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NAMING RACISM Sven Beckstette in Conversation with Veronika Fuechtner and Oliver Hardt

In an essay titled “Germany’s knowledge of its racist past has blinded it to its racist present” (2013), Veronika Fuechtner, a cultural studies scholar who lives in the United States, spotlighted the incongruity between Germany’s “culture of remembrance” and its continuing inability to confront the racism that exists today. Oliver Hardt’s film “Black Deutschland” (2006) documents the experiences of nonwhite creative artists in Germany and the difficulties they face. The two met with the art historian Sven Beckstette to discuss the concepts of racism and whiteness and sociological differences between Germany and the US.

SVEN BECKSTETTE: I want to talk about racism and how it’s discussed as an issue, especially in Germany. One key factor here will be the problematic term “racism” itself.

VERONIKA FUECHTNER: I feel it’s important to use the word racism, not least because it contains the word “race.” It alludes to an entire scientific and academic history that’s bound up with the emergence of pseudoscientific racism in the nineteenth century. And some of these ideas are of course still around. So the term continues to be hugely important, and it also serves as an inherent critique of Western scientific concepts. But in German, I never use the word Rasse. I always use the English word race, since in the Anglo-American context it’s linked to an entire theoretical apparatus that deals critically with the concept. And this apparatus isn’t there in German.

OLIVER HARDT: I agree. I feel the term Rasse doesn’t work in German at all, as it still today carries such a strong connotation of biological differences between people of different backgrounds. For me, it was always important to ask how we can speak about racism without speaking about Rasse. I appreciate that, as a term, racism contains a critique of the pseudoscientific concept of “race.” But I also believe that there’s very little awareness of the fact that the term “race” – especially in German – is an immediate consequence of racism, and not vice versa.

BECKSTETTE: In discussing racism, two other German terms are used synonymously: Ausländerfeindlichkeit and Fremdenfeindlichkeit. [1] How would you describe these three terms in relation to each other?

HARDT: In the synonymous use of these words, I see a clear strategy of denial. That news reports call racist attacks fremdenfeindlich or ausländerfeindlich is something I find highly problematic. I see it as a kind of complicity. In the violence that recently occurred in Chemnitz and in Bottrop, it wasn’t about “others” or about “foreigners.” It was about people who are marked by their appearance, who were victimized by those who still believe that Germans must be “white.” This ideology is perpetuated if you adopt that terminology uncritically. Even if the perpetrators go on record as saying they wanted to harm foreigners – they don’t mean foreigners, they mean brown people. That’s a racist motivation – period. But if we talk about Ausländerfeindlichkeit or Fremdenfeindlichkeit, we perpetuate the long history of the denial of the existence of racism.

FUECHTNER: In Germany, this denial has a parallel in the historical work of recognizing the Holocaust. These are two areas that are in my opinion directly interrelated. There has been extensive examination of the motivations and the historical background, and a culture of remembrance has emerged. But at the same time, the empathy that’s produced with regard to difference is very selective. It doesn’t go any further than contemplating difference in general. I think that this deficiency is also related to the lack of any examination of German colonialism, although that’s something that’s beginning to take place now. And there’s also a lack of examination of how far Germany and Germans were involved in other forms of racist violence.

HARDT: Has the institutionalized culture of remembrance of the Holocaust really prevented or minimized the persistence of anti-Semitism? It may sound kind of pessimistic, but the one seems to have nothing to do with the other.

BECKSTETTE: You’re asking whether the atonement for and recognition of the Holocaust has become a kind of exterior ritual, one that doesn’t effect any change in consciousness?

HARDT: It’s a question I ask myself, in fact. How helpful is it, in the here and now, to acknowledge bad things that were done in the past? Does that not obstruct our view of bad things that are being done now? That’s at the core of the theory that you formed, Veronika: that the racist past of Germany and the examination thereof has evidently made us fully blind to the racist present. That’s something I find so remarkable in this dialectic. When I read your text, I felt that you were expressing something no one within Germany would be able to write. You had a distance that was really important, you could look from the outside in, as a German living in the US.

Oliver Hardt, „Black Deutschland“, 2006, Filmstills

Oliver Hardt, „Black Deutschland“, 2006, Filmstills

BECKSTETTE: In the German self-image, the Holocaust is regarded as a major part of German identity. Your argument assumes that this constructed identity hasn’t been internalized, though. Could this taken-for-granted identity, or even dysfunctional identity, also be the reason that the defense and denial of racism are so prevalent here?

