I’m yet another black guy! – Or: Yeah, sorry, it really – again! – is about race.

I am not Samuel L. Jackson. I am not Laurence Fishburne. I’m yet another black guy. In case you are wondering why I have to make such a statement, watch this short (hilarious!) clip:

In this clip, an entertainment reporter asks Samuel L. Jackson about a commercial, which did actually feature Laurence Fishburne and not good old Samuel. Samuel L. Jackson then goes ahead and scolds him for his mistake. The reporter apologizes several times, while the studio crew laughs in the background, perhaps because they are seeing a promotion coming their way. (Maybe somebody set him up by telling him to ask about the SuperBowl ad?)

A lot of social media comments I read, said that Jackson was overreacting and that it was an honest mistake on the part of the reporter and that this has nothing to do with race or racism. I beg to differ. But let’s get a few things out of the way first:

  • The interview continues after Jackson’s reaction. He doesn’t yell, curse or  get up and leave. He just told the reporter he was an idiot for not knowing his stuff and then went on with the show. That’s not overreacting, that’s reacting and making jokes.
  • The reporter apologized. Good. Yet, on a professional level, if you are an entertainment reporter and don’t do your research on the person you are interviewing properly, you’re not doing your job. Yes, there are forgivable mistakes, like slips of the tongue. (Even if I don’t understand why you would say ‘gay’ instead of ‘blind‘.) But this is not one of them. Because Laurence Fishburne and Samuel L. Jackson do not look alike, they are not the same age and their names don’t sound alike either. He confused the two, because they are both black. And that’s the problem.

Have you ever been mistaken for somebody else? I guess you probably have. I haven’t. I was always one of a very small number of black people growing up in my community and I stood out because I had long hair while all the other black guys had short hair or shaved heads. Yet, as I have said in a prior post about race, people told me I looked just like Bob Marley, Eddy Murphy or 80s Michael Jackson. In other words, I looked just like that black guy they saw on TV. But I really don’t look like either one of them, and none of them look alike and none of us four look like Laurence Fishburne or Samuel L. Jackson.

Now, if you’ve grown up mostly among white people, it is possible that you don’t agree with this last part. You might have some trouble telling these actors and musicians apart. And if you see a broadcast showing a group of Africans, you might even think that they are indistinguishable from each other. And they are. To you. Because you’re ignorant. And I don’t mean ‘bad person ignorant’. I mean ‘never needed to tell black people apart when I grew up, only white people, so now I see all the differences in the faces of white people and can’t fathom how anyone could not tell them apart but struggle with black people or (God behold!) Asians’ ignorant.

On this level, not being able to tell two black people apart, is not so much racist as it is a personal, forgivable and amendable(!) fault. You never had to, because not only were your surroundings dominated by the presence of white people, but also the media. TV, movies and newspapers all show a lot of white faces. Not being able to tell white people apart makes life harder in the Western world.

But this is a sign of white privilege. It is possible to avoid having to be among a majority of people of another race or even see them at all. Therefore, you do not have to be able to tell them apart. It is different for people of color, in the United States and in Europe. If we want to lead a ‘normal life’, we have to go into situations where we are the minority most of the time. We can’t watch TV without seeing a lot of people, who don’t look like us, and very few people who do. Being able to tell Bill and Bob apart is a necessity. (And, by the way, it is also a sign of respect.)

So if a white person refuses to learn to tell people of other races apart, they take full advantage of their privilege and are being disrespectful at the very least. If a white person tells a black person (or any other PoC): “I can’t tell you people apart!”, what they are actually saying is that they do not see why they should be bothered with telling them apart. It is almost the epitome of denying another person’s individuality and humanity. They are saying: “I don’t see you, and I think it’s cute, so I giggle about it. And I don’t think it is necessary to see you. You are not important.”

This is maximized when you are talking to a person who is famous and has been in many movies. Here is a black man who has achieved visibility in a world that was and is not the most supportive to people like him (albeit he is also somewhat type-cast, but we take what we can get). And still, he has to deal with mechanisms of oppression that tell him: “No matter what you do, you are not important!” In all honesty, I think Samuel L. Jackson underreacted.

(And before any of you post videos of black stand up comedians saying how they can’t tell white people apart and ask me about ‘reverse racism’: a. There is no such thing as reverse racism. b. Please learn how jokes work, how punch lines function and all that.)

