How can I best explain the white privilege

Critical whitenessWhiteness as a privilege

Critical whiteness research wants to make whites aware that they are not simply "people", but white people. That is, they are not exempt from social determination by ethnic characteristics. This provision gives them a special role. To deny this is to perpetuate those racist hierarchies that they believe to be obsolete
Three cases - one question:

An anti-racism activist from Thuringia said in an interview that many people with "non-German parents" are repeatedly asked where they come from.

In an advertisement from the children's aid organization Plan International, a healthy-looking, dark-skinned girl laughs into the camera, along with the request:

In a report on "Spiegel Online" about the Potsdam-based Ermyas Mulugeta, who was severely beaten by two strangers, it is said that the "Ethiopian-born" victim "got into trouble with two Germans".

Which unspoken implications give these statements their meaning?

Case one:
The Thuringian activist assumes that her listeners understand what she means without having to say it: By "non-German parent", she means a non-white parent.

Case two:
If the child were fair-skinned, would we need additional explanation for the "Will you sponsor" appeal? The creators of Plan International advertising can assume that their target audience will easily equate a black child with poor and needy.

Case three:
Ermyas Mulugeta is a German citizen. However, the identity of his attackers has never been legally clarified. It was only known that they were white. The "Spiegel" author writes "Ethiopian" and "German". She can assume that her readers unequivocally equate "German" with "white", while dark-skinned with "non-German", without the words "white" or "black" ever having to be used.

The author and radio presenter Noah Sow draws attention to cases like this in her book "Deutschland Schwarz Weiß", published in 2008.

Removing white from the normative position

All of these cases are based on the same figure of thought. It is difficult for many of us to grasp. From a certain perspective it is practically invisible - contourless, colorless. It is present and depicted everywhere in this country: on television, in the media, in advertising, at the teacher's desk, in the Bundestag. The majority do not perceive it because they see themselves in it, or simply do not see them. It is the figure of the white man.

"Critical Whiteness" describes a scientific as well as a political approach to make this figure of the white person perceptible in society and in scientific discourse. Critical Whiteness would like to remove the figure of white from its central, norm-setting position and asks: To what extent does being white as an invisible standard represent the non-white as a deviation and inferior gradation?

This often happens on an unconscious level and in the speech or in the texts of people who see themselves as non-racist or even anti-racist. As the advocates of Critical Whiteness always emphasize, the approach is by no means new or just an academic headbirth: Blacks and other non-whites have been observing, naming and criticizing the figure of the white and the supremacy of being white for centuries. They did and are doing this to protect themselves. And to develop strategies for survival and possibly also for personal and social happiness in societies that are hierarchically structured according to skin color. The only new thing is the scientific recognition for this work.

Origins of Critical Whiteness

The discourses began in the USA in the 1990s and have been gaining in importance in Germany over the last ten years or so. Critical whiteness is deeply shaped by US history, especially that of slavery and the struggle of African slaves and their descendants for freedom and equality and against racism. But the knowledge gained from this can certainly be transferred to a country like Germany, with its very own history of whiteness and racial hierarchization.

How is critical whiteness developing in this country? In the following I will use the somewhat cumbersome but also common German term "critical whiteness research" to counter the idea that this is an exclusively American topic.

Critical white research in Germany

The examples given at the beginning of "Origin, Help and Identity" show the relevance of the question in Germany as well. The critical whiteness research is only marginally about the brute, self-named "skinhead racism". The unspoken assumption of whiteness as the norm was also carried out in these examples by people who are hardly suspected of being right-wing extremists: an anti-racism activist, an NGO that campaigns for children in Africa, Asia and Latin America and one Journalist for a mainstream news portal. It can be assumed from these people that they share the at least official consensus of all parties and groups in Germany that line up to the left of the NPD or Pegida: All people are equal, nobody should be discriminated against because of their origin, skin color or religion, to classify people according to race is inhuman. Nevertheless, the statements or images mentioned are implicitly based on an opposition between being-white and not-being-white, without which they would no longer make sense. And in two of the three examples being German is equated with being white.

Unconscious clichés are more dangerous than open hostility

Critical whiteness research is about naming and critically reflecting such patterns of thought, and so starts where most whites think that condemning open racism is enough. Sénouvo Agbota Zinsou, Togolese author and theater maker from Bayreuth, writes:

The little neo-Nazi or the 'xenophobic' drunk, the [...] 'foreigner out!' [...] roars, in my opinion poses less danger - if he restricts himself to verbal attacks - than the intellectual, the artist or the journalist who consciously or unconsciously convey clichés, not only because they address thousands, even millions People turn, but also because they are believed.