HARDT: For me, this presents the question of what can be learned in an arena where there is still absolutely no historical work being done, or at least very little, and where there’s no culture of remembrance at all. This applies to colonial history, the reappraisal of which has only just recently been set in motion by the discussion of reparations. But this also applies to the history of racism in Germany, independent of anti-Semitism, which is of course a form of racism itself. It can’t simply be a matter of copying the same mechanisms. Then we would just end up back at what Max Czollek has termed “remembrance theater.” The key question is how an examination of the past can be made more productive in terms of an examination of the present.

FUECHTNER: I think that the remembrance theater you mentioned, Oliver, is also a question of emotionality. It permits an emotional unloading comparable with theater – catharsis – but it’s all over very quickly. And this feeling of catharsis doesn’t necessarily have any impact on behavior or thought. Maybe this feeling of catharsis is also the reason empathy for POC and Jewish people is not really a felt empathy, connected to people we live alongside. When I think back to my school days, the Holocaust was addressed at a very abstract level, which meant the empathy also remained abstract. It’s not something lived and breathed.

BECKSTETTE: I would agree with you, Veronika, that the denial of racism is related to a lack of empathy. But I would also say that this negation is about people thinking that racism is something that can’t even really exist. And if it does arise, it’s downplayed or shoved aside. How can something not be present, but then, when it does actually rear its head, it’s simultaneously not true?

FUECHTNER: It’s enormously important that this conversation isn’t just conducted with people who are seen as “affected” by racism. It has to be a conversation that’s conducted with everyone. It’s not just a question of individuals’ political agendas, it’s an issue for society as a whole. Creating those alliances is so important.

HARDT: I think you have to destigmatize talking about racism instead of permanently tabooing it. Racism exists in the world and is going to be here for the near term. But we have to understand that it’s structural and has a historical dimension that’s related to social privilege. We have to get away from the idea that racism is something like the result of people’s bad characters, where individuals feel like bad people when they get called out for saying something racist. That the discourse defends and denies racism is something I find much more disturbing than its mere presence. I’ve learned to live with racism, but the fact that people who behave or express themselves in a racist way react to being called out on it by sealing up or acting like they’ve had a heart attack – that’s something I find a lot more troubling right now.

BECKSTETTE: I also think that it has to be a question of understanding that racism and sexism are socially embedded structures that we carry within us. And that these structures aren’t individual, their roots reach way back. But when I look at public discussions on racist incidents, statements, and abuse, I ask myself how we could lead these discussions toward a structural level that goes beyond individual behavior, making the depth of the problem visible, because it’s only then that it even becomes possible to talk about it.

FUECHTNER: In your film “Black Deutschland,” Oliver, there was a particular scene that moved me, the one where Sam talked about how he would think if he were white. How he would act. That affected me, as I’ve often asked myself, what would happen if I had the choice? If I could choose how I’m perceived? I think it’s very important to realize that we all participate in these structures. And even if I’m confronted with racism in certain ways, that doesn’t necessarily mean that I’m not also capable of thinking along racist lines. Even as a German in the US, there were a bunch of new things I had to learn. Of course, I grew up in a completely racist society, and that’s not something that just passes anyone by without a trace. It’s an examination of the personal prejudices we all have. Obviously, there are differences within this, but these are structures we’re all involved in.

BECKSTETTE: How could an awareness of the social structures of racism be created? One approach could be making changes at the institutional level by, for example, increasing diversity in public institutions.

Natasha A. Kelly, „Milli’s Awakening“, 2018, Filmstills

Natasha A. Kelly, „Milli’s Awakening“, 2018, Filmstills

HARDT: When we talk about the question of structural racism and institutional privileges we also have to take a look at the cultural arena. I have wondered, what even is the origin of the idea that the art and culture industries are particularly open or progressive? Take a look at the highly subsidized landscape of German theater, the city theaters and the national theaters. With the exception of the Maxim Gorki Theater in Berlin, there isn’t a single theater with a diverse ensemble cast anywhere in Germany, let alone a management team that represents urban society in the slightest. And there’s a similar problem with leadership in the art industry.

