why i don't divide the world into black & white
I grew up in Germany, living there from the age of 3 to 11.
It was the 1960s. Twenty years after the Second World War ended.
We all know the horrific genocide that occurred at the hands of the Hitler regime.
And, if I think about it now, all of my neighbours - all of them German families - would, of course, have had a direct connection with that regime.
But as a child, I was blissfully ignorant of that fact.
I knew all my neighbours and the kids on my street as good, kind people. The kids were my friends and play-mates.
Attending a progressive international school, with other children of all colours, religions and nationalities, I was also blissfully ignorant of race.
I did not distinguish between my friends according to their colour. I did not see it.
I never heard it mentioned, either in public or behind closed doors.
I never witnessed anyone being treated differently based on their colour, race or religion.
And it was normal and natural for me to have friends, who spoke different languages and ate different foods.
One of my favourite girlfriends was Persian. The first boy I kissed and had a school-girl crush on was Nigerian.
Did I, as a child, differentiate between children and do mean things sometimes? Yes! But it had nothing to do with colour. Since that had not been introduced to me, nor did it occur to me, as a way to differentiate between people.
When we came back to live in the UK, other white children in my class did the frog-march and Hitler salute to me, because I had lived in Germany.
I discovered there was an ingrained dislike of and racism towards Germans in the UK, because of the war.
These children, brainwashed by their parents, condemmed me as guilty of... what I'm not exactly sure of... by association.
Of course, this is ridiculous.
Coming back to a suburban area in the UK from that more international background, I found perspectives on life and identity to be far more narrow than I was used to.
I noticed that people identified with their nationality and held prejudiced views about what was foreign to them. I did not feel the same.
I was made to stand alongside everybody else and sing the National Anthem on a school outing to a public event once. I did not understand why. I did not want to. I had no allegiance to this Queen or country. I simply happened to be living here now.
I married a German and worked internationally. After that I moved to London and completed a Masters in Social Anthropology at the School of Oriental and African Studies.
Studying there was like coming home. Every creed, colour, race, religion, language together. Questioning. Exploring. This felt natural to me. A place where my sense of otherness fit in and my innate capacity to be both comfortable with and curious about cultural and social differences was a strength.
I learned things there that opened my eyes to colonialism, gender, power dynamics, ideology, politics, media manipulation. I focussed my studies on the intersection between gender, the media & war. I got a Distinction.
Having grown up bilingual, then studied German, Russian, Italian & French, I now learned Burmese, so as to conduct my PhD fieldwork in Burma & Thailand. Speaking these languages, living and travelling in these countries & more, I understood that you can't learn another language without also learning about another culture. And language and cultural sensitivity are key to communication and connection with "others".
At a graduate course on Peace Research in Norway, I was the only Brit amongst a cohort of students from war and conflict zones around the world.
I noticed how the groups there arranged themselves in tribes of colour and nationality at meal-times. This felt unnatural to me. I sat somewhere different every day. My best friends were Cuban, Korean, Australian and Ugandan.
Living together for a month, having to work and study together for a month, I witnessed the deep pain and ingrained hatred amongst opposing racial, ethnic or religious groups. Jews and Palestinians, Croatians, Serbs and Bosnians, Basque and Catalan etc.
As you know, untold violence, atrocities and killing have been experienced by all these peoples.
This deepened my belief, that it is only when we can recognise and experience the humanity of "the other", that conflict can end.
Arguing about right and wrong, saying who did what, projecting blame. Citing ethical doctrine. It doesn't end the violence.
Cooking meals together, dancing together, laughing together, having to write essays and make presentations together - that was the healing.
And when you see another as human - just like you - you are more disposed to hear them. And more likely to express remorse.
Only then, can there be a chance for peace talks. Because both sides are listening.
I went to live in the US for 6 years. Charlottesville, VA as it happens. Coming from London, I was shocked at the overt racism and segregation. And I experienced for the first time a distinctly hostile energy coming at me for my whiteness.
I didn't take it personally. How could it be? But it gave me an insight into the distinct nature of racism in the US. It's different there.