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The tension between wokeness and white privilege

In Germany, as elsewhere, there has been heated debate about issues surrounding ‘identity politics’. Many new publications in various genres illustrate the different viewpoints and positions, arguments and counterarguments.


On my last visit to my favourite bookshop there was a surprise in store for me. As usual, new German-language and international titles were displayed on a table of their own. Among them I found the novels and stories currently being discussed in the German arts sections, as well as a few other recommended titles. The latest paperback releases had been placed on another, smaller table right by the door. But this display featured an eclectic mix of titles, and at first I couldn’t work out what they all had in common.

On closer inspection, I realised that the books on the table were all new releases by authors of colour. A feeling of irritation came over me: one table held books by white authors, the other books by authors of colour. I was immediately reminded of images from apartheid-era South Africa: seats with signs saying ‘Only for Whites’ and others labelled ‘Only for Blacks’. I can’t believe it, I thought: ‘my’ bookshop – always so well organised, with passionate, knowledgeable staff and a carefully selected range of titles – was resorting to the same selection methods as a system I had nothing but contempt for?

The idea was well-intentioned, of course, I knew that. It was about drawing attention to authors of colour. But my irritation persisted. This initiative didn’t sit right with me.


And already, with this little vignette from everyday life, we have plunged into the midst of a socio-political conflict which has been the subject of heated public discussion in Germany and in many other countries: the ‘identity politics’ debate.

The areas of social conflict involved in this debate are manifold: they include the inequality in gender relations, the treatment of sexual minorities, the integration of people of colour. They involve white privilege and the recognition of other cultures and cultural practices, and they raise issues of dominance and oppression. They question the validity of Enlightenment values and the significance of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and focus on European imperial colonialism, whose effects are still being felt. The thread running through all of these initially very diverse-seeming issues is their linguistic foundation.

Conchita Wurst
© Foto Albin Olsson Lizenz CC BY SA 3.0

It wasn’t only her voice that caused a stir: Conchita Wurst, winner of the Eurovision Song Contest 2014.

In this debate, the battle lines are starkly drawn. Arguments from both sides often resemble projectiles, and in many cases the level of mutual suspicion goes far beyond what you would expect even of a highly polemical debate. Statements are picked apart for suspicious vocabulary, and argumentative opposition sometimes turns to genuine hostility.

One cause of this profound polarisation surely lies in the fact that being called upon to change one’s own use of language constitutes a huge intervention in the personal life of any individual. Every utterance becomes almost a declaration of support for one side or the other, regardless of whether the speaker intends it as such. To use a military metaphor: when language becomes a battlefield, the dividing line between combatants and non-combatants falls away; and because everybody uses language, everybody is forced to decide which side they are on.

Because the battle lines supposedly reveal themselves in our use of language, the book and publishing industry is inevitably affected by this debate in its own way. The industry no longer finds itself in the position of information-provider, supplying a range of books on all the aforementioned themes, written from a variety of perspectives, which feed into the public discourse. This is the role it has traditionally played – but no longer. Now, many people see it as ‘taking sides’ by linguistically aligning itself with one side or the other.

Rainbow flag
© Sebastian Herber

The rainbow flag: a worldwide symbol of tolerance, peaceful coexistence and the acceptance of different ways of life.

Illustration Hautfarbe
‘Can you pass me the skin colour?’ ‘Here you go.’© Illustration von Jörg Mühle aus Labor Ateliergemeinschaft, Ich so du so © 2017 Beltz & Gelberg in der Verlagsgruppe Beltz · Weinheim Basel

We are already seeing agencies advising publishing houses on gender-sensitive issues, and revising manuscripts accordingly. Certain authors, in notes to their publications, apologise in advance for having unintentionally offended any readers. The collection Beißreflexe. Kritik an queerem Aktivismus, autoritären Sehnsüchten, Sprechverboten, published by the queer activist Patsy L’Amour laLove, was banned from a queer book fair in Berlin-Kreuzberg due to its content, which caused several publishers to withdraw from the event.

The Frankfurter Buchmesse collection ‘What Am I?’ sheds light on the controversial facets of the current debate. In his personal account Der weiße Fleck, Mohamed Amjahid holds up a mirror to the majority in our society, and describes the daily racism to which he is subjected as the son of a Moroccan migrant worker.

Alice Hasters and Noah Sow are two passionate representatives of the younger generation who bring their own lucid points of view to the debate. In their opinion, the question ‘Where are you from?’ comes from a racist place, even if the speaker does not personally mean it that way. We often hear about white people – ostensibly out of admiration, but often without asking – touching the hair of people of colour. This too is rooted in racism, the authors argue: it is yet another manifestation of the kind of structural racism that goes beyond individual intentions.

