Critical Whiteness and the No Border Camp


After the No Border Camp Cologne 2012.

Criticism of anti–emancipatory debates about Critical Whiteness and Power of Definition

As some of you have probably already heard, there were sweeping conflicts among the participants of this year‘s No Border Camp in Cologne. These conflicts have partly had a history in the process of preparation, during which radical criticism of white [1] dominance within the internal structures had already grown increasingly strong six weeks before the camp. At that point the criticism met with resistance. Some mainly white groups and individuals announced their absence on the camp or resigned from tasks in order to protest against form and content of this criticism.


Furthermore a text the responsible Choreo-AG had sent to people offering workshops on the camp was vetoed. The text made the internal debate about the contradictions, difficulties and possibilities of whites commitment against racism transparent and appealed for them to reflect upon their social positioning while speaking about racism. After that veto the text wasn't sent out anymore.


On the camp the conflict escalated, When a radical overall criticism had been articulated on the opening plenum of the critical whiteness workshop day on monday, a white activist was heckling and interjecting aggressively. Especially we non-white co-authors of this text perceived the atmosphere as tense and irritable from that moment on.


Aside from those tensions there were several cases of racist trespassing of boundaries during the camp. Some of those incidents occured in a workshop titled 'resistance against sexist and racist discrimination' offered by the migrant women organization 'Agisra' where mainly white activists were present. Instead of holding the workshop again in the same way as planned and taking the risk that the racist and heterosexist violence that took place reoccurs the people discriminated against and their supporters, made an offer for a collective way to deal with the racist violence that took place on the camp. In two statements they spoke about their experiences during the first workshop. They emphasized that it wasn't about making 'Agisra' responsible for what had happened. Instead they directed their criticism against the structures of white dominance on the camp, which made it possible in the first place that whites were able to speak and act racist whithout consequences for them and that the openly articulated criticism of those negatively affected could be completely ignored. Thereupon they proposed a collective discussion about what the whole camp could do in order to prevent racist violence from happening again in the same way. Before the discussion began, a conflict between one of the people giving those statements and a member of 'Agisra' that could be dealt with constructively in a break taken for that purpose. Although the people involved were able to carry out the conflict among themselves there was baiting and cheap propaganda against the people who had suffered from racist violence during the first workshop and against their supporters. During the break a lot of more interested people joined in and the new formation of the plenum created a very different, more agressive atmosphere. Also after the break the discussion could not be started because the plenum couldn't agree on a frame of discussion the people who were harmed wished for. The proposed exchange about a common strategy against racist violence and white dominance on the camp was made impossible by an agressive debate that centered on the stop-sign (a handsign, the preparation group had agreed on and that allows people negatively affected to interupt a discriminating speech in case of racist or sexist trespassing of boundaries The participants of the camp were not able to find a collective, responsible and partial[2] way to deal with the incidents of racist violence – neither within the discussion that was offered nor afterwards. On the sideline of this (would-be) discussion, another case of racist discrimination took place. After the thereby harmed person left the camp on Friday, several structure providing groups (info tent, awareness-group, parts of the press group, parts of the translation group as well as temprorary the kitchen team) followed that persons call for a strike made in a public statement. That would be a short abstract of the events on the camp from our perspective.

Subsequently the events on the camp a debate runs rampant in the left scene which is primarily about the 'correct' interpretation of the concepts 'critical whiteness' and 'power of definition'. Another central point in this debate is the question in what way it is legitmate for people who are negatively affected by racist structures and racist actions to articulate their criticism of that. What we see here is nothing less than a struggle for predominance over emancipatory concepts and practices such as critical whiteness and power of definition.

We consider a critical contribution to the current debate as politically inevitable.

We hope that we can redirect this debate in order to focus on questions that rise out of a criticism of structures of white dominance within the movement. A contentful collective examination of this criticism has not been had yet. The radical criticism of white dominance within the anti-racist/counter racist scene provides a chance for change that the left movement mustn't miss. In entrenching the debate on the questions listed above we see an (un)conscious defense against and a boycott of this necessary process. A radical criticism of white dominance and inadequately reflected privileges may stand against the 'anti-racist' self-concept of white activists and cause insecurities. These insecurities should of course be taken seriously and have their space to be articulated. They are in fact an important and positive starting point for processes of reflection and un-learning white dominance. It goes without saying that there is also the need for the insight that those white insecurities can't be talked about in every situation with every person. This could lead to moving the focus away from the interests of people negatively affected by racism and express a new white self centricity.


