I used to be "colorblind" - lessons learned and commitments I am making today

Updated: Jun 17

I share these words with great hesitation. I don't like to speak about things that I am unqualified to speak about - and the topic of race, for a white woman, is definitely a topic I am not qualified to speak about. Yet, the only thing worse than making a mistake from which I can at least learn from - is staying silent.

I share these upcoming anecdotes in the hope that some people, who like me were privileged enough to not have experienced any racism in their life, may recognize themselves in these lines and see that there is a way through the confusion, defensiveness, and shame.

Moreover, I believe that what should follow educating oneself and raising awareness, is taking action for change. Therefore, the second reason for this post is to share a set of commitments toward the community of color. A commitment to creating an actionable, practical strategy to make my organization, Generation impact, an anti-racist Generation Impact, and invite you to join me on the journey.

But let me start at the beginning.


1.Ignorance

I am a privileged, white young woman from Germany - a predominantly white country. Growing up, my history lessons were filled with the atrocities my ancestors have committed. History is, in fact, a compulsory subject in Germany all the way until the end of Grade 12 . Therefore, you won't graduate without having had extensive conversations about Antisemitism, Hitler, the Holocaust, the Nazis, and the"Stasi" - Germany's attempt at ensuring these atrocities are never committed again.

Colonization, interpersonal, and institutional racism, however, were never raised.

(And this is, perhaps, not a coincidence)

It was only when I moved to an international school in Singapore, that I started learning about racism in theory: in my psychology classroom and in conversations with friends, but to be honest, not in-depth enough. The topic never felt like something that actually affected the peers around me.

Racism, for me, was a distant problem affecting other places and other people.


2. Confusion

When I moved to the United States two years ago, I actively grappled with racism for the first time. I hadn't been in the US for more than four weeks when I was told that "I am colorblind" and "I don't see race" was counterproductive and a hurtful display of my ignorance.

Simply put: there were so many things I didn't understand. Let me rephrase that: there were so many things I was privileged enough to not understand.


3. Perspective-taking and empathy

I was blessed with friends who grappled with me - and I only realized much later, that this might have been draining and hurtful for them. I want to take this time to thank them (you know who you are) and say: I am very sorry, for the pain I caused you.


If I did become a source of their pain, they didn't show it. Instead, they helped me to set my worldview aside and understand where these foreign opinions and concepts came from.


4. Shame & Frantic (and ineffective) activism

With genuine perspective-taking and empathy quickly comes shame. If you deeply listen and truly try to understand racist atrocities as a white person, I think it's almost impossible not to be ashamed.

Ashamed for the things that people who look like me have been and are still doing.

Ashamed for hurtful things I have done, without realizing it.

I wasn't new to that shame. Growing up in Germany, every history lesson is a reminder that I really cannot be proud of the history of my country.

This time, only, it wasn't history - It was happening all around me.

And it felt terrible.


This terrible shame led me to spiral into two erratic, equally unproductive, reactions: defensiveness, and comparative suffering.


Defensiveness

I don't have to explain defensiveness to you. If you haven't already seen enough of it in your life, you have definitely seen it on your social media feed during the past couple of days. It's defensiveness that poses one of the biggest barriers to empathic listening and thus to conciliation, justice, and change. Psychological researcher John Gottman even calls defensiveness one of the four critical signs that a relationship is broken. Looking at my Facebook feed, I see a lot of broken relationships.


I, too, have immersed myself in the defensiveness-void. In fact, I am notorious for not taking feedback very well. "That was not my intention", is a common manifestation of my defensiveness - and the one I fall into the most.

"I have suffered too in my life, you know", is another one, you've probably read.

Or just last week, I shamefully admit that I found myself thinking this: "Why do I need to talk about this? Generation Impact is not a platform devoted to racism and I am not qualified to talk about this, let alone raise awareness about it. People are just gonna get mad at me whatever I do, anyway". This is, of course, missing the point. Yes (and this is me addressing myself), Generation Impact may not be a platform devoted to anti-racism work and yes, I am definitely not qualified to educate others about racism but I can do everything in my power to make myself an anti-racist leader of an anti-racist organization, empowering an anti-racist Generation Impact.


We need to learn how to shake this defensiveness loose, for the sake of healing broken relationships and to create the massive change that the world needs to move toward equity.


