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  • Gabrielle Antar

A nuanced take on political change in Luxembourg

On a gloomy February afternoon in Luxembourg, I sat down with Jana Degrott, a popular figure in the fight for more diversity in politics and currently running for her local municipal elections. I wanted to actually get to know her and her motivations behind the work she is doing. We wanted to go beyond her usual portrayal as the “expert in racism” showcased in Luxembourgish media.

“One of the only things people ask me about is how I feel about George Floyd dying. […] There's always this racism. You're black in politics. So tell us a bit more about your experience instead of focusing on my expertise,” she said.

A problem that arises far too often for people of colour is that privileged people feel entitled to ask marginalised people to educate them on the subjects of their own exclusion, on the subjects of their own trauma.

Jana, therefore, shared her frustrations of being tokenized* in a white masculine dominated political landscape. But, she also talks about unity and community and the necessary changes for Luxembourg’s future. A future that would include the voices of people who too often feel excluded.

I had to think long and hard about how I was going to formulate this article. After all, Jana and I come from two different political ideologies. However, even though they differ, we have much more in common than I could have imagined.

In left-wing circles, those with a more classically liberal approach to politics are too often looked down upon, not that these judgements are unwarranted, but my conversation with Jana gave me a new perspective: to reach the greatest number of people, sometimes you have to be content to collaborate with people who think differently from you in order to create rapid change.

For Jana, change happens when we open a constructive conversation with people we don't always agree with. As a result, we discovered that we have more in common than we have differences.

“I think that today's leadership should be based on values. I have certain values that I defend. And, I can align with everyone that is defending those values. […] I'm going to open my way of thinking and I'm going to try to base it on values because this [means] I put a focus on finding what unites us instead of what separates us. And this perspective allows me to have conversations,” she said.

“It’s not always easy, [to do that with] people that are very conservative because they have a way of thinking, and maybe I'm more reluctant to accept it […], but then [at least] I can have a conversation,” she added.

This is how she approached her political career. Jana's convictions have evolved since she started running for office in her municipality at the age of 17. Today, she is exactly 10 years older and she has developed her own approach through the lessons she has learned along the way.

“So, when I entered politics, the first time, I needed to change mainstream politics, I needed to change this belief that people of colour are the ones that are always in the resistance. Like it's always like this, always this fight and fighting. And I do believe that change [also] happens in politics. Change happens if you add to the mainstream politics of Luxemburg,” she said.

She could easily have joined the Luxembourg Socialist Party, but at the time she had access to and saw the most visibly diverse range of people within the DP, Luxembourg's liberal political party, rather than the LSAP, the country's centre-left party, explains Jana. It was also easier for her to get in touch with the Democrats in her municipality, because it should not be forgotten that the municipal elections of each party vary from town to town.

Although she was approached by both parties. Their need for her did not always translate into respect. Jana felt the intersectional discrimination of being a young black woman.

Kimberly Crenshaw coined the term intersectionality a few decades ago to explain the multiple forms of oppression experienced by black women in the US. Recently, she re-explained its meaning in an interview with Columbia Law School: “Intersectionality is a lens through which you can see where power comes and collides, where it interlocks and intersects. It’s not simply that there’s a race problem here, a gender problem here, and a class or LBGTQ problem there. Many times, that framework erases what happens to people who are subject to all of these things.”

Jana also shared her traumatic lived experiences with people unaware of their racist subconscious bias.

“So then I entered the other [political] party and I got elected. I go in, I'm super young, I'm full of energy. But then you realize [...] the people that have been there for a long time […] have their own language. They have their insiders. They have this way of communication. It was very very challenging. It's just this year that it changed because our leadership changed. But I've been really depressed like I'm actually going to be honest with you. […the other elected officials] were so disrespectful,” she said.

“But what I experienced inside of politics, it's just something I hadn't expected. And it was also something that I was not ready for. And then you say: are there support structures? Absolutely [...] But when you enter structures that are [...] mainly white, mainly people that don't look like you, there's no adaptive support structure. They think that support [happens …] by just saying you can call us any time,” she adds.

