Why I talk about race – or: An inconvenient and painful truth

Outside of this blog, on Facebook and in the real world of Germany, people seem confused, annoyed or puzzled about me talking about race, racism and privilege a lot. Some people are just uncomfortable with the topic, others simply don’t see the necessity of engaging in it. There are also those here in Germany and elsewhere who feel offended. They want to tell me that I am wrong and that I’m just as racist for using terms like ‘white privilege’. So I thought I would write down why I talk about it, why I never wanted to and why the reason is not that I am black.

When I was still in elementary school, I didn’t understand what it meant to be black in this world. I thought I was white, with which I mean not different from anybody else around me. I did not know anything else, did not know a great number of black people. All the black people I could have looked up to or identified with were on TV and they were mostly doing comedy or making music, both of which had no significance to me, because I didn’t understand it. I didn’t view myself as different. But my environment did not let me forget what I was to them.

I thought like most white people, like your average German. Perhaps I could be best described as a white person with medium racist tendencies and a soft spot for the ‘coloreds’. I perceived the world in a racist way. When it came to Africa, for example, I wondered how we could bring more education and technology to that poor, underdeveloped continent that desperately needed our help and consisted of starving babies, warring factions and a lot of flies. Why couldn’t they just get along and share what little they had? The same is true for my understanding of Black Americans. I believed they just needed good education and then they would accomplish great things, because obviously they weren’t doing anything good for themselves at the moment. You know, gang violence and stuff. (That’s the impression you get from 80s and early 90s TV and movies!) I had a white savior complex. I was certain that the Civil Rights movement was entirely successful, racism was dead and I believed that it was all solely because of the non-violent approach of MLK jr. I didn’t grasp the ideas of the movement or of Dr. King himself. I could not have named another person involved in the struggle. And I had no idea of the high price countless black people and their supporters had to pay for their fight. Even the assassination of Martin Luther King jr, little more than 20 years before, was only an abstract thing to me. You need to be white to be that ignorant. And, like anybody around me, I thought ‘German’ could only really mean ‘white’.

But, as I said, my environment reminded me of my different appearance at every moment, so that I could never fully forget it. I was constantly told that I looked like Eddie Murphy, Michael Jackson or Bob Marley. (Search for pictures of them right now! Remember that this was the 80s, so look for an old picture of Michael. The three of them don’t look alike and I don’t look like them.) People constantly touched my hair (and they would still do that today, but it’s short now) and compared me to chocolate. I never called anybody out on this, because I didn’t know how and I didn’t want to offend these people. I was afraid, because I intuitively knew that I would be the only one with my perspective on this. (Later in life, I was proven right. They were all well-meaning and got upset and irritated, when faced with a different view on their comments. ‘But chocolate is something good!’ ‘Perhaps, but I don’t even know you! Why are you talking to me at all? Is this your standard procedure for first-encounters?’)

It was really exhausting. Only once did I call somebody a ‘speck of cream’ after they had called me the name of a German sweet, which – oh the hilarity! – is called ‘Negerkuss’, ‘negro kiss’. The term has since gone a bit out of style, thank God and political correctness, but there are a lot of Germans who are very vocal about their right to continue to use it, as it ‘is not offensive’. Period. Note that these are white people declaring that a term, which black people have explained is offensive to them, is not offensive. This is how Germans have always talked, they say, once again confirming that to be German is to be white and the white perspective is all that counts.

I didn’t understand, why I was considered to be different. People asked me things about Africa or where I came from. (Not from Africa! Never even been there!) At some point, I had to give up fooling myself. I wasn’t white and the fact that my mother was and everybody in that side of my family, didn’t matter at all. It didn’t matter that I had a German name and passport (People are always a bit surprised when they see me, since my name does not tip them off to my skin color). It didn’t matter that my grandfather and my grandmother’s brothers had fought for the Wehrmacht in WWII, it didn’t matter that my great-grandfather had fought in the Kaiser‘s army. It didn’t matter that I could trace my German family back to the early 1800s. I wasn’t German, because I wasn’t white.

So, you people who wonder about why I am so involved in topics of race, this is the answer. I didn’t want to be, it was never a topic I wanted to worry about. But I never stood a chance. If I could, I wouldn’t talk about race, but I just don’t have that privilege. If I didn’t talk about race, racism and racist structures, I would have to go along with being called racial slurs and being compared to chocolate and other brown things, because it’s oh-so-funny. I would have to accept to be racially profiled. I would have to accept that a black man could never be a German. And I would let down the future generations of people who were like me: Born to a white German, raised by white Germans, thinking like white Germans, but never accepted as just that, because of the color of their skin.

In short, I don’t fight racism because I am black. I fight racism because I was white.

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3 Responses to Why I talk about race – or: An inconvenient and painful truth

  1. Your post reminded me of a book I recently read: “The Pity of it All: A History of Jews in Germany, 1743-1933” by Amos Elon. The Jews also felt like they were not treated or considered to be “true Germans”. Many converted to a version of Christianity to try to gain some acceptance. (There were actually laws which made the Jews 2nd class citizens.) I know it isn’t the greatest of comparisons, but thought you might be interested anyway.

    “Race” is such a bizarre concept that we humans have created. And when a person is of “mixed race”, it seems, at times, even stranger. For example, the golfer Tiger Woods has a black father and an Asian mother. Yet he is categorized simply as the “black golfer”. [Don’t know why he just can’t be the golfer with the name Tiger Woods!]

    It would be interesting to know when “race” became a deciding identifier. Here’s an interesting article from 2004: http://genetics.thetech.org/ask/ask32

    I appreciate the fact that you do talk about your experiences – I know I learn much from them – so thanks!

    • I have thought about the comparison of Jewish Germans in history and non-white Germans today. Moses Hess, in the 1850s or 60s, if I am not totally off, wrote that ‘the Germans’ would never be able to ignore the noses and the curly, black hair of the Jews, even if they converted to Christianity. Generally, the Jewish experience in most of European history shows just how the ‘Othering’ of minorities (or perceived minorities) works and how relentless it is.
      And about Tiger Woods: It seems the one-drop rule is still in effect. As long as you have a black ancestor and your skin is darker because of that, you’re black. Why we can’t just be humans, is a question that in itself is sad.

  2. teachermrw says:

    And, therein lies the question: We, at least those of us who identify as Black, and, more specifically in my case, as Black Americans, have not and are not allowed to be fully human as a result of White supremacy. Chattel slavery – I’m talking about the United States here – robbed people of African descent of all semblance of humanity. Then there was the Black Codes. Then, the chain gangs. Then, Jim Crow. And, is it over? No! Black bodies continue to be maimed, murdered, mistreated.

    So, why can’t we just be humans? As long as White people continue to look at Black people as threats on the one hand, and as sub-human on the other, then, it will never be. Regardless if I, in fact, do actually consider myself as human.

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