Emre Çelik (he/they)

We need to create more spaces where open conversations about discrimination and injustice can happen - without fear of retaliation.
© Jens Oellermann
Who are you and what do you do?

My name is Emre and I work as an Employee Relations Partner at Google. I am also the founder of Occtopus and a human rights activist.

What do you deal with as an Employee Relations Partner and how common is this role in Germany so far?

I assess fairness and context in workplace investigations, performance management and restructuring. I’m also responsible for identifying potential, employment law risks. All of this is based on Google’s culture, values, and integrity.

The anti-discrimination office is provided for by law in Germany. So theoretically, every company that operates here should have a complaints office. However, it never ceases to amaze me how few companies have a point of contact and how inadequately prepared they are on how to deal with discrimination cases. Our society is characterized by misogyny, racism, heteronormativity and patriarchal structures, which also exist in the workplace. It is therefore critical to success to create spaces in which open conversations about discrimination and injustice can take place, supported by subject matter experts.

If you could change one thing in Germany, what would it be?

I would offer unconscious bias training in schools. Because we should start as early as possible to achieve a tolerant society.

How do you ensure on a day-to-day basis that people come to you, or how does such a process work?

Only if companies stand up for diversity and continuously anchor this in their corporate culture through training will something change. Here, for example, we emphasize the possibility of contacting the complaints office with concerns. With us, there are no fixed guidelines, but rather various ways to get in touch. This can be done anonymously, by stating one’s name, via colleagues, superiors or directly via the works council.

What were some particularly impactful experiences for you that shaped you and perhaps also inspired you?

My own experiences drove me to seek justice, since I was not allowed to experience it myself as a child. I was always looking for someone to whom I could unload my worries, my suffering and my pain and ask for advice.

In the German community, for example, I was always advised to stay in my Turkish community. There was always a division in my childhood between the Turkish neighborhoods with stony soccer fields and the German soccer fields with green grass and goals. This created a clear division. The German bubble was often considered attractive, as it symbolized prosperity and beauty for many of us. However, qua migration background, I found myself in the Turkish bubble and felt uncomfortable there as well, as I did not want to settle for the lack of perspective that prevailed there. Many accepted this separation as fate, but I always questioned these inequalities and also repeatedly suggested merging the soccer games – which, however, failed from both sides.

Later, at my school, I often became the point of contact during breaks when problems arose. I usually knew how to react and who to contact to offer help. It became apparent early on that I had a passion for issues that revolved around understanding, education, and equity of opportunity.



So that means, even though you grew up with your family in Germany and have German citizenship, you felt like you didn't belong?

Exactly, it was never a question of “I am German”, but always “I am a (German) Turk with a migration history”. I was always pigeonholed by other students, while I naturally saw myself quite differently. This labeling led to the fact that at some point I began to accept this categorization as my true identity. In fact, I was always striving to just be myself.

Then later during my quest for justice, I ventured professionally in human resources to handle complex cases that others avoided. I clarified facts and implemented a system within the company I was working for at the time to adequately protect both victims and perpetrators. As a result, I attracted the interest of other companies in my work. Today, I am a multi-award-winning anti-discrimination expert. These recognitions showed me that maybe I wasn’t as wrong as I thought for years.

Everything I was once denied, I reclaimed along the way, and today I can speak openly about myself, my background, my experiences, and my humanity. I have reclaimed my own freedom.

How did you keep your energy and motivation during that time?

Trauma plays a significant role in this context. If you are a migrant child in Germany, you are always given the feeling of not being “enough” at school or in your job. Yet I am already perfect and “enough” as a human being.

Therefore, I strived ceaselessly for excellence and tried to shed my migrant roots. I longed to be someone else and live in the fiction of others. This was ultimately the driving force behind my success and suffering.

The lack of perspective also accompanies me incessantly. I lacked a socially strong network, lobby or relationships, fears accompanied me and this has remained so until today. I always have in mind that I have to protect my relatives from poverty in old age. My drive is therefore always to become even more successful in order to be able to support and minimize the consequences of discrimination for my family.

Germany is undoubtedly an immigration country. Why do you think so many prejudices still exist and what can we all do to break these recurring patterns?

I see a clear difference between a country of immigration and successful integration. A country of immigration should actively integrate people who work and pay taxes here, as well as offer protection and refuge to people who have lost everything and had to flee. But they are often put into low-wage jobs instead of being given equal rights. “Equality” in Germany often extends to the tip of one’s own nose and then stops there.

This is evident in the frequent non-recognition of foreign qualifications and the extreme experiences of racism and discrimination. Above all, however, it is crucial that we in Germany recognize our major discrimination problem which, thanks to historically consolidated resentments with fascist/authoritarian connotations, also falls on fertile ground in the famous “bourgeois middle” and thus puts the already marginalized group of people further in danger of becoming victims of violent attacks, mobbing and exclusion.

These intergenerational traumas become entrenched in marginalized families and then manifest themselves in disproportionately high crime rates, unemployment, and low educational participation. This often leads to a false assumption in the broader society that these problems are inherent or due to cultural differences, rather than understanding them as the result of years of discrimination and exclusion.

Where do you see the two biggest levers for making our society more inclusive, and why are employers and education so crucial?

In my view, we have two major levers here: on the one hand, it’s people with power, money and influence. Change has to come from them. Through my involvement in the corporate environment, I am concerned that employers take up these issues.

The second lever, and the one that is more sustainable in the long term, is of course education. We need to break down prejudices in the school and education system in order to create awareness among children at an early age. In this way, we lay the foundation for a diverse society based on individuality rather than normativity.

In parallel to your role at Google, you founded the highly regarded learning platform Occtopus for families to playfully demonstrate prejudices. How does that work exactly?

Various everyday encounters with children have shown me that parents are often unsure how to discuss topics such as diversity, discrimination and racism with their children. It is so important that children are given the opportunity to ask questions and that these questions are answered appropriately. Their perceptions of themselves are often shaped by sociological influences they observe. For example, they may assume that only men can be pilots if they only see male pilots. Such early assumptions, whether about gender roles or other aspects, can later lead to identity conflicts, speechlessness, or even depression. And this is where we come in, playfully emphasizing the importance of dialogue between parents and children. We support parents in reconciling their children’s views with reality. A simple example is a cognitive puzzle in which children are asked to link different professions with different people. This can reveal whether children are thinking in stereotypes that parents may not be aware of. Based on these findings, parents can then have conversations to talk openly about ideas, worldviews, and clear up stereotypes, ambiguities, and misunderstandings.

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