“I Loved My Grandmother. But She Was A Nazi.” This is the title of this weekend’s excellent op-ed in the New York Times by Jessica Shattuck. She writes, “My grandmother heard what she wanted from a leader who promised simple answers to complicated questions. She chose not to hear and see the monstrous sum those answers added up to. And she lived the rest of her life with the knowledge of her indefensible complicity.”
I live in Germany, where many if not most of my friends and family members could have written that. Here in Berlin, if you call your grandparents’ generation “the greatest”—as so many do back home in the U.S.—you might as well slap a swastika on your chest. Or try to argue that the earth is flat. The Sixties generation in West Germany shared their American counterparts’ love of rock music and peace signs, but their top priority was to expose how many of their professors, teachers, and public officials were former Nazis. If the cost of expunging Nazi thought meant the end of both nationalism and nostalgia, so be it.
While the Sixties movement left a lasting impact on German politics, education, and the media, Germany today could hardly be considered racism-free. Last year, there were 857 attacks on refugee homes perpetrated by right-wing extremists nationwide. Plenty of non-white and non-Christian residents tell of the prejudices they too frequently face. The Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) party has joined the global nationalist movement, calling for a return to the good old days when no one had to hear about celebrating diversity.
But the AfD is considerably less popular than nationalist parties in other countries. With every party in the Bundestag having pledged to never work with it, and with its best national polling numbers peaking at only 12% last fall, it stands no chance of winning the national election in September. The greatest fear is that the once fledgling party will come in third or fourth and garner well over 5% of the vote, which is the minimum required to be granted seats in the Bundestag. Human rights activists are right to believe than any success for the AfD will be a dangerous validation of ideas no citizen should embrace. But British and American nationalists have been far more successful in their respective countries as of late. Is there something anti-nationalist and anti-racist activists could learn from their German counterparts?
No one can say with any accuracy that German society is less racist than others. Proving one country is less racist than another is difficult to the point of nearly being impossible. But it is heartening to see the AfD’s approval ratings nowhere near a majority. I have asked many Germans how they have come to stigmatize nationalism so successfully. Don’t people get touchy? Don’t most people excuse away the Holocaust by arguing that most Germans never saw a concentration camp? Don’t most people tend to understand it from their grandparents’ perspective? One German explained the approach to me as “Verstehen, aber kein Verständnis,” which can be translated as “understand (as in comprehend) but without understanding (as in sympathizing).” One could describe Shattuck’s op-ed piece this way.
Some of this could be linked to a greater willingness in German culture to talk about problems, no matter how unpleasant. While American and British children are often told, “If you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all,” many Germans would consider this evasive to the point of being dishonest. Germans are raised to mean what they say and say what they mean, and are thus likelier to believe that airing dirty laundry is the only path to improvement. Never does one hear, “I was just saying it to be nice.” As Sabine Heinlein wrote earlier this year in the Daily Beast:
It has always struck me as odd how timid most Americans become when asked to object to something, even politely. At the dinner table, I’ve noticed, what Germans call a discussion, Americans call an argument.
I know I am often perceived as harsh because I speak my mind. But I also see how the very thing that makes America great—its people’s quiet acceptance of other beliefs, their overwhelming friendliness, their effort to always get along—now threatens to become its downfall. I loathed having to read my friends’ whiny Facebook posts about how they were dreading Thanksgiving because of the elections. “Boohoo, I have to talk about politics to someone who thinks differently than I do!”
Here, this German said it. Will you still like me? I am asking because I believe what stands in the way is Americans’ compulsive need to be liked. At moments like this, though, we need to learn to object and intervene—whether in public protest or simply around the family dinner table.
Americans do generally prefer to emphasize the positive. We like to think of our ancestors and ourselves as the Good Guys. But while it is true that my grandparents fought on the opposite side of the Nazis, their generation cannot honestly claim to have been innocent of racism. Many U.S. veterans returning from the liberated concentration camps and the Nuremberg Trials understood them as proof of why they had to help end segregation across the United States. Others returned and hurled tomatoes and death threats at 6-year-old Ruby Bridges as she attempted to enter an all-white school. To such white supremacists, World War II was not reason to consider that the Nazis had modeled many of the Nuremberg Laws on Jim Crow. It was proof of America’s inherent superiority.
