Borders in our Heads

Borders in our Heads: What Makes our Solidarities (Selective)

Walls, barbed wire, seas – borders are diverse, determine nations and destinies. But borders also manifest themselves in our minds in the form of reference frames and thus determine our solidarity. Europe’s reaction to the Ukrainian situation highlights again: our solidarities are selective.



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Every human being carries a stock of knowledge, perceptions and truths within themselves, that does not arise arbitrarily. This inventory is our mental reference frame and is strongly influenced by our geographical location. But less tangible elements such as class, religion, nationality, education, gender identity or our own mobility also play a substantial role here. Even more important: our own reference frame determines our solidarity: it decides with whom we think and act in solidarity with.

The reactions to Putin’s escalating war of aggression in Ukraine once again cast a contradictory light on the solidarity regime of the liberal left in Germany and Europe. Established media and politicians across party lines spoke of the beginning of a “new era“1 when Russia invaded Ukraine. Activists like Sinthujan Varatharajah, Emran Feroz or Sham Jaff, on the other hand, soon pointed out that war – especially Russian-led war – has been a painful part of non-Western timelines for decades. This applies to Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria as well as many other places. Sinthujan Varatharajah writes: „Sorry to break it to you, I woke up in the same era, the same Europe, the same global order.“2

This raises the question: What does it take for frames of reference to transcend geographical boundaries, or rather, what obstacles prevent this? How do frames of reference translate into solidarity? And how can we be more sustainable and sincere in solidarity?

Crossing mental borders: A question of mobility

Berlin is an increasingly important hub of diasporic activity from WANA. Yet the city is, and perhaps always has been, a place that links endless threads: From the places of origin of the diaspora to the many stopovers on the way to Germany. In the lively bars and cafés of Berlin-Kreuzberg, one can overhear discussions on the latest events in the West Bank, the Lebanese economic crisis, developments in the Kurdish regions, or feminist movements in Istanbul. Evidently, mastery of language, e.g. Arabic or Turkish, plays a crucial role in drawing boundaries and opening windows to a conversation or a common frame of reference.

When I sit with my friends who have arrived to Berlin from Syria in the past few years, there is a wealth of shared knowledge and experience from which our conversations inevitably draw and are directed by. It can be that one love song that we all know and associate with a past love. But it can also be memories of the places we’ve stayed: Istanbul, Prague, Beirut, Leipzig.

Yet, the reasons why my friends relate to these places are often very different from my own. Most of the people who made their way from Syria to Berlin did so under enormous external pressure. They were restricted in their freedom of movement to the specific migration routes of the respective border regimes. I, on the other hand, had visited these places of my choosing: Because of my personal interest, which was irrefutably characterized by „orientalist curiosity.“3

Moving to Berlin and attending an international university first gave me access to new borders openings in my mind and then led me, as a German passport holder, to cross physical, national borders without any difficulty. I am not alone in this. Many young, white Germans in Berlin develop a personal and political interest in places beyond their national borders. This interest often reflects a need for identification, political affiliation, and deep-seated Orientalism. Whether consciously or unconsciously, the concerns, struggles, and identities of other, usually marginalized groups, serve them as a projection screen for their own longing to be part of something.

Thus, as with physical boundaries, the ability to cross cultural and political boundaries and expand one’s internal frame of reference can be linked to inequalities of nationality, class, education, etc. In turn, privileges such as being member of dominant social groups allow many no to cross the boundaries of one’s own known frame of reference. For a person who remains relatively unaffected by structural injustices, whether political, environmental, economic, and/or social, it is often easier to look the other way or not perceive injustices in the first place.

Fragile Solidarities

Because German and European frames of reference often do not extend beyond the borders of (Western) Europe, white discourses on global conflicts can easily become one-dimensional. Who and where we pay attention to is directly reflected in who and where certain forms of solidarity are granted or denied. Who is able to give or receive solidarity depends on existing power structures.

Perhaps the most telling example of selective solidarity materializing at border walls and wire fences guarded by police is the sudden opening of the Polish border to refugees holding Ukrainian passports. Simultaneously, people fleeing WANA – often from war zones with Russian involvement – are forcibly pushed back and left without any help. The fact that at the border, skin color and/or being European is a criterion for who is allowed into the country is directly related to the selectivity expressed in the attention Europeans pay to various crisis areas.4

Sinthujan Varatharajah points out that even in white Eurocentric discourses that extend beyond Europe, for example to Palestine, Syria, or Sudan, attention functions along racialized hierarchies. Varatharajah observes that white Germans like to show solidarity with places and causes that they can use as projections for their identity assertion as activists.5 Struggles that do not receive media attention, on the other hand, are completely ignored. In this sense, the media are also linked to global systems of power. Issues such as the struggle of Tamils for justice after the genocide perpetrated by the Sri Lankan state are overlooked.6

When activists from non-European crisis contexts point out these contradictions, their critique should not be dismissed as „whataboutism.“ Understanding and addressing the links between power, reference frames reference, and solidarity is urgently needed in an increasingly globalized world. Journalist Sham Jaff comments on the discussion about the unequal treatment of Ukrainian passport holders and non-passport holders:

„Everything is connected. The fact that some benefit from racism and others do not does not make the situation more bearable. It only becomes ‚bearable‘ when we start advocating for all people in need.“7

Sham Jaff

„Everything is connected. The fact that some benefit from racism and others do not does not make the situation more bearable. It only becomes ‚bearable‘ when we start advocating for all people in need.“ 7

Sham Jaff

Connecting the Dots: Understanding Solidarity in a Larger Context

The recent exposure of selective solidarities in Europe raises the question: Can we be equally in solidarity with all struggles, with all victims of crises – can we break down all mental barriers, include all places in our own reference frames? The answer, of course, is no. But I would like to suggest two ways to assess what we can pay attention to and how we can stand in solidarity with others.

First, I need to ask myself: what boundaries define my frame of reference and what role does my nationality, class, skin color, or ethnic background, among other things, play in that? How is what I pay attention to influenced by political decisions, drive for profit, or the media? While awareness of this alone will not change what we see and hear or what we care about, making these inner boundaries visible can empower us to consciously transcend them.

The second step is to keep connecting the dots between the various causes with which we declare our solidarity. In this way, we can go beyond pulling individual threads in a complex network and get to the root of global injustices.

Pauline Jäckels


  1. ZEIT ONLINE (2022): Die Rede des Bundeskanzlers im Wortlaut, scholz-regierungserklaerung-ukraine-rede (last access: 14.05.2022).
  2. Varatharajah, Sinthujan (@varathas) (2022). Online: (last access: 14.05.2022).
  3. Siehe auch: Jäckels, Pauline (2021). Sechs Jahre „Willkommenskultur“: Neuer Deutscher Orientalismus. Online: (last access: 14.05.2022).
  4. Siehe auch: Winkler, Dominik (2022). Auf dem Markt der Solidarität. Online: (last access: 14.05.2022).
  5. Varatharajah, Sinthujan (@varathas) (2022). Online: (last access: 14.05.2022).
  6. Tamil Guardian (2022): Sri Lankan High Commission decries recognition of Tamil genocide within Canada. Online: (last access: 14.05.2022).
  7. Jaff, Sham (2022): Tweet. Online: (last access: 14.05.2022).

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