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: