Change Is Happening
Emilia Zenzile Roig leads a Berlin-based organization combatting inequality and discrimination in Europe. She presented at The Great Wave during our Friction and Flow session about building resilience in the face of adversity. We talked to her about resistance to change, and what Europe can learn from the U.S. — and vice versa.
Facebook, as you know, plays a big role in US politics. Most of the most-shared stories, according to recent reports, are right-wing. Or have a racist or authoritarian bent. When you hear about trends like that, what comes to mind?
Yes, I see that stuff all the time. Basically, we have a choice between investing in it or divesting from it. And trying to use our energy in a positive and constructive way.
My reaction is to not react, and to try and respond to it through creating alternative discourses that turn into narratives and not necessarily reacting to them to say, “No, that’s not true.” I don’t want to use up my energy trying to convince people who cannot be convinced, but rather to rally people who are already on the right path.
And I would say, too, that those forces are the proof, the ultimate proof, that we are progressing. That’s what I see. So my intuition is that this is resistance towards change. It means that tremendous change is currently happening. Otherwise they wouldn’t have the need to counter it and to hold onto the past, and all those narratives of superiority and oppressive systems — white supremacy and patriarchy.
So I would say the thing to do is continue creating despite all this, and not let ourselves be negatively impacted. All the conservative forces that are expressing themselves are very scared of what’s ahead because it means that they need to let go of past systems that they believe have served them. All of us would benefit from the dismantlement of oppression systems in the end, even those who currently benefit from them from a material standpoint.
But they think that they’re losing something. But they aren’t, you know? I mean, nobody’s going to lose anything if white supremacy and patriarchy are dismantled. Everybody would win.
So what is the Center working on lately?
We do advocacy, research, and training to advance intersectional justice in Europe. Not only classical advocacy, such as going to parliament, though of course we do work directly with parliaments and political decision makers.
In short, we try to change the narrative, even if it’s giving a talk somewhere or taking part in a conversation with a public audience. I would say that it’s a tremendous part of our work, because we need to change the way we speak about discrimination, systemic inequality, and social injustice.
And then on the research front, we just finished a study today about social origin, looking at class in the workplace, and how class discrimination is taking place, and what companies can do or what employers can do to include people from various social classes. To employ people from various social classes — how do we do it? Companies say that change is hard because they need certain competencies, skills, diploma requirements, etc. And we say,
“Yes, but, you could do things very differently. Having different social backgrounds also creates value for you, because people from a working-class background, from a very young age, may have developed skills that may not be adequately valued on the labor market.”
And we are having another report coming up on “race” in Germany, which is a heated topic. It’s really contested as a term. So we’re trying to bring in some more knowledge on this and explain why it’s important to keep that word.
How is it contested? Pardon my ignorance.
In Germany, people still believe in biological races. So if you say “race,” people think of the Holocaust, they think of race itself as being a racist word.
But basically, we need a word in order to define racial difference and racial discrimination and inequality. So that’s why for us, it’s pretty important to keep it.
But a lot of people want to get rid of it in the European context. In France, they got rid of it. Many European countries see “race” as in and of itself a racist word that doesn’t warrant a place in the current context.
And we say, no, it definitely has a place. As long as there’s racism, we need “race” — even if races do not exist in the biological sense.
I noticed you mentioned “code-switching” in a recent job notice posted at the Center. How did you come to decide to put that as part of the job description?
Well, because you just express yourself very differently whether you’re talking to an NGO representative somewhere, or if you’re talking to a journalist. So every time we need to adapt the language about intersectionality as well. Sometimes I can easily speak about capitalist oppression to someone. And then if I’m talking to a CEO, then maybe I say something else. So it’s not changing the message, but changing the wording so as to reach people and meet them where they are.
Most of the time, code-switching is making yourself understood by people and letting them know that you speak their language. It requires a very high sensitivity and most people who have that talent come from lower social classes, or are ethnic and racial minorities, who have had to do that in their life.
And I want to make it a strength. I want to show people if you have had to do that, then you’re interesting to me because it means that you can speak to our various audiences, whereas people from higher social classes, from the dominant culture, may have never really learned to do that.
With the corporate and workplace training that you do, how sincere do you think the organization’s motives are?
Obviously, it varies. But I imagine some come to you with a sense of, “Well, it seems we *have* to do these fairness trainings now in order to be a good company.” Or are they honest about problems they may be facing?
We do have companies that come to us and really just want to align with the rest of the corporate world. Even so, I’m thinking that we also need that; it’s still valuable.
There’s always going to be resistance within the company. Some people will say, yes, we want to do it, let’s do that, but they may face resistance from company leadership.
And there are other organizations who are very open about it, very committed, and ready to bring about change. The thing is that these are really long-term reforms and changes that require a lot of work. So I’m not coming to companies claiming, “Oh, ok, it’s fine. In two months you’re going to be okay.”
Some of them understand that, but for others, it’s more difficult. You get back to the day-to-day and forget about it, and then change doesn’t really happen.
But I truly believe in the good in people. If we have a difficulty bringing about change, it has a lot to do with processes and with a system that asks you to be competitive and does not allow for pauses.
How do movements in Europe affect other parts of the world? Do you see a cross-pollination of trends, bad or good? Any or many parallels?
We live in a globalized world. So everything impacts everyone, some of us positively, some of us negatively. And we saw that with George Floyd, and it prompted some to realize that, yes, it happened in the U.S., but it has repercussions for Europe as well because white supremacy and racist police violence is a global system and it has the same origins. The division of the human species into different races has impacted the world everywhere. And injustice in the U.S. criminal justice system has the same roots as injustice in the criminal justice system here in the EU.
And I would say that we take a lot of inspiration from the U.S. as well because the U.S. has a long-standing history of organizing for racial justice and social justice generally. In Europe we haven’t really had many racial minorities in the media, in politics, in universities. That’s why our social justice movements are easily erased, whereas in the U.S. visibility has been created for those movements, and they have been able to carve out a space in public, in politics.
That’s what we’re trying to create here for us in Europe.