Anti-Racism in International Youth Work
Recognizing My White Privilege: I Understand That I Will Never Understand. But I Stand.
Charlotte Lohmann, IYMC Krzyżowa
I understand that I will never understand. That I will never have to hear again and again the question "Where are you from"? That I will never be the only person on a train or bus asked for identification. That I will never be held back and hurt by the blatant systemic racism and everyday racism. That I will never be denied services or work or apartments because of my skin colour. That I will never have to endure struggles and obstacles in life because of my skin colour. I understand that I will never understand, but I stand.
When the pictures of the brutal police operation against George Floyd spread around the world, people began to demonstrate in the streets and the IYMC Krzyżowa was also faced with the question of whether and how we should express ourselves, because anti-racism is a fundamental principle for us: There is no neutrality towards racist and extreme right-wing positions and, quite clearly, the framework of the Convention on Human Rights can not be exceeded.
I could now describe the methods we use in our youth work in Krzyżowa to sensitise and educate (young) people about racism so that they understand the consequences of racism. But I will not do that, because I also had and have to start somewhere else. I have to start with me.
Here is an attempt from my perspective as a white woman, to explain my experiences in anti-racism work and my principles. I invite you to read it, because the debate and workshops on anti-racism can only be conducted if I start with myself. If I want to deal with racism, I must clearly deal with my own socialization and the context I grew up in. Because it is a process of unlearning and I cannot deny that I am a person, a woman, an educator who moves in structures that are not easy to break through. I had and have to deal with racism even though I am not affected by it myself. The first step is to make myself aware of the racist thoughts I have, actions I did and concepts I grew up with, to recognize how big and broad racism is and exists. I too have been socialised in racist structures, I too have benefited from a system that racially excludes. Also I asked as a child for a "skin-coloured" pencil, also I played with dolls that looked like me and so did my favorite characters in books. Also I did not deal in school with the European Colonial past and the colonial history of Germany, the country I grew up in.
Also I myself wanted to believe that everyone was equal on this planet and nobody is treated differently because of their skin color and also I reacted defensively.
One example in the year 2010, at the age of 16, I spent some time in South Africa as an exchange student. That was a great and formative time. The bad thing is not that I did this exchange, but that I learned to reflect on this experience from a global and post-colonial and anti-racist perspective way much later, because I didn't get a pedagogical input before the exchange. I did not get the possibility to discuss white privilege or to criticise why the Afrikaans language exists and I never got the access to learn the historical dimension of it. Exactly these perspectives would have helped me then a teenager to reflect different perspectives and not to reproduce stereotypes. This only happened during my studies, almost 6 years later, when I learned about the effects of post-colonialism till today and apartheid.
I learned to understand that I will never understand, but I stand, forever!
The existence of everyday racism and racist structures in which I move is a state that cannot be denied, even if the confrontation with these structures and one's own socialization was and is painful, it hurts. It is unpleasant, but I have a responsibility as an educator, as a white citizen. I, too, had to begin to grasp racism in its historical context and also I have to learn, to unlearn. I also had to understand that the attitude of not wanting to understand the term privilege is an attitude that can only consist of a privileged position. This does not mean that I have to be ashamed of being white. Instead, it means that I must identify my privilege to understand and use it to make a step forward. I must use my privilege to advocate for change and as well as raise awareness to the injustices plaguing. And I, as a white woman, can use my privilege to describe my process of unlearning and my process of learning how to think and act critically of racism. I can use my privilege to include exactly this thinking as a basis element into my workshops.
If I enrich our youth meetings with elements of global learning and anti-racism work, we must call a spade a spade. In order to open up a debate, we create approaches to come to terms with one's own socialization, to recognize the hidden racism of everyday life. Furthermore many actions that exclude in a racist way, are without evil intent, but clearly racist. Quite often we come across statements that say “there is no racism in my statement and even in the past you were allowed to say that”. Here it is important to underline and focus on the perspective that it is still a statement that is discriminatory and racist for those affected. Can you perhaps think of a statement that is not meant to be racist, but is racist nonetheless?
When we talk about racism, it is important to stay with the topic and thus prevent whataboutism. Whataboutism is the technique or practice of responding to an accusation or difficult question by making a counter-accusation or raising a different issue. For example the statement "But I was also discriminated…”. Because even though you may face struggles in life, you have to ask yourself: is it because of your skin color?
So what can I do with my privileged situation? I have to make sure that the educational materials contain enough colonialism. Also the educational materials I use do not reproduce racism and stereotypes. And I must take care of my language, because language creates reality and has great potential to reproduce racism.
And also I have to be prepared to react to defenses that I know from myself, because I have also reacted defensively when it came to issues that demand my own awareness and reflection. It is a process.
Then in the back of my mind I have this quote: "White people often put much more energy into the defence that comes up when racism is discussed than into a real confrontation with racism. On the one hand, this leads to major additional injuries among black people and People of Color. On the other hand, the discourse comes to a standstill and we do not move a millimeter further. To remove criticism of racism and one's own socialization is work. Daily conscious work. A repost, a hashtag are great but most of the work is in everyday life. In themselves, in real encounters and together in a better society. For everyone."
A quotation from Tupoka Ogette, a German anti-racism diversity trainer and author, provides the basis for understanding what is currently poralizing in social discourse.
I knew I needed to change my perspective of being white in Europe and on this planet. As I mentioned in the beginning is a process of unlearning, for which we can open ourselves and that is important, because I will never be free of any prejudices and that I have to keep reflecting on this and my actions.
I understand that I will never understand, but I stand.