During the anguish of these days, something comes through clearly: it’s not enough to think one is not a racist, one has to be a proactive anti-racist. And that starts with some introspection and reflection.
In this blog post, I’m making public my examination of myself and my privilege, share a little of my background and personal perspective as a white, female, German expat living in America; and I commit to steps I want to take to be an anti-racist and fight discrimination. If I were a Christian, I might call this “my testimony”.
Side note: This is a very difficult post to write. I constantly feel like I’m misstepping between saying too much or too little, between making myself sound worse or better than I am, between writing about what matters and what doesn’t. This might be my first blog post with more than one draft – it’s my third day of working on it. By now I’m so sick of thinking about myself and my POV. But I’m starting to realize that this discomfort and walking the fine line is part of the process.
However, reading my post doesn’t need to be part of your process. So as a reader, please feel free to skip all the way to the end where I talk about what I want to change (Pledge of Priorities and Taking Action) – or skip reading it altogether and start examining your own perspective, privilege, and what you can do to fight racism and other discrimination. I had to get that off my chest, so I can finally finish writing this thing.
To me, it goes without saying that I don’t believe anyone should be discriminated against, not based on race or anything else. I do believe all people are equal. We may not all look or speak the same, share the same culture or have the same abilities – but all people deserve the same dignity and the same opportunities. And nobody should fear the police because of their own skin color. WTF?! All obvious, but I’m saying it here to avoid any misunderstandings.
Also, I don’t condone police violence – or any violence actually. I hate that shit. But a violent and racist police force is especially heinous, since they are the people we should be able to trust to serve and protect all of us.
Obvious to me as well: We all miss out if we don’t have diversity in media, arts, politics, science, and nature – in everything. We’re not all the same – that’s what makes diversity so exciting and beneficial. “The other” shows us a fresh perspective that enriches our experience. But we should all get treated the same and feel invited to participate. Just imagine all movies and shows were made by white men. Oh, wait…
All this I felt certain about in myself. But after the killings of Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery and George Floyd – and the violent actions from police and the violence-inciting president – and the public outrage and protests around this country and beyond – I’m following the call for a more honest examination of myself and my privileges and see what I can do to foster positive change.
White Privilege Check
A lot of my privileges are linked to being white, but also to having grown up in Germany.
I was born in West-Germany, long after the war, into a family of creative, productive, and open-minded people. After receiving an excellent education in Germany and an exchange-year in Florida, I married a white American and was able to attend film school in the US. After my greencard interview, I was told by an official that my “being German” made me a shoo-in. In the years to come, I must have been given so many more opportunities – and been kept safe from so many dangers because of how I look and the chain-reaction of previous opportunities I have had. Too many to list them all here. All of them lead me to be able to live comfortably in a safe neighborhood, able to express myself freely creatively and pursue whatever I want.
I am grateful, and I wish others to have the same chain-reaction of opportunities and the sense of freedom and safety I’ve been privileged to experience. Of course, most of it shouldn’t be a privilege, it should be a right!
Alright, so I checked my white privilege and I confirmed my non-racist and non-violent perspective.
But now what? How can I make a difference for positive, systemic change?
Obviously, protests have been going on across the US and the world throughout late last week and into this week. But there’s got to be more, something longer lasting I can do…
The Spark: Black Birders Week and Happier-Making Nature
In case you didn’t know: I like birds.
It’s kind of a new thing since moving to Florida. After first trading in the urban excitement of Brooklyn and Berlin for the invigorating landscapes of Colorado, I now traded those vistas for uplifting bird watching and photography. Pun intended, I’m German after all.
As you can imagine, what happened to the black birder Christian Cooper in Central Park and the subsequent Black Birders Week got my attention. It resonated even more strongly because 2 1/2 years ago, Scott and I launched Happier Place.
The Happier Place mission is to help people get happier by having fun outdoors, cherishing nature, and being present and kind. It’s mostly digital content with a line of practical outdoor products to finance the motivational, educational and outdoorsy photos, videos and articles I create and curate.
It grew out of a personal need to learn to be happier and find healing, and wanting to use my creative skills and our outdoor-fun expertise to share what could make other people happier as well. My motivation is mostly fueled by the idea that helping people connect to the outdoors and be happier might be the thing I can do against violence and hatred in the world. It was in the works for a while, but Trump getting elected was the trigger to make it happen. I claimed all the social media spaces the day after the election. I wanted to be part of positive change.
Working on Happier Place, I became aware of an under-representation of diversity in the outdoors. Big outdoor brands and organizations give you the impression that people enjoying the outdoors are mostly white. And on the trails of Colorado that’s also what you mostly find. That’s when I understood that it’s important to encourage more diversity in the outdoors by showing more diversity, especially here in the USA.
While our website is mostly about destinations, recipes, and tips about outdoors and being happier, I made some attempts to get more diversity on our website in people profiles and as Happier Ambassadors. While we’ve been able to show some diversity, we have yet to feature a black person, or people with a disability.
