exploited, uprooted peoples and colonized and systematically exploited regions, exterminated indigenous peoples, white Europeans created for themselves - also significantly driven by their intra-continental, national competition - the blacks, the Indians, the primitive indigenous peoples of South America. In the course of this they divided large areas of Africa, South America and Asia among themselves and thereby created borders, which became the doom of several regions of this world until today and caused many conflicts (such as in the Near East).

With this creation something perfidious happened. Whiteness, which can also be thought of as being white and Western/Central European, or being white and American, or being white and Western, made itself invisible. Whiteness became a category that made itself invisible and set itself as a yardstick, until today. And this, after centuries of history in which it had 'created' itself and the supposedly different 'black' and other peoples according to color categories. Now a supposed color blindness has occurred, where it is said by the same people - we are all the same, black or white. There are only people.

Yet racial categories were previously created in the course of economic exploitations that sought to justify the unspeakable. The superior whites were juxtaposed with Jewish, Oriental, Asian, indigenous peoples of South America and black people in various degrees and were considered and declared superior. The exploiters declared themselves the civilizers. The conquerors and exterminators declared themselves the discoverers. Driven by greed and intra-European competition, large parts of the world with their cultures were exploited over centuries and systematically destroyed and repositioned, with lasting consequences.

In the process, white people, who led two world wars that cost millions of lives and created weapons capable of destroying the entire world, managed to declare themselves civilized and the measure of all things; including teaching the world democracy and human rights. The destroyers of the past now declared themselves the purified global winners and defenders of human rights, all over the globe.

People whose grandparents shouted 'Sieg Heil' and witnessed their Jewish neighbors suddenly disappear and subsequently murdered by the millions, speak of 12 years of 'bird shit' in the face of 1000 years of glorious German history, as if the hatred that had been brewing against Jews for centuries had arisen overnight, and disappeared after the war ended. ‘The Nazis came', someone said, as if they came from the moon. And as if they returned there again. And these people not only sit in the German parliament with so many votes, but are representatives of many more people in the population who chant, as in the party's program, 'Africa cannot be saved in Europe.' As if people on the African continent had asked Bismarck to divide a whole continent among themselves like a piece of bread from Berlin with his European friends.

While many other people manage to shake their heads at the fact that such outrageous statements are possible in Germany, where war and Holocaust survivors are still among us, it is difficult to think about one's own privileged position as a white, European person in society.

The desire to be seen as a good person who is not prejudiced or racist seems much greater than the willingness to see racism as a system of which one is inevitably a part by virtue of being who one is. In that case, white and primarily Western and Central European.

Whiteness is not just a color, but a category of being that has carved out a place for itself over centuries like no other. It is the invisible color, but it was very capable of creating a category of black people that it subjugated (James Baldwin: ‘Only white people can answer why they needed black people’).

Now, when black people make a virtue of their need, call themselves black to make their identity and marginalization visible, and call on white people to see themselves as white people and acknowledge what benefits it has brought them for centuries and continues to bring them today, they are suddenly struck by colorblindness. 'Color doesn't matter to me,' they say, 'We're all human.' 'To me you're not black, Simret, you're just human.' As if that were a contradiction. ('A female police officer shot a black man' in Minneapolis after mistaking her gun for her Taser, a public television news report said recently. Doesn't she have any skin color herself, the policewoman?)

The reality is: whiteness is a category of power, of preference, of cultural, social and media representation, of being a helper, of being civil. After all that has happened and is still happening, Blackness is a threat, a danger. It is Black people who don't get the housing and the jobs because of what they look like or what their names are (that could also be replaced by 'oriental' people or Muslim names). It is black people who are controlled by the police for no reason, it is black people who walk through some streets in Germany with a feeling of unease, while white people hold their handbag tighter when one of them gets on the train, or even sits next to them.

