Talking about racism: who is white, i determine

Protesting cultural appropriation turns people into victims and offended exotics. Rarely is it about racism, much more often about disrespect.

Should the Tartars have the copyright on minced meat? Photo:

The Mohawks in Montreal probably don’t give a damn whether the author and Internet expert Sascha Lobo dances with a red mohawk in Berghain or in Ibiza, explains the Internet on German television or demonstrates for the self-determination rights of the Sioux on Alexanderplatz. But the Sioux and the Mohawks don’t give a damn if you build oil pipelines through their reservations, make access to work and society more difficult, and let them sink into alcohol, drugs and crime. Would the Mohawks and their fight against the pipeline in North Dakota be helped if the light-skinned Sascha Lobo shaved off his mohawk and wore side partings instead?

Stupid rhetorical question, but it’s the only one I can think of when people in Germany want to seriously discuss the fact that people who adorn themselves with foreign feathers, i.e. with other "cultures", are in the tradition of colonialist exploitation.

Don’t people who think that an Indian, an Indian woman, an Egyptian, a Congolese could be offended by European carnival costumes rather have a rather strange image of these people? Is the image of the offended exotic, who today generally walks around like everyone else, namely in jeans and a T-shirt, an image that comes from museums crammed with wigwams, canoes and squaw skirts, cementing the image of the pre-civilization savage who shoots arrows at people who offend his culture? Doesn’t it matter whether Sascha Lobo wears a mohawk or a kilt, as long as he doesn’t blame the Mohawks or the Scots for breaking the Internet?

The representatives of the Critical Whiteness movement do care. Their correct, if not entirely new, insight is that equality of opportunity is a long way off in an equal society. However, this movement does not base its analysis on criteria, but only on categories: and there are only two. One is people of color and the other is victims. The others are white and perpetrators or at least suspects.

One does not have to talk about everything

The representatives of this political critique rarely use the term "racism. What they want to address, they call disrespect. However, it is difficult to argue about disrespect. After all, you can’t deny anyone the feeling of being affected, of feeling shitty and unfairly treated or discriminated against. It’s true, the only thing that helps is talking. But you don’t have to be able to talk about everything that claims to be totally relevant.

Where the debate about critical whiteness originated, and where it is currently being conducted above all, is the U.S. campus. A place where we have to talk about colonialism, segregation, black and white in a different way than in Germany. In this year of right-wing white U.S. counterrevolution, when racist police killings, the return of Gilmore Girls, the Nobel Prize in Literature for Bob Dylan, and the rise of Donald Trump could make for a splatter movie titled "2016: The Return of the White Zombies," proponents of Critical Whiteness caused a stir elsewhere.

The debate: After Donald Trump’s election, media and social networks say leftists and liberals have been too concerned with the fight for diversity and have forgotten about the white "disconnected." Even before that, the left was engaged in a debate about how to achieve an inclusive and equal society. Who has what interpretive authority, who has a lot of power? And who is willing to share?

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If the country’s biggest newspapers like the New York Times and the New Yorker hadn’t sent reporters out to see what was going on, people would have thought the episodes at the universities were an invention of the show "South Park." There were protests against white students who dressed up as Indians for Halloween, donned sombrero hats at tequila parties, and against a dining hall chef who didn’t prepare sushi and the banh mì according to the original recipe. Worldwide, only the case of the banh mì at Oberlin College drew brief attention. Because of Lena Dunham. She – white, famous, a graduate of Oberlin – had described the supposedly incorrect preparation of the dish as disrespect for the cuisine of origin, as cultural appropriation, and thus interpreted it as discrimination and racism.

Upset over a baguette

None of the texts explained what banh mì actually is. Briefly googling, the expectation of something with deep-fried grasshoppers to jellied eucalyptus leaf is crassly disappointed. Banh mì is nothing more than a baguette with toppings. But with a funny punch line: it was the French who introduced the baguette during their colonization of Indochina, and thus the Vietnamese who originally adopted it from the colonizers.

It is true that the Vietnamese baguette differs from the original in that it is somewhat airier and has less crust. The banh mì could therefore be considered a genuine cultural appropriation of the French baguette. But would anyone seriously want to accuse the Vietnamese of treating the culture of France with disrespect because they bake the bread much too soggy? And wouldn’t it be anything but legitimate if a Vietnamese baguette producer came up with the idea of buying Lena Dunham as an advertising face?

Some will say that this case shows that it takes a white celebrity face to draw attention to racism, disrespect, or the original recipe for banh mì. But with respect, is this really racism or disrespect? Isn’t it simply a matter of taste? Or does anyone seriously want to debate whether the bulette is the cultural appropriation of cevapcici? Or whether the kottbullar is disrespectful to the moussaka? Or whether the Tartars should have the copyright on minced meat?

Other people’s hats and shoes

As dorky as these debates about party costumes and mensa food are, there are of course discussions in this context that can be taken more seriously. In literature, for example. The white American writer Lionel Shriver caused a scandal in September when she accused the representatives of critical whiteness of having no idea what an author is. Without cultural appropriation, he would be nothing. His job is to think himself into other people, to put on other people’s hats and shoes, that is, to appropriate the experiences of others.

Just as no crime writer would be required to have experienced the murders himself, it was legitimate for white authors to write about black experiences. But the movement’s representatives didn’t think so at all; after all, this attitude disregarded the fact that a white author could still market himself better than a black one, and that talking about blacks still had a bigger share in the public than talking blacks.

As much as Shriver’s theoretical position is convincing, her critics are of course right. It’s another one of those situations where you don’t want to be a referee. But the arbiter is clear to Critical Whiteness anyway. It is the one who agrees with them. In any case, the classification and judgment of what exactly is actually white seems to work more along the lines of "who is white, I decide." If Critical Whiteness is about letting white people experience what it’s like to be subjected to pure arbitrariness, that is, what black people experience on a daily basis: Point made. People are offended. And now?

Thinking in terms of "us" and "them" is what racists and chauvinists do, too. But if you want to fight them, you shouldn’t take individuals as carriers of some collective culture that they carry around with them like others carry their X chromosome. Anyone who talks about victim collectives need not be surprised if the AfD once asks whether one can imagine the job of culture minister.