Recently I attended a ‘dialogue on race’ which my friend and colleague Ronita Jonson hosted. Somewhat by surprise, it led me to reflect on how my understanding and experience with racism, as someone born and raised in Germany, might be quite different from those who were born and raised here in the Unites States.
Many participants, both people of color and white people, shared stories of their earliest experience of racism. We also talked about American slavery, the current presidential elections, black pride, the police shootings, and other injustices that African Americans experience. We discussed the notion of race as an anthropological construction and racism as a symptom of a power system that is rigged toward the advantages of a few.
I walked away from this dialogue feeling quite stirred up and touched by the often heart-wrenching personal stories that were shared. “Is racism really about color, or is it about maintaining structural inequality so that a few can profit?” Questions are like doorways and guides for learning; I took this one with me from the dialogue.
This event led me to reflect on my own orientation. I came to the U.S. when I was 21, and my childhood in Germany was of course quite different from those who grew up in the American South or New York or Los Angeles. My early life was marked by Germany trying to come to terms with the Holocaust. As a child I remember that we were not allowed to tell jokes about Jewish people, although it was quite all right to tell jokes about our other ethnicities or nationalities. I also recall that no Jewish people lived in our neighborhood, at least not that I knew of.
As children we did not talk much about the Holocaust; we just knew that it had happened. I came to understand that it was difficult for my parents to live with the consequences of their country’s war. Later in school, learning about the Holocaust was a significant aspect of our education. But it was not until my studies in psychology in my 20’s here in the U.S. that I became aware of the huge shame that permeated the German spirit.
During the dialogue on race I was relieved and touched when Germany was mentioned several times as a reference point of a nation willing to look at its cultural shadow and use its shame to not forget but to do what it can to enable social healing. Could Germany and its victims actually heal from the Holocaust? What about the shame I carry? Can I heal my own shame? Can I be hopeful without being naïve?
These and related questions about racism, structural dominance and cultural shame recently came into the foreground in another context. Last May David Sibbet and I were invited to be dialogue contributors at a symposium in Berlin on Imagination and Social Healing: Learning to Share Our Worlds. The symposium was hosted by Aftab Omer, who is originally from Pakistan and is the President of Meridian University in the San Francisco Bay Area, together with his colleague Martin Michaelis who does mediation in post-conflict areas in Eastern Europe and the Middle East.