The reactions to the criticism of racist structures and racist action during the preparation of the camp itself and the debates afterwards can in no way be justified by these white insecurities. We consider the current discussions to be extremely problematic in central aspects:

Almost immediately people were 'found' responsible in the debate (quotation: 'a certain Berlin group'). The responibility for the failure of the camp was shifted on to those who were harmed by racist behavior and dared to critizes that. Moreover there is a permanent scandalization and dramatization of the criticism of white dominance. People were talking about assumed 'bans on speaking' or even 'anti-white racism'. This makes a contentful examination of this criticism impossible.

Besides, the statements up to now are full of gaps that make it easy not to take the core of criticism serious. In the recently published article about the camp in the 'Jungle World'[3] for example the various racist incidents aren't even mentioned.

Gaps like this led to a very one-sided presentment of the conflict to the outside.

This prevents a racism critical reflection of the events, a necessary scene internal (self-)criticism and by that also the destruction of racist structures within the scene.

In that sense we understand this statement first and foremost as a call for white activists in the anti-racist/counter racist movement to start or intensify a serious process of relecting whiteness and white dominance. We want to comment on some as we see it problematic points here.


A Question of Solidarity

From the beginning of the preparations for the Camp, Critical whiteness and white dominance within the antiracist/counter racist activism scene were issues of consideration.

The importance of thinking about these issues was explicitly consensual during preparations, a common deliberation however was lacking. The issue was outsourced to a working group, whose points of debate were recessed several times to the next convention.The verbalized openness to the issue of Critical whiteness did not show any consequences. This resulted in, for example, the absence of structures of awareness and support, where people harmed by racism would find support by non-white supporters. Also, far too little capacities were used for translations, so that contents of the website and mobilization material was only available later, or not at all, in several languages. Additionally, there was almost no support for activists from outside of the EU in applying for Schengen-Visa. These structural shortcomings (support work, language, visas) display that a white, german-speaking and residence-secure perspective was dominant during preparations.


When finally about six weeks before the Camp within the preparing group a criticism of insufficiently reflected white privileges and white solidarity[4] was voiced in a way that made continuing along before-mentioned lines impossible, denial immediately ensued. This defense was predominantly raised against the form, in which the criticism had been voiced („too aggressive“, „too personal“, „not showing enough solidarity“), to a large extent without referring to the content of the critique and without drawing consequences for the Camp.


The denial of the criticism of white solidarity and dominance by pointing out a seemingly unfriendly and non solidary manner in articulating it is a continuous pattern of argumentation. For example, it was debated in detail whether or not the people who had stepped in front of a big plenum – white by majority – and formulated criticism had done this friendly enough. Whether or not their posture (crossed arms), their tone of speech and their appearance as a group had been too aggressive. Up to now it remained unsaid that on the mentioned plenum and also beyond it white people, partly very established in the scene were showing an extreme lack of solidarity.Individual people tried to interrupt and disrupt the criticism of white dominance structures and prevent the plenum from listening. When racist violations and white dominance during the Camp were brought up as public points of discussion by people harmed this was dismissed and ridiculed/trivialized as „childish“ and „navel-gazing“.


During the ongoing debate there was hardly any solidarization with those who voice criticism of structural racist conditions within the movement, there is a strong tendency to show solidarity with those criticized and bring up sympathy for their unease. By speaking of an atmosphere of fear and intimidation criticism of white dominance is unilaterally dramatized and scandalized. This kind of argumentation misses that common spaces are not free of violence and aggression prior to the seemingly unsolidary criticism. Not everybody can linger free of fear in the same way in our common spaces. The repeated demand for a talking atmosphere, in which white people may express themselves without fear and interruptions, even if they „make mistakes“ and reproduce racisms, seems equally problematic to us. Criticism of white solidary thereby is being countered with white solidarity. We, the non-white co-authors of this manifest plead for treating each other in a way that includes thinking structural privileging and marginalization respectively. The stop sign and the demand for whites to listen first are attempts at granting socially marginalized perspectives validaty, which is continuously denied in social normality. For white people it belongs to the process of facing one's own racisms, to take marginalized perspectives seriously – to listen to and to acknowledge them. If they really want to endorse change, whites depend on respecting the perspectives of people negatively affected by racism.


How we, as people harmed by racism criticize and fight is exclusively our decision. No permission by whites is necessary.


