Thursday, September 3, 2020

I Am white

⚠️ Content warning: racism, sexism, death

I am white, I am privileged, I am biased, and I want to do better, for a better world for everyone. Taking action was long overdue. This time I finally got moving.

  1. This post is targeted at white people as we share this part of our experience. I hope that by reading this you gain one new insight, one topic to research further, and one thing to do yourself. Input for your own learning journey on racism and how to dismantle it, and for helping others learn more. It always starts with ourselves.
  2. I am no expert in racism and will never be. I don't have first-hand experience. Therefore, I am not qualified to write on racism as such. I cannot write about the lived experience of anyone else. I can only write about my own journey learning about racism. Yet there's a problem: even though I write this post from my perspective it's not about me - and all about me at the same time. I tried to strike a balance here, speaking about my own experience without centering my own experience. I really need to learn how to do this better. Still: I felt that not even trying would be worse.
  3. I do harm, and feedback is a gift. It's not about intentions, it's about the impact. We can mean well as much as we want, and people still get hurt; especially the most vulnerable. I know I will do harm, as much as I don't want to cause harm. Also, I don't want to make anyone a target by what I'm writing.
    1. If you are Black, brown, or in another way have a different racial experience compared to me, and you decide to spend the energy of reading this, then I am grateful. If you in addition decide to share your thoughts with me, then I owe you a lot. I offer to pay this debt back or pay it forward - double, in any kind of form you prefer, you tell me. I know it's on me and only me to educate myself. It's completely up to you if you decide to give me a push in a better direction, so please know that I don't take this for granted.
    2. If you are white like me and you see anything written here that potentially could cause harm, I really appreciate it if you let me know.
If you only read this far, then here's the gist: Listen to more stories and learn about the lived experiences of people who are not like you. Listen, don't judge, no need to understand. Just listen, then listen some more. Share these stories, amplify these voices. Most importantly, act: actively work on tearing systems of oppression down, therefore improving life for everyone. We can always learn and do better.
Still reading? Welcome to the full thing. This is the most important blog post I've ever written and maybe will ever write. I took my time with it, and now it's time to share it. Learning about a topic so deeply ingrained in everything we do that it influences us every day, if we want to or not.

It's a rabbit hole. One that invites to a journey. A journey long overdue. A journey that has me looking forward, backward, sideways, down, up, through time, right here, everywhere. That opened my eyes and ears and senses further. A journey of many stories, stories waiting to be told, stories long told yet never listened to, stories evolving, stories of the past. An emotional ride that is moving. It is moving me. It didn't start now and it won't end here. Yet I really needed to get moving.
I needed me to be finally speaking about this publicly. Loudly. Following the footsteps of so many great people out there who did that long before me. Acting on what I learn, actually driving change. Hoping to pave further ways for more people to follow. We need to dismantle racism, together.

Why Now

You might have guessed it. The events of the past months in the USA triggered me to move again. I won't list them here, if you haven't heard what happened, then there's homework for you. The blatant injustice and obvious oppression. The countless deaths that still seek justice. All this didn't just happen now. It was there for a very long time already. I could have seen it. I could have taken it seriously. There's no excuse why I didn't act on this before. 

There are various systems of oppression. Yes, systems, because they are indeed systemic. They are designed by humans to be systemic. I did not create them, yet I inherited them. I've learned a bit about them over the last years, so I cannot say I was not aware of them - the hard truth is I didn't prioritize learning more about them. It was more of a side thing, picking up pieces here and there shared by others. And yet, we do need to become more aware of these systems to enable us to change them. Especially as we are always whole humans with many identities that makes it so crucial to consider intersectionality in everything we do.

Right now, I feel the focus needs to be on racism. Systemic, institutionalized racism that's omnipresent in my everyday experience and behavior. It's so blatantly obvious it's a wonder people still believe that we were past that. And with "people", I mean myself in front row. After all, I grew up in Germany. Believe me, the irony is not lost on me. Let me be clear that this focus on racism does not invalidate any other system of oppression. According to my current understanding, racism is the most burning topic and it's essentially underlying everything. In addition, I'm part of the oppression, the dominant group - not the majority, bear the difference.
I stopped many things I was working on before. Personal challenges and other opportunities I've committed to. They felt just not as important anymore, and they aren't. I might pick them up again some time. Three months ago, I finally started a learning and growing path that was long overdue. I wanted to become more aware of what racism really is and how it works. I wanted to act on this increasing awareness. I did not want to share before I acted. I felt it was not the time to talk about doing things, it was time to actually do things.
Well, I did share this journey and my intention to write this blog post with a few selected people. One of them was surprised I changed my usual approach to tackle challenges: set my goal, design an experiment, announce it publicly to keep myself accountable, at best coupled with having a learning partner. This is how I approached all my big personal challenges of the past years and it worked really well for me. This time, though, I felt I needed a different approach. Of course, these are only a few steps on a lifelong journey, not the end of the story or legwork to do. Still, I wanted to share my experiences - actual experiences, not something I planned to do.

