Google+ Black in Berlin: Talking about Racism | The Needle: Berlin

Black in Berlin: Talking about Racism



Many North American friends have written in the past day asking me about a recent article in the New York Times about racism in the German capital.


The article interviews a black American artist, Isaiah Lopaz, who has lived in Berlin, like me, for almost a decade. We have a few other things in common: he is also gay, and from his photos I’m guessing he also lives in Kreuzberg/Neukölln (that’s at least where most of them are taken).  He’s got a blog too (one should note that he talks more sophisticatedly about Germany than the New York Times article, which simplifies his story). And instead of sitting back and reconciling himself to people asking if he’s a drug dealer––because that’s what they’re used to seeing of black people in the party spots of Berlin––he wears t-shirts with educational messages to confront his clueless public. His white shirts, with stark black lettering in English, say: “Where can we buy drugs?” or “A Nigger is the same as a Nazi” or “I’m having a party, can you bring African food?”


So, is Berlin really as racist as the article makes out? Friends and readers have been writing in. Maybe they even ask me with hope in their voices, that I might say it’s not so-–Berlin is that super-cool, refugee-friendly, leftist stronghold, right? And we need more of Berlin, don’t we, in the era of Trump?


You might not like my reply, but: unfortunately, Berlin is a city of micro-aggressions towards people of colour. If you want to read more about this––describing the experiences of Asian friends living in the city–– you can read this recent post and the comments section from many Berliners accusing me of being preposterously politically correct.


(Sidenote: people use the ‘stop being so PC’ card way too often as a way to legitimise intolerance. Wasn’t the original criticism of PC supposed to call out the hypocrisy of people who act PC but don’t think it, leaving their intolerance to fester behind a wall of doublespeak?)


Now, not for a moment do I think I know what it is really like for Afro-Germans, because I am not black and easily ‘pass’ as a white German. What I can say, though, is that the article does miss the historical context surrounding the racism they experience. The context doesn’t make things much better, but I think it’s important for the discussion.


There are hardly any black people in Berlin––about 1.5% of the population of the city. This is mostly because Germany only briefly had African colonies  (an unfortunately largely forgotten affair, with brutal mass killings in Namibia) and abolished slavery at the beginning of the nineteenth century. Most of the city was, for the latter half of the twentieth century, behind the iron curtain without much connection to much of the world. Few people who were racially different made their way into East Germany apart from a small number of Vietnamese guestworkers  and a handful of black Africans coming to study at technical universities from other Communist states. The situation in West Germany was rather different, where black Americans were visible as GIs, and the state continued racist policies in the 50s as they confronted a rise of  “black babies”. In short, there are divergent histories of contact with black people in East and West, and also state policy towards them.


The most visible presence of black people in Berlin today are migrants, many of whom have fallen into the drug trade in Görlitzer park in Kreuzberg, creating the disheartening and racist expectation among some ignorant people that all black people in the neighbourhood are selling drugs. That most people in much of Berlin don’t have much experience of black people and see them only in the drug trade is one explanation for the micro-aggressions that Lopaz has experienced. Broadly speaking, I expect his interlocutors are coming from a place of real ignorance.


But while in Berlin black people experience micro-aggressions from time to time, back in the US they are truly afraid of macro-aggressions (from police, the prison system, in a society full of guns). I think they would agree that they feel rather safer in Berlin than many US States, esp. in the era of Trump.


The article puts Lopaz’s experience in the context of the refugee influx, and Germans struggling to deal with the arrival of so much ‘difference’ in the past year. But this tactic by the New York Times––relating his story to refugees–– strikes me as just a hook: have you noticed how every other story about Germany is obliged to link to the refugee question?  The experience of black Germans is quite different from that of the influx of what are mostly Middle Eastern refugees from Syria, Afghanistan and Iraq, despite the article’s claims. Middle Eastern people have a long history in Germany, esp. since the Turkish guestworkers arrived en-masse in the 1960s. They face different challenges than Afro-Germans.


Where does this leave us?


In short: YES— micro-aggressions happen in Berlin all the time. They come from a place of ignorance, and I do think that many people here simply need to be educated to correct a widespread problem of objectification that has been identified by more than one black commentator (read here and here).