A little aside: One of our strategies for individual and personal positive change is to promote certain slogans, one of which is “Be Brave. Be Kind. Be Happier.” In the article We Dare to Dare You: Be Kind. Be Brave. Be Happier. I wrote about how being open-minded and kind towards others may be an important step to a happier, more fair and less violent world.
Then I learned about BlackAFinSTEM, their #BlackBirdersWeek and their #BlackInNature awareness campaign – and also connected it to Ahmaud Arbery getting killed while he was in his “Happier Place” of jogging outdoors.
Under-representation and people missing out on the benefits of being in nature is one thing – but blatant racism, discrimination, making people feel unsafe and even hurting and killing them… THAT is a whole other thing.
Especially because I believe being in nature makes people happier and healthier, the fact that black people might be scared to go outside to watch birds, hike, bike, or jog – because of racial profiling and the fear of getting hurt or even killed – is so outrageous and heartbreaking that I NEED to do whatever I can to help change that.
This was the spark that pushed me to get SERIOUS about self-reflection as a person and for my brand – and pledge to proactively fight against racism and discrimination and do whatever Happier Place and I can to help make all people feel WELCOME and SAFE in nature.
Looking Deeper and Facing Discomfort
So as a next step I asked myself: then why didn’t I manage to get more people of color on our website.
- I didn’t have many outdoorsy POC friends to ask.
- Embarrassment and shyness kept me from asking friends for recommendations and from reaching out to strangers directly.
- That’s because I’m a bit shy about such things in general
- … and because I felt embarrassed to admit that I didn’t have more friends of color
- … and I feared to seem opportunistic or disingenuous.
- There are always so many more things to do, and I’m pretty much doing everything myself, and I’m behind on most of them.
Talking to some people about this, I heard: it’s not your fault you don’t have more POC friends, and this isn’t your battle to fight, Happier Place has other priorities, etc.
Instead of focusing on assigning blame or making excuses, I think it’s helpful to go even deeper in figuring out reasons and my perspective. Because I do want to fight this battle and help bring the positive change I want to see! I want to make fighting against racism and for diversity via my Happier Place platform one of our priorities.
My Background – This Is Barely an Explanation, and It’s Definitely Not an Excuse.
First of all, being German made me think that I had a different cross to bear. Because, you know, Nazis and mass genocide, not Jim Crow Laws, are my peoples’ history to overcome and make up for.
Therefore, my personal awareness has been focused more on my Jewish and gay friends. Not because I consciously feel I need to make reparations, but because I’m aware that in my country, during my grandparents’ time, they would have been murdered for who they are. I’m also more aware of people with disabilities and mental illness and of “unusual” self-expression – all different aspects, I know. But all aspects that could have gotten you killed in Germany in that era. Many of us still feel like we must carry (some) accountability for that.
Because my generation was raised by the children of the Nazi generation, our education and upbringing were heavily focused on truth-telling, accountability, questioning leaders, and voicing our opinions, however critical they are. This may explain why some think: Germans are simply rude. Of course, it may also be the background to why some Germans get accused of overcompensating on some of these issues.
Personally, I believe this connects to my (and many other Germans) discomfort with displaying our nation’s flag, befriending other Germans while living overseas, being counted or tracked, participating in group chants or clapping.
And of course, then there are the facts of actual personal exposure and experience.
Growing up in a German village outside Hamburg in the 1970s and 80s, there weren’t black people around. There was one Turkish kid in my elementary school class, but no people of color in my high school class. Outside of school, there was only Amir, a refugee from Iran who also liked The Cure.
Living in the suburbs of Orlando, Florida, for my junior year of high school, did open my eyes to many things. There were black kids in my classes and marching band – but not much overlap after school. I sat at the “weirdos” lunch table and went clubbing at Visage. That’s where I saw punks dance to Depeche Mode, which taught me that in different cultures, different rules apply – because back then no German punk would ever dance to that pop music.
After returning from a year in the USA, I was more aware of the Africans arriving in Germany, but they seemed completely different from African Americans – in dress, language, and interests. At the Ice Cube and Body Count shows in Hamburg in the 90s, the kids jumping around me were mostly white. I’m including this bit also to illustrate that in Germany, it was natural to be white and go to a hip-hop, blues, or reggae shows – while in the US around the same time, it felt like those events might not be where white people go. I haven’t thought about that in a long time.
After finishing school in Germany, I went to film school in Florida and lived in Brooklyn. At my film school, black people were even more underrepresented than women!
Living in Brooklyn for over a decade, I finally got to experience a diverse mix of people – in my neighborhood, on the subway, at work… but actually not that much in my circle of friends. It’s something I noted but not pursued in any way. It felt kind of natural since most of my American friends also didn’t seem to have many black friends. “I guess they just like different music and different bars.” Just to be clear: I’m not saying there were no people of color in my circle of friends – just not many.
This is where my bells go off today. It may have been common for us to not have many friends of color back then. But I don’t want that to be normal or common anymore! I want to do more outreach beyond my circle of people and start connecting with a more diverse crowd. I don’t know if or where I will be welcome. But I should find out.
