“ … it all begins with self-respect”
An Interview with Austen Brandt
Austen P. Brandt (born in 1952) grew up in Essen and now lives and works as an evangelical minister in Duisburg-Walsum. He has German, British, and Nigerian citizenship. He founded the association Phoenix e.V. – for a Culture of Understanding in 1993 and leads antiracism and Black awareness trainings. Activities in various organizations and groups, including SHEBA, ISD (an initiative of Black people in Germany), AKTIONCOURAGE, the Yves Sayongo Scholarship Fund, and the Intercultural Council, and additional trainings and contacts in Europe, Asia, and Africa are part of his work.
What in your opinion is the most common misconception about racism?
The most common misconception about racism is to consider racism a problem of the fringes of society, of societal extremes – for example a problem of rightist extremists or ultraconservatives. In that a society thinks that way, it projects its own patterns of thought and attitude indirectly onto a group that is irrelevant in the societal spectrum. But I think that rightist extremist racism can exist only because of the everyday racism existing unprocessed in mainstream society. And it is hard to encounter this level, since racism is an ostracized term. Having racist feelings is identified with being bad, and I think these two poles should be separated. There exists a complexity of different emotional and mental approaches that are in part contradictory. Antiracist work therefore can be to achieve clarity in these different emotional and behavioral approaches and to truly empower people with this: the way you are has nothing to do with “good” or “bad.” But you can achieve maturity in observing the way you are, and to possibly draw consequences from this.
How do you know whether you are “infected” in a racist way?
I think that is the societal norm.
Wouldn’t it be a logical first step for whites to say aloud “I don’t want racism,” and to avow that?
I don’t think much of avowing. I believe it’s not about what I say. As long as I as a male say that I don’t want to be a sexist, I’ve actually lost. I think that I, as a man, have to accept that I am molded in a sexist way and that this is probably going to remain for many years. But I can try to discover the sexist structures in myself and to work on emotional behavioral patterns that make these influences conscious and that minimize them. And I think that’s what it’s about. Avowing can always be in the form of a strong compulsion. And that’s where I myself am very careful.
What can antiracism training optimally bring about?
It can bring about quite a lot. It can cause a person to change within his or her own personal environment. It can mean consequences on a professional level, that one reacts to antiracist actions with a different ability for reflection and with better vision. Taking part in antiracism training does not automatically mean that someone is going to become engaged. If an antiracism training brings people – a woman, a man – closer to their own self, completely new discoveries can suddenly come about.
Why are so many white people scared of information on racism?
Because it hits them at a place of vulnerability. I believe that exactly the racist socialization that happens at an age where a child cannot defend himself influences the personality on a very deep level. At the moment of opening up to what racism is as an adult, it is precisely this level of my personality that is targeted and made alive. And that is a place of my personality where I subconsciously don’t want to go.
s trying to eliminate racism maybe such an overwhelming task that it can never be achieved anyway – and therefore a waste of energy?
I don’t think it is more overwhelming than what Al Gore is trying to do at the moment. And whether racism will be over before the climate catastrophe comes about, or the other way around, is hard to predict right now. But I believe that precisely the freedom to act is very, very important; the feeling: I act this way because it is good, because it feels good to me, because it frees me. And if I have this feeling in the present, I don’t so much ask “What is it good for?”
If Nelson Mandela had asked “What is my commitment good for?” in the thirties, I think he might have become a florist.
What can we do to have less racism in Germany in twenty years?
We can support personal and societal impulses that talking about racism is not made taboo, and that white people are encouraged to discover racist parts in themselves. It is important for them not to become defensive when starting this process, but to get into a mentality that awakes their resources. It is important to create encounters of those who have an ability to communicate, in order that centers of vitality can develop out of the cooperation of different societal characters.
What would be the one thing you would have to change, if it was easier to do?
I think it begins with self-respect. I think it is related to the ability to discover myself with my strengths and shadow sides. Yes, and to establish relationships, relationships with people of various backgrounds.
Abridged Interview Excerpt, in full length in
Noah Sow: Deutschland Black & White