Peggy Piesche

United – or divided – by the pandemic? Anti-Blackness: Engine for a new global shift to the right

It’s not the boat that matters, which we’re supposedly all in together. A pandemic makes us feel that what is happening to us is universal and that other people feel the same. Our fears, worries, hopes and the constant restructuring of daily lives coming apart at the seams seem to connect us with people near and far. We’re living in a time in which the crisis is verbalized similarly: infection and mortality rates, ICU capacities, progress and costs in drug and vaccine research, whether conveyed through the media or just heard on the street. When a woman is on the phone at the bus stop and we catch scraps of “Covid” and “social distancing” in her conversation, it’s obvious that we’re all affected by something similar.

But the last few months have shown – here and everywhere in the world – that we’re not really in one and the same boat. Rather, it’s a storm at sea – to stick with the metaphor – that is creating our different experiences in this pandemic. And it’s slowly dawning on even the last of us that our social inequalities are not (only) solidifying nationally, but that they are a shared global experience. At least as perceived through the media, the recent increase in the number of refugees who landed in Greece, the threatening gestures from Turkey and the shameless show of power that stranded thousands of those refugees in reception camps in Greece were just some of the hair-raising moments of this first quarter.

And in Germany, with an equally shamelessly open right-wing alliance of so-called centrist parties with the regional association of the AFD in Thuringia to prevent the election of a left-leaning governor, it was as if this year were forcing us into loud, collective action against the right-wing occupation of our social mainstream. The shock was deep, the outrage was real and lasting, and thousands of people no longer wanted to put up with dehumanization, racism and exclusion. When, after their flawless coup, these traditionally middle-class parties of CDU and FDP in Erfurt turned out to be a hollow democratic center, the people had had enough. Mediocre white men’s lust for power was exposed by the protests and they were forced – for the time being – to stand down.

At that moment I had hope for this year. Then came February 19, the day ten people were shot in Hanau. Despite many attempts by the media to vilify and criminalize the dead, it quickly became clear that a racist gunman had run amok here. For many BPoC families and communities it was a day of renewed trauma. Painful and disturbing memories of the NSU were awakened and it was clear that we all were the targets. Our country struggled, tried to show solidarity, but failed to mourn empathetically. Maybe that should have prepared us a little more for today. After Hanau, the families and communities were quickly left on their own and the nation returned to its everyday, empathy-free life. They didn’t even hear us as we went through the stages of our grief. We’re not just fearful and grieving – we’re angry! It probably wouldn’t have taken a pandemic to make mainstream society in Germany grow weary of grief, shock and sympathy.

But then the coronavirus came and as a society we quickly turned around and never tired of motivating ourselves to show solidarity, not to hoard, to show responsibility and to be considerate of those who would otherwise fall by the wayside in this crisis.

But I wonder how a society, which at the beginning of the year conjured up supposed horrific scenarios of a “return of 2015” and with a cold lack of empathy used numbers games to stifle the acceptance of even refugee children, can find its way to lasting, genuine solidarity. Empathy means being able to open your heart to other people. But it’s only possible if we let ourselves be guided by the humaneness within us. These days, we’re doing a lot for “us,” but forget so many who are not included in this “us.” The families in Hanau, the people in Moria, in Gaza, in Syria – the list is long, but they belong to us! They are living with this pandemic, too. In times like these it becomes clear that we afford ourselves our collective self-care on the backs of these people. All that we need to get through a crisis with human dignity: others need it, too!

Truly empathetic acts will only be possible once we recognize what divides us. Racism was a pandemic even before Covid-19. It’s time we take it just as seriously and take action! This global virus is offering us the chance to find our humanity and escape from our hamster wheel. To discover empathy! That would do it. But no, it seems that only coldness can establish a global connection. A coldness justified by fear itself. The world is in turmoil; nothing is as it was or seemed at the beginning of the year. People are losing their social security, confidence, health, and many their lives – and viciously feeling their loss. The pandemic is creating a collective wound that brings a lot to the surface, visible now for all to see. Despair, grief, anger and insecurity can be felt everywhere and are seeking forms of unity. They are now being channeled into the global protests against the never-ending (police) brutality and violence against Black people. And not just in the United States. For a moment it seemed as if the western world had actually felt the realities of Black lives and was able to muster empathy for what the Black Lives Matter movement has been holding against the world for years. During the pandemic, one’s own feelings of insecurity suddenly become collectively felt similarities: Welcome to our world!

