Monday, 25 March 2013

The beginning and the ending of a b&w week in Vienna


Angelo Soliman (Image taken from www.economist.com)

I arrive in Vienna on a Friday night. The taxi driver´s face tells me that his country of origin might be somewhere in the Middle East. He doesn´t speak english, so we can´t talk. A few minutes later he answers a phone call. I hear him speaking turkish. “So, you are from Turkey?”, I ask, when he hangs up. He looks at me surprised through his mirror and asks me (probably): “You understand turkish?”. I tell him “Yunanistan” (Greece, in turkish). He looks at me even more surprised and says: “You?! Yunanistan?!”. And he continues in english: “Me, you, no problem, no problem!”. I smile: “No problem”, I tell him. When we arrive at the hotel, I thank him in turkish. He seems pleased.

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I am in Vienna for a workshop on “Racism and Cultural awareness”, funded by Grundtvig, the European Union programme for lifelong learning. The main trainer is a black woman who seems to be dynamic and very self-confident. The participants come from Bulgaria, Romania, the Czekh Republic, Poland, Germany, Ireland, the Netherlands, UK, Spain and Turkey. Black and white people – or kind of black and kind of white  - many originating from countries other than the one they´re presently residing in, people of different ages and backgrounds, gathered in Vienna to discuss racism

We are asked to talk about our expectations from this workshop. I tell them I expect my views on racism to be challenged, my thinking to go a bit further, because I know that none of us considers him/herself to be racist, yet, we might be surprised.

Later on, we´re given by the trainer a definition of racism: “Racism is discrimination with power in a white dominated society.” I am not comfortable with this definition.

-  “Do you see racism today as something that just white people do to black people?”, I ask.
-  “It´s not me saying it”, the trainer answers, “this is how it´s been defined.”

And at that moment, with this kind of answer, I know that the week ahead of us will be more complicated and less interesting than I had anticipated. But challenging, nevertheless.

There are a number of reasons why this experience left me deeply concerned and disappointed, apart from uncomfortable.

First of all, along the week, we were bombarded with statements (some, actually, being serious historical inaccuracies), rarely, or rather never, referring to any kind of bibliographic source and not supposed to be further discussed: so, we were told that we should forget about the ancient Greek philosophers and their contribution to european and world culture, because they had been seen studying in Egypt (just this, “they had been seen”); that Herodotus described Cleoparta as someone with african traits (how did he do that, if he lived five centuries before her?); that Alexander the Great burnt the library of Timbuktu (actually, I think he went the other way); that doctors today are taking an oath written by an egyptian doctor (mmm... would that be Hippocrates?).

Secondly, there was a determination to hush anyone, white or black, who might attempt to put racism into a contemporary, broader perspective. We were either told that this was not the subject of the workshop or our comments and questions were met with ironic laughs or agressive responses, as our wish for debate was seen as an attempt to minimize the seriousness of white racism against blacks in order to deal with our “white guilt”. The arguments to support this kept coming. In a tour around the city (called “Black Vienna” in the workshop programme), a young black woman - living in Austria since the age of two and an Austrian citizen today – shared her story of entering a play by Tennesse Williams as the maid (typical role reserved for black actors, she said). She felt uncomfortable with the use of the word “nigger” in Williams´s text. She wanted it to be changed (Let´s see: she would be happy to change a text written in the 50s and presenting a story in the american south, where a white - probably racist - character wishing to depreciate a black would maybe use the term ‘african american’ instead of ‘nigger’? And maybe the maid should be interpreted by a white actress? Seriously, is this the way to fight racism?). After this, continuing our city tour, we were also taken to the city park, to be shown the spot where a black youth was seriously beaten by the police (presumably for being black), with the ambulance taking ages to come, the attack resulting in the youth´s death (two weeks before a very similar incident had taken place in Salonika, Greece, where the police didn´t like much the “anarchist” looks of a – white – youth...).

