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‘White is not a color’ - An interview with author and psychoanalyst Grada Kilomba

The following interview with Dr. Grada Kilomba, author of “Plantation Memories – Episodes of Every Day Racism” was first published by The African Times, the interview was conducted by Stefanie Hirsbrunner. Grada Kilomba's roots are in São Tomé e Príncipe and Portugal. Her main interest of research is racism. Kilomba’s seminar at the Free University in Berlin had to be moved to one of the biggest lectures halls because so many students wanted to attend.

THE AFRICAN TIMES: How do you explain the huge interest especially from whites when you talk about racism?

Grada Kilomba: First of all, important is who teaches, what is being taught and how. I try to combine traditional academic scholarship with literature and creative narrative. In this way, the lecture becomes very artistic and fascinating for both the students and for me. I learned this from other authors such as Frantz Fanon.

When you read their work, you really don’t know where to place it. Is it poetry? Is it prose? Is it political science? I like this combination of disciplines and views, which invites one to look at things in a very complex way. I also find this a very honest way to reflect on politics because you speak from your own position.

This is a perspective that comes from the margins and it is very new for most of the students. I work with a complete new generation of students, who are willing to heal their history, to position themselves anew as well as to work on their own racism.

Shame is a common reaction when whites are being confronted with their own racism. How do you transform this reaction into something productive?

Working on one’s own racism is a psychological process and it has nothing to do with morality. It starts with denial, goes on with guilt and then comes shame, which allows one to achieve recognition afterward. Once you have achieved recognition, you can start repairing structures, the so-called reparation.

White people often ask: “Am I racist?” This is a moral question, which is not really productive because the answer would always be: “Yes.” We have to understand that we are educated to think in colonial and racist structures. The question should instead be: “How can I deconstruct my own racism?” This would be a productive question that already opposes the first step, denial, and initiates that psychological process.

Can you explain why you chose to write a book on everyday racism? What characterizes everyday racism?

In my writings, I like making this link between past and present, fantasy and reality, memory and trauma using remembered stories of slavery and colonialism. It is interesting how racism in the present is able to place you back in history. It restages a colonial order: Whenever a person is confronted with racism at that precise moment, he or she is being treated as the subordinate and exotic “other” like in colonial times. And because this chain to the past and the trauma has not really been explored yet, I decided to write this book in the form of psychoanalytical episodes on everyday racism.

When we speak about racism, it usually has a macro-political perspective but black people’s realities, thoughts, feelings and experiences have been often ignored. That is exactly what I wanted to have at the center of this book, our subjective world.

Are there any remarkable differences between European countries when it comes to racism or talking about it?

Yes and no. A critical and reflective view upon the brutality of colonialism is almost nonexistent in many European countries. In Germany, on the contrary, I experience a sense of guilt and shame toward racism, which is more productive. Nevertheless that happens only in relation to the Holocaust; when it comes to the German colonial history, it is unknown even in school textbooks.

I believe it is a collective process which Europe has to complete together, facing its very problematic history of racism, which started with slavery, followed by colonization and today’s fortress Europe. Racism has always been in the center of European politics and this has not changed until today.

A famous quote from Simone de Beauvoir goes, “One is not born a woman, but becomes one.” Do you see any truth in the variation, “One is not born white, but becomes white?”

This is a very problematic phrase because one of the big fantasies of white (people) is having the possibility to escape their own whiteness, to be able to say: “I am white, but I am not like other white people.” What is very important when we talk about racism is to understand that whiteness is a political identity, which has the privilege of both being at the center and still being absent. That is, having the power, but this power is perceived as neutral and normal. It is precisely this privilege of remaining unmarked but of marking the others that characterizes racism.

So what exactly does it mean to be white then?

White is not a color. White is a political definition, which represents historical, political and social privileges of a certain group that has access to dominant structures and institutions of society. Whiteness represents the reality and history of a certain group. When we talk about what it means to be white, then we talk about politics and certainly not about biology. Just like the term black is a political identity, which refers to a historicity, political and social realities and not to biology.

As we know there are black people who are very light-skinned, others who are dark-skinned, others who have blue eyes. It is the political history and reality that constructs these terms.

What can white people contribute to the struggle to overcome racism?

They should work on themselves, start doing their homework. That is already enough to ask, compared to the fact that black people have been doing exactly this for the past 500 years.

Can whites also be victims of racism?

This question is illogical. Those who (propagate) racism do not experience racism. People who exclude, dominate and oppress cannot be victims of that oppression at the same time. But they certainly develop a sense of guilt, which sometimes is confused with being a victim. What often happens is that, because the sense of guilt is so overwhelming, the aggressor turns her-/himself into the victim, and turns the victim into her/his aggressor. This allows the aggressor to perceive her-/himself as good and to free themselves from the anxiety their own racism causes. A black person never has this choice.

Do you believe in a future without racism?

No. History and everyday life show me the opposite. There has been much transformation but also stagnation, they both co-exist. The fact that Obama is president does not mean that racism is over; the fact that Merkel is chancellor does not mean that we reached the end of sexism. And the fact that the mayor of Berlin is homosexual does not mean the end of homophobia. But I still wish very much for a future where people can live together as equals.

First published by: |+| The African Times
Grada Kilomba's Website: |+| www.gradakilomba.com/

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