The Hidden Cost of Structural Barriers

Mary Ivić and Sarah Khayati talk about their personal experience of navigating structural barriers and the mechanisms they deployed in order to cope.

by Mary Ivić and Sarah Khayati, April 29, 2021
Mary Ivić and Sarah Khayati

to belonging* is our next step to rethink and act on the topic of anti-discrimination. Moving away from the discourse of visibility of diversity and inclusion to authentic and lived belonging of all marginalized groups. This should lead to radical systemic change in the impact sector, from "power over" and "power for" to "power with."  This series is made possible by the Open Society Foundations. The following dialogue is a conversation structural barriers. Friends Mary Ivić and Sarah Khayati (you’ll find their biographies below in the text) talk about their personal experience in navigating structural barriers and the mechanisms they deployed in order to cope.

Mary and Sarah have been talking to each other since 2004, first as students in the train compartment heading for Frankfurt Oder University. Later, they preferred to have them over dinner, both in and out. Now almost exclusively in the context of short-term slots between everyday life, job and family, but at the end of which there is almost always a "That was and did so good, I wish we had pressed the record button". With the blog Zwiegesprä, the two have now launched their homepage turned record button.

Sarah: For a really long time, I didn't even realize that barriers really existed in my life. I completely assumed that I was free in my choices - and therefore in my options and possibilities - and that I had a choice. Only to realize  - as I got older, as I became a mother, as I started my job - that I didn't have them, but that I was just acting and reacting in the context of my environment or an environment.

Mary: Yeah, exactly. Growing up, barriers were invisible to me at first. I felt them, but they were elusive. Sure, you realize there's something that's holding you back and not letting you participate equally, but I couldn't name those feelings. I couldn't place it yet, and so it left me forever doubting, doubting who I was, how I was performing, how I was doing. I always thought it had something to do with me. In my family, everyone always said, "Study, work and try hard, you have to be better than the others to be taken seriously." And I worked hard on myself to "make it."

Sarah: Ha! Oh yes, there was and is definitely no getting around the topic of social advancement in my family either. Being better than others and - very important - never complaining, never questioning anything. That was and is the motto. Adapt and bend. And it's still not enough...

Mary: That's right! And when you're a teenager, you don't know about structural barriers. I didn't know that my social background alone was the reason for my limited access to so much in society. It is still suggested that everyone has the same opportunities if they make an effort, but that is a fallacy. Because it's clearly structural barriers that don't give you access despite individual excellence. That needs to be talked about much more. If I had known that back then, and more importantly, if adults had taken the pressure off me back then, I certainly would have had a freer childhood and adolescence.

Sarah: This is especially true in the context of Belonging. There is, after all, this telling  saying here:

"Diversity is being invited to the party;

Inclusion is being asked to dance.

To Belong is dancing like nobody is watching you."

However so long as barriers remain and justice rather than equality is the premise, the paths to the so called “dance floor” mentioned above look very different. Some people have to put immense effort into their presentation and are asked to stand in line for a Long time in order to get in, which is not guaranteed.  Whereas others are waved through with nary a glance or find themselves automatically put on the guest list.

Mary: How often did we not get into the clubs in the evening, mostly because of our buddies. Especially for adolescents, that's a stark experience of not getting ahead despite fitting in. Not always managing to achieve my goals despite individual top performance definitely has had an impact on me. 

Sarah: And what about this always doing the best you can, this stomping off and having to call up so much more in terms of performance for the same or even lesser result. Direct and indirect structural hurdles cost part of our society incredible energy, both mentally and physically. I can't help but think of a post by Tarik Tesfu from last summer that still resonates with me today. At the end of a statement about anti-racism work, he wonders where he would be in his personal and professional life if he didn't waste his time doing it.

"Direct and indirect structural hurdles cost part of our society incredible energy, both mentally and physically."

Mary: Absolutely! You can't choose to be involved with it or not. Looking back, it strikes me that for a while I was just making pragmatic choices. I pursued projects that effectively got me ahead rather than things that had no "direct" benefit. For example, the only reason I wanted to do an apprenticeship after tenth grade was so that I could be financially independent more quickly. But at that time, no one took me on because all the job interviews ended with my interviewers sending me back to school to get my high school diploma because of my good grades. So it was thanks to strangers that I didn't drop out of school for these reasons.

