Trans Internet-Zeitschrift für Kulturwissenschaften 15. Nr. November 2003
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Racism and Anti-Racism as Unifying Factors between Cultures

Doron Rabinovici (Vienna)


Who would deny that racism is not something that can be limited to a particular region of the world, a culture or a nation. Racism is the true proof of globalization, and this fact serves for the most part to justify resentment and discrimination. Those who do not want to know anything about the intolerable events happening under their nose would not find things any better if they move elsewhere. Do I believe, I am often asked, that this is the most racist country in the world. Then these people point out the injustices in foreign countries. Racism is not such a sporting event that we should hold international contests, Olympiads of hatred, for it. Racism turns a social phenomenon into a biological matter, but today people avoid the vocabulary, which would remind them of the national-socialist crimes. Culture is discussed as if it were a biological, genetic constant, a given of nature. The word "Fremdenangst" - fear of foreigners - conceals more than is reveals. How foreign, for example, is the granddaughter of Turkish immigrants, who was born in Germany. Moreover, does she frighten a skinhead when he is beating her, or isn't it rather he, who causes her to experience sheer terror. Talk about xenophobia and tolerance covers up the problem it concerns. It is necessary to talk about racism, about that attitude, which agitates people against immigrants, and it is also about business practices, which values immigrants as long as they can profit from their lack of rights.

The concept of the foreign distinguishes between natives and citizens, separates natives from naturalized citizens and even natives from those who are born here but whose land of birth is not supposed to be their homeland. It bewitches the state, transforms it into a haunted realm, where fear dominates these people, who live among us like ghosts. The marginalized, those without documents, are the ones who live in this shadowy realm of fear. They must not call attention to themselves, their rooms lie in the darkness of the cellar, their children have to play quietly in the park, their language must cease to be heard, their foods must not leave any odors. The so-called illegals are shadows of our prosperity, are invisible.

Even those who yearn for a so-called "genuine" or "real" Austria cannot and do not want to live for a second in it without the presence of the immigrants. The construct of the genuine Austria is a dream, an ephemeral castle in the sky, which is based on nothing other than helplessness, generosity, and the industry of those many, who are allowed to live here but must not feel at home.

For years Austrians have been warned about foreigners, indeed, about an inundation of foreigners. In 1993 the word "Überfremdung" - being overrun with foreigners - was declared the non-word of the year in Germany. Yet in 1999 a successful election campaign could be conducted in Austria with the slogan "Stop the excessive immigration." The word "Überfremdung" is hardly translatable, because the German language does not know the differentiation found in English, Italian, or Spanish between stranger and foreigner. The other languages do not convey the resonance that the German contains when it says that something is so foreign that it gives one a strange feeling. The children are already taught to be afraid of strangers. "Don't go with a stranger," is dunned into the children.

"Real" Austrians were extolled throughout the country on placards, which seemed to indicate that there were also non-real Austrians. Many of these supposedly false, ostensibly virtual countrymen and women may, to be sure, live, work and pay taxes here, they may even possess citizenship, yet they are not meant, when one speaks of genuine Austria, of the natives, since their name, their religion, their skin color, their eye color, their clothing appear foreign. Even more: their very existence is denied and suppressed, because many politicians, from all of the most different parties, are united in thinking that the world is a foreign country, the rest is Austria and that Austria is no land for immigrants, despite all facts to the contrary.

The so-called foreigner can sense this hostility and feels threatened. Even if hatred for these people is discussed, the talk is about "hostility toward foreigners" and about the "problem of foreigners," as if they were the problem, not racism, as if the solution did not lie in the social sphere.

This summer, an Austrian judge claimed not to see any violation of human dignity, when a policeman called an African a "Scheißneger" (literally "shit negro"). At times it seems in any case, as if Africans in Austria are not granted any human dignity, for which reason for all practical purposes they can no longer be in any way insulted or offended. How else can what happened in the case of Cheibani Wague be explained? At first the police claimed that nobody had stood on Cheibani Wague. Then on the video one could see Wague lying unconscious with the feet of the officials on him. How is it possible that to this day these policemen have not been suspended? The lowest standards of human dignity and piety do not appear to exist in this country, when the dead person is an African.

