Anja Rillcke & Abiodun Adegbile | Let's start a conversation on racism
George Floyd's death served as a wake-up call for all of us. It reminded us that, to be able to uphold the core values of diversity and inclusion, we need to recognize and speak out against racism and inequality.
The violent death of George Floyd in Minneapolis on May 25, 2020 has had a deep impact on me (Anja). First I felt shocked, then I felt sad, angry and powerless. But I did not want to stop there. I felt the need to do something against racism and violence in my immediate environment. I started to think about how to contribute to a fair and save world, at home, in my job and in my daily interactions. I listened to Tupoka Ogettes audio book "Exit racism" . As coordinator of the DCR program I work with people from all four corners of the world. It was obvious to ask the people around me how they felt about what had happened in the US. Thus, I listened to their stories. Today I feel very honoured to share the dialogue that evolved with DCR-Alumni Abiodun Adegbile. Take your time to read it. Abioduns story might open your eyes, in the best of all cases it opens your heart. Plus, he answers the question: ‘What can you do to help?’
[...] May I ask you something both private and political?
I am wondering how my friends and acquaintances feel about what's happening in the US. How does this omnipresent still (at least in Germany) hushed racism affect you and your family?
If you do not feel like writing about it, or do not want to spent time on it, that's okay. I just felt so uneasy about the Blackout Tuesday initiative as it seems so little. That's when I decided to read, ask and listen more. The violence and its ancient roots are very much troubling and frustrating me and I decided to talk about these feelings and the privilege I was born with, here in Happyland as Tupoka Ogette calls it.
Just from reading all these old children books again to M. (my child) I am getting a glimpse on how we were socialized racially even if this is difficult to admit. Living in Brussels that sometimes felt so segregated between the mingled, often poor Molenbeek and the "rich and white" Euro districts was a wake-up call. And I am lucky to have studied a bit of African American history/Colonialism before and even more as I have friends with children of color or talk with others who do research on racism. The idea was born long before but now we might use the momentum to organize an Anti-Racism training here in Frankfurt.
That became a long mail now that I just wanted to ask how you are ;)
Have a wonderful weekend and let's keep the trust that no condition is permanent!
Thank you so much for asking. It is not a long email at all and I really appreciate your concern. The fact that you have the courage to ask me about this when many would have been silent about it means a lot to me – thank you!
I have been thinking a lot about how to communicate my feelings in a way that just gives you an insight more than anything. Listening to a lot of other Black people (especially with my friends in Germany, UK, US and other countries around the world) talk about their perspectives has been helpful to me, and it’s provided a much better understanding which I would like to share with you.
I am sure you will have heard of George Floyd in the US at the hands of the police. Looking at the video evidence, it is clear that this is pure murder and absolutely no motive other than the colour of the person’s skin. I know a lot of people are outraged especially the black community and quite frankly I’m tired of this happening repeatedly. It’s difficult to explain why incidents in the US have a powerful effect on Black people across the world, but I’m hoping I can help shed some light on that from my own perspective.
When a Black person is murdered or harmed by the police, it feels like an attack on my family. It feels personal because it could have been any Black person, it could have been my dad, one of my brothers, or (in future) my son. Neither you nor I deserve that last sentence to be our reality, but for Black people it often is. Imagine I put my knee on the neck of a dog and it was caught on video, everyone will want me to go to jail. Because they have more compassion for a dog than a man dying in the street – this problem is heart problem, an empathy problem! And it is systemic! If there is empathy, we won’t see this lack of humanity
There is no doubt the fact that I have experienced this having lived in the UK and Germany. I remember a time in Germany where I walked into a store to buy a winter jacket and one of the store attendant started following me around and asking question about what i wanted because I am black – he thinks that there is no way I would be able to afford this and therefore I want to shoplift. I felt so uncomfortable that day and had to make sure I bought a jacket just to proof myself (even though I didn’t like the jacket). I have also had different ordeals with German immigration officers (but let me not bore you with this - that is a story for another day). In fact in most of my work life, I have had to work twice as hard for me to be taken seriously. But the good thing is that I have never at any time allow that to affect me or be bitter about it in any way because I know my identity – I am a Christian and my identity is rooted in Christ! As a result, I have always learn to be the person to build bridges and converse with people from different background and show empathy. Every time I experience some form of racism I always ask myself – ‘what will Jesus do?’ I have learn to understand why people behave the way they do and be very forgiven. If only everyone can do this, there won’t be the issue of racism.
Just this week, another incident happened in the news - a white American woman called the cops on a Black man who was birdwatching in a park. The man asked the woman to put her dog on a lead, in line with the park rules, and she reacted by becoming hysterical, and calling the police. She yells down the phone, “there is an African-American man threatening my life”. In that sentence, the woman knew that by mentioning the man’s race she could weaponise her white privilege as a tool against him. She knew that no matter what had actually happened, there was a good chance that the police would arrive, see a Black man and a distressed white woman, and potentially cause the man injury or even a fatality. For asking to put her dog on a lead.
So for the past few days and still now, the black (and ethnic minority) community feels distressed. We feel grief, anger, deep sorrow, confusion, we have bouts of rage and waves of emotion. We have been relentlessly sharing information especially with our non-black friends, trying to spread the word and open people’s eyes to what is happening. It is mentally exhausting, but we can’t stop because we feel a responsibility. There are comments from racists under every positive post about Blackness. Every ‘Black Lives Matter’ hashtag is squashed by one saying ‘All Lives Matter’, which engulfs the message of us asking for help and justice and spins it into us having an anti-white agenda, which is just not true. We feel accepted and rejected at the same time.