Sarah: Same same but different. For me, it's kind of the other side of the coin. As in, "We don't see this kid going to high school!" Which, by the way, I realized again just the other day when the quote from Biontech CEO Uğur Şahin went viral on Instagram in which he reported that his teachers also initially wanted to place him in the Hauptschule. My father had a similar conversation with my teacher in the high school. She suggested that for "a child like me" the path via the vocational school would be a great success. It was only years later that I realized this was much more likely about structures and discrimination than it was about me or my individual achievements.

Mary: Yes! Of course we didn't really get it at the time. After all, we went to school in the nineties and wokeness was not yet an issue, quite the opposite. For many, many years I tried not to stand out as the “Other” and tried to immerse myself in the majority and be unmarked. For example, I adapted my language and spoke exaggeratedly correct German and banned everything Kanak. Which then also led to me being made fun of in migrant circles. Now I can smile, but in retrospect one can say that this brokenness had a blatant impact on my identity development. It was similar for you as one of the few PoC at a humanistic high school, right?

Sarah: Totally! At our high school, there were only a few BIPoCs and I was actually called an "exotic" by a classmate in my honors course. As very, very visible, that is, compared to "the others," which even turned the insecure pubescent in me into an almost flattering distinction. I was something "special" and did not recognize any barriers or othering here. But then I was also voted hardcore in the Abi book onto the winner's ladder in terms of "Ms. Tussi", as which an obvious majority of my school perceived girls like me. The "chav" from Wedding. That was a really non-subtle reference then, but I put it in zero overall social or structural context.

Mary: Sarah, that's so blatant that we're only just realizing it! The generation today goes through the world with a completely different understanding. They have the words now that we didn't have.

Sarah: Absolutely! There just weren't words for it, at least there weren't words for me! I love and I'm so empowered by the current development. I'm learning so much right now and can be such a better companion to myself, my friends, my daughters in everyday life. Our backpack is just so much better filled now. And in contrast to arguments that, for example, find sensitive language exhausting and restricting in expression, I can only say: The more space people take up in all their diversity, for example through linguistic or media visibility, the more everyone feels really addressed and not just "included", the happier I am. Give me the words! Into the rooms!

Mary: The possibilities and opportunities that one has nowadays with social media are, in my opinion, an enrichment for us! Just to finally see yourself represented alongside traditional media formats is incredibly good. This power of the many impresses me.

For example, Enissa Amani and her format #BesteInstanz as an answer to the trash show on WDR, shows that we can no longer just talk about ourselves! On the contrary: we are helping to shape it!

Sarah: I also celebrate it so much that we now simply create these formats for ourselves! My boyfriend and I enthusiastically watched Hadnet Tesfai's and Aminata Belli's Seat Reservation last year on Instagram, the Realitäter*innen and Tatsch und Tacheles I listen to while cooking - I love it!

But I also really enjoy, for example, our everyday escapes Mary. It often starts as a simple exchange about everything that's going on right now but in the end, we always realize how good and important it was. It’s actually so healing to enter into a conversation with with a person to whom you don’t have to explain anything to, because she shares the same or very similar experiences or embeds them quite automatically in the same context.

Cheesy but true, these dialogues mean a lot to me and I wish everyone a person and a space with whom omething like this is possible.

Mary: It means so much to me too. Everyone needs that safe space!

And it's great that we've decided to take up a public space with our dialogues, rather than just a private one, to help shape the world out there and become visible.

About the Authors

As an actor in the context of education policy, Mary Ivić is engaged on various levels for more educational justice.

With #sociallyhighlygifted she wants to draw attention to the fact that especially children and young people who do not come from privileged households are seen. "They have extraordinary competencies, but they are underrepresented in our social structures because these strengths are not queried for 'social advancement'."

Equity and equal opportunity are also Sarah Khayati's hobbyhorses. Professionally, she advocates for a stronger project orientation in educational work, where she is particularly moved by the potential in this for educationally disadvantaged students. She has also started Verein*t, a community project with the goal of creating a safe space for the exchange of BiPoC women* that is as low-threshold as possible.