Recognizing the Big Picture - About the Roots of Discrimination

Recently I had a conversation in which - once again - it was claimed that we all have the same chance to be successful, regardless of the color of our skin. The example was given that George Floyd, a criminal who took drugs, should not be celebrated as a "hero".

There are two points about this statement that I find highly critical.

Problematic statements that I hear repeatedly:

1. "I don't see colors." "We are all the same." "Any person can go from washing plates to making millions if only a great effort is made."

2. "Black men and men of color are just more criminal too." "Black men do drugs."


When we do not see differences between people, we do not acknowledge the barriers that deny people access to spaces and resources. What does this mean in concrete terms? Because of various forms of oppression, so-called "-isms," we do not all have the same starting conditions. In addition to racism, these forms include, for example, discrimination based on religion, gender, physical or mental abilities, and age, among many other characteristics.

All forms have a common basis: prejudice and power. Ellen Wagner

This can be identified at four levels, which are interrelated ("The 4 I's of Oppression").

Ideological: The belief used to create a system of inequality in which people with certain identities have power and others have less or none (societal prejudices such as that non-white people are worth less).

Institutional: An organization or system of organizations that reinforce or perpetuate an ideology (e.g., racial profiling in the police or the exclusion of applicants with foreign-sounding names in the job application process).

Interpersonal: The interaction between people that perpetuates an ideology (e.g., microaggressions toward a Black person born and raised in Germany "You speak good German.", "Where are you from?", or grabbing the hair of a person of color without being asked).

Internalized: How an ideology shapes our worldview and beliefs, which ultimately affects our relationship with ourselves and all other people (e.g., my Black daughter's perception that her skin color and hair were not beautiful. One day she came back from kindergarten crying "I don't want to have this skin color and I don't want to have this hair.").

So the more we conform to the so-called "norm" of the country - in the context of racism in Germany: German by birth, white, and speaking accent-free German - the less to no racism we experience. If one of the characteristics is absent, we are considered "white passing" and may be seen as 'German'. Nevertheless, we experience exclusion or discrimination because we do not quite belong. This principle can be applied to all other forms of oppression. In the context of people with disabilities, we may be seen as not disabled, yet have a chronic condition such as diabetes or depression.

Stereotypes and the danger of a snapshot

Ever heard of the "confirmation bias?" For example, if we think that Black people are more likely to be criminals and poor compared to white people, we are also more likely to perceive what we think we already know, thus confirming our assumptions. This means that we are more likely to perceive criminal Black people in the media or Black homeless people on the street, even though this is statistically incorrect.

Our brain plays many tricks on us that we are not even consciously aware of, which is why these cognitive biases are also called 'unconscious'. If we are fed with the same stereotypes over and over again (see the representation of black people in Hollywood movies), these images inevitably become anchored in our consciousness and lead to the fact that we inevitably put people into boxes and in the worst case devalue or discriminate against them.

If we only evaluate what is superficially visible in situations, we overlook structural problems that have led to a problem. If people are denied access to a good education and thus have reduced opportunities in the job market, they do not have the same opportunities and access to wealth as privileged people who belong to the middle class, for example. When police disproportionately patrol non-white people, it naturally creates the impression that those are also more criminal - even though this is statistically false*.

It's complex. And discussions on the topic of racism and other discrimination are very exhausting - for affected people as well as for non-affected people. Nevertheless, my appeal to all those who have not yet dealt with the issues: Educate yourself! Even if the topics (seemingly) do not concern you at first: If you do not actively oppose the oppression of people, you are complicit in discriminating against others and perpetuating the system of prejudice and power. Some benefit from the systematic oppression of others - but we all benefit much more from a world where discrimination no longer has a place.

Nothing in life worth having is entirely free, but I won't cost as much as you think. Robert Livingston

Start today. Share this article with your network. Attend my anti-racism workshops or those of my fabulous colleagues and actively work to make the world a more just place for all - even Babysteps are okay.

* or (German)