Are there white privileges in the West?

ZEIT guest post

Guest contribution in DIE ZEIT

March 31, 2021

"People who love freedom, democracy and human rights do not ask whether someone is black or white"

So whiteness is privileged. Completely automatically - by fate. A zeitgeist from Anglo-American regions wants it that way. Much has been written and debated about the emergence and growth of this American narrative. In the meantime, the criticism of the dominant white gaze has even extended into the pre-colonial period, the image of antiquity is to be revised. Before that, the philosophers of the Enlightenment were put to the test.

I am a citizen of a country in whose history nationalism, racism and colonialism have left deep marks. Nonetheless, the general judgment that whiteness privileges me raises doubts about its historical justification and spontaneously evokes an emotional protest from deeper layers. Let's start with the language. It plays a not insignificant role in the current discussions about white dominance.

In common parlance, privileges mean prerogatives - such as one's own jurisdiction and inheritance, for the nobility in the feudal state. According to this, privileges are special rights for a minority; as soon as rights such as the right to vote are granted to everyone, they change from privilege to common good, to the norm. According to this understanding, whites in our democracy do not have any special rights that should be withdrawn from them for the sake of justice. Rather, it is about eliminating the factual inequalities that affect non-whites, even though they have the same rights under the constitution. For it is obvious that whites in a white majority society have numerous advantages, even without legal privileges, advantages that they are usually not even aware of. As members of the white majority society, we operate largely smoothly as equals among equals and often have greater opportunities in political, economic and cultural life.

A non-white person, on the other hand, does not only encounter curiosity because he belongs to an immediately recognizable minority. The other skin color also arouses skepticism, prejudice, exclusion, sometimes even racism, hatred and - as we have just recently seen - murderous violence. I can understand the anger that is growing in the face of such discrimination and violence. It also makes me angry, and it is more than understandable for me when non-whites claim not only legal equality but also social equality and - as Norbert Elias called it - "human equality". At the same time, critical whiteness also stimulates me to contradict, because I'm afraid that the pendulum could swing too far in the other direction, as in America. In Germany, too, we come across generalizations, as if whiteness, regardless of the specific situation, was firmly tied to the role of a colonizer or ruler. Whenever someone talks about white privileges, there is always an attribution of guilt, as if whites, irrespective of their individual behavior, had some kind of collective guilt - some feel downright reminded of original sin. The complicated history of mankind is thus impressed with an apparent clarity that leads to a woodcut-like narrowing.

History in Germany and Europe has undoubtedly been described mostly Eurocentric or at least transatlantic "western". Even then, there was and is not just the one white perspective. Above all, however, historical findings have repeatedly been supplemented, relativized or even corrected - and this will also be the case today and in the future. Undoubtedly, we will have to give up narrowed perspectives when - as we have already begun in previous years - topics such as colonial history are more closely integrated into our view of history and when we deal with completely different perspectives and patterns of interpretation. Countless works on critical whiteness, racism, post-colonialism and identity politics have appeared at universities. Intellectuals from Asia and Africa are increasingly getting involved in the interpretation of historical events and current conflict situations. Museums are discussing the return of art that has either been stolen from Western states or acquired through third parties. All of this is important and promotes knowledge. But the view that looking at the colonial times and the transatlantic slave trade is an epochal turning point, according to which all previous historical patterns of interpretation should be rewritten with regard to an all-important contrast between whites and non-whites, I consider extremely worrying. Because it invites a selective perception of history instead of contributing to looking at the whole picture.

If we look at the history of slavery, for example, we see that it has run through the history of mankind since ancient times - and neither slave owners nor slaves can be clearly sorted by skin color. The slave owners were not always white, but also Chinese, Balinese, Aztecs, Maya, Africans. And the Arab slave trade with Africans has a much longer history than the transatlantic one. Conversely, the slaves were not only black, but often also white: for example the members of conquered neighboring peoples in ancient Greece and Rome or later, between the 16th and 18th centuries, the whites who were enslaved en masse by the Ottoman Empire by Muslim pirates on the coasts Italy, Spain and Portugal were robbed and sold as slaves - among them the later Spanish national poet Cervantes, who spent five years as a slave in Algiers before he was ransomed by the Trinitarian order. In these centuries slavery was not primarily a question of "race" but a consequence of power and power shifts.

And as for the last, the long 20th century: Colonialism and decolonization were undoubtedly important elements in the global history of this century. But the century was most lastingly shaped by the two world wars and the totalitarian systems of rule for which the names of Hitler, Stalin and Mao Zedong stand. I think of many, many millions who lost their lives as soldiers or civilians in the war, of many millions who were killed because they were of the wrong "race" or the wrong ethnicity or religion, who went to prison or to the camp, if they held the wrong opinion, who were murdered or starved to death, if they belonged to the wrong class, and who were expelled to atone for the crimes of their leaders. Dozens of millions lost their lives in gulags, concentration camps and in criminal wars - in Europe and the Soviet Union almost all white people were victims of white rulers. For the vast majority of white people, too, history is a story of inferiority, powerlessness and limited opportunities to live. For a minority it is supremacy and the history of rule. Those activists of critical whiteness, who turn a contrast between whites and people of color into a main contradiction, distort the picture of lived life. They marginalize oppression - not just the oppression of whites by whites, but also the oppression of non-whites by non-whites - as in various African countries and Asia. In this context, it is worth remembering China and Cambodia, where millions were victims of communist terror, or Indonesia, where, conversely, hundreds of thousands of communists were killed in a massacre by the military and militias.