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There are no gays and lesbians in a perfect world – Or: Questioning labels

Incident 1

When I was a child, about eight or nine years old, I talked with my mother about the term ‘gay’ (‘schwul’ in German is exclusively a term for gay men). I had come home from school and stated that all women were gay. She explained to me how I had misunderstood the term and that ‘gay’ (‘schwul’) didn’t mean ‘a person (male or female) who likes men’.

 Incident 2

During my training to become a kindergarten teacher, I took a course on intercultural education. It was team taught by one of the psychology teachers and a teacher from university, who was also a Turkish immigrant. We talked about social norms and at one point, the topic was manliness, he said this (or something to this effect) to the women in my class: ‘Manliness is very important to you! You know that you would never love and be with a man who was gay.’ My classmates did not understand what he meant by the term ‘a man who was gay’. In their understanding, a man couldn’t have been gay and then stopped being gay.

 Incident 3

A few weeks ago, the German football player Thomas Hitzlsperger came out as gay. He said that after 30 years, he had come to the conclusion that he preferred to live with another man.

What do these incidents have in common? In none of these case is homosexuality seen as an inherently negative thing or something that should be avoided. The fact that there is a discourse about it at all shows that it is not taboo. However, it is also clear that it is not ‘normal’. Being gay or lesbian, is something that needs to be defined and declared to be accepted by the wider society.

See this short video of Judith Butler on the consequences of homosexuality being more acceptable:

Once more people identify as gay or lesbian, it becomes more thinkable and more acceptable to be gay or lesbian.

But the acceptance of an identification as gay or lesbian comes at a price. This can be seen in the later two incidents above. For the members of my class, there was no sense in a past tense for ‘being gay’. If you at one point had declared your sexuality, it stays that way and has always been just that. It’s retroactive. In the view of the public, all of Thomas Hitzlspergers relationships he might ever have had with women are at the very least a mistake on his part or in the most extreme sense a sham to cover up his sexuality from the extremely homophobic world of sports.

Another example is Chirlane McCray, who in 1979 came out as lesbian. In 1994, she married the now-mayor of New York, Bill De Blasio. In most of the articles about the couple, there is always at least an undertone of confusion on the part of the author when it comes to her sexuality. Others plain out declare her to be a ‘former’ lesbian. In any case, people struggle with her not using a label for her sexuality and wonder why she doesn’t just come out as bisexual.

In my view, our society is slowly becoming more accepting of male homosexuality and, to a lesser degree, also of female homosexuality. But while these ‘options’ of sexuality become available, they at the same time become restrictive. It’s okay to be gay, but you better be gay for the rest of your life, or all of your gay relationships will be declared invalid. A lesbian, who gets married to a man, must have been just fooling around or going through a phase. Our society can only accept those things, for which it has a name. ‘So, pick one and stick with it, or you become a problem.’ This could be the slogan when it comes to tolerance of different ‘lifestyles’. (I have written in another post here, why I find that term offensive.)

I would be misunderstood, if this was taken as a call for people to come out as bisexual. That, again, is just a label and a category we are starting to come to terms with. (However, bisexuals have the peculiar dilemma of being declared gay/lesbian or straight once they find a life-long partner or enter a committed relationship. ‘He was always gay, he just had to find the right man’, ‘She just needed to find the right man’, and so on.) The need for anything to be publicly declared is annoying to me.

And I also do not think to say or imply that being gay or lesbian is a ‘choice’. Of course, gay men want to be with men and lesbian women want to be with women, without ever making the choice. Who in their right mind would choose to be insulted, attacked and even killed? But we shouldn’t reduce gay and lesbian relationships to a sexual level or to a question of sexuality. A lesbian woman falls in love with another person, who happens to be a woman, not a pair of breast and female genitalia with a person attached. The fact that the other person is a woman is important, but it is not the only thing that matters. If the gender of another person was the only thing that mattered in a relationship, there would be no single people and no divorces! And every relationship with a trans* partner would end immediately once this person came out to their partner.

‘Are you then saying that gays and lesbians should refuse to identify as such or as anything at all?’ Yes and no.

Yes: In a perfect world, no one should have to identify as anything. In a perfect world, a woman can have had only relationships with other women, without ever having been identified as lesbian. As long as people have to identify as gay, lesbian, bi or anything else, ‘straight’ remains the default, because if you don’t declare yourself anything else in our world, you are seen as straight. ‘Straight until proven otherwise’ is the verdict spoken at birth. So, if we could just be into ‘people’ and not ‘men’ or ‘women’, that would be better, more inclusive and would save the lives of many of those people, who kill themselves, because they are rejected for being what they are. That would be a truly open society, in regards to which people are allowed, expected and/or accepted to be in a relationship. (However, such a society could still be transphobic.)

