- Jane Hilgert
Turns out: I am a racist, too – In Remembrance of George Floyd
The killing of George Floyd, 46, of St. Louis Park — who repeatedly told a Minneapolis police officer he couldn’t breathe as the officer knelt on his neck on May 25, 2020 — sparked days of unrest in Minneapolis and St. Paul and mass protests across the globe over the treatment of Black people by police. – Minnesota Public Radio
It appears inherent to human nature to me that all our reactions are knee-jerk instincts based on our formed values and belief system. These reactions can be as simple as scrunching up your face in disgust at your least favorite food as a child. In later years, you may still dislike the taste of said food, but you have learned to appreciate the variety of palates and that your dislike for something does not equate to the universal unfavorability of cooking with it. Your child-self thinks that this food is disgusting; however, as you grow older, you understand that you cannot infer aversion from yourself to others.
Growing up as half Filipina in a primarily caucasian elementary and high school in Germany led to many comments about the pigmentation of my skin that I still actively need to unlearn. During my adolescence, I assumed that I paid no attention to these racially charged one liners thrown my way from students, teachers, and family alike. Sure, I was visually different from the other kids, but that was not something that I saw as an impairment; I was proud to grow up between continents and cultures, and I was happy I got an extra month off of school to go to my second home every other year.
And yet, I have been avoiding the sun; the older I got, the more so it seems – my skin currently is the lightest it has ever been. Why?
Growing up, especially when in the Philippines, I saw my mom and my other Filipino family members avoid direct sun exposure. They wished to remain as light-skinned as possible. My mother and I share the same nickname amongst family and friends there; they call us "puti" – the Tagalog word for white. But upon returning to Germany, everyone would comment on how brown my skin was. My German grandparents referred to me as their "pearl of the South," my elementary school teacher told me that she is jealous that she will never achieve my level of tan. The other kids made racial jokes about me, spanning their geographical inaccuracies from Guatemala to China. It did not matter where I came from; the fact remained, my skin was different from theirs.
Whereas I never hid the fact that I was biracial, and how could I with the evidence so clear in your – or rather my – face, I subconsciously avoided unnecessary exposure to the sun. As I grew older, my plans would move into the evening, and during the day, I was either in my room using homework as an excuse or would sit on the patio with the sunblind drawn. I never vocalized why – I genuinely do not think that I was even aware of the motivation of my decision-making process. That was up until two months ago, when I helped out friends on a university assignment on the topic of migration and self-identity for which they interviewed me.
The self-realization hit me in the face like a ton of bricks: I had actively chosen to refrain from potentially darkening my skin to avoid further alienation not only from peers but from family.
This behavior that I had never given a second thought to for most of my life suddenly gave me an insight into the magnitude of my internalized racism. I assumed actively calling out family members and friends for questionable takes on racist issues was enough, but no, I myself was part of the problem. Already during the new heights of the Black Lives Matter movement following George Floyd's murder in Summer 2020, I had to unpack a lot of hard truths around my belief system, but this was taking it to a whole new level. No longer was the question of how I may have been implicit in racism throughout my entire life, especially against African Americans during my year-long stay in Minnesota, but now the foundation of my very own identity was collapsing onto itself. How can someone speak on social justice issues, especially discrimination based on skin pigmentation, when they had ensured to be the whitest they could be from the moment they could walk?
Now, as this discovery about my belief system and the underlying thoughts reflected in my behavior have become apparent, I am learning to negate any thoughts and actively expose myself – literally and figuratively. I am forced to look back on years of being complicit with racism, for fear of being “othered” more than I already was.
Whereas I only spent a fraction of my life actually in Minnesota, the murder of George Floyd became so much more tangible to me because of where it took place. The twin cities are just a thirty minute drive from my American hometown and even if I was aware of the institutionalized racism as showcased by police brutality against BIPOC, I always assumed that it would not happen in my home. But isn’t that always the case? In a neverending news cycle of bad news, of natural catastrophies and terrorist attacks, of destruction and violence, you always assume that somehow, magically, what you consider to be you and yours is safe. And you assume that because you see the racism, you learn about its roots and call it out, you cannot be racist yourself – until you realize you are.
So for today, in remembrance of the unjustly murdered George Floyd, I encourage you to look inward. Do not only critique the vast nature of systemic racism or colorism itself but confront biases that have informed your very own existence. Recognizing and consequently actively unlearning internalized racism is a daunting endeavor as it forces you to acknowledge some difficult truths about yourself and the environment you grew up in. In the words of Angela Davis: “In a racist society, it is not enough to be non-racist, we must be anti-racist” and, how could we do that, if not by starting with ourselves, no matter how hard this may be?