A debate unleashed by the hashtag #metwo highlights the need to fight everyday racism – and how listening is still a tall order.
In recent weeks, migrants and multicultural Europeans in Germany have been sharing tweets over the hashtag #metwo, partly inspired by the #metoo campaign against sexual harassment. The revelations have been shocking at best:
“I was 12 back then,” reads one. “He reads out my name and then goes: My grandfather killed people like you.” The hashtag is the creation of Ali Can, a German activist with Turkish roots, who wants to expose the everyday racism many have experienced in our society, and often from a very young age. One of his goals is to challenge the belief that being German and Turkish is an either/or choice.
So the “two” refers to the two (or more) identities often combine. Can himself is at home in Germany, but he also feels connected to the country of his parents. Far from being a weakness, Can sees this multiple identity as a strength. Identities are dynamic, often emotionally driven: You might feel more “Turkish” today while, on another day, more “Austrian.” Or both at the same time.
I have had similar experiences. When I meet friends from an Arab country, they consider my punctuality very Austrian. When we are done eating and it’s time to pay, a huge fight starts about who is going to pick up the check. This is very Middle Eastern, so that’s when I feel my Arab identity coming into play. And just like Austrians who have family in France celebrating this year’s World Cup win of “Les Bleus,” or like Viennese with a strong connection to the US watching the Super Bowl, it can be perfectly normal to feel at home in more than one country. And yet, some will still reduce you to the place they believe you are “from,” suggesting that you can’t be “fully” Austrian, German, European, just because you haven’t got the “right” shade of skin color.
And it happens to the highfliers too. When German footballer Mesut Özil recently resigned from the national team over a controversial picture with Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, he decried that, for many, he is “German when we win, an immigrant when we lose” – a sentiment that France’s Karim Benzema and the Belgian striker Romelo Lukaku had also expressed in the past. How, I ask myself, shall we explain this to our children? How can we keep telling them to work hard to succeed, when, in the end, what matters is where you come from, rather than where you’re headed?
And what hurts people like me the most in these stories is that it seems – no matter what you do, or what you’ve achieved – you may still be considered as one of “the others,” because of your skin color, your beliefs or your ethnicity.
With #metwo, Can wanted to give people with a migrant background a voice in the public debate. So the hashtag set off a flood of stories, as contributors shared their often devastating stories of discrimination and abuse. However, #metwo is not only about sharing experiences. It is about taking hold of the power to define and name racism, defying those who – while never having suffered discrimination themselves – want to decide which experience should be deemed racist.
And indeed, the tweets were often met with ridicule, disbelief, and trivialization. There is a lot of lip service commitment to “fighting racism” right alongside of the reality of not wanting to acknowledge racism at all, much less do something about it. Phrases pop up that are so familiar to women of the #metoo movement: “Don’t be so sensitive” or “That’s not really racist.” In fact, all that is nothing but the desperate attempt to maintain sovereignty over the public debate for whites, who are not used to being confronted with their own racism. The implicit aim is to stop people from talking, perhaps even scare them into falling silent again, by belittleling and rejecting their testimony.
#Metwo, then, shows us not only all the deeply hurtful experiences many migrants suffer, but also that there is little awareness of how racist mechanisms work in everyday life. It shows us that we still have a long way to go if we want all people who were born and grew up in European countries to feel comfortable living here.
So, what do we need to do? Let’s start by creating spaces for dialogue and debate – just like #metwo. We need to be able to listen and try to understand what the people telling these stories have been through. If someone, after having suffered racist abuse for so long, still identifies strongly with our country and fights to make it a better place, they deserve our applause and support. They should feel truly at home in a country that is theirs as it is ours.