As joyful as we felt a few weeks ago about the ongoing global protests against anti-Black racism, it is also becoming increasingly clear that the vigils remembering the life of a Black man were important. Yes, it is important to name anti-Black racism what it is, to recognize it and thus to recognize the centuries-long lived reality of many people. And it’s just as important to collectively and publicly mourn the life of a Black man, thereby restoring his human dignity.

However, it’s all not (been) enough, because it doesn’t change anything. In view of the strength, the energy, the collective waves of empathy that the marches and demonstrations gave us, it’s difficult to pause, take a deep breath and determine: It’s not enough. We quickly realized that something’s not quite right when it is predominantly men whose suffering leads us to collective expressions of solidarity. At the same time that George Floyd was murdered, Breonna Tayler also died at the hands of the Louisville police. If vigils and protests can restore or grant human dignity to the victims, we must ask ourselves why the murders of Black women and trans people do not seem to be ‘worthy’ of such demonstrations.

Our collective demonstrations of empathy were also not enough because they continue the “original sin” of racism: They are demonstrations FOR ‘others’ and not protests AGAINST ‘our own.’ And that is the second painful realization reached when we reflect on the current global outrage. To avoid any misunderstandings: Yes, it’s important! It’s correct and necessary! And yes, we will need it for a long time to come! But what we also need is a change of perspective towards what we really need to recognize and name. The thing we must continue to take a stand against, globally and collectively, is called anti-Blackness. It is the historically, politically and emotionally deeply rooted dehumanization of Blackness inscribed in all of us. White enslavement and white colonization made Blackness the ‘other’ and thus the opposite of being human.

“Slaves” were literally not people to whom dignity, empathy and solidarity were due, not to mention self-determined rights to physical integrity. This de-humanization inscribed in Blackness is not only the platform that makes it humanly possible to kneel on a human body for almost nine minutes and squeeze the life out of it. It is also the platform that makes it humanly possible to care more about one’s own socio-political condition when people are dying in the Mediterranean than to take them in. Anti-Blackness is the turning away from the realities of life for Black people here in Europe, too. It is what we see on talk shows when mainly white men hold forth on the lack of structural racism in this country and borrow from historians to explain why it’s different in the United States. As such, the actual reality of Black people is not considered relevant.

Anti-Blackness is what prevents us from establishing comprehensive anti-discrimination laws that apply nationwide, because the ‘sensitivities’ of Black people are subordinated to the comfort level of the white norm/ality. If we really want to end and overcome what we rightly despise in our deeply felt outrage, we must recognize that state violence and murder are based on anti-Blackness. This can only be overcome if we as a society look inside ourselves and, through a process of humanizing Blackness, force the political representatives of our own country to turn to ALL their citizens and to become aware of their own non-discriminatory duty of care.

When protection, dignity and security (in, through and from their governmental bodies) are made possible for more people, when human dignity, justice, security and life can be guaranteed to all people and we as a community face a collective responsibility, then we will begin bringing the dehumanization of Blackness to an end.

About the artist

Peggy Piesche is a literary and cultural scholar. She has published about racialized gazes, colonial history, and collective memories. Piesche is co-editor of Mythen, Masken und Subjekte (2005), a critical whiteness study, and Euer Schweigen schützt Euch nicht (2012) on Audre Lorde and the Black women’s movement in Germany and is an active member of ADEFRA (Black Women in Germany). She taught at the University of Bayreuth, the University of Utrecht and at Vassar and Hamilton College in New York.

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