One of the most triggering moments during her political career was when she was attending a council meeting as the opposition party representative. She talks about how she presented a quick and concise speech on the budget. And the leadership mocked her. “This is a trauma for me from my youth,” she said.

After the speech, during another meeting, the man in charge wanted to address Jana’s speech. “He made it seem that I insulted them. And this is the point with assertive talking with black women, right? The moment you just talk with a bit of confidence […] I come across as apparently I am mad.”

That was one microaggression** too many. This was followed by an outburst of tears in the toilet. No one bothered to go and see her, except for one member of the commune staff.

Interestingly, when I shared with Jana a moment when a small disrespectful and sexist comment had completely affected my mood on the day we met, she told me, without even knowing the details of the situation, that microaggressions are like mosquito bites. One is harmless. But if you get too many, it can be quite disturbing.

Whilst Jana is aware that she did not have all the knowledge she needed to prepare her for this experience, she speaks openly about her evolution from a naive but hopeful young woman of colour who wanted to make a difference, to someone who takes every opportunity to give visibility to people who, like her, felt too marginalised.

“I'm not sharing the struggles. Yeah I'm just sharing the results of everything. And it creates this image […] to younger Janas that I'm just kind of like Superwoman. But they don't see that I went through major depressions. They don't see that I cry every other week thinking about my brother that is disabled. […] So even though it's bling bling on my social media and it's working… it doesn't mean that there's stuff that I'm not dealing with,” she said.

We also discussed Obama, hailed as one of the best American presidents and winner of a Nobel Peace Prize even though he could be classified as a war criminal. And I'm not talking about the fact that he has not decriminalised cannabis in the United States of America. I'm talking about the drone strikes he ordered that killed thousands of innocent civilians.

“During his presidency, Obama approved the use of 563 drone strikes that killed approximately 3,797 people. In fact, Obama authorized 54 drone strikes alone in Pakistan during his first year in office. One of the first CIA drone strikes under President Obama was at a funeral, murdering as many as 41 Pakistani civilians,” says ‘Prince Williams’, an anonymous writer for the Harvard Political Review in 2021.

“I am not agreeing with all he did politically. At the same time I acknowledge that being a political leader on that level is not always the easiest to navigate. […] But it's about the access that this foundation gives me. It's access.[…] I'm building on a new generation of public young leaders in Luxembourg with a mediator on the side. And that is something that wouldn't have happened if I wasn't getting this attention [from being a part of Obama’s foundation],” she said.

I wanted to end this fruitful conversation with the answer Jana gave me when I asked her about her dream to improve the Luxembourgish political landscape and the building of its community spaces.

“Politics is maybe [seen as] one of the least respected jobs on the planet. Not only [because our] local councillors and mayors are not being paid accordingly to do [their] job. […] But, it's also a place where our talents don't go into […] and the talent in our society prefers going to work for Amazon, then actually becoming public servants. And that's a huge problem,” she said.

For her, it is necessary to make political education accessible to aspiring politicians. We need to train the next generation of young talent, who don't always have the privilege of growing up in an environment where they have access to it. Jana also suggests improving our community of support so that others don't have to go through the same experiences she did. Finally, based on equal representation, she also advocates that private actors invest in democracy through different projects set up by the younger generation.

She believes that this type of investment is the quickest way to open doors and provide the necessary resources to support future leaders. A step in the right direction to make political action available for all future generations of this country regardless of their background?

*tokenism: the practice of making only a superficial or symbolic effort to do a particular thing, especially by recruiting a small number of people from under-represented groups in order to give the appearance of sexual or racial equality within a workforce. (Source: Oxford Dictionary)

**microagression: a statement, action, or incident regarded as an instance of indirect, subtle, or unintentional discrimination against members of a marginalized group such as a racial or ethnic minority. (Source: Oxford Dictionary)


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