Racist violence, so the conviction of whiteness research, is just the tip of the iceberg of an ideology that has by no means been overcome, which structures the thoughts, feelings and actions of even the most liberal people and maintains a society in which power and validity are by no means color-blindly distributed.

Color blindness doesn't help

In its approach of wanting to make the foundation of this iceberg visible, critical whiteness research differs from the idea of ​​"color blindness". In this view, which is also widespread in the anti-racism movement, racism is to be combated by not addressing ethnic characteristics and treating all people as if such characteristics did not exist. In order to roughly understand this idea in its German variety, a few centuries have to be drawn out.

In the 17th century the biological concept of race found its way into European science. With it, groups of people were hierarchized on the basis of phenotypic - i.e. external - characteristics. It was intended to serve as a justification for the submission, exploitation, enslavement and genocide of people defined as racially inferior, especially in the heyday of colonialism in the 19th century.

In the 20th century, the National Socialists, with their racial ideology, pushed this way of thinking and trading formulated by the European Enlightenment to the extreme. The critical reappraisal of National Socialist crimes and the worldview on which they are based exposed this ideology as pure propaganda.

Independent of this, developments in genetics, anthropology and biology in the 20th and 21st centuries have shown that the scientific classification of people on the basis of racial characteristics is untenable. For example, it has been shown that individuals within a group defined as a "race" often have greater genetic differences between themselves than two individuals from different "races".

In addition, "Eurocentric" thinking found increasing criticism. From the second half of the 20th century, the criticism formulated by those who were formerly colonized in Africa and Asia as well as by ethnic minorities in North America and Europe named above all the presumption of white Europeans to see themselves as the crowning glory of creation or evolution.

These scientific and political approaches branched out in different directions: On the one hand, identity politics developed, especially among the left in the USA. Various groups, for example blacks, who were discriminated against by the white majority society on the basis of attributed characteristics, allied themselves and fought against their marginalization in the name of this very identity.

Avoid references to ethnic characteristics

The opposite approach of condemning every construction of identity on the basis of ethnic or racial characteristics as inherently racist and deliberately undermining such demarcations can also be found on the left. In Germany, this approach is well represented in the anti-racist and anti-fascist movements. Here the different social positions of migrants or refugees and locals or those of the ruling class and the exploited are discussed. Any reference to ethnic characteristics, even if they are disproportionately represented in the disadvantaged or privileged group, is deliberately avoided out of political conviction. These characteristics, so the argument goes, were themselves constructed out of racist motivation. Bringing them into play in the sense of an identity politics or even just as an explanatory model for different positions keeps this racism alive.

The majority society in Germany primarily avoids naming a racial category, namely the category of white. It is pointed out again and again that someone is not-white. But mostly through the flower: There is the famous "migration background". Or someone is "African" or "Turk". Even if the person making the statement does not even know what citizenship the person has or what culture they feel they belong to. As far as possible, people in Germany stay away from terms that are reminiscent of the categorizations of the National Socialists.

Critical perspectives in England and France deal with colonial history, in the USA in particular with the slave economy and the genocide of indigenous peoples. In these cases, the defining role of racism in one's country’s history is an inescapable statement.

German colonial history is receding into the distance

The actor and journalist Theodor Michael (picture alliance / dpa / Horst Galuschka) In Germany, an intensive discussion of the history of National Socialism took place. Among other things, racial thinking is identified today with the terms from fascism. There is seldom a look back in history to look for the roots of racist ideas. This focus on National Socialism is losing sight of German colonial history. A folk-like way of thinking, which was already creating identity before the Nazis, continued to have an effect after them and to this day.
According to whiteness research, this results in the circumvention of ethnic attributions in Germany. Many think that if they avoid ethnic attributions, they have already clearly campaigned for "tolerance" and against racism.
Far from wanting to reverse the scientific and political dismantling of racial thinking, the critical whiteness research exists as the starting point of its approach to the social construction of racial categories. "White", "black" or "Asian" are socially created identities. Here, individual phenotypic features such as a certain pigmentation or crease structure are made to mark the membership of a group and are linked to other properties, be it these character traits or the positioning on a skill scale (more or less intelligent, more or less instinctual and so on ).

Critical whiteness research is also convinced that such clearly distinguishable groups cannot be scientifically identified. Social, psychological, cultural or other characteristics can still be traced back to external, genetically determined characteristics. In contrast to other reactions to these facts, critical whiteness research insists that the effectiveness of these categories that have ruled in the minds and bodies for centuries continues and will not be extinguished if one just stops talking about it. This approach challenges the fact that once you stop using the term "race", racism will go away. Or that people become equal by claiming they are.

