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Black Feminism in the Context of German Society – Reflections on Active Engagement for Change

This essay was written as part of the 2016 Humanity in Action John Lewis Fellowship at The National Center for Civil and Human Rights in Atlanta, Georgia.

Personal and individual as well as abstract and intellectual topical intersections were what caught my attention during the last four weeks which I was able to spend in Atlanta, GA.  Looking back, they were particularly striking and intriguing to me because they appealed to parts of my identity. I cannot specifically point to a topic or session that was most captivating to me, my reflections rather were sparked by smaller events, topics, and their implications as well as side conversations that we touched upon during the fellowship. 

To me, the second week was some kind of gateway into becoming emotionally involved and invested. Recognizing and celebrating the impact of people who were essential in making other individuals and groups aware of their conditions and lived experiences particularly demonstrated how their structural and institutional marginalization essentially constructed this nation’s wealth and benefits deriving from exploitation, disenfranchisement, and extinction.  Assessing these facts through de- and reconstruction elevated me personally in recognizing similarities and continuities that empower history and knowledge as gateways to change.  That week to me was designed to empower people of color, in particular Black people, and culminated in an uplifting visit and learning experience while being surrounded by the art of the Clark Atlanta University Art Galleries

Manuel Hughes’ untitled drawing from the Arc Series sparked my need to interact with a side of my identity, that I have always had trouble to grasp within a German context albeit knowing of its existence. The strips that are drawn onto the paper to me symbolize different entities, be it people, identities, opinions, options, or choices. I interpret them as parts of my identity as well as similar and different identities of other people. Almost all of them are bent in the same way but one of them is different. This I see as pertaining to every human being since there can only be so many things that you have in common, as well as limited choices that therefore are available to you even if things may appear the same from the outside, as the coloring and shadows of some of the strips suggest. 

There is that something making you special, inherently different, and unique with regard to the things you experience and feel on the inside. And even though you may be aware that you rarely are an exception to everything, or you perceive your experiences to constantly be different, there might actually be more in common than you may know. Connecting these unique experiences to your positionality in life as such (and within different settings according to which your role changes), it might make you feel the urge to change, to rebel, i.e. to move toward the opposite direction. 

•     •     • 

Reflecting upon my own positionality in the context of the U.S. and within German society, what is most influential on my current identity is being a Black woman, especially in the realms of academia and activism. For being Black, there exists a linguistic and socio-political framework which theoretically allows me to express and reclaim an identity as a so-called Afro-German, emphasizing my African heritage – irrespective of its extent – thereby challenging the symbolic power (cf. Bourdieu) of being German by adding a global historical, socio-cultural, and political sphere to an otherwise ignorant national perspective. For being a woman, there has as a matter of fact, been a Black Feminist Movement which started in the 1980s and that was essential in paving the way for German postcolonial and critical cultural studies, especially in the context of literature and poetry. (1) 

In my opinion, the Black Feminist Movement however failed to adequately and effectively bridge or rather translate into the realm of every day interaction through sensitive and accountable education and perhaps more notably into the sphere of politics. It has also not quite yet achieved to be present within the disciplines subsumed under social science and humanities and therefore did not manage to challenge the dominant paradigmatic assumption of neutrality and objectivity. (2) Objectivity and neutrality in fact still equal normalcy which still equals White Anglo-Eurocentrism as an unmarked reference point and framework. Often times, there is not even the necessity of a recognition for political correctness nor an acknowledgement from where the demand for it is originating in the first place in order to reflect upon the so-called “normal”.

The fact that feminisms of color or even the acknowledgement of people of color as part of the present-day German society are neither widespread in societal mainstream nor in politics shows that there is still a lot to be done in terms of disrupting and deconstructing the very category of normalcy. Since I identify as a Black woman in Germany, I want to focus on how to push for questioning the entire concept of normal as something that is not thoroughly reflected upon. The fact that the Black population in Germany only constitutes an estimated 0.3 to 0.6 per cent (cf. Flippo) hence makes it necessary to engage in coalition building and forming alliances which becomes even more obvious when trying to account for the female identifying Black persons in Germany.