Is it unfair to compare Lopez’s experiences broadly to that of white bloggers living in Japan who talk about what it is like to be the ‘other’ for the first time? Even in Tokyo––which is admittedly an even more homogeneous society than Berlin––white people get tired of what one writer calls “innocent racism”: being asked “Are you an English teacher?” or “Are you American?” It is assumed that they don’t know anything about Japan or don’t know how to use chopsticks (and given fork and knife immediately). But expats in Japan have also told me that it’s hard for them to rent apartments as foreigners, that people sometimes point and laugh and say audibly “gaijin” (“foreigner”), or move their children away (“gaijin!”).  But then black people in Japan apparently have a much worse time of it, asking the question whether there is something prevalently worse about racism towards black people internationally.


This question of what it is like to be judged out of context, of course, returns us the final intriguing question of whether we can talk about racism towards black people in Germany in the same way we can talk about it in America. I wonder why Lopaz is communicating his message in English on the shirts––he’s in a German -speaking country after all and says he speaks German. This makes me wonder who the audience is.


Should black Americans arriving in Germany have the same expectations, or read micro-aggressions in the same way as they do back home? I don’t think so.


Racism towards black people in Germany is not necessarily a thread of a wider narrative that can be linked back to narratives of racism in America: to its unequal racial dynamics, its history of slavery. There is no universal story of injustice to black people, because there are few and perhaps no universal stories.


Germany’s own challenge is different from America’s: to extend the lessons of the Holocaust beyond anti-semitism and to reactivate debate on the widely forgotten extermination of the Herero and Namaqua in Namibia. And we should remember that Germany’s own popularly imagined and most populous discriminated underclass are Turkish-Germans.


Make no mistake. Racism towards black people is prevalent and nasty in Germany. I’m thinking now of an instance of racial profiling I just saw on a Swiss train at the border, where only people who looked  black or middle eastern were asked for their passports. I can imagine this happening in Germany too, although less often probably than in Switzerland.  And there are a lot of people in Saxony and the edges of East Berlin who’ve rarely seen a black person.


But are the micro-aggressions more clueless or malicious? I think in a country where black people are in-fact insiders, and white people are interwoven into their narrative of injustice––as in the United States––the assumption that they are malicious is well justified.


There is something just a little bit colonial about assuming that the everyday micro-aggressions in Berlin mean the same thing that they do back home, or that one’s reply to it should be in English. Write those t-shirts in German! and you will reach a public that might simply be a little more clueless than one expects. Hopefully they will put hand to face and understand how their assumptions are hurtful. They might even be more receptive than those people back home who have been trained all their lives to hide their deep-seated racism. This is the real contribution that people who come to Germany from racially-fraught societies, with more sophisticated ways of talking about race than here, can make. It is something we have to give.



These two recent articles on the Needle also discuss questions of racism in the German capital:


Rosa Caleta: Jamaica’s gay embassy in Berlin


Racism and who belongs to the city in Berlin?



  1. Helen wrote:

    An excellent and thoughtful piece. I wonder if you have suggestions for how, as people from places with more sophisticated ways of talking about race, we can introduce and foment such conversations in wider society.

    • I think Isaiah’s project of t-shirts is actually quite ingenious. But they really need to be in German to work in Berlin. I discussed another idea with some friends: of doing short spots to show in theatres before movies to educate people about racism. Something similar was done in Canada for immigrants, to sensitise people to the fact that maybe the person cleaning their office has an MBA from a country whose credentials Canada does not recognise. A group of white men sit at a boardroom table, in the TV spot, and can’t figure out the economics of a marketing strategy, while a Georgian woman cleans the windows. She finally intervenes and expertly explains the economics to them: “don’t assume an immigrant is not as well educated as you are”. There are of course plenty of maliciously racist people out there, but it would be good to reach those who simply need some cultural sensitisation training in a creative way. I’d be interested in what other ideas you have.

  2. Kay wrote:

    This is what you are saying: because Black people have it worse in America, Isaiah should not express his frustration at a lesser amount of racism in Berlin without full addenda about the context of history and place. Although Black people may have been murdered in concentration camps, oppressed here and there in Germany, scale is what is relevant. Intent is magic, and you’re in Germany so speak German.

    • Hi Kay, I very clearly say in the article that Isaiah is providing a real service to Berlin by printing these t-shirts and educating people with them. It’s important to do that in a society with racism like Berlin, even if racism is often more violent in America. I agree with you that it’s important that his message be communicated in German. Best, Joseph

      • Kay wrote:

        You acknowledge racism exists but not widespread white supremacist thought anchored in international history. You’re saying that because there aren’t that many Black people in Germany, and we’re not even being murdered here like in the States, Germans can’t be racist in the same way; when dehumanizing comments are made out of ignorance, accountability isn’t as relevant. You’re scrutinizing a challenge against racism. Speak out, but in a prescribed way.

        I agree with you that we need to speak out.

