What is racism?
Broadly speaking, definitions of racism can be broken down into two main approaches: biological and formal. The biological approach assumes (incorrectly) that humanity can be divided into different "races". These "races" would have physical, intellectual and character traits typical of them. Since some races would be superior to others, "mixing" with inferior races should be avoided. The formal definition, on the other hand, is characterised by segregation and exclusion between one's own, well known, community and anything foreign. This can refer to skin colour, but also to cultural differences.
The United Nations Convention against Racism defines racism as "any distinction, exclusion, restriction or preference based on race, colour, descent, or national or ethnic origin which has the purpose or effect of nullifying or impairing the recognition, enjoyment or exercise, on an equal footing, of human rights and fundamental freedoms in the political, economic, social, cultural or any other field of public life".
Racism and discrimination based on a person's ethnic origin are an obstacle to the equal participation of all people in society. People who do not belong to the dominant group in society are often denied access to the same opportunities. Racism can lead to psychological and physical violence. In extreme cases, it can even serve as a justification for genocide.
Why and how was racism artificially created?
Cases of racism can already be found in classical antiquity. Greek society of that time made a distinction between the Hellenes, in the Greek sphere of influence, and the barbarians, meaning everyone else. Aristotle, for instance, asserted that the barbarians were born servants, i.e. slaves. The rise of Christianity in European countries during the Middle Ages gave rise to anti-Muslim and anti-Semitic currents.
The idea that people can be divided into different "races", which has shaped our understanding of racism today, goes back to colonialism. People from mainly Western states in search of new raw materials subjugated other resource-rich territories around the world, deprived the local population of their rights, enslaved and murdered them.
To justify these acts, it was claimed that these indigenous populations were particularly underdeveloped and that they had to be taught progress and civilisation (at least the Western understanding of it) - by force if necessary. In order to make the people at home also feel superior to "these savages", many states maintained human zoos. In the Belgian capital, Brussels, a Congolese village – including its inhabitants - was recreated in 1958 in the course of the World's Fair.
Often, racism is also used to create a scapegoat in times of crisis. The Covid-19 pandemic, for example, has also fuelled anti-Asian racism around the world. Since the first outbreak of the virus happened in China, all Asian-looking people were, wrongly, blamed for the pandemic. As a result, racist attacks against them increased and many of them were accused of being infected and transmitting the virus.
What are expressions of racism in everyday life?
There are many ways in which racism can manifest itself in everyday life. For example, it can be expressed in supposedly well-intentioned compliments, such as when a person of colour (PoC, a self-designation of non-white people who experience racism) is congratulated on speaking very good German, without knowing whether this person was perhaps born in Germany. Or in the work environment, when a non-white colleague is always included in photos when the company wants to present itself as particularly diverse. Such actions are also called microaggressions because they are racist but remain below the threshold of open racist statements or violence.
But many people also experience racism when it comes to finding a job or a flat. People with non-German-sounding names, for example, have a proven record of having a much harder time finding a place to live.
What is systemic racism?
There are two forms of systemic racism: institutional racism and structural racism.
Institutional racism refers to forms of discrimination, exclusion and pejorative treatment that emanate from societies' institutions, such as the police, authorities or schools. This does not refer, for instance, to a teacher making racist remarks, but rather to the interpretation of rules, regulations, norms, routines and well established practices.
Structural racism, on the other hand, cannot be traced back to a single institution. Instead, it refers to conditions that are deeply anchored in the structures, discourses or images of a society. It also means that certain population groups are not adequately represented in important positions in politics, administration or the economy. In the current German Bundestag, for example, 11.3% of MPs have a migration background, whereas the same figure for the German population is 26%. Hence, they are underrepresented.
Such a lack of representation of non-white people in important positions occurs in many areas and can have a major impact on our lives.Facial recognition software, for example, which is used in Germany among other things to detect criminals in crowds, has greater problems distinguishing and recognising black or Asian people than white people. The error rate was up to one hundred times higher than for whites. This can lead to innocent people being wrongly accused of a crime. These errors are not due to the software being racist. Rather, the software was trained primarily with photos of white people, which is why it had less difficulties recognising them.
