It is easier to see the racism of others than your own

Racism is built on structures of economic and political power, which are not easy to see when you benefit from them. Racist power structures are those which systematically benefit one group over others, but the groups they benefit and oppress are not the same in every country.

“White is a metaphor for power,” said the American author James Baldwin, who spent most of the 1960s living in Istanbul, where he found his identity no longer existed within an American context as a black, gay man. 

Baldwin was warmly welcomed by the Turkish intelligentsia. His friend, the writer Yaşar Kemal, said Baldwin was not even really considered to be black because “we don’t have that category. There are only people with darker skins.” He was known in Istanbul as “Arab Jimmy”.

Although Istanbul’s black population has grown in recent years, the lack of a large, historical black population in Anatolia means there’s still little context for anti-black racism in Turkey. Racism against black people does exist, but it’s not structural in the same way that racism towards Kurds, Armenians and other minority groups is rooted in a historically conditioned structure of power that exposes those groups to particular forms of discrimination.

The writer Patrick Keddie interviewed a number of African players for his book about Turkish football, The Passion. African footballers are often encouraged by agents to come to Turkey, where visa requirements are easier, to try out for Turkish teams. But many players who don’t make it are left destitute, doing menial labour, unable to return home. Although the players he interviewed complained about some racist treatment, one also said: “The police are very cool - they like black people, I don’t know why.”

It’s interesting that, while Turkish society in general is not without anti-black racism, the police noticeably treat black people better in Turkey than elsewhere. This underscores that racism is a function of power: The police in Turkey do not perceive black people as being socially or politically problematic. It seems unlikely to me that the police are as friendly to Kurds or Syrian migrants.

It’s within this context that the Turkish government’s anger about an alleged racist incident towards a black football coach can be understood. On Tuesday, the Champions League football match between Paris Saint Germain and Istanbul Başakşehir was abandoned after a Romanian official reportedly referred to Başakşehir assistant manager Pierre Webo using an offensive word. President Erdoğan used the incident to score political points against France, where the match took place, saying: “France has now become a place where racist rhetoric is concentrated”.

I think it should be pretty obvious that racism exists everywhere, but it is noticeable that the defenders of the Turkish government are much happier talking about structural racism towards black people in the U.S. or Islamophobia in Europe than they are talking about racial inequality and colourism in Turkey itself.

I use the word colourism here to denote the fact that skin colour still plays a role in discrimination in the Turkish context. The existence of the categories of “black Turks” and “white Turks” to denote the class differences between Western-looking, secular, richer cosmopolitan elites (who also may be lighter-skinned) and the Anatolian, working-class, conservative and religious “black Turks” is interesting from an outside perspective. Erdoğan has often said he is a “black Turk”, identifying his Justice and Development Party (AKP) with the structurally impoverished majority of Turks who were kept out of power by the secular elites until 2002. 

Perhaps it is this identification with the black “Other”, as perceived through the lens of Western racial politics, which makes some Turks believe that they cannot participate in anti-black racism. It’s noticeable that a lot of non-black Turkish rappers use the N-word in their lyrics. A recent Reddit thread discussed how commonly the N-word is used by Turkish people and most of the responses are along the lines of “they simply don’t know the word is racist”.

There’s no doubt that white supremacy exists in the West, as a prejudice within many people’s minds, but also as a set of economic and political power relations. It would be hard to argue that similar discriminatory structures don’t exist within Turkey, but they are more likely to affect groups like the Kurds or Syrian refugees. 

It’s not uncommon to hear middle-class Turks bemoaning the number of Syrians now living in the country with a dismissive reference to “dirty Syrians”. While Kurds have probably received the worst of the intersectional prejudice awarded to “black Turks”, due to often being poorer, less educated, from eastern Anatolia and often darker-skinned. 

Despite the breakdown in the peace process with the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which has been fighting for Kurdish autonomy since the 1980s, President Erdoğan recently insisted that “there is no Kurdish issue”, only terrorism. 

As Tunay Altay pointed out for Bianet in July, Turkey has “racial phobia": the refusal to acknowledge the existence of systemic and everyday racism. Racial phobia is deeply entrenched in Turkish public discourse, where talking about racism is usually targeted as promoting "ethnic divisiveness" or "ethnic propaganda".

It is unfortunate that necessary conversations in every country about racial discrimination are used for international point-scoring. Europe does have a problem with Islamophobia, but European Muslims are not helped by Erdoğan using this against European governments in a game of “who is the most racist country”. 

Large European anti-racist movements are an acknowledgement that there is an issue there which needs to be dealt with. Meanwhile, the Turkish president will not even acknowledge there is a “Kurdish issue” which needs addressing, and Turkey’s most famous Kurdish political leader has been in jail for over 4 years.

(The opinions expressed in this column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Ahval.)

The opinions expressed in this column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Ahval.