I detect a theme of “taste in music” being a divider or a uniter of people. I’m thinking “being in nature” could and should be a uniter…
Next I moved to Berlin for a few years – where I embraced my identity as an EX-expat (extremely enlightening) and where my circle of friends was very international, and you constantly heard foreign languages around you.
For the following few years, I found myself living in Ft. Collins, Colorado, a place even more white than Germany. Really, pretty much exclusively white. I never felt totally comfortable in that town and instead learned to fully embrace the great outdoors.
Now living on the Gulf Coast in Florida, it’s different yet again because where we are currently based feels like a temporary mix of mostly tourists and retirees – but we do get to see more diversity again, and we can walk to the beach.
Because I work from home and spend most of my free time roaming the outdoors with my husband, dog, and camera – I have hardly made any new friends IRL – and become increasingly more reclusive. I was already working against that when the pandemic halted those efforts.
Side Note: There are many reasons why I still miss living in Brooklyn. It’s where I’ve felt most at home. Maybe because it’s the one place where everyone can see themselves reflected in someone else in the diverse population. Maybe because it’s the one place I lived that felt raw, honest, and real – where you get to see all the pretty and ugly and nice and mean. That feels right to me. Maybe it soothed me to live among all the diversity because it makes up for the racism and fascism of my country’s history?
Now, I finally realized that I’ve been hiding behind this veil of being German – and the excuse “I can’t vote/protest because I’m not a citizen”. I live in America now. The problems of this country are my problems. And I can’t just stand by.
Facing Some Anxieties
As mentioned above, I’ve felt uncomfortable about some outreach. I’m a bit nervous about rejection, ridicule, or somehow offending those I reach out to. The personal stuff of feeling embarrassed or shy I just need to overcome by being brave. And I need to keep listening to make sure I’m on the right path and am expressing myself well.
Now I want to specifically point out an anxiety I have around reaching out to black people right now on behalf of Happier Place – even though it’s coming from a good place. It’s the fear of being seen as an opportunist. As a German of a certain upbringing the word opportunist evokes in me the ugliness of a war profiteer.
All I can do is keep that anxiety in check and reach out to people and organizations anyway – even if they may judge me unkindly. The mission is more important. Also, I know this won’t actually bring any monetary profits – so it can’t be “profiteering” in that sense. And I don’t think there’s anything wrong with feeling the other kind of profit: the reward of doing something that makes the world a better or at least a happier place for other humans.
And even if someone thinks that a brand, organization, or celebrity is just “jumping on the bandwagon” of Black Lives Matter to get attention or not get in trouble, what really matters is what happens in the days, weeks, and years after. Will they continue to fight against discrimination and police violence, and for equality and justice?
I know I don’t just want to “just jump on a bandwagon.” I want promoting and amplifying diversity and especially black people in the outdoors to be an official part of the Happier Place long-term mission.
Pledge of Priorities and Taking Action
This blog post is ridiculously long – and I still have so much more to say that now I’m not going to include anymore. Instead here is just my list of what I want to do and make more of a priority in my life and creative work:
- Fight racism, promote diversity, and amplify underrepresented voices in “the great outdoors” via Happier Place.
- More personal outreach and engagement.
- Research possible topics and partners for my next documentary film.
- Pursue dual citizenship so I can vote and protest in the US.
- Continue to look for ways I can listen, engage, and create meaningful change.
There will be a post about this with an official pledge on the Happier Place website. I just wanted to write this lengthy personal piece first to clear my head to write something more concise and appropriate over there.
Added 6/6/20: By now I published a blog post on the Happier Place website: Nature Features All The Colors… But Does It? Well, It Should!
This was just the first small step. I’m nervous about failing but I’m excited about trying!
Thank you to the BlackAFinSTEM group for bringing attention to the situation of “being black in nature” – to all the people fighting against racism and for equality and diversity – to those protesting on the streets against racism and police brutality – and to those who engage in dialogue with me.
A few resource lists I’ve seen go around that I want to examine further myself and thought could be helpful for you, too. Please add resources in the comment section.
Anti-Racism Resources for all ages
Anti-racism resources for white people
ANGUISH AND ACTION – list of resources from the Obama Foundation and Brother’s Keeper
Post-Script About the Timing
All of this protesting and self-examination may be coming in a time when we’ve been feeling so helpless against covid-19 that we just want to “do something” “against something” to express our pent-up energy and anger – and while we lack the usual “bread & games” distractions of sports and other entertainment, and the abundance of food and luxury goods. Also, lots of people are out of school and unemployed right now.
Fine, then let’s use this extra time, pent-up energy and need for action to bring the social change we’ve been needing so we can live in a world where we celebrate diversity – and where all people are treated equally by the law, by institutions, and by the people.
I’m interested in a dialogue about these topics and other people’s perspectives and experiences.
How are you doing during this time – either in the USA or in another country? Have the recent events triggered a fresh look at yourself and your community? Are you taking any steps to fight racism or other forms of discrimination? What other thoughts or questions do you have to add? Do you have any tips?
Since I’m not an expert on everything I wrote about, I’m interested in any feedback if I got something wrong or could express differently. I want to learn what I can do better – so let me know.