Featured Focus Month Human Rights

Pleading for White Responsibility in the Struggle Against Racism

man in red and black jacket holding brown wooden box
Source: Danny Lines

OPINION Prof. Dr. Susan Arndt 28 May 2021

I wish to thank Thoko Kaime for his most powerful intervention. Indeed, the longevity of racism is in need of an allyship of intervention in the “very urgency of the now”, to cite Dr. Marin Luther King Jr. resistant wording. In the midst of the current Black Lives Matter-movement, many people in Germany and Europe have still tended to believe that racism is about Black people, a Black matter, only. But this viewpoint is as white as wrong. Racism has been invented and enacted by white people only. It was designed to call Europe’s conquering of other continents and the subsequent exploiting of its resources and violation of its peoples “civilization”, “modernization” and “legitimate”. Racism’s invention of ‘races’ has had the goal to declare white people’s superiority by means of denying humanity the respective ‘Others’: white people narrated BIPoC all around the globe as failing to be fully human, in order  ‘to allow themselves’ to treat them inhumanly.

This is why it has still to be claimed that ‘Black lives matter’. Because white supremacy has acted to the contrary. It has been one of many white privileges to ignore the ongoing presence of colonialism’s racist past, be it in racial profiling, education, health care or any other realm of life. After colonialism was defeated and National Socialism, too, white supremacist attitude started to hide behind the veils of white ignorance of racism. Racism was declared to be over, particularly by whites who considered themselves to be liberal or leftist, while silencing BIPoC’s resistance against racism. One of the respective consequences was that in summer 2020, many white people echoed “Black Lives Matter” by saying “All lives matter”. Indeed, they should. But in the midst of structural racism that affects everyone’s everyday life, lives do not matter evenly yet. Being about white supremacy and thus power, racism spreads privileges amongst white people – at the cost of (making them inaccessible) to BIPoC. This is why racism is a white matter, in need of white allyship, action and agency. This is not about solidarity, it is about facing and accepting white responsibility for having caused one of the globe’s most severe catastrophes.

And since racism keeps terrorizing the world, it still is as urgent as pertinent to address it – and to address it without reproducing racism at that. Language and terms as affected by racism are a powerful realm in this respect. I am thinking of white Germans who keep fighting for racist terms like the n-word and the m-word in books, cityscapes and food industry. Yet the term ‘race’ itself comes to mind, too. For sure, ‘races’ do not exist. And yet, racism as a power structure grants power and privileges to whites, while depriving BIPoC thereof with the effect of discriminating against them. This needs to be addressed and this is in need of naming race as being the gist of the matter of racism. Thus tuned, I second Shankar Raman’s suggestion of a racial turn that leads away from ‘race’ as a biological construct towards race (written in italics) as a social position and category of critical intervention. We have to be very sensitive and clear about this turn, attacking the usage of ‘race’ whenever not being turned and fragmented.

To me, the usage of ‘race’ in the German Grundgesetz is still indebted to the colonialist-National Socialist usage of ‘race’. Composed in 1949, its authors still believed – in line with the UNESCO declaration from 1950 – that National Socialism was a severe violation of humanity – but that ‘races’ do exist nonetheless, at least to some extent. Given this palimpsest, the German Basic Law should be reformulated, replacing ‘race’ with racism: “Niemand sollte rassistisch diskriminiert werden.”/”Nobody should be discriminated against by racism.” This is as clear as unaffected by the long and violent history of the term ‘race’. Accordingly, more recent anti-discrimination laws should speak of racism rather than ‘race’, thus addressing racism rather than disguising it as “language, ethnicity, nation” or euphemizing it as “Ausländerfeindlichkeit”.

One more thought on the term of ‘race’. In Germany, there is a tendency, above all in leftist academia, to replace the German term ‘Rasse’ by the English term ‘race’. The given reason: ‘Rasse’ would be too contaminated, due to National Socialism. But isn’t that suggesting that ‘race’ would be ‘less contaminated’? This, however, were a very dangerous argument. After all, ‘race’ was the core concept for the German genocide against the Herero and Nama, the South African Apartheid, the US-American Jim Crow Era, the long history of colonialism and the Maafa, the European enslavement of Africans: National Socialism did not jump out of a historical vacuum. To the contrary, the ideologeme of ‘race’ has been constructed as a pan-European project ever since antiquity, with Enlightenment and Kant having a catalystic function therein. Likewise, racism did not end with National Socialism, just think of the fact that France and Britain were still bloody colonialist super powers and the US was having racist segregationist laws right into the 1960s. What is more, structural and everyday racism is still haunting BIPoC all around the globe. So, what is needed is a reflected strategy that allows to insists on intensifying the discussion about racism, while addressing its structural and discursive global presence in every corner of the planet as indebtedness to a way too long history of white supremacy in the name of ‘race’/’Rasse’ that reinserts the term racism into present debates about inequality, discrimination and intersectional power.

Susan Arndt is professor of English Studies and Anglophone Literatures at the University of Bayreuth since 2010. Her research interests are particularly in racism and critical whiteness studies.


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