Some Americans face our long history of racism, some mention it as a footnote in the otherwise Great American Story, and others go so far as to question its relevance. The night Trump was elected president, I was told by one of his white supporters that discussing racism divides the country. Yet race issues have been proven to be a strong motivator among many such voters. More than age, location, religion, economic status, level of education, or party affiliation, the most common factor uniting Trump voters was feeling threatened by the fact that whites are projected to no longer dominate the U.S. population by 2042. Of course not all Trump supporters share these feelings, but they risk repeating the mistakes of Shattuck’s grandmother when they refuse to confront the dangers they pose.
White people in the U.S.—and across the Western World—are taught by their culture that their skin color, ethnicity, and/or religious background is the standard. Consequently, they often envision multiculturalism as merely welcoming some people of color into their everyday reality without altering the centrality of their role in the narrative. Getting them to question this can be hard. Dr. Robin DiAngelo has written extensively about the white fragility she often encounters when teaching anti-racism workshops in the U.S. and how quickly this fragility can unleash obstinacy and outrage. But if white people want racial equality and racial justice—if we want to practice what every democracy on earth preaches in their non-discrimination laws—then white people need to be willing to approach racism from perspectives other than their own. And in order to do that, we have to be willing to engage with ideas that may make us uneasy.
Zadie Smith’s 2016 novel Swing Time is the story of a girl who grows up in a poor end of London with her black Caribbean mother and British white father. Her white friend Lily “solemnly explained to me one day as we played, that she herself was ‘color blind’ and saw only what was in a person’s heart.” But when the biracial girl wants to watch a musical with an all-black cast, Lily refuses: “Why was everybody black? It was unkind, she said to have only black people in a film, it wasn’t fair. Maybe in America you could do that, but not here, in England, where everybody was equal anyway and there was no need to ‘go on about it.’ ”
I could have thought, if not said, something like that at Lily’s age. With slogans like “one race: human,” colorblindness was hailed in classrooms in the 1980s and 90s as both the right goal for society and the right tactic for ending racism. And so I recall feeling concerned when a character on the sitcom Hangin’ with Mr. Cooper talked about being proud of being black, thinking that surely any racial pride was akin to racism. I was disconcerted when Family Matters portrayed Santa Claus as black. My thoughts on the matter shifted as my brain matured to handle more nuanced ideas and I absorbed more detailed arguments from non-white perspectives. This helped me eventually understand how the predominance of white people in mainstream culture in the U.S. had blinded me to the experiences of non-whites, which were far more different from my own than my younger self had assumed. I realized I had never considered how it might feel to grow up with a Santa Claus—and a throng of national icons—who did not share my racial status.
Some white people are reticent to discuss race at all because, like Lily and I, they were taught that any generalizations about any people are just as taboo as inaccurate stereotypes about traditionally marginalized groups. Other white people may be reticent because they are terrified of ending up the butt of the joke in revealing videos or interviews about white myopia. Such wariness is well-known to activist Jay Smooth, who explains:
Anytime we are dealing with race issues, we are dealing with a social construct that was not born out of any science or reason or logic… The race constructs that we grapple with in America were designed specifically by a desire to avoid making sense. They were shaped for centuries by a need to rationalize and justify indefensible acts. So when we grapple with race issues, we are grappling with something that was designed for centuries to circumvent our best interests. It’s a dance partner that’s designed to trip us up.
If we deconstruct all that maintains the unequal distribution of power based on race, white people will find themselves in situations unfamiliar. Anxiety at such a reality should never shut down the conversation, but it too often does. Seventy years after Hitler gave racism a bad name, how many of us are willing to strive for racial justice beyond the boundaries of our comfort zones? How many of us are willing to listen more than we speak? How many of us are willing to endure this as often as necessary? How do we open the minds of those who become instantly defensive in such debates? I was recently asking these questions with friends and then, as if the Internet was listening in, this meme popped up in my feed: