Sunday, 1 September 2013

A Letter to the Village

Published in The African Courier (August/September 2013 issue, printed version) 

Dear Elders,

You may already know that I am legally required to send my sons to school because we live in Germany and home education is not permitted here. In this country, all children are taught a curriculum designed with only white children in mind. A quick flick through most standard school atlases will reveal stereotypical images of “Africans,” many science books still teach that “Menschenrassen” or biological human races do exist. Those rare examples of German texts which do portray Black people will use degrading imagery and vocabulary to describe them - as if the sheer absence of images of healthy, happy Black children, women and men was not insult enough.

In a lesson about evolution, one of my sons had to endure being teased by his classmates: the prehistoric woman looked “just like his mum!” Another of my children informed me that his teacher had used the word “Negerkuss” several days in a row. She took away his mobile phone, accusing him of calling me during the school day to inform me, when I wrote her an email about it. One of children’s friends was called “nigger” by his teaching assistant. The man first denied it, but eventually – only after many children came forward as witnesses – apologised for the “misunderstanding.”

Thursday, 25 July 2013

(Ab)using Fadoul and Elisio: Unmasking Representations of Whiteness in German Theatre

Based on paper presented at the Symposium "Blackface, Whiteness and the Power of Definition in German Contemporary Theatre", 16th October 2012 [i]
Also published on Textures. Online Platform for Interweaving Performance Cultures, 27th May 2014

White people have not always been “white,” nor will they always be “white.” It is a political alliance. Things will change.
(Amoja Three Rivers)

Whiteness[ii] is created and perpetuated in a myriad of ways, through tiny and massive interactions on a micro and macro level every single day. The “Blackface debate,” initially sparked in Berlin early in 2012 through the public advertising of Schlosspark Theater Berlin’s production of Ich bin nicht Rappaport, featured many examples of this: the use of blackface by Joachim Bliese, the white actor cast in the role of an African-American man was merely the tip of the iceberg, indeed the use of blackface is a demonstration and celebration of whiteness. In this article, I focus on how whiteness is represented in modern German theatre, using Michael Thalheimer’s 2012 production of Dea Loher’s play Unschuld (engl. “Innocence”) as an example. Unschuld was another target of criticism for the use of blackface and the site of the first in-theatre protest by the then newly-formed activist group Bühnenwatch (engl. Stagewatch). As is typical of most German theatrical productions, the non-racialised characters in Unschuld are all white by virtue of the fact that their whiteness is uncommented: it is self-evident, a matter-of-course. Loher (a white woman) and Thalheimer (a white man) obviously believe that this underlines the universality of the play’s message, but it is in fact the first clue to a problematic understanding of who, in their theatrical world, is “in” and who is “out.” Who “belongs”? Who is “othered”? The answers to these questions can be found, in part, through a closer examination of the characters Elisio and Fadoul.

Wednesday, 22 May 2013

But Some of Us Are Brave: The Legacy of Black Female Activists in Germany

Deutsche Übersetzung (gekürzt) erschien in Missy Magazine (Printausgabe, Mai 2013) und wurde auf der Webseite der Initiative Schwarze Menschen in Deutschland veröffentlicht.

Change is coming to Germany.

This time last year, the Berlin-based Deutsches Theater had just decided to stop using Blackface in the Thalheimer production of Dea Loher’s Unschuld. This historic event followed weeks of campaigning by outraged critics, concerned theatre-goers as well as other Black, of color and white activist members of the then newly-formed anti-racist initiative Bühnenwatch. Now, just one year later, a similarly heated debate has broken out over the use of racist vocabulary in children’s literature. Emotions are running high and the terrain feels strangely familiar: angry blog posts, heated public debates, furious Facebook discussions and incensed Tweets. White media commentators speak of “censorship” and “political correctness” but in reality the battle is about power: who should have the final say about the representation of Black people and people of color in German culture? Until now, white Germans have claimed this right for themselves. Yet slowly but surely, this privilege is slipping through their fingers. For many this just doesn’t feel good.

“Without a vision, every social change feels like death”

Their concern is well rehearsed. Childhood books are to be treasured, not revised! Cultural traditions are to be preserved, not criticised! And the word “racism” should only be reserved to describe the most heinous of crimes – those involving Nazis or right-wing extremists! And yet, for increasing numbers of Black Germans and Germans of color, these “truths” are inadequate. The everyday lived experience of those of us who are often not recognised at first sight to be German is typically marked by exoticism, contempt or fear – and sometimes all three. The idea that one can tell who is not German simply by assessing the skin colour is ridiculous but pervasive. It allows some people to question others about where they come from, or to congratulate them on their accent-free language skills or to demand to see their identity papers. Audre Lorde, an African-American lesbian, feminist, poet, activist, scholar and mother who was instrumental in igniting the recent Black German political movement in the 1980s, identified the need for Black people in general and Black women in particular to support each other. It is Lorde who wrote: “without a vision, every social change feels like death.”[1] In order to create a vision of the future in Germany, it is necessary for us to revisit the past.

Wednesday, 6 March 2013

Correct me if I am (politically) wrong: “Real” Art, Elitism and White Delusions of Grandeur

Deutsche Übersetzung erschien in Bildpunkt und auf Linksnet  (März 2013)

As much as it is ridiculed in the wider public, political correctness is clearly still a concept that Germany cannot ignore. The debate currently raging in the German media (national and international, TV, radio, print and social media) about the removal of the N-word from children’s books is testament to this fact.  White [1] cultural producers react emotionally to any perceived threat to their “artistic freedom” and, in their fury, give little consideration to the opinions, knowledge and expertise of those of us who have experienced living in Germany as young Black people; those of us who are raising and educating Black children in this country; those of us who are anti-racism activists; or those of us who have made a profession in the field of anti-discrimination. Indeed, while observing their curious behaviour, the words of May Ayim come to mind:

…alle worte in den mund nehmen
egal wo sie herkommen
und sie überall fallen lassen
ganz gleich wen es
trifft… [2]

White cultural producers are fighting to retain their privileges: to date they still occupy dominant positions in the German art industry and therefore presumably experience the mere existence of political correctness as a threat. White cultural producers typically consider their own artistic productions to be of universal relevance and importance (and in consequence, the art of marginalized groups is considered to be less relevant for the white German population). These cultural producers are usually completely unaware of their own whiteness and of the constraints this will have on their perspectives, their creative work, as well as on their (potential) audience. For example,white German theatre practitioners who wish to explore themes of integration, immigration and discrimination through their artistic productions do not call on the wisdom of Black feminists, but instead choose to continue employing tired, outdated and often offensive stereotypes in a weak attempt to provoke and challenge the society within which they themselves have such a comfortable position. And most ironically of all, when these same theatre practitioners are challenged concerning their poor practice, they rarely seize the moment as a learning opportunity to reflect upon their own discriminatory practices but instead deny the credibility of their critics with a vehemence that belies the neutrality they claim to possess (see Otoo 2012). Political correctness is for them, at best, a pesky inconvenience - and at worst? As of this moment, most white Germans who comment on the removal of the N-word from children’s literature speak in melodramatic terms of the prevalence of censorship, the threat of 1984 scenarios and the death of artistic freedom. One pundit even resorted to using blackface to make his point [3]. It is as if these white Germans only grudgingly accept the existence of Black people in Germany, apparently believing the development of Germany into a (visibly) migratory society to be only a recent phenomenon (forgetting or repressing any knowledge of Germany’s violent colonial history), and therefore - so the assumption goes - these new Black populations fundamentally misunderstand what German culture is.