Interview with Ian Afful

There is no place for racism at Mercedes-Benz.

March 21, 2023 – To mark the International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination, we sat down with Ian Afful to speak about racism in everyday life and his own personal experiences. Among other things, Ian Afful is the Functional Compliance Officer of Mercedes-Benz Mobility.

Mr Afful, you are the Functional Compliance Officer. What exactly does this involve?

As the Functional Compliance Officer at Mercedes-Benz Mobility, my task is to ensure compliance with applicable laws and regulations. These can be laws but also Group-internal regulations, agreements and standards. As the Compliance organisation, we integrate these laws and regulations into the business processes of Mercedes-Benz. We also try to identify and minimise risks at an early stage, and train and advise the employees.

From your professional point of view as a compliance expert: How do you classify racism?

Our internal basic law, the Integrity Code, regulates the principles according to which our actions are oriented – be it when dealing with each other within the Group or towards customers and business partners. We need this to continuously be able to orientate ourselves to this and have a binding standard for our behaviour. Any form of discrimination, so including racism, contradicts the way we see ourselves and there is no place for this at Mercedes-Benz. Our common task must be to create a fair, appreciative and cooperative working environment. According to Article 3 of the German Basic Law, all persons are equal and may not be discriminated against – racism is thus forbidden. It goes without saying that anyone who behaves in a racist manner or makes racist remarks is committing a compliance violation, the ultimate consequence of which can be dismissal. For people affected by racism, the effects of racist behaviour or remarks are much more far-reaching though.

As part of our internal campaign on respectful interaction with which we want to sensitise the workforce to the topics of discrimination, bullying and sexual harassment, you have agreed to speak to us about racism. What do you think about the campaign?

I like this initiative, and I particularly like the fact that it was about the less clear areas – about experiences where you are sometimes not quite sure yourself: Was that something racist? This is a topic that I have concerned myself with for a while now. I thought that I would speak about this.

Ian Afful.
Ian Afful.

Can you give us an example?

It is not so long ago that a Dutch colleague asked me: "Where do you actually come from?" And I said: "I was born in London and I grew up in Hamburg." He said: "What, really?" And then I answered: "You mean where did my ancestors come from? They came from Ghana." He looked at me and said: "I would not have thought that at all. Based on your skin colour, I would have guessed the Congo more." So I looked at him and said: "Tell me, what is the name of that football team that I always mix up with Cameroon? Oh yeah, Holland!" And then we both laughed, and he said: "Point taken." For me, the colleague is not racist, but was simply insensitive. However, the statements could have had a racist background.

Where does racism start for you?

I personally have not yet found a clear-cut definition that fits all instances. It is of course essentially about what a behaviour or comment triggers in the listener and whether it hurts the person. But in my opinion, it also very much depends on how it is meant. It thus depends on the specific situation and the intention of the counterpart. And again: It is not about the blatant, clearly racist insults, it's about the grey areas. As shown by the example that I just gave: I personally differentiate here between insensitive people and racists.

As soon as I have the impression that something could be meant in a racist manner, I always make the test: I try to find out what the intention of the counterpart is. I ask questions and deepen the discussion with the other person to gain additional information.

Other people may define racism or the impression of having experienced racism differently than I do - and that is their right. That's why it is so important to create an awareness of this topic and highlight grey areas.

In your opinion, is it even possible to ask the question of origin without offending my counterpart?

Why even ask this? To then insinuate something negative along the lines of: "Is your country still so underdeveloped?" Or to say something else disparaging? Then this is racist. Or is a person asking because they are really interested? In my experience, most people who ask me where I come from are genuinely interested. For example, they have a connection to the country. I ask this question a lot myself. A few years ago, I started to learn the Persian language Farsi. I love the sound of this language and had many friends from Iran when I was at school. Once I was sitting in a taxi and I asked the driver where he was from and whether he spoke Farsi. The taxi driver did in fact come from Iran, and so I trotted out my few sentences in Farsi. The two of us had a good laugh and chat.

What about your specific experiences in everyday work?

I'll give you an example. During my career, which now spans 35 years, there have been quite a few times when colleagues meeting me for the first time would speak very loudly and slowly. Sometimes I have to laugh because it is just weird. Most of them are quite embarrassed about it afterwards, it turns out. There are other examples in a similar vein, but I won't go into them. Despite this, I enjoy the environment in which I currently work. When a colleague speaks about me, it is about Ian Afful in his function and not about non-work-related things. This is how I want it to continue to be for me in future as well, and for everyone else.

If there was something you could change now: What exactly would you like to see?

I would of course want there to be no such thing as racism. This is unfortunately not very realistic. Perhaps a good target would be that we all discuss the grey areas in more depth. People can then behave correctly themselves and also help others to do the same. As shown in the internal corporate campaign on interacting respectfully with others, we are all different, almost everywhere. This must become clear to everyone.


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