Now, when I write above that the events in the USA moved me to act, I find it sad that this was the trigger to open my eyes a bit further and stop postponing this topic. Let me be clear: it's tragic what happened and is still happening every day. It's tragic that I was aware of systemic racism for some time, also in my own country. It's tragic that I kept putting all the recommendations on resources I received on my list of things I still need to look at, and then always gave something else the priority over it.

What I Did to Learn More

Just doing what I did to gain more perspectives already got me changing my behavior, tiny step by tiny step. There's still a long, long lifelong way ahead of me, yet this moved me a lot more further than idling on the topic like I did the past years. Let's also be clear these are just the things that I decided to do and did already. Your list can look completely different. The important part is the actual doing and continuing with it.

I'm eternally grateful to all those people out there doing the hard work of recommending resources as well as creating these resources. All these helped me massively grow my own understanding. There's a whole lot more out there, I'm just starting out and will add more on my journey.
  • Diversified my Twitter stream further, especially the subset I'm following on a more daily basis. I want to learn from experiences that differ from my own. I want to amplify voices that need to be heard and aren't heard enough yet. I'm aware that this is a bubble and will continue to be my personal bubble, yet I still can deliberately make it bigger and include more people to learn about their lived experiences. I started to follow a whole lot of people I didn't know before, especially a lot more Black people. As tech is my context and the context I'm using Twitter for, these are mostly Black people in tech. I have to say, such a simple thing as this had a huge impact on me. So much food for thought - and for action. Diversifying my stream is continuous effort that's so much worth it. Want to get started yourself and you're also interested in tech? Then discovering people using the hashtag #BlackTechTwitter is a great starting point. Personally, I'm really grateful for the work of all the Black and brown people who spend the energy to share their thoughts on all kinds of topics. There are so many more so you better do your own homework, yet here are some of the wonderful people I'm learning from.
  • Read the book "So you want to talk about race" by Ijeoma Oluo. I have to admit many people in my bubble had recommended that book ever since it came out, and I've put it on my reading list back then. Shame on me: more books got added to that reading list. And always some other book got my priority over this one. Better late than never, I finally read it. This book is very insightful and us white people should educate ourselves by learning how racism is systemic in nature, how it manifests in our everyday lives, how it impacts us very unequally. Some parts I was aware of, many other parts not yet, and the stories shared helped opening my eyes further. If you haven't read this book yet - stop what you're doing and get to it. Too busy? For me that was a mere excuse. Think about it: can you afford ten minutes per day? I cannot know your lived experience, yet for me that question led to my resolution to finally do it.
  • Checking my own privilege regularly. Ever since I started attending international conferences, I started learning about my own privileges, becoming more and more aware of them. I'm still learning a lot about them every day. Reading Ijeoma Oluo's book now finally triggered me to write them down, review them on a weekly basis, and keep that list living. Wow. This exercise is mind-blowing. I thought I knew a lot about my own privileges. Already on the first day I listed 47 ways how I am privileged and which impact that has. Within three months after I started this exercise on June 8th, I've now documented 107 more, which sums up to a total of 154. 154 distinct ways how I am privileged that I am aware of today! I'm at 154, and still counting. I'm very clear I'll discover many more on my journey. With any further resource I came across, or any casual conversation overheard, I realized more privileges. Now let's be clear - being privileged does not mean I automatically have it easy or I am not suffering or hurting or anything. It simply means I get a headstart by benefiting from unearned advantages that I didn't do anything for to get them, while less privileged people are actively hindered by the same which represent themselves as unearned disadvantages. While I'm not actively hindered by the system, it's made a lot harder for them. Remember: 154+ ways life is easier for me. Every single day. Also: this is not a competition about who got more privileges. It's about learning how much more we need to become aware of. I considered sharing this list publicly to provide an example, yet these points contain lots of sensitive information about me. However, there are lots of examples out there, an internet search will reveal a great starting point for your own list. As soon as I started writing my privileges down, I noticed I listened more to the realities of others. Whenever someone mentioned something about themselves or I read about something, I took a mental note: "Yes, yet another privilege I have. Oh, and this. Yep, put that one also on the list." When it comes to my achievements, I definitely put in a lot of effort myself. But the thing is, I did nothing to deserve my starting point that sets me at a huge advantage compared to others. Opportunities, access, sponsorship, mental and financial support - I had so much of it. I can only hope paying this forward - in an anti-racist way. For example, by sponsoring people with less privilege, shining a light on them and getting out of their way. Feel you should check your own privilege? Besides Ijeoma Oluo's book, here are more great resources to help you get started.
  • Listened to the podcast series "Seeing White" by Scene on Radio. This was recommended by Kim Crayton as required history lesson when it comes to race and racism. I cannot recommend it highly enough. Each episode of this podcast series enlightened in a different way, allowing to see things in a different light and from a different perspective. It was so good I also listened to all other seasons of Scene on Radio as well, they're amazing pieces of education. This is the only podcast I've listened to all episodes, ever, and the one I learned from most.
  • Talking about systems of oppression, especially racism, with people I know. My circle of influence. This was and is still scary for me, although I don't have much to fear. Yet doing so, step by step, is truly enlightening, too. I started with people closest to me whom I consider family. I continued with dear colleagues at work. Trying to work from a rather safe zone to increase my circle. All these conversations were worth it. Some triggered further thoughts in myself. Some triggered further thoughts in the ones I talked with, only for them to come back and us having new conversations starting from a different base. I feel this is a place to stretch myself a lot more still. Step by step, continuously.