Majority of people loves Black culture, fashion, music, language, comedians, food, actors and actresses but so many of these people turn their backs when it comes to matters of racial injustice. Clara Amfo (BBC Radio 1xtra presenter) put it in words that resonated with me: ‘people want our culture, but they do not want us’. And it really does feel like that sometimes. Especially now.
I’m digressing because there's so much to say, but ultimately what I want to communicate is this. I know you are aware of all of the shift in the way people are responding to and acting on anti-racist movements. People like you want to understand and help (which I really appreciate you doing that), and I feel a responsibility, as possibly one of the few Black people you may know, to help you to help us.
‘What can you do to help?’. The good thing about you which I really appreciate is that you have been educating yourself and I want to encourage you to do so with M. , your friends and family on some of these issues, Black culture and history because it’s essential that we open our eyes to what is happening still to this day, and question why. ‘Knowledge is an armour against enemies’.
Learning about the experiences of Black people is a crucial step towards true equality and building a society that actively combats institutionalised racism. The worst part of it all, is that while the vast majority of people aren’t verbally or physically discriminating Black people, they involuntarily contribute to the systems and contracts of society that continue to put us in vulnerable positions. In fact I have seen some people say, “I am not a racist” – do you see how innocent that sounds on the surface but it becomes an excuse for people - just because they haven’t experienced it doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist. I strongly believe that one way to see a change in our society is for everyone to take some time to learn more about Black British/America history, and beyond. I really appreciate your effort to read, ask and listen more and I will encourage you to continue to do so. Let’s have the conversation at home, school, workplaces, dinner table, etc
Another way to help is to not feel guilty about it. Guilt is not a strategy! There is big difference between guilt and repentance. We the black people never want the non-black people to feel bad, never! As a matter of fact, guilt will never change anything. The only way to break the cycle of racism is repentance. By repentance, I mean change of direction and change of heart. Always asking these questions: ‘do I make assumptions?’, ‘do I allow prejudice?’, ‘do I allow racism conversation to take place?’, do I advocate them?’, ‘do I co-sign by my silence? – That is repentance! Repentance is thinking differently, moving differently, seeing differently, refusing to contribute by indifference. Just hearing the pain and showing empathy goes a long way in addressing this issue of racism.
I rest my case! I hope you find my comments useful.
Have a lovely weekend and love to M. .
it has been two months that you wrote me this long mail and for more than 60 days I read your name on my to-do-list with this thought “you should answer Abi” (Yes, I heard you saying “guilt is not a strategy” but a dead end). And a second voice said “but there are so many open tasks: the brochure and this time-consuming back and forth with all people involved during the challenging Corona months [...], the keynote by Tupoka Ogette I am trying to organize inspired by her audiobook and encouraged by your words, the application for a new job and all the strategic decisions around it.
I cannot thank you enough for having taken the amount of time and good hope and empathy sharing your universe with me and going where it probably hurts the most. Thanks for the trust and goodwill that you have shown me though I was raised in and am part of a very exclusive society and inherited racist language and thoughts and assumptions. Reading your words, I felt you and I felt this fear and pain and distress and anger and deep deep sorrow. For sure not in the same way you are experiencing these feelings but comparing is not possible nor necessary. Your words did not address my mind in the first place. You talked to my heart and as a human being, as a woman and as a mom, yes, I can relate to your feelings. Just as you, I am convinced that the cruelty, aggression and exploitation we see happening in this world are huge empathy problems – not all might be systematic but on an individual level we can start the change. And I will try my best to do so, educating myself and M. , reaching out and making racism and the stories behind visible.
Just yesterday during the “Female Entrepreneurship Summer School” I heard Ciana-Sophia Hoeder, the founder of Rosamag, an online-lifestyle magazine for Black woman telling her story of straightening her hair during years with a product called “Relaxer”. Then she said that the breast cancer rate of Black women in the US is 60 Percent (?) higher than with white women. And - if I understood correctly - the very reason is this product that a lot of POC women use without knowing that it is that harmful. That was the start of an idea which 3 months later became reality. Her motivation is to empower Black women in Germany. What she said was that she quite often felt like the last unicorn as her needs where just not met in so many areas. As a customer of the drugstore she will not find beauty products for Black women and a lot of automatic water faucets will not even “react” to Black skin. Abi, I did not know and was speechless (for a second). Though one might consider these examples smaller inconveniences there is a huge asymmetry behind these choices and structures. And the fact that a Black woman (to just name one person) is not represented in media, shop shelves or public places nurtures the feeling of exclusion.
Also what you said about working twice as hard to be taken seriously resonated in me. During the Corona months it simply was not possible to take care of M. (not to mention self-care) while working, cleaning, shopping, cooking and so on. Still, I perceived it as my personal shortcoming or deficiency that I could not “perform” or “function” as expected (though nobody articulated a demand). I piled up even more tasks to show that I can do it, to prove that I am just as good as others that do not necessarily have the same conditions. The disadvantage of families with children is a structual problem, I know. Still, I adopted the stigma of not being good enough, efficient, high-performing, not being organized enough to juggle 8 balls at a time. But I am not a machine. Just as you and each of us I am a human being with flaws and limited capacities. But I tried my best and followed the principle "Done is better than perfect". Funny side note: Listening to Lauryn Hill’s MTV unplugged album helps a lot with getting out of our own boxes ;)
Okay dear, enough for now. There is still a lot on my schedule and I have one hour left until I pick up M. to go swimming. Have a pleasant weekend!
Lots of love from sunny Frankfurt,