Critical Whiteness: the quarrel for the one “correct” interpretation

Already in the process of preparation of the camp there was this tendency to play off different positions and struggles of Refugees/ People of Color (PoC)/Romanies/Migrants/… against one another. For example: the protests of the refugees on hunger strike in Würzburg were paid little attention in the process of the camp’s preparation. This was criticised by some people involved in the preparation. Instead of holding accountable the entire group of preparation, the intense debates around Critical whiteness were blamed for the lack of solidarity with the people on hunger strike. We think it is dangeourously displaceing and also splitting to assume that white activists were kept from supporting the refugees on hunger strike because they were challanged to reflect upon their whiteness – espacially as there was little solidarity with these struggles even before the debates around whiteness grew more important. If a predominantly white preparation group is not really able to cope, to face and confront racisms on different levels, it is not those who are negatively affected by racism and express different demands and criticisms, who are to be held accountable. It is not a contradiction as a white activist to critically reflect upon ones own racisms and privileges and at the same time be actively involved in struggles against “Lager”, “Residenzpflicht”, deportations. Rather, both aspects should accompany each other.


Another pattern or argument we came across in this debate was to trade off different positions of Refugees/PoC/Romanies/Migrants/… against one another. It was argued that people who criticised white dominance in the preparation group had a “wrong understanding” of critical whiteness. We, non-white co-authors of this text, want to stress that of course those affected negatively by racism hold different positions on critical whiteness, ranging from varying interpretations of this concept to rejection of the idea on the whole. But we think it is highly problematic that white activists claim to decide which Refugees/PoC/Romanies/Migrants/… have the “right” or the “wrong” understanding of critical whiteness. Critical whiteness and power of definition are concepts originating in emancipatory antiracist or antisexist struggles. Their definitions and resulting practices depend on the activists in these different contextes. These concepts are as vivid as the struggles they come from. This has to be acknowledged. Also, it has to be acknowledged that different demands on white activist can result from this. The one “point of view of all PoC” that white activists can from now on rely on just does not exist.

That is why we also oppose the argument, that this criticism is not really counting as one has already in the past reflected upon critical whiteness and in years of working together with selforganized groups of Refugees joint strategies were developed. We are of the opinion that it should be up to people negatively affected by racism to decide wether or not a certain type of antiracist/counter racist activism and cooperation works just fine or if the status quo is worth criticising. The succesfull cooperation with some people negatively affected by racism should not be used to render critizism of other people negatively affected illegitimate.


Also, we noticed in the ongoing debates a problematic understanding and use of the self-defining term “People of Color (PoC)”. The concept of PoC is an emancipatoric self-defining categorie by people negatively affected by racism, originating in the US-American context, but by now is also used in German speaking countries. Two aspects of the use of the word are problematic: first, PoC often is used to define people who are perceived as non-white. This way, PoC is used as a “racialization” and not self-defining term but an ascription by somebody else.

In its emancipatoric meaning PoC is only used as a means to define oneself and mark a position in society as well as a political point of view of people negatively affected by racism. As people affected use different terms to define themselves, we use in this text the construction “Refugees/PoC/Romanies/Migrants/…”

In analogie to “white” the term “PoC” is explicitly not meant be understood in a biological way. It does in no way mean “skincolor”. Rather, the concept assumes that race is a social construct and people who experience racism are marked racially and are thus “racialised” in a variety of ways. For example some first and second names or some ways of pronouncing them are perceived as non-white. Thus, people beeing read as non-white according to physical traits is only one aspect of an extensive praxis of racialisation, leading to experiences of discrimination. The fact that it is not visible on first (racist) sight whether a person experiences racism in a certain context has obviously led to confusion. That is why in debates around the camp there were crude constructions of words as “white (PoC-)activists” (see text of No Lager Bremen) meaning white activists supporting criticsm of white dominance on the camp. In the above mentioned article of the Jungle World an assumed disagreeable group of people on the camp is defined wholesale as “the PoC”. We hold these kinds of dissapropriation of emancipatorical self-definitions politically completely inappopriate.


Scapegoat for a failed camp: “a certain group from Berlin”

Another simplification that is helping to not take criticism of white dominance seriously is the wholesale attribution of any criticism to the group reclaim society (rs!) from Berlin. Whenever people on the camp who did not belong to the group, expressed criticism they were part of the “surrounding” of the group that was quickly invented. Two people affected by racist violations on the camp have explicitly mentioned this strategie of argumentation in their public statements and demanded for there criticism to be taken seriously in an independent way. As there were no non-white people in the awareness group availiable for support after the racist violations on the camp indiviual people from rs! resumed this task. In our opinion a politically usefull way of dealing with this situation would have been to take serious the lack of a support structure, that was pointed out by people negativly affected and also to collectively take responsibility for this. It would have been due to the preparation group and all participants of the camp to create a space in which criticism is heard and a space is created that gives security to fight against violations and trespassing of boundaries. Instead of showing solidarity with the improvised awareness structure that took sides with the affected people and also did this against strong resistance, after the camp the presumed unsensitive dealing with a person acting violent was criticised in a one sided manner. One group and their presumed “surrounding” are made the scapegoat for the lack in the preparation of the camp. Power of definition, stopp sign, critical whiteness were not understood as emancipatoric instruments for the empowerment of marginalised peolpe but was in parts sabotaged. This is not a counter racist camp. This is backlash.