  • Set up regular financial support for initiatives focused on increasing diversity and inclusion in tech. It took time to research all those great projects going on doing anti-racist work, so many of them worth funding and donating to. In the end I decided to go with the following: a monthly donation to Black Girls Code and Project Include as well as signing up for a membership with the Hustle Crew. I feel all their work is dearly needed for a better future.
  • [Detour: Read the book "White Fragility" by Robin DiAngelo.] This was another book I already had on my reading list for some time. It was brought to my attention again when Kim Crayton explained why she does not recommend this book for anti-racist work. It's about unconscious biases, not racism. I decided to read it with having Kim's advice in the back of my head, hoping to learn identifying these things myself better. Still, let's be clear - it was a detour. I decided to mention it here as it was recommended a lot. Yet it is not the time to focus on the white experience. If you would like to learn more about racism and anti-racist work, this book is not on the list.
  • Watched the documentary film "13th" directed by Ava DuVernay. An extremely enlightening close look at what happened during the last 150 years in US history. Why had certain political decisions been made, which language had been chosen, how the dots are connected. Not growing up in this country, my perspective is that of a foreigner with little pieces of the puzzle here and there. This film helped me fill a lot of the gaps and see the system a lot clearer. It's still very active today, just changing its shape whenever needed. Thank you Angie Jones for making me aware of this great piece, and the next one as well!
  • Watched "When They See Us" directed by Ava DuVernay. What a powerful story. A true story, lived experiences. For the first time told through the eyes of the ones who got oppressed, the victims of a system. If you haven't seen it yet, stop what you're doing and watch it right now. I don't want to spoil this powerful story telling. If you have a chance, watch the bonus session included where Ava as well as both actors and the real humans they're embodying get a voice in the Oprah Winfrey show. Be sure you're in a good place when you watch this or not watch this alone. It's moving to the bones.
  • Took the course "Introduction to Being an Antiracist" by Kim Crayton. Kim offered (and still offers!) anti-racist training for all kind of time zones around the world. I definitely wanted to learn from her and listen to what she has to share, so I registered. Unfortunately, I couldn't make the live event, so I watched the recording and it was still so much worth it. So many things needed to be heard. More pieces falling into their places! So I registered for her next training "Being an Antiracist at Home" and am once again learning a lot from it. Very insightful and thought-provoking. Made me register for the third part in the series as well: "Being an Antiracist at Work". I'm very much at the start, yet I want to keep moving.
  • Read the book "Was weiße Menschen nicht über Rassismus hören wollen: aber wissen sollten" by Alice Hasters (German). After educating myself about racism and history of other countries, especially the USA, I felt it was way past time to learn more about racism in my own country: Germany. At school we do learn a lot about the times of national socialism, a still very recent and crucial part of our history, and I'm thankful for that education (more than I was as a pupil). Yet these history lessons, as everything taught at school, were heavily biased and did not really include many perspectives. What about politics today in my country? Well, things could be a lot worse, yet it's not all shiny at all. I felt I was missing out on a lot more perspectives and really wondered: what about racism in my own country? How is it to be Black in Germany, today? That question alone is telling enough. There's a lot more than I am aware of. So I did my research and picked Alice Hasters' as my first book out of many. Once more my eyes opened further. Wow. Things that I already got aware of, told by a different human, and so many things I wasn't aware of at all.
  • Joined Hustle Crew's webinar "How to navigate race discussions in your role". Signing up for membership also provided me access to lots of great resources, advice and a monthly member workshop. I took this first one and was glad I did! It was great, having a close look at our implicit biases from yet another perspective. I joined a second session and signed up for more. These people are wonderful and I have so much to learn from them.
  • Took one of Project Implicit's implicit bias tests. This university research initiative was recommended by Hustle Crew as a way to figure out our own biases and how bad they really are, no matter how much we try to act against them. I was eager to give it a try and did a first one of many available to see how they work. I've started with the "Skin-tone test" and was confronted with the result: "Your responses suggested a moderate automatic preference for Light Skinned People over Dark Skinned People." I know this is rooted deep inside me and I grew up internalizing this system - yet I really want to change this. A lot more such tests on various subjects are waiting for me, too.
  • Read the book "Sprache und Sein" by Kübra Gümüsay (German). My next move to educate myself more about the reality of people in Germany who are not considered the norm and hence we find names for them to explicitly point them out and inspect them. This book elegantly shows how important language is and which impact it has. Free speech? Really free speech will still take a long time so we better make our next moves on this journey. So much food for thought in this book.
  • Started a resources page on all things inclusion. The past months I've read a lot more about the subject and had so many resources I found super valuable and helpful to open my eyes further, to find new perspectives, to see different realities. It was about time to collect the most valuable ones and make them available for everyone on my blog. We are working together with people every day. We are living together with people every day. We better learn how to include everyone better every day instead of just staying comfortable in a system convenient for us as we white people tend to do. The collection is meant to be a living one, so expect more resources to be added.
  • How I want to continue? Reading more, watching more, listening more. Decentering whiteness. And don't stop taking action.
I am struggling with not centering myself in this narrative. Guess what - I've written about my own perspective in this blog post. Yet it's not about me and my feelings or anything. It's not about me being a bad person. It's not even about me trying to do better these days. My experience is not the point here. It's about systemic oppression that we white people keep reinforcing as we benefit from it and about those people who suffer because of it.

