Apparently Berliners are not racist… not until you accidentally step on their feet. Then chances are they’ll call you “Neger!” Funny to see how, when fired up by primal anger, the average man in the street resorts to what he immediately computes could be the worst, most cutting insult. “Nigger” is one of them, along with “fat cow” for a large woman, or “Kanake” for a Middle Eastern-looking man. I recently learned at my expense that for white people with a foreign accent in Berlin, it’s “Go home, fucking tourist!”
“The difference…,” my Senegalese friend Astou rightly pointed out, “is that you can be a Jew or a white tourist, and not a single anti-Semite or racist will notice. But black!” You cannot escape the colour of your skin. But, then, can you get used to the insults? “I used to cry, now I just don’t care anymore…” says Senegalese rapper Sister Fa. For all the people we interviewed for this issue, racism seems to be a fact of life. And the average racist isn’t a skinhead, but just a normal Berliner whose foot you stepped on, a driver whose car you’re blocking with your stupid bike, a landlord you’re trying to rent a flat from.
Try explaining to the Bäckerin on the corner – in perfect German – that yes, you’re black, but you’ve never been to Africa and call Germany your Heimat. If you’re lucky, she’ll address you in English. “They always do,” says an afrodeutsch interviewee. Or try explaining to the U-Bahn controller that even if you don’t have your I.D., he CANNOT ‘deport’ you because you were born and raised here. Seems like many Berliners should be sent to a mandatory Weißsein workshop for some urgent rehab. (Regular critical whiteness seminars are on offer in Berlin, check www.africavenir.com!)
Arguably, the fact that the African presence is so discreet in Berlin doesn’t help. Besides North Africans, 12,000 Africans (primarily Cameroonians, Ghanaians and Nigerians) are registered in the city, while another estimated 7000 might be unregistered. Still, they are a tiny minority in a city of 3.5 million. Which might explain some of the ignorance. An American writer told me a memorable anecdote: as he was riding the U-Bahn an older German lady kept staring at him. She stared and stared so intensely and insistently that my friend finally asked, “Excuse me, Madam, maybe you’d like to talk to me?” She eagerly answered: “Oh yes, I was wondering, from what tribe are you?“ His reply: “The New York tribe, madam.” She was reportedly thrilled to talk to her first black man ever.
From the exotic curiosity of an old lady on the Berlin underground to a middle-aged woman’s sexual quest for the Maasai Warrior on the beaches of Kenya, the geographical distance might be great but it is a short mental leap. The desire of older, generously endowed (in every possible way) German ladies for young, fit, black bodies doesn’t just thrive on Kenyan beaches. At Mandingo in Kreuzberg, Africa meets Germany in the flesh every Saturday night. Maybe the real connection between Germans and Africans is to be found in the symbiotic dance floor couplings of black men and Teutonic cougars.
Meanwhile, lonely Europeans can get ‘adopted’ by African families in Ghana or Kenya: another way to re-think North- South (co)-dependency? There’s an NGO in Berlin that reverses the terms of the charity equation. What AfricAvenir (founded by Kum’a Ndumbe, a Cameroonian professor at FU, back when the FU still had a chair for African politics) purports is a mental revolution: it’s not the Africans who need help, but us Westerners. We need to seriously reform our mental relationship to Africa. This means reducing the calamitous clichés created by the media by showing that Africa has more to offer than tales of war and famine. And guess what, the continent has no shortage of great artists, writers and inspiring minds to prove the point. Occupiers of the world, take note: this October, AfricAvenir is marking the 25th anniversary of the assassination of Burkina Faso president and iconic internationalist revolutionary Thomas Sankara – the ‘Che Guevara of Africa’. One of the planned commemoration posters reads: “Africa doesn’t owe Germany, Germany owes Africa.” The German word schulden (“owe” from Schuld or “guilt”) drives the point home. “It’s meant to be disturbing to Germans,” says AfricAvenir’s Eric Van Grasdorff. Judging by the level of ignorance among the general public, it might fly sky-high over most heads.
Germans like to forget Germany was a colonial power.
The other day Ines, a 25-year-old student from Cologne who spent six weeks in Burkina Faso, said: “Africans love Germans! That’s because we didn’t really have colonies… I mean, compared to the British and the French, we didn’t really do much!” How to explain such blatant ignorance? As if losing its colonies after World War I exonerated Germany from its previous colonial legacy. In reality, not only did Germany get its place in the sun with massive territorial acquisitions during the ‘scramble for Africa’ in the late 19th century, but it ran its empire with an iron fist, applying ruthless repression to any resistance.
In fact, Germany committed its first genocide in Africa, a reality that the modern German state is still reluctant to acknowledge. Why? One reason is that it is a political minefield. Somehow recognising a precursor to the Nazi genocide would challenge a conveniently established consensus among European nations that National Socialism was a parentheses in history. As spelled out by Rosa Amelia Plumelle-Uribe in her book (Weiße Barbarei. Vom Kolonialrassismus zur Rassenpolitik der Nazis), the “white barbarism” that led to the extermination of ‘non-Aryans’ not only existed before the Holocaust but was rooted in the racism and systematic de-humanisation of ‘non-whites’ in the colonies. The eugenics ‘research’ by scientists in the German concentration camps of Namibia presages Mengele’s at Auschwitz; the extermination of the Herero people, that of the Jews. As Van Grassdorf puts it: “One should be able to recognise the Namibian genocide without running the risk of being accused of diminishing the importance of the Holocaust. Or being accused of diminishing Germany’s unique responsibility. It’s not about comparing figures or the size of genocides, but about the mental structures that led to such horrors.” Germany has done commendable work in coming to terms with its Nazi past. Isn’t it time it did the same with its colonial history? Local activists argue it should start with a ‘decolonisation’ of Berlin street names, many of which are shameless references to the country’s colonial past.