My former roommate and friend summed it up best with the following sentence:


"You want to support people of color? Just please, make it less hard for us to tell you where you’ve gone wrong” - Hephzibah Okorie

It's not only our ignorance, words, and actions that hurt - it's our failure to accept criticism, learn from it, change and do it better next time. Without getting defensive. Without having to be reassured by the very person who I just offended that I am a good person.

Just apologize.

More than that, invite the people in your life to respond to apologies with: "Thank you", as opposed to "it's okay". No, it wasn't okay - and it's not your responsibility to make me feel better.


The truth is, it's on me to make myself feel better. And I need to, because if I spiral into shame and self-hate, I will have no energy left to stand up, learn, and make sure it doesn't happen again - and perhaps even educate some others on the way.


I saw this quote recently, and I invite fellow "trying-to-be-allies" to make this quote, by writer Ijeoma Oluo, their mantra, instead of putting it on people of color to make them feel better:


"The beauty of anti-racism is that you don't have to pretend to be free of racism to be an anti-racist. Anti-racism is the commitment to fight racism wherever you find it, including in yourself. And it's the only way moving forward" - Ijeoma Oluo

Apropos the importance of self-care and self-kindness, there is the other end of the extreme reactions to shame. The end that relates to the "well, I have suffered too" defensiveness: comparative suffering.


Comparative suffering


One of the things that broke my heart last week was seeing my favorite Facebook-Group, an alumni group from my old high school, descend into defensiveness, mutual accusations, angry debates and so, so, so much hate. We are a school that supposedly "makes education a force to unite peoples, cultures, and nations for peace and a sustainable future", and in the past weeks, the arguments on Facebook seemed more like we made our education a force for escaping responsibility. What happened to "taking feedback as an occasion to reflect on where we might have made mistakes", what happened to "listening and learning respectfully"?

Increasingly, I opened my social media feeds in fear, anxiously awaiting another comment thread of people I love, yell at each other, or one more: "You white people should be ashamed of yourselves"- post or video.

I felt powerless, yelled at, frustrated at the world - and I cried a lot.


And without doubt nor a millisecond of delay, another voice was there:

"Julia, how dare you feel sorry for yourself? There are people being teargassed on the street. Black people have been murdered for centuries... You are not even in the United States, right now. You are a white, privileged do-gooder, who can be happy that she hasn't caused more harm than she has".


I am sure you know this voice. A different COVID-19 version of this is: "I am not allowed to feel bad for being alone and isolated in my house because other people have it much worse than me".


But, as my psychology-hero Brené Brown says: "This is not how emotion works"


"The entire myth of comparative suffering is from the belief that empathy is finite. That empathy is like pizza. It has eight slices. So when you practice empathy with someone or even yourself, there is less to go around. So if I am kind toward myself regarding these feelings, if I give myself permission to feel them and give myself some resources and energy, I will have less to give to the people who really need it." - Brené Brown


This, so Brené Brown explains, is very wrong. "When we practice empathy with ourselves and others we create more empathy. Love is the last thing we need to ration in this world"


Brene recorded these words in a podcast preceding the recent incidents (and I hope she doesn't mind me using them in a very different context here), but I want to rephrase what she says in light of recent events: No person of people of color has ever benefitted from this voice in my head nor the feelings I have felt because of it. In fact, it is these shameful feelings that are making me defensive, deaf to feedback, and resistant to growth in the first place.


How are you supposed to empathize with others, if you cannot empathize with yourself?

How are you supposed to learn and grow into a supportive ally, if you have drained yourself of energy through self-hate?


Therefore, I encourage you to be kind to yourself, accept yourself with the mistakes you have made, and then use that energy to learn and move toward productive change.


Sometimes, on the other hand, comparative suffering takes a different turn: "I believe I have suffered more than you, so you have no right to be angry or upset."This, too, completely misses the point. Racism doesn't only exist relative to your misery.

It exists (period) and it needs to be fought. Acknowledging other people's pain does not take away from your own. Again: empathy is not like pizza.


Frantic Activism

But I didn't really think about all this for a while. Instead, while I was stumbling between defensiveness and comparative suffering, I engaged in some frantic and purposeless activism. And yes, I am talking about the black squares that many of us posted on our social media feeds. I have to admit, initially, I got upset at the internet for telling me that my frantic activism was kind of pointless, mostly because I knew they were right. It was simply not enough.


