How can I deal with inevitable racists

# Critical whiteness: was my article racist?

A few months ago I accompanied a Nigerian delegation on an educational trip through Germany. My article in ZEIT was followed by letters to the editor with allegations of racism. What has happened there?
A reflection

Under the hashtag # Critical whiteness the journalist Malcolm Ohanwe asked white people to take a critical look at their whiteness: “You are white and you know what it is like to be white. Do you now do the work and talk and write about it! " And we do that here in loose succession.

The assignment was exciting: For ZEIT, I was supposed to accompany a delegation from Nigeria for two days, consisting of education politicians and company representatives. At the invitation of the federal government, the Nigerians wanted to get to know the German system of dual vocational training. I would accompany the delegation in workshops and vocational schools and at the end write a feature on the question of the extent to which the export of an education system can work. Development cooperation, education, equal opportunities - all of them are attractive topics for me. I immediately agreed.

I knelt down to research. I read extensively about development cooperation in vocational training. During the trip I spoke for a long time with the Nigerian delegation members. During the joint bus trips, they told me about the challenges in their home country and shared their impressions of the German system with me. The mood in the discussions was open-minded, approachable and characterized by genuine interest. I also interviewed employees of the Federal Institute for Vocational Education and Training, spoke to a business educator, vocational school representatives and a Nigeria expert. As with most research, in the end I got the impression that it was a lot more complex than initially thought.

I struggled with writing. What was required was a feature with an analytical approach and lively reportage elements. As an introductory scene, I chose our joint visit to an apprentice workshop in Bonn. In short sentences I described how the Nigerian delegation walked through the training workshop, took smartphone photos and looked over the shoulders of the German apprentices while they were welding. I described “the shy boy in overalls” and the group of Nigerians who wore “suits, floor-length caftans, colorful dresses in batik optics and with leopard prints”.

The editorial staff changed almost nothing

The editors accepted the article without any major change requests, but due to an advertisement it had to be shortened significantly. The text was published in ZEIT in November 2017. A few weeks later (in addition to some positive feedback), three very critical letters finally fluttered into my mailbox. Letting these letters to the editor have an impact on me is still painful today: I am an "editor with dusty colonial glasses", it says, I would "linguistically belittle Africans". I swallowed. I? Racist? How was that meant?

I read the emails several times and in detail. All three letters to the editor worked on my choice of words and my scenic descriptions in particular. One reader was annoyed that I described a Nigerian politician as "an energetic woman with large gold earrings." "Is it worth mentioning how politicians and entrepreneurs are dressed on a business trip?" She wrote. The focus on clothing helps to reproduce post-colonial perspectives on “Africans”. "To me, the description of the clothes seems like a search for the supposedly 'foreign'".

Another reader was exasperated by the wording that Nigerians would “trundle” through Germany in a “small coach” and “scribble” information in their pads. Tinkering, scribbling, little coach? The reader was sure that I would have chosen other words if I had written about a Swiss delegation.

Me: racist?

I was insecure. Had I subconsciously chosen a derogatory language - or did words like "tingling" or "scribbling" just belong to my vocabulary? I searched other articles of mine, found similar terms and descriptions of clothing and appearance in reports on white people - and yet I couldn't come up with a clear answer. A call to the ZEIT editorial office calmed me down. None of the (white) editors who read and edited the article could see any racist or post-colonial undertones in it. I answered the letters to the editor in a friendly but firm manner. Within the editorial team, we would take the criticism seriously, but could not recognize the accused unobjective look.

That was the end of the matter. Actually. Nevertheless, my guilty conscience reported at regular intervals. Especially when debates on racism arise - like just now - I remember the experience with letters to the editor. Unfortunately, I never found out what my Nigerian protagonists think of the article. The delegation members thanked them for sending the photos and the German script. However, I don't know whether someone translated the text for you.

To this day I ask myself: Did I describe the appearance of the delegation from Nigeria in a racist way or on my behalf as a journalist who sees something and reproduces it? Was my text discriminatory, and who can and may decide that? And: How does it work, as a white journalist, to be sure of whether I am exoticizing other people or not? I don't know any of that. And I don't know how to get there either.

Today I read my article differently

For this text I reread my article published at the time. Today I am dissatisfied with many of the formulations myself. Much seems flat, polarizing and simplifying. I searched my computer for the original, unabridged version. This, too, is far from perfect. Nevertheless, in the unabridged version I recognize a more differentiated view, which gives more space to the perspectives and worlds of experience of the Nigerians. For reasons of space, the information on the vocational training system in Nigeria has been deleted - and my explanations on development cooperation, which should always work on an equal footing and in both directions. What remained, however, were the scenic descriptions of the appearance and behavior of Nigerians.

What will I do differently in the future? I don't have a straight answer. But a few approaches: If I write about “People of Color” in the future, I will be even more careful than usual with my choice of language (and hopefully stay relaxed while writing). I will question journalistic reflexes that want to bring the "supposedly exotic", "surprising" and "different" to the fore. And I will think more about institutionalized racism in our media system. The fact that we opted for the Nigerian (and not the Belarusian) delegation was probably no coincidence. Subconsciously we (including me!) Expected more meaningful pictures from the (black) visitors.

And I have another goal: to be more receptive to critical letters to the editor and feedback, even if they are harshly worded. Not to curl up and defend myself, but to reflect self-critically on my view and my role as a white journalist. I hope that in the next few months we will work together to develop new journalistic approaches that deal more sensitively with racist stereotypes, undertones and reflexes in media reporting. At the same time, I would like this discussion to be relaxed and without disproportionate accusations that only harden the fronts. I very much hope that many journalists and media people will accompany me on this path. My self-critical reflection here can only be a beginning.

What are your experiences with reporting on People of Color? How do you reflect on your own whiteness as journalists? And how do you describe the “other” without discriminating and degrading?


Anja Reiter

Classic journalist and storyteller, whether scrolling or paging. Studied in Graz and Munich, got stuck in Bonn. From here I supply editorial offices all over Germany with reports, portraits, interviews and comments - on business, social issues, digital issues and education.

Anja Reiter