How is Germany dealing with racism? Q&A with Tiaji Sio, founder of Diplomats of Color network at the German Foreign Office
The GIC Africa spoke to Afro-German diplomat Tiaji Sio on why she founded Diplomats of Color, and her perspective regarding Germany’s efforts to tackle racism.
When did you establish Diplomats of Color, and what initially motivated you to do so?
After joining the diplomatic service, I realized that our society upheld a specific image of who can and should be a representative of Germany. As a young, Black and female German diplomat I did not fit this societal expectation and have been confronted with discrimination, abroad as well as in Germany. Initially, this made me question my decision to join the foreign service, but I quickly realized that challenging these preconceptions is necessary for all parts of German society to be adequately represented in government institutions. As a result, with a group of other people of color who work in the Federal Foreign Office, we founded the Diplomats of Color network in mid-2019. At first, we only wanted to find like-minded colleagues and share our experiences with each other. But, we decided that institutional changes are needed to tackle systematic patterns of inequality. We aspire to turn frustrating experiences of racism and discrimination into a force of change and empowerment. Our dedication has inspired many others to speak up for themselves and motivated more BPoC (black, indigenous and people of colour) to apply for jobs in the Federal administration. Now we are actively raising awareness of diversity and inclusion and working on amplifying the voices of marginalized people. By using our shared experiences, we aim to overcome the challenges of a society that refuses to change. Including different perspectives and making use of the skills of a diverse population should be regarded as an advantage rather than an obstacle: People with different language skills and an understanding of different cultures contribute to enriching the foreign service. Diversity makes us stronger and allows us to tackle the complex challenges of the 21st century more effectively.
Germany is one of many European countries struggling to tackle the scourge of racism. From the outside looking inwards, it’s difficult to see what exactly is being done to foster more tolerance. In your view, what plans or policies currently in place are working?
In 2006, Germany has implemented an anti-discrimination law that explicitly prohibits discrimination based on race, ethnic origin, gender, religion, disability, age or sexual orientation. Within the administrative institutions of the Federal Government, there are gender equality officers responsible for ensuring equality between men and women. The Federal Foreign Office has recently created two new positions to ensure diversity and inclusion: a position for equal opportunities and an ombudsperson for locally employed colleagues. This acknowledges the increasing diversity both in the headquarters and at our 227 German missions around the globe. We do not yet have an institutionalized diversity strategy, but Germans of different origins are publically encouraged to apply to join the foreign service. On November 16th, the United Nations International Day for Tolerance, the Diplomats of Color network and the trainees of the diplomatic academy organized a worldwide video and photo challenge that was published on the social media channels of the Federal Foreign Office.
Within our ministry, debates on overcoming structural racism in both society and at all levels of administration have begun to emerge. Particularly, the Black Lives Matter movement in Germany gained traction earlier this year. Thousands of people protested against right-wing terrorism and racist violence. In Germany, the terrorist attacks by NSU, the death of Oury Diallo while in police detention, the terrorist murders in Hanau, the right-wing political assassination of a politician in Kassel and the attack against the synagogue in Halle - these are the most widely known cases of right-wing extremist terror in Germany. The majority of the public, except for those following extremist political parties, demand policies to effectively end discriminatory violence. And the first step is to fight institutional racism and discrimination.
Minister for Foreign Affairs Heiko Maas is one of the most outspoken politicians when it comes to fighting racism. In a recent interview he said: “The sentence ‘We are more’ only works when nobody is speaking of individual perpetrators. When we acknowledge that structural racism exists in Germany. And when we realize that the biggest danger for our country is right-wing terrorism. We are more, if we all raise our voices”.
It is important that people in leadership positions openly denounce racism and discrimination. More importantly, we need to take concrete action, a system built upon anti-racist structures, inclusive language and a crosscutting approach to anti-discrimination in all aspects of our public and foreign policy.
One way the Diplomats of Color network is working to achieve this goal is by asking probing questions: In what way are the legacies and consequences of colonialism upholding discriminatory power structures? We would like our Federal Foreign Office to take a look at its own institutional past. Historians have researched the ministry’s role during the Nazi regime. We encourage to also look into the Foreign Office’s role during Germany’s colonial past.
What more do you think can be done to encourage anti-racism in Germany, especially from an institutional level?
As a passionate civil servant, I strongly believe that raising awareness of diversity and inclusion is only the first step on our journey to fundamentally transform the underlying power structures that exclude parts of our society from accessing government and other high-level positions. Even though we have begun to introduce policies to increase diversity and inclusion, there still remains much to do. An anti-racist institutional framework and a diverse workforce are the foundation for implementing an inclusive foreign policy agenda, both in Germany and in Europe. This can be achieved by establishing diversity networks across the Federal Government and appointing equal opportunity officers at the ministries. We can expand recruitment initiatives, reduce unconscious bias in selection processes, and make sure that the diversity of our society becomes visible in public offices, particularly in leadership positions. The motto of the European Union “Unity in Diversity” does not only apply across borders, but also within countries.
You’re an advocate for diversity and inclusion. What advice can you give young Germans who want to follow in your footsteps stand up against racism and discrimination?
I would advise other young people who aspire to make a difference three things: Be brave, find yourself allies and don’t be discouraged by people who try to discredit you. I know from experience that the hierarchical and rigid structures of the German government administration do not provide the most fertile ground for innovative ideas and effective problem solving. This is why I was positively surprised by the openness with which senior officials and policymakers approached and welcomed our ideas to increase representation and inclusion. This shows that transformational change is never easy, but indeed possible. It takes movers and shakers, courageous people who take on the challenge of paving the way for the next generation of young people.
What does being Afrodeutsch mean to you, particularly as a woman and in a diverse country such as Germany?
I am the daughter of a Liberian father and a Guinean-German mother. My father fled his war-torn home country and sought refuge in Ghana, where he was awarded a UN scholarship to attend university. My mother grew up as a Black woman in East Germany during a time of German division and the Cold War. My parents taught me from a young age that with dedication, resilience and hard work, I could defy the odds and overcome limits that seemed insurmountable. Being Afro-German to me means persevering in a society that has not yet accepted my existence and regarding my uniqueness as an advantage to make a difference in the world. It is my mission to challenge the notion of what it means to be German and demonstrate that being Black and being German do not contradict each other. At the same time, I believe that the emergence of initiatives such as the Diplomats of Color network have the power to change the idea of who should shape foreign policy and how it should be done.