Whites have to take a privileged position

The position taken by critical whiteness research emerged from the experiences of non-whites. In our society they experience every day that properties are ascribed or denied to them due to certain external characteristics. And that, unlike whites, they are perceived as representatives of an ethnic group. Critical whiteness research wants to make whites aware that they are not simply "people", but white people. That is, they are not exempt from social determination by ethnic characteristics. This provision gives them a special role. To deny this is to perpetuate those racist hierarchies that they believe to be obsolete. Furthermore, whiteness research shows what privileges every white person in this society has.

Whiteness ensures credibility

The American educationalist Peggy McIntosh wrote an essay in 1988 in which she describes an "invisible backpack" full of privileges that every white person is born with. In Germany, too, the list of privileges is taken up again and again in discussions about whiteness, quoted and adapted to the local context. Peggy McIntosh counts among these privileges:

"I can curse, put on second-hand clothes or not answer letters without people attributing these decisions to bad morals, poverty or the illiteracy rate of all whites.

I can do well in a difficult situation without being named an honor for all whites.

I can ponder many options - social, political, imaginary, or professional - without asking if a person like me would be allowed to do what they want to do.

If I declare that there is a racist problem or that there is no racist problem, my whiteness will give me more credibility in both positions than a Person of Color will have. "

The term "person of color" is a self-chosen term for non-whites, which emphasizes the common experience of racism for a very diverse group. So far, the term has not found an equivalent in German.

The author Noah Sow vividly demonstrates the white privilege of being viewed as an individual with an example:

"Whether [...] you or I enter a luxury boutique in shorts or walk into a plenary hall drunk, the environment observes very closely and classifies it very differently."

White strangers can show off with strangeness

Peggy McIntosh speaks of privileges in the first person, Noah Sow in the second: The critical whiteness research makes it clear that one never writes or speaks from a supposedly objective, neutral perspective. So it is now time in this essay that I put my own cards on the table:

I am an American who grew up in Germany and has spent most of my life here. Although I was born in the USA and only have American citizenship, although my mother tongue is not German and my parents are not German, I am hardly perceived as a foreigner in this country. At the elementary school in Baden-Württemberg in the 1970s, I was assigned to the class for foreigners. But neither my classmates nor the white German teacher treated me as such - in contrast to the Turkish children in the class. On the other hand, I once brought my American passport to school to defend my honor - my classmates had doubted I was really American.It has been my privilege since childhood to show off my strangeness when it brought me positive attention, but then to make it disappear again when I just wanted to be part of it. This privilege is granted to me solely because I am white.

Anyone who says "foreigner" or "migration background" in Germany rarely means citizenship, not even the origin of the parents. What is meant are certain skin colors or ethnic characteristics, a certain religion, a certain social class or a combination of these categorizations.

Nobel laureate in literature Toni Morrison in 2010 (dpa / picture alliance / Ian Langsdon) I benefit from this every day: Although I was neither born here nor a citizen, my presence in this country is not questioned, I am not included in the discourses and pictures presented by the media as not belonging, I can "pass" as a local, so to speak, if I want to. This list goes on. To claim from this position that I see no skin colors, that all people are the same for me, would be as arrogant and ridiculous as a rich man who says he does not see any poor. The African-American writer and literary scholar Toni Morrison provided an important founding text for scientific whiteness research with her essay "Playing in the Dark". She writes:

"[T] he habit of ignoring 'race' [is] understood as a tactful, even magnanimous, liberal gesture. To take note of it means to recognize a difference that has already been discredited. To enforce its invisibility by silence means one of the black body Granting shadowless participation in the dominant cultural body. According to this logic, any well-behaved instinct speaks against taking notice and thus prevents an adult discourse. "

Whites "only" see themselves as human beings

For many whites, the first encounter with this criticism will be irritating. You are "well-bred" and have learned to "de-name" differences, as the literary scholar Susan Arndt writes, in order not to be considered racist. It is the same fearfulness and insecurity that is triggered in whites when "again" the word with which one should describe a certain group of people has changed. What is the correct name now, Afro-Germans or Black Germans? You can't say gypsies now? The reflex, which is reluctant to use such language rules or which simply falls silent as a reaction to it, is at its core the irritation that always arises when one is asked to reconsider one's own privileges. In this case, the privilege of naming other people as one has always done and regardless of how these names came about and how these people call themselves or want to be named. Second, it is about the special right not to want to be named in terms of one's own ethnicity. A reflection on these privileges leads to the request to change, and not just in terms of language selection. This is always difficult and causes defensive reactions.

Grada Kilomba, Professor of Postcolonial Studies at Berlin's Humboldt University, says:

"[White] people [are] used to identifying themselves only as human beings and to making whiteness invisible. But there is no more powerful position than to see themselves only as human beings and to determine the norm".