Go out there. Look for those humans with different experiences than your own. Become aware of the system supporting it. Go inside yourself and see where you're supporting this system and keeping it alive, passively or actively. It's often in the "little" things, the casual everyday things, the things that are repeated a million times. These things can have a huge impact - if we change them to the better, then this impact can be a positive one.

People are dying because of existing systems of oppression, because of racism. People are hurting from thousands of microaggressions every day. It's so not about me or any of us white people feeling comfortable. It's about actively dismantling racism and doing anti-racist work.
One of the worst things I realized on this journey is this: for me, it's a decision to learn about racism, to feel the discomfort and stay with it, and to grow my understanding of how to do better. For most other people in the world it's not their own decision. It had been decided above their heads. It's their daily reality and lived experience. And here I am coming and "finally" deciding to face this. I am guilty and very much deservedly feel guilty. I hope my own drive to change the world for a better place adds to this guilt, and both forces make me do better. 

Am I an anti-racist? As much as I want to be, I can't. This is not something I can become or label myself with. What I can do is to continue doing the work. Anti-racist work. Every day. I do want to stop supporting the system and I need to be doing this very actively. The actions I took so far might be a start, but there's continuous work to do.

Where I'm Coming From

If you've been reading this far, thank you. I hope you got some inspiration for yourself how to educate yourself and do better. You could stop here. Yet if you also want to know where I'm coming from, my personal context when it comes to racism, then read on.