The thing is: social media activism is important and it can make incredible things happen. But posting #blacklivesmatter on my Instagram does not make me a good ally - especially not if I have been ignorant before, and it doesn't prevent me from making more mistakes in the future.


But you know what does? Learning!


5. (More) Learning


So I asked myself: what can I do? And as usual, the internet rises to answer my question before I even articulated it.


The first answer (I didn't even have to google for this one, as it was all over my social media): educate yourself.

And yes, that IS possible without disturbing your black friends in a time where they have other things on their mind than helping you become an anti-racist ally.

It's common sense. If your friend just lost their grandma, you wouldn't ask them to personally suffer through conducting her autopsy.

And in the age of the internet, I really didn't have an excuse - so I found comfort in doing the very thing Generation Impact has always been about: finding and sharing resources to empower young people to make an impact.


(This resulted in our list of anti-racist resources we published last week)


6. Actions


My first attempt at this blog post was utter garbage (I wrote it in the midst of one of my defensiveness and comparative suffering phases) - and luckily I have a team that was honest enough to tell me that. So, instead, I had this great plan to figure out this bullet-proof "anti-racism strategy" for Generation Impact to become an anti-racist Generation Impact.


Well, I realized pretty quickly that this is going to be more of a journey, than a checklist.

Generation Impact will not suddenly become an anti-racist organization if I publish a statement that we stand with people of color and against racism.

Another friend recently shared these words on Facebook, which very effectively explains the danger of making a few anti-racist statements to "tick off" of your marketing checklist. What she shared, resonated deeply with the discomfort my team and I were feeling with just putting some hashtags and resources out there.


"I'm not here to criticize people for joining a bandwagon, that much is a part of what movements required to gain traction and attention. Now that we have some momentum in the conversation, let's ask "Where do we go from here?" When the petitions are signed and people stop demonstrating. When the corporate marketers stop using the hashtag, what's next? Are we ready to have the abolition conversation? How are we moving differently? - Kiara Kamara

How are we moving differently? How will I move differently and how will Generation Impact move differently?


Unfortunately, I don't have a bullet-proof "anti-racism strategies" yet (and the perfectionist in my head is starting to uncomfortably realize that there probably aren't any). But I want to share some initial thoughts on it and ask for your contributions. Because I realized, that I cannot do this alone. I need your help with this.

So here goes nothing: I share with you a work-in-progress, a non-exhaustive, to-be-amendable list, more of a brainstorm than a strategy, but at least: a list of commitments. I invite anyone who is interested and willing to share their thoughts with me.


And it's important to say - to the readers who belong to communities that are deeply suffering right now - it is not your responsibility to educate me. It is not your responsibility to help me out. You owe me nothing.

And yet, if you would have the kindness, despite mistakes in my past, to help me and Generation Impact embark on the journey to become anti-racist, I would feel incredibly grateful.


A. Make it easier for you to tell us where we have gone wrong


If you have found anything on this website, our blog posts, or our social media that is anything but anti-racist, please tell us. I commit to:

  • Personally responding to your email or message

  • Respect and appreciate your opinion

  • Say "I am sorry" if I hurt you

  • Encourage you not to say "It's okay". You don't even have to say anything. You have no obligation to make me feel better

  • Figure out a necessary change, solution, and way forward.

Equally, if any of my words or actions outside of this platform - I want to directly address people who know me with this - have offended or hurt you: please accept my sincere apology. And if you feel like it, let me know. I promise I will try to learn how to have that conversation making you feel nothing but respected and cared for.


B. Increase our activism


No matter how long the media will give this issue their attention, I want to make sure that the topic of interpersonal, institutional, US-specific, as well as international racism, will be a topic addressed by our platform.

Planning for what's ahead for Generation Impact, I want to make the following commitments:


Sharing more resources on anti-racism

(around racism in the US and globally)


I know I am not qualified to share important advice about racism. But I can and will find people who are, and share their initiatives, resources, and thoughts.


Ensuring diversity among my team, collaborators, and guest-bloggers


The last collaboration session I led consisted of 80% Caucasian people and 20% Asian people. That's not diversity and next time, I want to do better.

Among my guest bloggers (published and unpublished ones), the demographic looks like this: 44% Asian, 33% White, 22% Black. This needs to shift, too.


