“I love the Südländer men” was one of the most common messages I would receive when I was still on dating apps, oftentimes as the cherry on top to complete the recipe. Apparently, it was deemed to be a compliment for some but to me, it was downright offensive. It only showed how the lack of race talk in Germany failed to educate people that racial fetishization was not a suave thing and it was blatant objectification. I was never part of the macho and aggressive Südländer stereotype they had in their fantasies and I was never willing to be, to the much disappointment of my suitors.
Conversations about race can be very difficult in Germany, even in our city that people regard as one of the most open-minded and equal places in the world. Self-defensive reactions to race talks and complete rejection of the conversation led our society to define racism differently from other parts of the world, creating multiple misconceptions about it. Some of these experiences of racism in Berlin are narrated by a series of short video portraits called DIRE-Logues by BlackBrownBerlin co-founder Chanel Knight. Established in 2018, BlackBrownBerlin aims to empower POC communities in Berlin and beyond, and speak up about discrimination and misrepresentation. You can read our previous interview with them here to learn about their story, mission, and activities.
“…when I’ve had conversations with regard to race, it’s usually, the response I’ve gotten is a lot of defensiveness, ‘I’m a good person, I would never do that, I had holocaust education in school, we learned all about these things’ and that they’re done, and there’s not been very much in the way of continuing education on these things…” says Yvette Robertson, a common reaction you would encounter in a conversation about race. Somehow the race talk is only limited to Nazi-era atrocities and there is no more room for alternative ways of racism or how to tackle them.
There have been times I would be shut down about a racist experience because it would either be an exaggeration or my own misunderstanding of the situation when I recount the story. Later I found out I was not alone in my predicament. This is mainly because the definition of racism evolved differently in Germany from other parts of the world, and non-aggressive forms of racism such as racial fetishization, racial compliments, and ‘positive’ generalizations that seem to be so innocuous that leave the victim not knowing how to respond, are not well-acquainted by the society.
Faris Amin, a Palestinian classical cellist and storyteller, talks about his experiences with racism in Berlin and how it can affect every part of your life;
“So racism is a problem in Berlin as much as it is a problem anywhere else, I would say the special thing about racism in Berlin is that it’s very subtle, it can be quite visible and physical but most of the time it’s subtle and that’s what makes me feel choked sometimes, makes me feel like I can’t breathe somehow because there’s no respect, there’s no recognition in the city, there’s a general atmosphere of confusion that the city is going through, maybe a transitional period of time, where people are trying to understand who are those people that are coming to live in our country, in our space, to some it might be like we’re invading their space, so they, there’s different reactions to it.”
Racism is not necessarily physical, verbal, or openly aggressive. We experience it in very subtle ways when we take the train home, go to a shop, or simply deal with a bureaucratic process. It can be found encoded in the way people interact with you, sometimes a complete rejection of your existence in a queue, avoidance of eye contact, eye-rolling for not speaking the language efficiently enough, ignoring a question, or simply throwing a passive-aggressive “nein”. Attributing such behaviors to a Berliner prototype or how the city is, in general, would be too much of a euphemism. Long and friendly conversations and big smiles are not unfamiliar in the city, just depending on where you come from and how you look.
Community Organizer Vicky Truong explains how cultural integration and the progress of anti-racism work in Berlin.
“…They still see it as a more anthropological term than a socio-political one and we all know this, we’re living in a very racialized society so for inclusion to happen I race definitely needs to be acknowledged and more things need to be done, for example within the program here today, the “Was Divers Macht” event it is talked about I think once in the program racial profiling with police and whatnot, but in terms of as a whole there’s still a lot of people who I think are perhaps too fragile to speak about this and if we really want to ensure that we’re moving together as a community within Berlin as a whole, more people need to be involved and aware and ready to have the difficult talks and engage and unlearn.”
You can visit BlackBrownBerlin here to have a look at their Dire-logues series and personal stories from fellow PoC Berliners.