I cannot help but see a connection between the general language practice, the judge's verdict and the case of Cheibani Wague. The language mirrors the reality and the conditions of power, but at the same time it consolidates the social reality. The social situation shapes the prejudices, but it also confirms the picture of the enemy. Whoever cannot expect any legal assistance, falls more easily into criminal activity. Whoever is marginalized or made to feel like an outsider begins to take on the stereotype of the outcast. In turn, whoever fits the cliché is no longer perceived as an independent person, rather such a person is refused sympathy and compassion. Whoever is persecuted by prejudices, is soon lost in paranoia, for whoever is persecuted, suffers before you know it from a persecution complex, but simply because he is a realist. It is a vicious circle, in which the power structure nourishes the prejudice, the prejudice the fear, and the fear again the power structure and the prejudice.

There are in this city people who try to fight against fear and prejudice. It is about these few isolated individuals that I wish to speak. There is a group of a few, who manage to accomplish a great deal in this land. Many of them were born here, others not. I am speaking about the organization ZARA. ZARA is a team made up of socially and legally trained advisors, who specialize in information and intervention in cases of racial discrimination. Witnesses and victims can be informed and advised here. Legal steps, intervention, representation during the evidentiary process or through a trial are only some of the possibilities, which this private association offers. It documents systematically all cases, which are reported by witnesses, and in addition provides instruction about racism. Although ZARA is unique in Austria, the organization is not adequately funded by the state.

As mentioned above, there are only a few people, who do not unconcerned fall silent in the face of the discriminations that we encounter daily. In reading the Racism Report of this organization, I am made aware for the first time of what is happening around me. We unheedingly walk past the graffiti, which, for example, proclaim in Vienna: "Kill Blacks." We eat foreign foods in fine restaurants with exotic names and are not concerned that those people, who know what these names mean, are not admitted.

There is no ethnic or culturally predetermined answer to the policy of resentment. On this matter every person must make his or her own decisions. In doing so, it is still relatively easy to want not to be a racist, but one could argue for a long time about what should constitute anti-racism. Anti-racism is no closed view of life, but at best a striving for a bearing, an attitude, a daily effort.

Anti-racism is not genetically inherited, like freckles, for example. Who is disturbed that someone who helps fugitives is the grandson of a war criminal? More essential is whether somebody stands up for victims of discrimination or is against them, and that is not a question of descent and not one of cultural practice, but a question, which everyone can simply answer for oneself alone. Every person is capable of being a racist, regardless of where one comes from. If that is no consolation

This summer I took part in a restaurant test of the association ZARA. I drove a dark-skinned Lebanese in my car from one Discothek to another, because we wanted to see if he would be turned away. On our drive together from one place to the other, we, the Jew and the Arab, did not talk about Austria. The conflict in the Near East was on our minds. We did not agree, but he told me, that up to this time he had never been in contact with any Jew, certainly not with one who was born in Tel Aviv. We were not united by the same political opinion, nor by our tastes in food, music or folklore. What brought us together on this evening and let us become friends was nothing more than the common struggle against unculture, the universalist rejection of boundless racism.

Whoever wants to hear can perceive this tone against hatred and barbarism in every land and at all times. I remember another night a dozen years ago in a distant part of the world. I was standing with friends in front of a restaurant in Brooklyn. The tall black waiter at the door asked us: "Tell me, what's the capital of Austria," to which a woman, who was ashamed of her American countryman, asked if he didn't know that Vienna was the capital. Hadn't he heard anything of "the land of music," of Mozart.

"Amadeus is not my taste," he said: "I'm not so much into Mozart. I love Duke Ellington." But, he continued: "the Duke loved Mozart," and then after a long glance: "and I'll tell you something. Mozart would have loved the Duke too."

© Doron Rabinovici (Vienna)

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For quotation purposes:
Doron Rabinovici (Vienna): Racism and Anti-Racism as Unifying Factors between Cultures. In: TRANS. Internet-Zeitschrift für Kulturwissenschaften. No. 15/2003.

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