Do you feel like your voice has not been heard or represented on this page? Or simply, that we could benefit from your time, skill, and expertise? Or you want to take the lead on making Generation Impact an anti-racist Generation Impact?

Please do get in touch! It would be an honor to discuss how we can involve you - as a guest-blogger, an interviewee, a manager? Let's chat!


Making diversity and inclusion training part of my own learning and onboarding process


I was surprised by how many free diversity and inclusion training courses are out there and I will figure out how to best incorporate that into our grassroots-organization.

And, of course, I will share these resources on this platform!


Ensuring media representation...


We need to make sure that in the stock images we use, we a) don't perpetuate any negative stereotypes or microaggressions, and b) that no matter how you look, you will find yourself represented in the images we share, because I believe that media representation is essential for empowerment.


...and fighting the root causes for why it's so difficult


Ensuring media representation is actually really hard. It's strikingly obvious that there are way more stock images of white people than of any other race. As a paying customer to the Wix platform, I will bring this to their attention, because this needs to change.


Make sure we support and collaborate with anti-racist companies


I never thought having very few collaborators would be a benefit, but in this case, it is.

My commitment to you is asking each of the companies we support and collaborate with what actions they are taking toward becoming an anti-racist organization and work together with them to implement necessary changes. Here's a list of companies and organizations we are associated with, in case you want to bring anything to our attention:

(You can a list of the companies we feature on our resource page)


Part of that is a commitment not to be part of panels, podcasts, TV-productions, etc, or that are not deliberately inclusive of people of color.


C. Welcoming feedback and continuously looking for more information and knowledge


The most important commitment, I believe, is the commitment to keep learning. I know this blog post could have been written 100 times better - and there are many more strategies even a small grassroots-organization can implement to become anti-racist. And although it was the best I can do today, I want to make sure I learn to do better tomorrow. Therefore, if you have feedback, I encourage you to get in touch with me.

I also commit to taking initiative on my own to continue learning.

And I invite anyone to join me in this process.


Thanks to:


Hephzibah Okorie and Kiara Kamara for allowing me to quote your wisdom.

Ijeoma Oluo for sharing your thoughts with the world.

Ayushi Angresh, Calvin Ramelan, and Floria Rathgen for sharing your thoughts and feedback with me.

Helena Rose behind @earthbyhelena for sharing important tips around how to support the Black Lives Matter movement as an influencer.

Brené Brown for being my hero, inspiration, and giving me so much strength.


Works Cited/Inspiration drawn from (in order of appearance)


Article: "Statistically speaking, black people in Germany don’t exist", by Aamna Mohdin, September 23rd, 2017

https://qz.com/1078032/can-germany-combat-inequality-when-it-has-no-data-on-race/?fbclid=IwAR0dHinAA4OeLzmQXIrcE0PIQum8g-kR1fFkuP6EVPdBwOYkT6NrcQ13HL0


Article: "White parents teach their children to be colorblind. Here’s why that’s bad for everyone", by Megan R. Underhill, Oct. 5, 2018

https://www.washingtonpost.com/nation/2018/10/05/white-parents-teach-their-children-be-colorblind-heres-why-thats-bad-everyone/


Article: "Colorblindness: the New Racism?" by Afi-Odelia E. Scruggs, Fall 2009,

https://www.tolerance.org/magazine/fall-2009/colorblindness-the-new-racism


Article: "The Four Horsemen: Defensiveness" by Ellie Lisitsa, May 6th, 2013

https://www.gottman.com/blog/the-four-horsemen-defensiveness/


Facebook Video: "How to become a true ally", by Obioma Ugoala.

https://www.facebook.com/womendefyhate/videos/579963906238472/?v=579963906238472


Podcast: "Brené on Comparative Suffering, the 50/50 myth, and Settling the Ball", by Brene Brown, Ph.D., LMSW; March 27th, 2020

https://brenebrown.com/podcast/brene-on-comparative-suffering-the-50-50-myth-and-settling-the-ball/


Instagram post: "POSTING 'NORMAL' CONTENT (for influencers and non-influencers)", by @earthbyhelena, June 9th, 2020

https://www.instagram.com/p/CBNb--WHRH0/?fbclid=IwAR2kMbn10ypnbEOtGelLQ62Cea3sWj5s-QFLuZLaue3RqQGMHeWtjm2x1t0

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