Privileges on Valentine’s Day

[DE] Mohamed Amjahid, Journalist für Die Zeit, geboren in Marokko und ansäßig in Berlin, veröffentlichte vor drei Monaten sein erstes Buch “Unter Weißen- Was es heißt priviligiert zu sein”. Besonders in Erinnerung von seiner Buchvorstellung in Neukölln bleiben mir Mohameds Schilderungen darüber, wie sein Körper immer wieder Fremdzuschreibungen erfährt, die nichts mit seiner Persönlichkeit zu tun haben, seinen Errungenschaften oder Hoffnungen, sondern lediglich auf seiner Hautfarbe beruhen, seiner Muttersprache, seinem Pass. Somit wird sein Körper verwundbar, denn er hat keine Kontrolle darüber, wenn Menschen rassistischen Stereotypen folgen und ihn zu einer Bedrohung erklären, seine Rechte und Fähigkeiten in Frage stellen. Mit Mohamed verbindet mich der Wunsch, Priviligien zu hinterfragen, die im deutschen Bildungssystem gnadenlos reproduziert werden. Als ehemalige Berliner Lehrerin, die das Lernen aller Kinder gemeinsam befürwortet, betrachte ich Behinderung intersektional und sehe die Verschränkung zwischen Kategorien, die Zugänge zu Macht und Ressourcen beeinflussen, wie Race, Class, Gender und Disability. Aus Mohameds gesellschaftskritischen, intersektionalen Analysen erwächst der Aufruf, Allianzen zu bilden, um gemeinsam Kritik an benachteiligenden Strukturen zu üben. Diesem fühle ich mich tief verbunden aus Gründen, die euch der folgende Blogpost näher bringt.   

Hold on my Anarchist and Anti-consumerism friends, this day was not only blessed with a very special visit to the cat café but with the presentation of Mohamed Amjahid’s book “Unter Weißen – Was es heißt priviligiert zu sein” in Berlin Neukölln’s  Workshop of Cultures. In German, this title is a play on words as “Unter Weißen” can be translated into “among Whites” or “Under Whites” – “What it means to be privileged”. In his book, Mohamed processes experiences he had to make with racism and prejudices living and working as a native Moroccan in Germany and around the world. In twelve chapters, the anthropologist by degree and journalist by profession, draws the reader into thick descriptions of travels to Hungary and the United States where the color of his passport and the color of his skin turn out to be a dangerous mix that leave the author fear for his life. He also dismantles moments of discrimination among his journalist colleagues that do not lend themselves to the usual explanations of who reproduces racist stereotypes in Germany. The “bildungsferne Schichten” – “societal layers of low education” in German politically correct jargon – are not dominantly addressed by Amjahid. He is rather shocked by those who betray themselves by lack of critical reflection, a skill that their degrees claim they should have mastered.  In a similar vein, episodes from a village in Germany make clear that a North African male is a perceived threat at all times, though he is “also just a human being” as a mother explains to her child when Amjahid, a nominee of the CNN journalist award, passes them on the street.

Mohamed Amjahid

In the end of May 2015, my interest in Mohamed was first sparked when I attended a panel discussion that he hosted during a congress organized by a young foundation of education rebels called “Was bildet ihr uns ein?” This name can be translated into something like “What have you gotten us into?” and expresses the outrage that the group members feel about the current state of the German education system. Back when I was a secondary school teacher in Berlin, I emphasized with this question greatly. My teacher colleagues and I were faced with an implementation of inclusive education that felt very troubling to us. Our school had decided to group together weak students and kids with learning disabilities and social/ emotional challenges so that hopeless classrooms were created in which no one wanted to spend time –neither students nor teachers. I was well aware of the challenges and criticism of inclusive education that was introduced all over the country since Germany ratified the UN Convention on the Rights of People with Disabilities in 2008.

What I wanted most was to be involved in a process of imagining and creating conditions for inclusive classroom settings as I was thrilled by the idea of having all children learn together.