        • Dear Kay, Thanks much for your second comment, I don’t dispute anywhere in the article that white supremacism is widespread. This is something on which we agree, no? The article argues that talking about racism in Germany requires different tools than in the United States, because of the different history, language, and ways of dealing with the past. I agree that people who make ignorant comments are responsible for them. But the tools to educate these people are different than those with which to confront consciously malicious individuals. Best wishes, Joseph

    • James wrote:

      Sorry, what? He talks about racism in Berlin throughout the article. He’s just giving some context to show how racism expresses itself differently here from in the US because of a different context and another history. Racism is everywhere, but gets expressed differently in different places.

      Just as similar T-shirts in the US would be less effective printed in, say, German, so in Berlin German would no doubt be a better choice for the shirts. (That’s arguable, of course, given the prevalence of good English among young Germans.)

  3. Confused wrote:

    I wish this article did more, but like two of the comments above alluded, this was disappointing.

    I have nothing to add that hasn’t already been discussed. Once again, I find myself having to point out that it’s almost impossible for a non-black person, especially someone that is white, to empathise with the experiences of a black person. In addition to this, it is incredibly frustrating to see white narratives on black issues!

    • Thanks for your comment, Confused, but I think that non-black people need to be part of this discussion about racism, and to stand up against it, so that racism can be confronted and limited. Otherwise, the discussion happens in an echo-chamber (a strategy that cannot be claimed to be politically effective). We need many different narratives on issues of racism, not just ones by those who are victims of it. Also, in terms of empathy: perhaps I am too much of a humanist here, but I do think it’s possible to imagine the slights, frustrations, and injustices that others suffer: in fact this is more than ever necessary in order to live together in diverse societies.

  4. Hope Artis wrote:

    Please, do not speak for us, without direct knowledge of our experience . Your comments regarding people of African decent living in Germany, are backed by your understanding of, experiences shared with you by Berliners of African decent. Your comment that African Americans are treated worse and fear more in the United States than we do in Germany, is your incorrect, unsubstantiated opinion, based on…what evidence? What communication?
    I am an American woman of African decent who is currently visiting in Berlin. Micro-aggressions are here. Macro-aggressions are here. The racism I have encountered in Berlin, by the majority of white Germans is palpable and much greater than that anything I have encountered in the United States. I will not walk to a cafe, outside of my hotel, to a shopping center or middle of the city, alone, for that very reason.
    I appreciate your initiating the conversation and agree that to end racism, everyone one must participate in the discussion. I also respectfully request that to learn about one another’s needs, experiences, etc, we must not make assumptions or unfounded comparisons. It has taken African Americans years to obtain our rightgul place a seat at the table. You cannot know our truth, we cannot know yours, so we must speak with, share, cosole, advocate for and treat one another with dignity. No assumptions, no unfounded comparisons. These create walls where we ALL deserve acceptance, so again I ask you, please, don’t speak for us.

    • Thanks much for your sensitive and thoughtful comment, Hope. I agree very much that there should be no unfounded comparisons: for that reason it is important to point out that the experience of Black people in Germany and the experience of Black people in America cannot be conflated, and require different tools for understanding the very palpable intolerance that exists in both places, but one with different historical backgrounds. No one should speak ‘for’ Black people in either context, but everyone should be speaking ‘about’ the subject of racism, regardless of one’s race, if we want to do something about it. And one need not be of a particular race to understand intolerance––I am very much of a humanist in this regard (the experience of hatred and discrimination is something I know a thing or two about, being a minority myself, but I will not belabor the personal perspective here). What I do think is that we must be charitable with our interlocutors and extend trust. If an understanding of injustice is privatized only to its victims then we aren’t thinking very imaginatively about others’ capacity for empathy. This kind of humanism is what is necessary both to understand discrimination and to help alleviate it. It is also empathy that allows a visitor from another country, like the States, to observe racial injustice in Germany and be able to speak up against it, while simultaneously recognizing cultural differences.

  5. Timo wrote:

    I thought, that someone that is black and is from Berlin must say something here. My father came to the DDR from Ghana on academic exchange. No, we do not like when black Americans come and speak for us here. The history is different in Germany. No, things are not easy in Berlin. I am glad that some people in Berlin are finally talking about the racism problem. I do not think it is so important who is talking as long as we keep talking. We need to keep talking.

    • Thanks Timo, I’m just sorry this discussion is happening in English, and not in German so it reaches more people. I agree with you that the experience of black people in Germany (esp. East Germany) has its own particular historical dynamics that require understanding and sensitivity. Best wishes, Joseph