But it would be a mistake to view critical whiteness research as a set of moral rules that want to enforce language regulations and prohibitions on thinking. Like any established theory or political practice, whiteness research also produces flowers that come across as dogmatic or pathetic and hardly contribute to the "adult discourse" that Toni Morrison has in mind. The impetus of critical whiteness research goes in exactly the opposite direction: It's not about finally getting everything right as a white person by learning new rules, starting to say certain things and not saying others anymore. But, among other things, to analyze what we mean and what we do when we speak and think. About becoming aware of what we have not yet perceived as the structure of our thinking. That this, when honest and reflective, will not be a leisurely endeavor is evident, and the speaking and writing that it produces will, at least initially, be more like stuttering than confident speaking. Sénouvo Agbota Zinsou:

"There is some kind of earthquake hidden inside each of us when we don't know how to behave towards another. The ability to analyze the epicenter of this earthquake with a clear mind is what we lack most."

It is this ability that critical whiteness research seeks to train. When we whites understand how deep within us and in the society around us sits an unspoken assumption of the norm-setting supremacy of whiteness, it also becomes clear that we can hardly get rid of this assumption. A purely moral, self-chastening approach underestimates the power of the social structures that have shaped us since childhood. The German-Nigerian pastor Austen P. Brandt emphasizes in an interview with Noah Sow:

"Feeling racist is identified with being bad, and I think these two poles have to be kept apart. There is a multitude of different approaches to feeling and thinking in a person, some of which contradict each other. Anti-racist work can therefore mean, for example, clarity in these to get different emotional and action approaches [...]. I think it's not about what I say. As long as I say as a man that I don't want to be a sexist, I've actually lost. I think that as a man I have to accept that I am sexist and in all likelihood for many years to come. But I can try to discover the structure of sexism in myself and work on emotional behaviors that make these influences aware and reduce them. "

So there is no place of innocence. Instead, it is a matter of reflecting on one's own position as well as the images that populate one's own subconscious, as Toni Morrison suggests for American literary studies without a tone of accusation in "Playing in the Dark":

"It is as if I had looked into an aquarium - the gliding and glittering of the golden scales, the green tip, the flashing heeling white from the gills; the castles at the bottom, surrounded by pebbles and tiny, intertwined fronds of green; that hardly moving water, the particles of excrement and food, the silent bubbles rising to the surface - and suddenly I saw the aquarium, the structure that allows the orderly life it contains to be transparent (and invisible) in the larger one World to exist. "

Fix or overcome racist markings?

With this step back, which reveals the invisible, structuring vessel, Morrison shows how essential the "Africanist presence" is in American literature. By this she means the construction of the white on the basis of a black other who embodies everything that the white should or should not be: "benevolent" and "evil", "spiritual" and "lustful" - dazzling figures of fear and desire . In her studies, Morrison traces the extent to which white American literature is permeated by these projections and encourages her white readers to reflect on the shadows around them that make their ideas of themselves possible in the first place.

A criticism of critical whiteness research that has repeatedly been brought up (especially from the left) is that, with its focus on racial markings and positions, it fixes these instead of helping to overcome them. It is argued that cultural identities in Germany cannot be explained using the simple dichotomy white / people of color. Power structures cannot be deciphered in this way and every analysis of reality through appropriate glasses makes use of racist categories; that could hardly point to a non-racist future.

From a philosophical point of view, this dispute is about the question of whether the world can best be changed by making its partly hidden structures visible and reflecting them critically. Or whether one should live as if these structures no longer exist.

White research names and questions previous disadvantages

In my opinion, the proponents of critical whiteness research convincingly argue that in a world that has been racially hierarchical for centuries, it is presumptuous and denies reality to pretend it is socially irrelevant what kind of skin one was born into.
In order for this to become just as irrelevant in the future as the question of whether one has free or overgrown earlobes, the privileges or disadvantages must be named and questioned that are accorded to the characteristics that are seen as socially relevant today (e.g. skin color or hair structure). The risk on the one hand: Because of the sheer insistence that the world should not be divided according to skin color, the fact that it is the way it is is suppressed. The danger on the other: a persistent indication that it is what it is cemented this division.

In between there is an honest discussion, a journey into unfamiliar, also unpleasant areas, from where you can see the aquarium instead of just the goldfish.

Millay Hyatt, Born 1973, in Dallas / USA, Dr. phil., studied philosophy, political science and general and comparative literature in Ohio, Los Angeles, Paris and Berlin; in 2006 she completed her doctorate with a dissertation on the utopian and critical of utopia with Hegel and Deleuze at the University of Southern California. Millay Hyatt lives as a freelance translator and author in Berlin.