What is individual racism?
Individual racism refers to the interpersonal level. The term rather refers to when one person or group attacks another person or group on the basis of perceived origin or religion. This is distinct to the systemic discrimination embedded in institutions and social structures.
Racism in Germany: What is the current situation?
Racism is still a big problem in Germany. In a study by the Federal Ministry for Family Affairs, Senior Citizens, Women and Youth, more than one fifth of the respondents said they had experienced racism themselves. A total of two thirds of the population had already had contact with racism either directly, because they were affected themselves, or indirectly, for example because they observed a racist act.
Between 2017 and 2020, more than 5,300 people contacted the counsellors of the Federal Anti-Discrimination Agency because they had been discriminated against on racist grounds or because of their ethnic origin. Those affected tell, for example, that they were checked by the police because of their skin colour or appearance ("racial profiling").
But in Germany, racism is not only expressed through insults and discrimination. Time and again, people are injured or killed by racists. On February 19, 2020, a racist killed ten people and injured six others in an attack in Hanau. In videos he posted online, he made derogatory comments about Muslim people and anti-Semitic statements. The acts of the so-called "National Socialist Underground" (NSU) also received a lot of media attention. The terrorist group murdered ten people over a period of more than 13 years, with racism as the motive. Eight of the victims were of Turkish origin, one of Greek origin. The fact that the murder series was dubbed the "Döner murders" for a long time shows clearly that racism in Germany is far from being a thing of the past.
What can be done against racism? How can it be fought?
The most important step in being able to fight racism is to recognise it in its structural, quotidian and violent forms and to take it seriously. Part of this is admitting to oneself that we all have prejudices to some degree that relate to a person's ethnic origin. But more important than the fact that we have these prejudices is the extent to which they dictate our actions. Combating racism also involves recognising that it is not only acts of violence or outright insults that are racist. Often white people are not aware that a statement will be perceived as racist by the other person. Therefore, when approached, we should not react defensively or dismissively, but reflect on our own behaviour and learn.
What can be done against racism at school?
At school, children learn not only maths and chemistry, but also how to be fair and tolerant. Therefore, anti-discrimination should be defined as an educational goal in every school.
The network "Schule ohne Rassismus - Schule mit Courage" (School without Racism - School with Courage) is a good example of what this can look like in practice. This association of German schools consciously works against racism and discrimination. Pupils learn about the different types of discrimination and how to become more sensitive to them.
This prevention work at school can also help to break down world views that children pick up at home or from their environment. They offer a counter to racist prejudices that are instilled in a child by parents.
What can be done against racism in the workplace?
At work too, many people are not safe from racism, be it at the hands of colleagues or inflicted by superiors. In this context, it is important to show the victim that they are not alone. For example, one can object to racist statements or offer support if misconduct is to be reported to the boss. Structures need to be created in the company to enable open communication without having to fear that reporting will lead to disadvantages.
At the same time, there has to be an awareness of discrimination and racism. This can be achieved, for example, through training. And there must be strategies to ensure that equal opportunities apply, for example, in upcoming promotions.
Is there also racism against white people? What do we need to know about it?
The question of whether there can also be racism against white people is not without controversy. It can of course happen that white people are insulted or treated differently because of their skin colour or origin. But this discrimination, not racism. Racism stems from the power imbalance between two different social groups, even when perpetrated by one individual against another.
Systematic or institutional racism against white people does not exist. They do not have to write more job applications because their photo looks different or their name does not sound German. Even in medical contexts or other areas of research, people with white-coloured skin are also often seen as "the norm", for example, through textbooks showing photos of skin cancer on white skin. On darker skin, however, it can look quite different, which can lead to delayed detection.
However, this does not mean that white people cannot also experience structural discrimination. Reasons for this can be, for example, the level of education or whether the person lives in poverty. Nevertheless, a person of colour living in exactly the same circumstances will still have the additional, racist, disadvantage related to their origin or skin colour.
Further recommended reading:
What does marginalize mean: definition, examples, characteristics of the phenomenon
What is populism: definition, characteristics, examples
Are Decision-Making Algorithms Always Right, Fair and Reliable or NOT?