The Lack of Self-Awareness
by Susan Arndt, Christine Vogt-William, Katharina Schramm, Stefan Ouma, and Rüdiger Seesemann
English translation of an op-ed published in the daily Nordbayerischer Kurier, June 20, 2020
On June 10, 2020, hundreds of people convened for a demonstration on the Bayreuth market square. The square, which had just revived from COVID-19 lockdown measures, was shrouded in silence to mourn aloud: Black Lives Matter. Black lives count. Why does this statement need to be emphasized? Isn't it self-evident? The history of racism speaks a different language.
Since the 16th century, the European colonisation of North and South America, Africa, Asia and Oceania had been accompanied by enslavement, genocide and the disenfranchisement of millions of people. As a justification, Europeans invented the concept of human races. The white "race" that lived in Europe and migrated to the colonies was purportedly superior to all others. In doing so, they denied that the people living there were human beings of equal status and claimed to be able to legally dispose of the natural and labour resources from other regions.
This racist self-image was founded on a pseudo-scientific basis and transported across the centuries. At the beginning of the 20th century, the German colonial power committed genocide against the Herero and Nama in Namibia. Racist propaganda and violence later culminated in the Holocaust, but did not end there. The Allies in the Second World War were themselves colonial powers. In the USA, the so-called Jim Crow laws, which entrenched discrimination against black people and racist segregation, remained in force until the 1960s. In the Federal Republic of Germany, racism was declared illegal in the Basic Constitutional Law after the war; those responsible for National Socialism had been held accountable. But racism continues to have an effect in Germany up to the present day.
The evidence includes assassinations and murders motivated by racism, such as the NSU murder series, Halle, or Hanau, to mention only the most recent events. In addition, a number of black people died in Germany as a result of police violence: Mareame N'Deye Sarr (2001), Oury Jalloh (2005) or Christy Schwundeck (2012), to name just a few. These are not isolated cases, but only the most obvious symptoms of the racism in which Black people, Muslims and other racially discriminated people survive—or even die from—every day. Racial profiling and other forms of discrimination by police and immigration authorities are as much a part of everyday life, for example “monkey sounds” at football matches and experiences of racism in kindergartens, schools, and universities.
While the whole world watches the US after the murder of George Floyd, which was recorded on video, we should not forget that Germany also has a racism problem—even if it is rarely discussed openly outside the Black protest movement. The Initiative of Black People in Germany was formed as early as 1986. In the same year, young Black German authors published the book Farbe Bekennen (1986) (“Showing Our Colors”), which for the first time rendered visible how the life realities of Black people in Germany are influenced by racism. Over three decades later, this landscape has multiplied. There are numerous organizations and books that deal with the experiences of black people and their history in Germany. Despite all the interventions: an apology, let alone reparations for the German genocide against the Herero and Nama has so far failed to materialize. Monuments and streets are still named after key figures of the colonial era. The lack of coming to terms with racism, indeed the lack of self-awareness that racism is still a problem, is also due to the fact that white people believe that they do not have to deal with such matters. Black people do not have that privilege.
All this also affects Bayreuth. The Wagner city celebrates its legend without facing up to the instrumentalisation of Wagner's operas in the Nazi era or to the Wagner family’s advocacy of Chamberlain's Aryan ideal. Neither is this legacy subject to critical scrutiny, nor are the various names and stylisations in the cityscape that are outright disparaging or glorify violent chapters of history. The continuing dismissal and erasure of Black people's experiences of discrimination characterizes the debates even in letter to the editor of the Nordbayerischer Kurier. Who is heard, who is not heard? Who can say what about whom? The everyday racist experiences of Black people seem to count less than the sensitivities of those who want to hold on to the status quo.
Only a broad-based dialogue on racism can put an end to this. To explain racism away means to strengthen it. Making racism a subject of discussion does not mean to speak ill of Bayreuth. Quite the contrary is true. Anyone who speaks out about racism today moves with the times and sends a signal of cosmopolitanism. Yes, we need to confront racism so that all people in Bayreuth can feel welcome and at home. In Germany, by the way, it is very easy to measure this goal against concrete ideals: article 3 of the Basic Constitutional Law. It is, however, high time to reformulate this clause, stating that there are no human “races”, only racism.