Therefore I attended the education congress in May, 2015. One of the guests of the panel discussion was Berlin’s former education senator, the Social Democrat Jürgen Zöllner. In 2015, Zöllner was able to look back at a very successful career as Professor of Chemistry and more than 20 years of political service in, among other institutions, the Ministry of Education, Science and Research in Berlin. Mohamed who introduced himself as “Mo” to the audience led the discussion with charm and confidence and encouraged a rather shy audience to ask questions and comment on the discussants’ contributions. And here, I felt something that Mohamed expressed during his book presentation on Feb. 14, 2017 as an alliance that people who fight for different issues should grow and foster to empower each other. As a woman in her mid-20s and an advocate for inclusion, I struggled to raise my voice and criticize the highly segregated German education system in the light of a very eloquent long time politician. Mohamed who was born in Frankfurt in 1988 and managed to become a very successful journalist for one of the most prestigious German newspapers, Die Zeit, posed a much needed counterbalance to the establishment, simply by being in charge of the discussion- as someone who represents a minority in Germany. Zöllner himself had never stood in a classroom and taught children with different needs.

When I had finally worked up my courage and asked him about his standpoint on creating one school for all, instead of segregating students with disabilities into special facilities, he eloquently brushed my question off. He said that the voters’ will, dictates his opinion and if parents want a segregated school system then why would he decide against their will?

Though I understand that a politician serves the interest of his voters, I was very disappointed by a response that did not convey any ethical standpoint on the issue but rather a very diplomatic and slick escape. To my mind, Zöllner did not exhibit any traits of critical reflection considering his own privileged position as an able-bodied, white man of quite high social-economic status when he judged this crucial issue that does not only affect people with disabilities but must be considered highly intersectional as the triad of race, class, and gender all contribute to the constitution of disability.

Back in the Workshop of Cultures, Mohamed and a journalist from his publishing house have entered into dialogue over the extracts he just read from his book. The slightly puzzled white audience members need a moment to digest the message that they are inherently racist because their skin color makes them members of the privileged section of society.

How, then, can white people ever be supportive anti-discrimination activists if everything they do is considered patronizing or characteristic of the white savior complex? Mohamed’s answer is simple yet challenging:

Be a little less activist and a little more aware of your own privileges.

I catch myself feeling slightly miffed over Mohamed’s comment that books by famous writers of the European enlightenment did not belong to his parental library and that so much of the social capital that native Germans are blessed with did not belong to his childhood. My parents are not academics, they left the GDR with three suitcases and a toddler and we certainly had a limited amount of philosophical books at home.

Mohamed admits that he might be overgeneralizing sometimes and that there are probably people in this audience who do not identify with the way that he has portrayed white people.

But isn’t this a very insightful feeling, he asks. The experience of rejecting the assumptions that someone else expresses about me and my body?

It is a crucial moment in Mohamed’s dialogue with the audience. As different speakers are tangled up in conversation with the author, I am reminded of one of the earlier moments in my life in which my body became the victim of racial discrimination. Being of darker skin complexion compared to the standard German, I was called a “Kanake” (derogatory term used in Germany to insult non-Germans from Turkey or Central and Eastern Europe) coupled with other racist slurs when I attended primary school. I remember the confusion spinning in my 10-year-old head, thinking that Hey! I was not Turkish or of any other ethnicity than German. I had wanted to rescue myself into the comfort of my own German-ness. Only later, I realized in shock that my anger had taken the wrong turn. It did not matter that I was actually “bio-“ German, to speak with Mohamed’s words, it was outrageous that anyone at all was insulted for their origin, their skin colour, clothing, religion or whatever.

The following years of my educational path were not at all without hurdles and I often felt inferior to some of my fellow students at university. Nonetheless, my name is Josefine Wagner and not Aycia or Fatima which are names similar to those of my former high school students. I know that their names and looks inspired some of my colleagues to say that kids like them belonged to this school, and others – more bio-German ones – should have rather gone to the traditional, prestigious Gymnasium. I know that education in Germany does not measure up to the promise to equip everyone with knowledge regardless of their social and ethnical background. In Germany, it is boys with a migration background that comprise the largest group of children in special education facilities which stresses the close interconnectedness between race, class, gender and disability.

I am thankful for Mohamed’s book because, first and foremost, it does not drum the reader into false activism and half-hearted credos by which we should live to create a better world.

Instead, he asks for the first step that each of us can take very comfortably at home which is sit and think about who and where we are in life and how we got there. Then, he encourages us to build alliances.

I nurture the moment that Mohamed’s presence on stage, encouraged me to step on the podium two years ago and ask my question. It made me feel the power of alliance which eventually empowered my own very self which is a feeling I want to share.

One thought on “Privileges on Valentine’s Day

  1. Mohamed was born in Frankfurt am Main. His parents had come from Marocco to Germany and moved back with him when he was in his teens. ( Sorry!!)

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