Inevitably, though certainly not intended, it will weaken global movements for empowerment, human rights and human dignity. In addition, the narrowed view prevents the realization that perpetrators and victims in history can rarely be separated by skin color. There is no such thing as the "bad white" and the "noble savage". There have been numerous alliances and collaborations or collaborations between black and white people - on the side of the oppressor as well as on the side of the oppressed: between black and white slave traders on the one hand and between black and white opponents of slavery, racism and colonialism on the other.

The transatlantic slave trade and slavery in the Caribbean and the southern states of the USA were introduced by whites and operated profitably, but they were also fought and finally eliminated by whites almost everywhere - by abolitionists, for example among the Pietists and evangelical missionaries in Great Britain, for the Slavery was incompatible with understanding man as a child of God. "Our children should learn history in all its aspects and not that it consisted of how whites all over the world stood on the necks of blacks," explained the black American literature professor John McWhorter in a recent Spiegel interview. In no case do I want to establish a hierarchy of victims. What I would like, however, is that annihilation, oppression and discrimination do not get less attention if they are not for racist, but for political or economic reasons - and if the victims are white.

Or are sacrifices worth less when they are white? People like Maria Kolesnikova and hundreds of others in Belarusian prisons? Or Alexei Navalny in the Russian penal camp? What I also oppose is that annihilation, oppression and discrimination are given less attention when the oppressors are black or people of color rather than white. Don't they also deserve our condemnation: The Chinese leadership for years of oppression of the Uyghurs? The persecutors of the Rohingya in Myanmar? Or Boko Haram, those jihadists who killed tens of thousands of people in Nigeria? It should go without saying that you shouldn't downplay racism and misanthropy in your own country by pointing your finger at others. But it should be just as clear that one must not ignore persecution and misanthropy in non-white countries if one does not want to lose one's credibility as a democrat on the basis of humanism. Anyone who only cultivates solidarity with people who are not white and who overlooks oppression when it is perpetrated by non-whites puts ethnic or "racial" affiliation above universal human rights. Despite constant rejection of the term race, he pursues a human rights policy that is ultimately racially based.

It is rightly pointed out again and again that fathers of the American constitution like Thomas Jefferson had slaves themselves. Even the human rights proclaimed in the French Revolution did not initially apply to all people. But at the same time, both revolutions created the prerequisites for the lifting of legal restrictions to be possible in the first place. Now the new ideal has established itself that all citizens have the same rights. And it is precisely this thought pattern that has driven more and more people in Europe, the USA and other regions of the world to fight for equality - including countless non-whites. For example in the slave revolution from 1791, which transformed the French slave-owner colony of Saint-Domingue into the first independent black republic in the world called Haiti. Or in the emancipation efforts of decolonization, which developed a strong dynamic after the Second World War but had begun long before.

So human rights do not derive their meaning from the fact that Western democracies are trying to impose them on others. Rather, it is the desires, longings and hopes of the oppressed all over the world that give them their central importance. The longing for human rights and for the "right to have rights" (Hannah Arendt) has proven to be universal. If today non-whites in the democratic states also demand that whites develop more sensitivity to racist discrimination, if they demand more knowledge about the colonial past, if they claim more equality and more participation, then I can understand that well and, of course, I am in solidarity with them . Fortunately, white supremacy, as in the days of the transatlantic slave trade, the discriminatory Jim Crow laws of the American southern states or, as was the case in America, racial segregation until the 1960s is a thing of the past. In most democracies, the legal equality of all citizens is guaranteed by law, including anti-discrimination laws. This is undoubtedly a success. But again and again there is the danger that the majority society turns a blind eye to the fact that devaluation and exclusion continue openly or subtly in the present.

The beautiful hope that racism can be completely eradicated will not come true. The idea of ​​a "chemically purified", racism-free society is a beautiful but never attainable wishful thinking. Because whether we like it or not, we have to face the fact that skepticism towards everything foreign is obviously an anthropological constant. And the danger of devaluing strangers in order to upgrade oneself and to obtain or expand advantages, especially in times like these, in times of uncertainty, when the majority society feels threatened in its status or self-image and its natural order Wobble. It follows from this that every democrat today must face racism wherever it appears.

- Toni Morrison saw in this alone the possibility of a careful coexistence of the different. This is a challenge to all of us, whites and non-whites. We should remember historical alliances, alliances of general solidarity, such as those forged by Martin Luther King in the American civil rights movement and the South African anti-apartheid movement around Nelson Mandela. People who love freedom, democracy and human rights do not ask whether someone is black or white. Because it is not origin and an "identity" derived from it that decide, but attitude. And that is independent of the skin color.

Published in: DIE ZEIT No. 14/2021, March 31, 2021