And No: We do not live in such a world. I’ll compare it to the problem of racism, since I understand that better: As long as there is racial discrimination, being colorblind only makes the problem worse, because you don’t see it and how it works. If people don’t identify as ‘non-straight’, their issues will be overlooked and especially young people in less open parts of the world (and all we Westerners don’t have to look to other continents for this!), who feel attracted to someone of the same sex, will have no role-models to look up to and be empowered by. As long as it is dangerous and potentially deadly to be non-straight, taking the step into a more liberal world, where all this doesn’t matter and you just love whom you love, is impossible. Identity and identification are still important.

But we should be very careful that we don’t start seeing these mere words as having any more meaning than they need to have. We made them to empower people or reclaimed them from people, who were trying to control others. They are tools and we should strive for a world where we don’t need them anymore. We should also not forget that definitions, however well phrased, tend to leave out people, who are then a new minority and have to fight for their rights against a now-bigger mainstream. As such ‘labeling’ remains a necessary evil. Nothing more, nothing less.

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Ranting about sex and violence in TV and movies – Or: This is probably a waste of time…

This was supposed to be a rant about Game of Thrones and all the sex and violence in it. It still kind of is, but it got a bit more general.

I have a problem with Game of Thrones, the TV show. (I have the same problem with the books, but since they are books, it seems more sophisticated. Oh, and a warning: This is not a post for children or people, who feel uncomfortable when others write about sex. Which, ironically, includes myself.)

For one, I can’t stand the violence, because I feel it, when I see it. I actually had to stop watching the show after the first season, because it became to gory for me. In all TV shows and movies, when there is violence, it is as if it were happening to me.

This reaction of mine is very much unlike the one I have when it comes to sex scenes, in that all I feel then is awkward. And there are a lot of those scenes! Naked women everywhere, and every now and then a naked male butt. What’s up with that? No, I do not hate the human body or sex, but I also don’t appreciate people having sex right in front of me for no good reason! And I can honestly not think of any good reason for anybody ever to be having sex right in front of me. On top of that, if the sex is not consensual, it just makes it so much worse. (‘Worse’ is an understatement! If I can think of another word, I will edit this post.)

In a good TV show or movie, I’m interested in plot and character building, not porn. Seriously, real sex doesn’t even look like that and you all know that! And from a feminist perspective (albeit, perhaps, not the most thought-through one), why do we see only bared breasts and buttocks, only women nude and ‘being sexed’, but not nearly as much flaccid and never any aroused penises? Why does the violence have to be so graphic, but not the sex? What’s the difference? If you make one look so real, people who don’t know any better will assume the other is as well!

(This goes out to the abstinence crowd, about whom I worry a lot: Don’t take cues for your wedding night from TV or porn! It isn’t like that! You should probably not watch either one of these, that just makes it harder! Ehm, harder on you, I mean. I mean, the abstinence, it just makes being abstinent harder.)

I assume the show got more diverse in the area of who had sex with whom. But still, there was a lot more violence and a lot more explicit violence, than sex. And this goes for movies and TV in general. We see a lot more violence than sex. Explicit sex will get a movie rated more restrictively than explicit violence. I would really just like to have this question answered:

Why is it acceptable for a movie to show blood and gore, severed limbs and flesh torn asunder, but not the act that is supposed to be so natural that all those who don’t do it that way, are decried as sinners, perverts and freaks? Why are we confronted with blood, but not with sperm? Don’t misunderstand me, I’m not demanding that this be shown – really, I’m not! – but why do we see explicit, graphic penetrative sex as more problematic than explicit, graphic violence? Or: Why is showing the violent penetration of the heart of a man with a sword much more acceptable than the sexual (consensual!) penetration of wherever-you-like-it with a whatever-you-chose? And why do I feel the insurmountable urge to censor myself, when I write about sex, but not when I write about violence?

I am, by the way, not really surprised that full frontal nudity of women is more frequent. A patriarchal society understands looking at naked women as more acceptable than looking at naked men, as the point of view is supposedly that of a straight male. It’s okay to look at the girl’s boobies, but not the guy’s booties. That we see more naked women is not because their bodies are less offensive than male bodies, but that they are understood as commodities, which is what I should really be worrying about.