The last day of the camp a statement was published, in which activist who defined themselves as Refugees and Immigrants expressed there disappointment concerning the camp. They criticised the isolation on the camp and also the fact that the struggles, concerns and requests from activist living in “Lagers” had not been in the focus of attention, but in contrast been neglected. Speaking out of the perspective of the white co-authors of this text, we acknowledge this tremendous deficit of the camp and this criticism of the Refugees and Immigrants. We self-critically realize that we did not do a lot to give more attention to struggles of people from “Lagers” in this camp. In our view the processing and changing of these grievances need an explicit self-critical reflection by white activists. This has to be done by asking which spaces were blocked by white solidarity, taking up all the space and attention for white insecurities and “Befindlichkeiten”/feeling of beeing offended, thus ignoring issues of people negatively affected by racism. We think it is problematic that responibility is displaced onto a single group that was advocating the topic of critical whiteness on the camp and alos did this against white opposition. The fact that different issues of people negatively affected by racism had to compete for attention on the camp shows once more on how many levels the fight against racism has to be fought and how much the majority of white activists (on the camp) was unable to cope with that. Just because of the fact that white people are not affected by racism white activists are able to choose what struggles we/they are interessted in and which ones they/we let take a back seat. All kinds of struggles against racism that were represented on the camp are legitimate and deserve solidarity. It is up to all of us to think about how we can create spaces making it possible for varying perspectives to be expressed and heard. To think abour how different issues and struggles are allowed to be expressed and how these can come together in a broad movement that is active on many levels.


Guilt and morals“

At last we would like to discuss one argument that often comes up in this debate: This is not about guilt nor is this about morality. It is about taking seriously marginalised positions, render criticism of dominant strucures and behavior possible, and to not displace responsibility. It is about making hierarchies inside of our contextes vulnerable. It is about having a more respectful and empathetic way of dealing with one another inside of the antiracist and counter racist movement in the future. For this it is important to not ignore the position of the person expressing criticism or the status the person criticised. This is relevant concerning the staus in society in general as well as in the antiracist movement and its strucures of power.

We were also for the most part involved in the preparation of the camp and we have participated in tasks of the infrastrucure. We are in different ways responsible for the camp. Those co-authors of the text positioned white don’t exclude themselves from criticism of white dominance and with the above mentioned demands adress themselves, too.

We are calling for an adjusment and a change in the debates after the No Border Camp in a new direction and to focus on questions like: How can there be cooperations that do not put white insecurity or defence in the center of attention, but focus on issues of those who are affected by racism? What could strucures look like that give people negatively affected by racism the possibility to express there perspectives, issues and boundaries, in a way that those are taken seriously and with the possibility to push these points also when confronting a white majority? What can a movement look like where whites give up control over antiracist/counter racist struggles?




No Border activists from Berlin, Hamburg, Köln, and Oldenburg

August 2012







[1] 'white' such as the term Person of Color (PoC) is explicitly not meant to name a 'skin color', but to point at the social position of people in the context of racism. Here 'white' names people who are not beeing disadvantaged by racism. In order to stress that whiteness is nothing natural but a socially constructed category, white will be written italicized in this text. See for example: Noah Sow: Deutschland Schwarz Weiß. Goldmann Verlag 2009; Maureen Maisha Eggers, Grada Kilomba, Peggy Piesche, Susan Arndt: Mythen, Masken und Subjekte. Unrast Verlag 2005.


[2] We mean partiality with those harmed by racist violence. Partiality means among other things that the labeling of what is trespassing a boundary is not beeing questioned. A partial attitude towards the harmed persons stands against racist power structures. More about that:

[3] Jungle World No. 30, july 26th 2012.


[4] 'white solidarity' describes white peoples collaboration for example in order to reject and deny criticism of racist behaviour. It serves the self-reassurement of whites concerning the legitimacy of their actions. Furthermore 'white solidarity' includes the silence about racist aggression, by which society's white consensus and the racist normality are beeing sustained.