In Exit Racism, author Tupoka Ogette has written an instruction manual on how to think in an anti­racist way. It is an instruction manual in the literal sense: Ogette, a workshop leader and antiracism trainer, structures her book as a dialogue and aims it explicitly at a white readership.

With his book Identität im Zwielicht, art historian Jörg Scheller wants to move between the two front lines rather than cowering in the trenches. He stresses the importance of having a concept of identity, as long as it remains descriptive and does not start to posit static essences in an ‘ideologically prescriptive’ way.

It is clear that the postcolonial identity debate poses questions not only about the individual’s ability to cope with everyday life, but in particular about every form of art. The essay Wie frei ist die Kunst? by journalist and art critic Hanno Rauterberg, is a passionate plea for the ‘universal freedom of art’.

The work Postkoloniale Theorie, already in its third edition, is aimed at an academic audience. This study by academics Maria do Mar Castro Varela and Nikita Dhawan looks at the founding texts of postcolonial theory by Edward W. Said (1978), Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak (1988) and Homi K. Bhabha (1994), and analyses them in their current context.

Author Mithu M. Sanyal appeals to a broad public with her novel Identitti, which was shortlisted for the German Book Prize in 2021. In the novel, a person of colour – a professor of postcolonial studies and undisputed figurehead of her department – is found to have perpetrated a deliberate deception. Professor Saraswati is not really a person of colour, as she claims – she’s a white woman! It is no coincidence that this title should appear at the end of an article about such a deeply controversial subject. In her review of Identitti, author Alina Bronsky wrote: ‘What a mercilessly funny search for identity, in which nothing and nobody is spared. Reading it not only makes you smarter – it also puts you in a better mood.’ 

Buchcover Deutschland Schwarz Weiß
Noah Sow

Deutschland Schwarz Weiß

Books on Demand

Since its first publication in 2008, this book has become a standard work for teaching and discussing structural racism in Germany, and has lost none of its topicality to this day.

Buchcover Was weiße Menschen nicht über Rassismus hören wollen, aber wissen sollten
Alice Hasters

Was weiße Menschen nicht über Rassismus hören wollen, aber wissen sollten


Powerfully yet patiently Hasters describes how racism shapes her everyday life as a black woman in Germany.

Buchcover Der weiße Fleck
Mohamed Amjahid

Der weiße Fleck

Piper Verlag

Even if the awareness of inequality in our country has grown, racist thinking remains deeply rooted in all of us, invisible to the white majority. Amjahid aims to shed light on these blind spots.

Buchcover Beißreflexe
Patsy l’Amour laLove


Querverlag GmbH

Queer stands for a self-consciously perverse rejoinder to heterosexual manias and hostility to otherness. 27 authors address this form of queer activism and its theoretical context.

Buchcover Exit Racism
Tupoka Ogette

Exit Racism

Unrast Verlag

A critical journey for readers, not only sharing concrete knowledge with them about the history of racism and its impacts, but also supporting them in an emotional confrontation with the topic.

Buchcover Identität im Zwielicht
Jörg Scheller

Identität im Zwielicht

Claudius Verlag

In the media, identity politics has become a battle cry. This book aims to contribute greater objectivity to the debates.

Buchcover Wie frei ist die Kunst?
Hanno Rauterberg

Wie frei ist die Kunst?

Suhrkamp Verlag

What is hidden behind the debate on morality and aesthetics: is political correctness endangering the autonomy of the artist? And why is the quarrel taking place at this
moment in history?

Buchcover Postkoloniale Theorie
Castro Varela, Nikita Dhawan

Postkoloniale Theorie


The updated third edition also engages with contemporary debates on globalisation, religion, human rights and decolonisation.

Buchcover Identitti
Mithu Sanyal


Carl Hanser

From race, sex and gender to colonialism: a fun and entertaining novel written with delightful self-mockery and liberating knowledge.

Buchcover Why we matter
Emilia Roig

Why we matter

Aufbau Verlag

A ground-breaking debut exposing the patterns of systematic oppression through Emilia Roig’s own experiences and family history. Landed her on the German bestseller lists.

© Tobias Voss

Tobias Voss was Vice President of International Markets at the Frankfurter Buchmesse. As such, he was responsible for relations with the fair’s international clients. He is currently working as a consultant for Frankfurter Buchmesse.

Related Book Collection

What Am I? Humanism between Identity Politics and Universalism

The international debate surrounding ”identity politics“ also found its reflection in German society and journalism, with the many aspects of the topic being ardently discussed. This collection, compiled by Frankfurter Buchmesse, brings together some important German contributions to the debate.

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