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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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The White man’s (or: alien’s) journey

I wonder if anyone teaches courses on the problems white people have when trying to be non-racist and ‘good allies’ to black people and PoC. If they do, they should be using this 5th season episode of 3rd Rock from the Sun as teaching material. (If you are not familiar with the show, the basic idea is that a group of aliens has assumed human form to study us. It is a sitcom.)

 

Let’s do a short walk through the stages white people deal with when facing the fact of their whiteness. (But please watch the episode first. Everything will be simpler.)

  • Stage 1 Becoming aware of the difference!

We start off with Dick, the leader of the aliens, not understanding why he should not be able to attend a Black students meeting. That perfectly represents the reaction by many white people to the concept of special groups only open to black people. He doesn’t understand what the group is for and compares it to Weight Watchers. This comparison goes down badly with Nina, his black secretary, and his girlfriend, Prof. Albright. He fails to see the political meaning of the group. This is one of the main aspects of white privilege: White people can live without seeing race as a topic worthy of discussion. For black people and PoC (people of color) in general, society makes it impossible to forget.

  • Stage 2 ‘I want their privileges!’

Dick then goes to meet his fellow aliens, because he still wants to go to the Black students group. But his lieutenant suggests they should rather look for a support group for white people, since they are white. Naturally, there are directed to a White Power rally. The four are quite enthusiastic, hoping to find out where white people can get good pizza and wondering, if Barry White might be performing there.

After the rally, they are shocked. I think this is one of the most important realizations one has to make when belonging to ‘the norm’, ‘the mainstream’. There is a significant difference between a white power thing and a Black support group. An oppressed, disenfranchised ‘minority’ group bands together to empower and support each other. The goal is not destruction of other people, but empowering each other in order to not be subjugated, discriminated against or controlled by a society that sees them as abnormal and as people of less worth and humanity. But a support group for white people? Straight people? Able-bodied people? Their goal, even if they are not aware of this, can only ever be to uphold an oppressive status quo. Such groups will always be hate groups, because they ignore that they are the ones with the advantages. They are what people think when they hear: ‘a normal guy’. And don’t give me the reverse racism nonsense! Where I live, if I hate white people, that doesn’t matter to anyone and I am belittled. If white people hate me, I will die.

  • Stage 3 ‘White Guilt’

When Dick tells other people that he had been to the white power rally, they are upset with him. Again, he doesn’t get what the problem is, but quickly learns about the exploitation of the world at the hand of the Europeans. He immediately becomes stricken with ‘white guilt’. This kind of behavior is at least more than ignorance, but it does no good at all. This is like one of those people, who are so upset when their hear that another person has lost a family member, that the mourning person has to console them! White guilt is self-pity. Get over it, but don’t forget the reasons!

  • Stage 4 ‘Holy S**t! We DO rule the world!’

At this point we are treated to a very nice piece of media critique! The aliens wonder why they picked white bodies when they first came to planet Earth. While one of them did it because he thought it would be cooler in the summer, the others did this because all the transmissions they picked up from earth showed white people. This is the most self-aware statement I have ever seen in a TV show ever. An entirely white cast realizes that they are an entirely white cast because TV shows are dominated by white people. The aliens wanted to be normal human beings and so they became white humans, because that was what they thought was normal since TV told them that ‘white’ equals ‘normal’!

  • Stage 5 ‘White Jesus’

There is only one stage left on the white man’s journey. Dick decides to help Nina by freeing her from her position of servitude (aka ‘being employed as his secretary’). He wants to fire her, but she tells him off. He follows her into her church (where she has a solo part in the choir which is the only part of the show that made me cringe, as it is so cliché). There he asks her if he can be a good man, which the choir confirms. But the congregation falls silent, when he wants to be proclaimed their savior. Yes, the show takes the ‘white savior complex’ very literal.

The show then ends with the four aliens talking about the weirdness of humans and singing together. This show is trying to tell us something. (That something might be that the writers consider themselves to be God. And if you don’t know what I mean, you didn’t watch the clip in the beginning! I am disappointed!). For me, this was one of the best episodes of any TV show I have ever seen, because it dealt with a serious topic, but wasn’t too preachy about it. I hope that a lot of people took and take the hint and try to learn more about the structures of our racist society and the meaning of white privilege.

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