•     •     • 

Where I want to go from here is trying to bring young women of color in academia together in order to communicate about the challenges we face and discuss about how we can raise sensitivity and awareness in general, especially given the fact that Germany’s population of migrants and people of color has significantly grown since 2015. As we are following national discussions centered around either being a person of color or being a woman, we increasingly witness how darker skin is associated with males; and claims on respecting women’s rights only seem to be acceptable if they come from blond, blue-eyed women. Sexism (3) currently is publicly blamed on communities of color, especially recent immigrants, while German men who publicly discredit their female coworker’s abilities with sexually dismissive jokes are being let off the hook as old-school men who just do not know better, essentially saying that boys will be boys. 

The obvious omission of women of color’s experiences and needs makes me wonder how communities of color, especially Black women like myself, today can influence social and cultural sensitivity and a critique of the status quo which on the one hand makes us invisible to the mainstream; while it on the other hand targets and constantly highlights our otherness, our exclusion from mainstream society, our “exoticism”? What do we do after we passed the point of sharing what discrimination we face, after pointing out the absurdities of our day-to-day life?

“White Germans often assume that Afro-Germans are not really from Germany because, for them, having black skin is not compatible with being German. Thus, although Afro-Germans are native Germans by birth, language, socialization, and citizenship, they are treated as outsiders in a society that defines itself primarily as white. Afro-Germans, however, are usually only African to the extent that this label has been ascribed to them from the outside and that, as a result, they have adopted it as a shield against racism and marginalization.” (Goertz 307)

We do not actually seem to know where to go from there and how to counter and remedy our invisibility and voicelessness in order to disrupt people’s comfortability in saying:

“I think I’d be glad if I were you.
German history isn’t something one
          Can really be proud of, is it.
And you’re not that black anyway, you know.” (Ayim)

How can we come together and express our anger and needs, how can we claim space, once again, and this time make sure that the public notices what we have to say without relegating us to a place where our thoughts are read, heard, and consumed like some kind of ancient travel log about our experiences in a country that we should better refer to as a foreign place instead of home?

•     •     • 

Footnotes

1. However, there still is nothing close to interdisciplinary Ethnic Studies and its various subsections as studied in the US. Populations and communities are mostly studied descriptively by a spectator’s gaze from the outside.

2. This also includes its usability for society, which in essence alludes to its rational utilization in terms of supporting an economic, social and cultural status quo.

3. Violent sexism but also subtler and symbolic forms of sexism.

References

Ayim, May. Blues in Black and White: A Collection of Essays, Poetry and Conversations. Trenton, N.J. Africa World Press, 2003. Print.

Bourdieu, Pierre. Masculine domination. Stanford, Calif. Stanford University Press, 2001. Print.

Flippo, Hyde. Black History and Germany, 2016.http://german.about.com/od/culture /a/blackhistger.htm  [07/25/2016].

Goertz, Karein K. “Showing Her Colors: An Afro-German Writes the Blues in Black and White.” Callaloo 26.2 (2003): 306–19. Print.

Kinder, Katja. “20 Jahre Schwarze (Frauen-) Bewegung in Deutschland“. In: Heimatkunde –       Migrationspolitisches Portal Heinrich-Böll-Stiftung, 05/01/2006.  https://heimatkunde.boell.de/                2006 /05/01/20-jahre-schwarze-frauen-bewegung-deutschland [07/24/2016].

Kron, Stefanie. “Afrikanische Diaspora und Literatur Schwarzer Frauen in Deutschland“.  In: Heimatkunde – Migrationspolitisches Portal Heinrich-Böll-Stiftung, 02/18/2009. https://heimat kunde. boell.de/2009/02/18/afrikanische-diaspora-und-literatur-schwarzer-frauen-deutschland#3 [07/24/2016].

Migazin – Migration in Germany. Nach Köln: Kritik an den Titelseiten von „Focus“ und „Süddeutscher Zeitung“, 01/12/2016. http://www.migazin.de/2016/01/12/nach-koeln-kritik-titelseiten-focus/ [07/26/2016].

Zeit Magazin. Sexueller Übergriff. Am besten schauen Sie einfach weg, 06/30/2016.  http://www.zeit.de/zeit-magazin/leben/2016-06/sexueller-uebergriff-deutsche-bahn-polizei 06/30/2016. [07/26/2016].

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