I am starting to realize further how I grew up internalizing and therefore supporting a system of racism. The picture is becoming less blurry and I feel there's a lot more to discover here. Care for some examples?
  • All those messages I soaked up during childhood from systemically racist novels or children's TV shows only telling one side of the story. I didn't realize Black kids were portrayed like this as they were meant to be "exotic", not "normal" like me. Several of my favorite children's books? "Questionable" is a euphemism for them. One of the most popular children songs of my time was about Black children dying one by one, until all are gone. Wow. One of the most popular children's games when I grew up? It's called "Wer hat Angst vorm schwarzen Mann?", literally meaning "Who's scared of the Black man?". Not joking.
  • Messages from my family who warned me about racially mixed relationships as they would be "difficult due to cultural differences" and hence not worth the trouble. They meant well, I get that, but these were the messages my parents internalized as post-war children and the ones they passed on to their own children. Remember? It's not about intentions, it's about the harm caused.
  • Messages from school, even in elementary class, where it was made very clear who was "meant to be here" and who was a migrant's child and hence foreign forever and usually troublesome from a teacher's point of view.
  • More messages from school about German history, especially the recent past. I'll be eternally feeling guilty for being German, I always wished for another nationality. Patriotism? Never felt that. Waving my country's flag? No way I'm ever going to do this. At first, I was glad that we really covered the national socialist period and World War II in large detail at school. Having this topic return every year in even more detail, I felt haunted by it so at some point I rejected learning more about it. We had nothing to do with it after all, right? Well, that's way too easy. Nowadays I'm very grateful we had that education while at the same time I know we're missing a lot of perspectives on the same time period. So, feeling proud to be a German never came to me. Only nowadays I keep learning how many benefits we have just from growing up or living here that many other people in other countries don't have. By the way, all this are social benefits. The social system here is far from good but can be a lot worse. And this once more shows how privileged I am. 
  • Messages from friends and their families, mocking me for my very light skin. Back then I desperately wanted to have darker skin; yet I'm pretty sure I wouldn't have liked to lose the advantages my skin tone brings with it. Being made fun of that I am so light-skinned that I glow in the dark was not fun for me at all. Yet I was still part of the dominant group here and therefore inherently safe; I will never be able to fully comprehend the lived experience of people being mocked for their skin tone when they're not part of the dominant group; how much this hurts. Only these days I'm starting to gain better understanding what privilege my light skin brought and still is bringing with it.
  • Growing up as a teenager during the 90s, I received lots of messages about Black people from music, TV shows and movies. Going into just this area alone does reveal so much. I won't go deeper here, but there's a lot to uncover.
  • Let's jump to my time at university. Many people know I studied sinology as it's part of my speaker bio. Nearly no one knows I also had two minor subjects: computer science and - here it comes - intercultural communication. Back then I felt that this subject indeed was the most valuable and hands-on one of my subjects. I learned about concepts like "positive racism" (this is an oxymoron, racism can never be positive), transgender people, and more. This all opened my eyes to misconceptions I've held before. Yet as all these messages were deeply biased themselves, and even outdated at that time - and they probably fostered so, so many more biases. Today I'm quite scared to open the most famous study book from back then. One day I will.
  • First job after university. I was finally "one of the guys"! And loudly telling everyone my belief that we've solved the gender issue in Germany. Discrimination didn't happen to me, didn't it? So surely, it's solved for everyone. Oh my. I was the only woman working in our small start-up's development team. And there was discrimination indeed - yet truth be told, I often benefited from it. This wasn't so bad, right? All good! Well - nope.
  • My first conferences. Attending international conferences was one of my biggest eye openers. I had been working in very multinational and multilingual companies before and was always proud to be in such a "diverse" environment (well it was indeed a lot better than many other places all my friends told me about). Yet at these conferences, I've finally learned about different realities, sexism, and especially my own privilege in so, so, so many aspects. It took me years to come clear how much support I received throughout my life, not deserved or based on what people like to call "merit", just on mere access, chance and people who made me visible. While all the time the human that's closest to me did not share these privileges. I had it right in front of my eyes. Denial is strong.
  • Finally, I started seeing more things - and once I saw a thing I couldn't make it unseen. With every insight I learned from people who already saw more than I did, with every realization how people get systemically hurt, every racist joke I heard people laugh at, every more "guys" shouted by company leaders, every casual slur about "political correctness" - I felt I needed to speak up. With all my privilege I was - I am! - in the best position to do so. How not to stay that coward that I was so many times? How to become someone who people can truly rely on as an ally? How to fight for a better world? How to do what's simply right? For a long time, I wanted to be someone else. Badly. The more "exotic" the better (sigh, I cringe when thinking about this). Someone special, someone to talk about. Someone who's a cool kid. Someone who is brave. Someone from foreign countries, someone from my fiction books, someone saving the world. Now I know I can only be a better version of myself, and that's all I want these days.
These are just examples. I knew that racism is systemic for quite a while. It's way too important to ignore, and I'm not proud that I've postponed and de-prioritized this for way too long. Yet enough is enough, it's due time to become really uncomfortable.

Closing Thoughts

I got socialized into a racist system. It's institutionalized, systemic, everywhere. We can't run away from it or deny it. 

This post is composed of my own reality together with what I learned from dear people kind enough to share their own stories or recommend valuable resources. I am fully aware that what I wrote might be - most probably is - flawed and can harm someone. In the end I grew up in a racist system, a system constructed by white people like me, a system I supported and benefited from (still do), a system that kills people and needs to be torn down. I want to use my own privilege and speak up. Continue learning how to do anti-racist work every day and grow from supporting this system to actively dismantling it. Attempting to change the world and start with myself for the better of everyone. I will continue learning.

This is for everyone. It's on me to do better.