FUECHTNER: That’s a really important point! It’s about institutions, and ultimately the question of how far diversification is possible without diversity. I think that companies and company cultures are in some cases much further ahead than the culture industry, as there’s a lot more pressure on them. Higher education is another example of an arena where too little is happening. In 2017, there was an article in the Huffington Post by the social scientist Karim Fereidooni about how few Black Germans there are at universities. He wrote that of 45,000 professorships, just 13 are occupied by POC. Personally, I was shocked. I studied in Berlin, at the Freie Universität, and I had thought it was going to be a place where there would be some reflection on discrimination. But my experience was unfortunately just the opposite, which is also the reason that I left Germany. I think that this reappraisal work at universities – especially in faculties that work on colonial history and the entire theoretical debate around it – has to involve asking who these debates are being conducted by. Or without whom are these discussions being conducted? That’s a conversation about high-level jobs, though. At root, it’s something that has to begin at school. It’s something that I’ve thought about a lot: I went to elementary school in Frankfurt, and about 60 to 70 percent of the kids in my class had a migration background. But when I made it to high school, there were hardly any other kids who looked like me. I’m sure that I only got to high school because my parents really pushed me. The hurdles with respect to racism at school are enormous in Germany. So racism still is a central part of educational paths.

BECKSTETTE: This also has to do with structures, the structures of educational institutions: kindergartens, elementary schools, high schools, universities. So how can awareness be created that racism is a structural problem? Maybe it helps to look at the US, where these debates have been going on much longer. Which experiences, which schemes, what kinds of theoretical discourses can be carried over, even if the historical conditions are obviously very different?

FUECHTNER: If we want to carry over something from US debates on racism, the first step must be to say that racism has enormously disadvantaged a whole part of the population and that this discrimination has to be counterbalanced. This step just hasn’t been taken in Germany. And without it, there will never be a social consensus for US-style structural measures like affirmative action.

BECKSTETTE: Alongside social measures and an advanced theoretical discourse, there are also activist movements in the US like Black Lives Matter, whose starting point is extreme police violence against POC. Are there approaches in that movement that could be imported to Germany?

HARDT: Personally I think it would be hard. Some of the conditions are the same, such as racial profiling. But their impacts in the US are of course so much greater than over here. Black Lives Matter focuses on the permanent threat that state power poses to bodily integrity. I don’t feel that’s something that can be carried over, as that threat is so historically embedded in slavery. The body as merchandise that doesn’t belong to the enslaved individual. I think that BLM, even when it’s currently focused on police violence, has a historical dimension in the US that isn’t present here. That’s why I’m skeptical as to whether saying “Black lives matter” is something that could be understood in Germany. But this is just skepticism, not a negation or rejection. Because in relation to refugees, who are drowning every day in the Mediterranean, the demand has a new dimension to it here in Europe.

FUECHTNER: I share your skepticism. I think both, in their ways, are racist societies, but the stakes are different. Something I’ve been following recently is the #MeTwo hashtag in Germany. For me, that was an interesting development, one that had certain parallels with the US. The experiences people described, the extent of social damage that has arisen and is still occurring, were exposed. It felt like a grassroots initiative – all of a sudden, these voices came out and it became clear that this was part of our social reality in Germany. Perhaps you can draw parallels here to highlight how racism could be countered, how something new could be started. But of course the differences are enormous.

HARDT: Obviously, the key thing that #MeTwo spoke about was the denial of everyday racism. It was about showing how prominent day-to-day racism is for POC. Of course, this always carries the danger of being anecdotal. But in the mass of individual experiences, the structure becomes visible. #BLM led to the problem of police violence against Black people in the US being highlighted. And highlighting this is the first and most important step, because otherwise it just isn’t going to be part of public consciousness. In Germany, it still doesn’t have any momentum, because we’re not yet at a critical mass. Either in terms of activism, or conversely maybe even of abjection. Like, for example, if racial profiling was confirmed as a legal practice. It’s a humiliating process, being stopped by the authorities because of your skin color, either by the police or by border guards. That’s something that, right now, is at the limit of what’s tolerated – although not for the individual, who is of course who it happens to. It may be structural, but the pressure seems still not to be intense enough for this kind of major protest to arise. I always see this from two perspectives: first, as someone who observes from the outside and who maps it in my film work. But also as someone who’s emotionally impacted, because it’s something I’ve known my whole life. I know about my privileges, which have more to do with class, upbringing, and education, but still I know about these exact kinds of situations, I know what they mean, and I know what they do to you. I think that we have to make individual moments of racism (and discrimination) visible, we have to show how it happens every day, just like #MeTwo did. But also how it happens structurally, by showing how panels, academic appointment committees, and juries are composed.

Translation: Matthew Scown

Title Image: Oliver Hardt, „Black Deutschland“, 2006, Filmstill


[1]Translator’s note: Although these German terms contain a distinction between “foreigner” and “other,” they both correspond to the English xenophobia.