An apparent inability of the black community in Vienna to get organized in order to pursue their rights and widely share their concerns with the viennese society, was equally worrying and rather surprising too. We were told the story of Angelo Soliman, a black man who arrived in Vienna in the 18th century, was greatly respected by the local society and a companion to the emperor himself for his intelligence and vast knowledge and even got married to a white woman... only to be embalmed and displayed at the Natural History Museum after his death. An exhibition about him at the Vienna Museum a few years ago was heavily criticised by our city tour guide, for the way it was depicting african people, but, apparently, there was no official reaction from the black community (read about the exhibition here). Later on, when we asked what kind of association they had to represent them in the Austrian society and in their dealings with the Austrian State, we were told that such kind of association was difficult, as the biggest community comes from Nigeria and they belong to different, and in the past rival,  tribes... How can it be that they are all one (“black” or “african”) when attacked or discriminated, but tribes are getting on the way when they should be getting organized?

Finally, one more reason of concern: the obvious anger and equally obvious inability (or lack of willingness) to put things in perspective. When the case of Zimbabwe was referred, in what concerns the treatment white farmers got from Mugabe´s government, we were told that this was justice. Black people had always lived there, whereas white people arrived much later, so, even if they are being born and raised on that piece of land for decades now, they are not allowed to call it “home”... On the other hand, young people who are officially today (black) Austrians – after having lived in the country for a number of years -, rage against austrian racism and discrimination. They are convinced (or prefer to think, in order to continue nurturing their anger) that whatever happens to black people is because they´re black.

I am not denying this kind of racism – on the contrary, if I did, I wouldn´t be there –, but in their repeated attempts to make us see a black victim, some of us would just see a victim: a poor person, a woman, a gay, a Roma... I was particularly impressed when a Senegalese participant, living in Barcelona, told us that, when a Senegalese boy was killed by Romas (shouting “kill the nigger”...), the community refused to see this as a racial crime and concentrated on the crime itself, the murder that had to be punished. It was a conscious choice to avoid turning one community against the other. The murder was seen as a murder.

And I feel that this might be the way forward. Considering that there is only one race, the human race, racism for me today can only have a metaphorical sense. It is discrimination with power (regardless of the colour of the discriminated or the powerful). In an interview with Mike Wallace, Morgan Freeman considered Black History Month to be “ridiculous”, refusing to see his history resumed in a month. When asked “So, how are we gonna get rid of racism”, he simply answered: “Stop talking about it. I´ll stop calling you a white man and you stop calling me a black man. I am Morgan Freeman to you and you´re Mike Wallace to me.”



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By the end of the week, waiting for our flights at the airport – four of us, blacks and whites of different origins – we discuss travelling and eventually low cost companies and their services. One of us, black, shares the story of her aunt, who was coming to Europe with Easyjet, and was told to wait somewhere for the check-in, being on purpose “forgotten” and having to purchase another ticket. “This is what they do to Africans, you see.”

Further readings

Diane Ragsdale, Are we overdue to amend our defaultcultural policy? (very interesting post on the impact of the 'white racial frame' in the cultural sector)

Molefi Kenti Asante, An african origin of philosophy: myth or reality?

ABC 2020 editorial, Is the ‘n-word’ going mainstream?

Melinda Ozongwu, Half cast: On the idea that mixed-race Africans are “diluted” Africans

Lauren Frohne, Looking past the poverty: Life on Roma ghettos

Jenny Barchfield, In Brazil, a mix of racial openness and exclusion


2 comments:

Sugar and spice... and everything nice said...

My dear
I only saw this post now. Congratulations on exploring so candidly such an enormously difficult topic.
I remember a Special Needs training session where I also felt that the victimistion of the Special Needs communities by the facilitator was actually alienating the eager and willing audience, who were attending the seminar in order to be more professional instead of resting on their intuition and good-will.

The black Ancient Egypt issue is very interesting as well - at the Brooklyn Museum when they resintalled the Egyptian galleries, they actually put up a wall panel explaining why the noses were missing in so many statues - among the museum's surrounding African- and Caribbean-American communities the idea that these noses were chopped off by whites wanting to disguise the black ethnic origin of Ancient Egypt during the 19th century was taken for granted. I thought it was interesting and honorable that the museum chose to address such a potentially divisive issue heads-on, without condescending and without simplifying.

Maria said...

Thank you for your comment. It was a difficult experience, but in the end we came out wiser.

The case of Brooklyn Museum is very-very interesting. I´ll look into it.

Thanks again.