About apologies…

The development policy scene in Germany has increasingly been dealing with racism in the last ten years. In these processes, collaboration between white organizations and People of Color and immigrant-diasporic organizations often plays an important role. In this, often only selective cooperation, there have been major and minor reproductions of racism again and again in recent years. Most incidents and conflicts do not reach the public and unfortunately often fade away unresolved in the everyday life of the (mostly white-owned) organizations.

One case that made bigger waves was the termination of the project “move global/glocal” by the One World Network (EWNW) in Hamburg in 2010/2011 with the winding up of the team (2010) and the subsequent termination of the project manager (2011). The AG Sporen Lobal (Note June 2016: The blog of the AG Sporen Lobal is now offline. The documentation continues on the site of MEPa North) created the greatest possible transparency about the further handling of the conflict within the EWNW via her blog, showed that the case had not been forgotten and exerted pressure on the association not to let more grass grow over the matter. See also our article from 2013.

In June 2015, after several years of silence, EWNW has now published an apology statement on its website. Unfortunately, the EWNW did not use the opportunity to show what an apology critical of racism could look like. Instead, the apology was supplemented with sentences such as “After studying the files, we have the impression that none and none of those involved at the time went through this project free of errors.” and thus simultaneously weakened and relativized again. AG Sporen Lobal comments as follows: “So the board statement is finally here: a we-all-make-it-fail statement.” That is true, but some of these “us” are sitting in power, and others are being kicked out. The power thing here leaves no room for a generalized “we.” Especially not when some are White-German and others are People of Color.”

The apology statement concludes with the wish: “We would like to continue and expand the dialogue and hope to enter into a joint reappraisal also with those who have rejected dialogue with us in recent months.” The desire for reappraisal is certainly shared by all involved. But the accusation that the addressees of the apology were not ready for dialogue may be read as cynical after the years of their own silence. Because many white organizations have the defining power over the conflict in the public sphere in similar cases, they often succeed in portraying themselves as willing to talk without stating the actual reasons for a lack of conversation, whether it be a pending apology as in this case or their own refusals to talk or threats of legal consequences as in other cases. The term “dialogue” often used in this context sounds promising at first glance, but it obscures the actual power relations and possibilities for action. So-called dialogues do not take place at eye level, but under the same, often even intensified relations of domination as the original reproduction of racism.

However, attributing (co-)blame for the discriminatory act as well as its lack of reappraisal to the people to whom apologies are made is not new, but is known as the “blaming the victim” strategy. Chescaleigh describes on youtube in her clip “Getting Called Out: How to Apologize” how defense mechanisms and rhetorical phrases (e.g. “if” or “but” subordinate clauses) can be used to relativize one’s own responsibility for discrimination. But it also describes how responsibility could be taken and how to apologize adequately: to apologize credibly and to promise to do everything to make sure it doesn’t happen again. Without ifs or buts.

We also know from our own experience that such processes are not easy and that it is the rule rather than the exception that they do not proceed without conflict. For the current case in Hamburg, we hope that the long-awaited apology, despite the dismissive messages it contains, will clear the way for a joint, racism-sensitive reappraisal and mediation process.