At the start of this Formula 1 season, the Mercedes team decided to paint their cars in black to express solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement. After decades of racing as the “Silver Arrows”, this decision caused quite some discussion within the Formula 1 community but also beyond it. “But why is this necessary? They have always raced in silver!” The discussion became even hotter when Lewis Hamilton and other drivers knelt down before the first Grand Prix of the season as a tribute to George Floyd and the Black Lives Matter Movement. “They are race car drivers. What’s the point?”
Plain and simple: There is a point! And the point is sending a signal and starting a long overdue discussion. It seems like a small and “pointless” thing – painting a car in another colour or kneeling down. But as you see from the media attention, it did trigger something. It triggered a lot of controversy and sometimes controversy is exactly what we need.
As a white woman I sometimes feel awkward to write about racism. Since the start of Black Lives Matter I have thought a lot about whether I should be more vocal about it on this website. I am very vocal about it in “real life” but online, I always think about what my words could trigger. It may sound silly but I was worried about a backlash. People who do not know me could misunderstand the “white privileged woman who has no idea”. But those who also know bits of my personal life know that I do have an idea. (You can read more in Postcard #23 and Postcard #12.) I do not think that we need any kind of “authorization” to speak about topics such as racism. Still, I felt my views could be misunderstood. Furthermore, I have been writing about this topic and shared on my Instagram for a long time and I did not want to just ride on the wave of what trended on social media. I want my words to be more than just a hashtag.
Since the start of Black Lives Matter, I have had many discussions and now I think it is time that I share something on this site as well. For a simple reason: I repeatedly hear that “racism is not a thing here” (insert the country of the conversation partner), “that actions like the one by the Mercedes team one are pointless” and that “all of this is exaggerated and only scratches at the surfaces but doesn’t solve the root cause of the problem”.
My partner always makes a joke he stole from comedian Aziz Ansari: “Austria does not have any racism because the country is white.” First of all, we do have racism here too. I actually do not think there is any country in the world where racism does not exist. The way it is expressed and the groups which are suffering from it may differ, but the problem is essentially the same.
What my partner is referring to is that compared to other countries, Austria’s population is less multicultural. Since I left university, I see that Austria, the bigger cities in particular, has become more diverse and international. When I was a student, most of my colleagues at university were Austrians – and white. The “foreigners” were second generation immigrants from former Yugoslavia, the former Eastern Block or Turkey. I guess this was also due to the fact that most study programmes were only taught in German posing a barrier to anyone who did not have strong ties to the German speaking countries. I did not hear much English when I walked through the city and most of the people I saw were white. Today this has changed. But still, we are far away from being as multicultural as London, Paris or New York.
Over the past weeks I have heard that “we do not have racism in Austria”, and that it is “by far not as bad as in the US”. Well, I am sorry if I have to break the news to you: If you are white and Austrian (and speak with an Austrian accent), you probably think there is no racism because you have not encountered it. Due to my partner’s background, I have seen daily life through a different lens. When I am stopped by the police I wonder how they would interact with him. Would they be as nice when they checked his ID?
Systemic racism (just as systemic sexism) is, unfortunately, also part of daily life in Austria. For example, if job advertisements are only published in German, how are companies ensuring they do not discriminate against foreigners? Apart from excluding those who dare to apply from outside of the EU, the language of the job advertisements actually is an issue I would like to discuss with EU law experts: By EU law, we have to treat EU-citizens the way we treat Austrians. But if our job descriptions are only in German, we automatically exclude all non-German speakers. Is this not a discriminatory action? (Any lawyers can email me with their thoughts 😉 )
Anyways, at first when I heard that “we don’t have racism here”, I tried to make objective arguments, referred to studies or told stories from my personal experiences with my partner. But I realized that unless it touches my counterpart’s life directly, it is hard to understand. I got the typical answers which I have mentioned above – that “these actions would only scratch at the surface, they do not change the root cause of the problem”. Hence, I came up with a different strategy.
When questions like “What’s the point?” come up, I put it into context. I recently had a discussion with a feminist and I said that actions like the one of the F1 are similar to things feminists had to fight for. A few years ago, we had a public debate about our national anthem. It was changed to “You are the home of great daughters and sons” (from the previously “You are the home of great sons”). Today it feels awkward to read the former line excluding the efforts of women.
Why did we fight to include the daughters into the anthem? What was our point? Men may have said it was pointless to fight for such an “insignificant” change but we fought for it. Because there WAS A POINT. The point was that a young girl should not have to sing that only boys can achieve great things in this country. And the public discussion then led to the people asking further questions: “Why are there not more female leaders?”, “What is the problem in our system?”, “How can we change it?” I do agree that we have to address the root causes of the problems. But very often, we have to start scratching at the surface to be able to dig down to the roots we need to change.
It is quite easy to dismiss certain actions as pointless or insignificant. They may seem “pointless” if you are not directly affected. But to some people, a seemingly pointless action may mean a lot. It may point out problems we have in our society and it may lead to change. And if it is really that “insignificant”, it will not hurt you to change it, right?