It is Muslims who have to prove that they belong to Germany, preferably by taking off their headscarves and publicly professing their allegiance to the German Constitution, something one would never dream of asking Mr. Meier to do. Sure, he knows all the articles of the Constitution by heart. But it was not the grandparents of the man from Somalia who, together with like-minded people, put the whole world in fear and terror 70 years ago and put at jeopardy the dignity of millions and millions of people. And Hanau did not happen 70 years ago.

It is still the Jews who are supposedly conspiring in some back room and planning world domination, while in reality some of them do not even dare to walk with their kippa through some streets in Berlin. But yes, it is the Muslims who are threatening them. It is the new Muslim anti-Semitism. Problem identified. Germany has learned. Really? Where, again did the one who attacked a synagogue in Halle come from? In which parliament, again does the one who spoke of the 'monument of shame' in the heart of the German capital sit?

Whiteness exists and brings advantages and holds everyone responsible who is one.

You haven’t chosen to be white, but it holds you responsible because it gives you a position of supremacy in society and in the world. People who manage to relate their CO2 emissions and meat consumption to the climate issue should manage to relate their privileged status as white as compared to those who are not and therefore experience discrimination or are at best patronized and supported because that feels good.

No, you are not color blind. Neither are black people. You are white. And I'm black. And that means something in this world. No, you don't need to compliment me on my German and portray me as someone who has come so far, unlike many others who have also lived here for so long and don't yet know German so well, and declare me an example of successful integration at the expense of those who are like me. I wonder how many white people who have lived in African countries for a long time can speak local languages. Ahmed, who has only lived in Germany for forty years, can communicate well and has even set up his own business against all odds, selling you the vegetables you find so fresh. And I promise I won't ask you what second or third language you've learned that isn't Spanish, French or Italian, and what languages you could use to converse with people in African countries that didn't get there in the last few centuries, often enough at the expense of local languages on the ground. Uninvited, of course.

No, it is not black or Muslim or Jewish or - I would also say Eastern European people, also not Sinti and Roma, who have to explain themselves and get involved, after all the discrimination and racism they have experienced and are experiencing, but you are in the duty to stand up for them, where this happens. You have a duty to create and open up opportunities in housing, in the office, on campus, in the jobs and responsibilities that are being taken or opening up.

And yes, you have to reflect on how you interact with people who look different from you. Whether you respect them or whether you feel superior inside because you sit in the office on the other side of the table and speak better German than they do, without knowing a sentence in their language, even though it's the language of the country you might even enjoy your vacation.

Europe has a duty. White people have a duty. You have a duty. It's not your fault that you came into this world as a white, privileged person. But that puts you in the position to act. You share responsibility for the power that has been built up for centuries at the expense of others and continues to be built up. You can reflect yourself and your world where you are and not only treat people of different color and cultural background with respect as you treat yourself. You can acknowledge their competencies, make space for them, learn from them, give up power, and let them lead you. What is neither necessary nor helpful is defensive behavior or shame or saying, 'Yes, but...'. It's not about you, it's about the other person.

To summarize:

Racism is a human phenomenon that affects people in varying degrees as both perpetrators and victims.

Systemic and structural racism, built by Europe and the West for centuries, has produced and consolidated white supremacy on many levels - economic, media, cultural, political, etc. - making itself invisible and a measure of all things. It created black people and others, who in turn it no longer wants to see and recognize as such, much less give them space and share power. A perpetrator has made himself a victim, or at best has declared himself a generous helper.

White people cannot help it that their forefathers have appropriated the land of others for centuries and exploited them, but they can help what they do with what is there now, and continues to pile up on the backs of others.

And finally, it's not me who should be making this speech, it's you. It is not black people who should go from village to village doing cultural work to reduce the fears and prejudices of the population. That would be like asking people who have experienced abuse to go to the perpetrators to show them that it was not okay to have abused them, because they are only human like their abusers. It is time to take responsibility, each in their own place, each with their possibilities and spaces for action.

Simret Mahary (Frankfurt/Main)

The Lecture as a video.