By Nicole Tan
Our running feet stopped when we saw the line ahead of us. A line that wound up being two flights of stairs with no end point in sight. This was the accumulation of Berlin dwellers, both temporary and permanent, eager to listen to what Paul Gilroy had to say about “The Struggle Against Racism in Britain.” This event was a microcosm of a larger conference at the Werkstatt der Kulturen which explored “the practices and norms of the justice system in our postcolonial world.”
Once we got in, the next struggle was finding somewhere to sit in the crowded, buzzing room. We were fortunate enough to grab the last handful of red pillows that we could place on the ground. It was prime viewing. From where I sat, Paul Gilroy’s face was blocked by the computer screen propped up to his side no matter which way I craned my neck. Fortunately, I was still within visible sight of his dreadlocks which communicated a message of their own, swaying from side to side every time he expressed an idea with more fervour.
I have no doubt that you’ve heard Winston Churchill’s famous phrase, “History is written by the victors.”This evening, Gilroy elaborated on this theme by considering the creation of historical knowledge. From here, came the question, who are historical actors? Who is given the right to create historical narratives?
Having grown up in a British colony myself, I found myself nodding along fervently in agreement with his argument that history is created by the dominant voices of the time. In school, I was taught about how Sir Francis Light had “founded” Penang. At home, I was told by my father that, in fact, Penang was stolen by Sir Francis Light from the Sultan of Kedah. When I asked my grandmother, who had grown up during the time of British colonisation, she assured me that the British had saved us from savagery, providing us with civilisation. So, the question is, who creates our history?
The act of colonisation both requires and is synonymous with the creation of racial hierarchies. In “Reclaiming Innocence,” Sharon Dodua Otoo argues that “the justification of the atrocities that racism […] and colonialism, required the extensive dehumanisation of people of African descent.” The repercussions and implications of this belief is what our class has been exploring here in Berlin. With Heidi’s direction, we have looked at both the racism directed towards black soldiers who occupied Germany following the end of WWI and, by extension, children of these soldiers. Defined by dominant society as “occupation babies” and “Rheinland bastards,” the experiences of these individuals has been characterised by alienation, marginalisation and a sense of not belonging within Germany’s predominantly white society.
Gilroy then went on to explore the question, what exactly has changed in our postcolonial society? How is racism represented today? Given the focus of his talk, Gilroy considered the history of racial riots in Britain, comparing the riots of 1981 to the more recent ones of 2011.
Gilroy explained riots broke out all over Britain in 1981 due to racial discrimination. When the “sus” policy was introduced, police forces began stopping and searching “suspicious individuals” at will, the majority of whom were Black. However, when riots broke out all over Britain for similar reasons in 2011, they were not considered race-specific, rather they were interpreted as the end result of ungovernable gang power. From Gilroy’s perspective, the key difference here was the absence of a racial riot descriptor in 2011.
Why is this difference significant? In his talk, Gilroy described the “institutionalisation of racism.” Whilst the riots of 1981 were evidently rooted in explicit racial profiling, today racism has started to take more subtle forms. Parallel to the idea of attaining social mobility in pursuit of the American Dream, failure in Britain today is considered a matter of personal responsibility. Rather than recognise the absence of equal opportunities for individuals across different racial and ethnic groups, blame has been dispersed amongst the individuals themselves, perpetuating a far more subtle form of racism.
Paul Gilroy’s valuable insight into racism in Britain helped me draw parallels to the evolution of the Afro-German experience here in Berlin. At the end of the First World War, racism was seen in far more explicit actions like sterilisation programs for Black soldiers, programs evidently designed to prevent miscegenation or racial mixing due to a perception of Blacks as sub-humans, moral and incorrupt. Today, however, racism often presents itself in hidden forms. Throughout the literature of Afro-German women, we have come across the repeated and common experience of people being surprised that these women are able to speak such good German. Whilst this statement seems harmless, inherently it reflects the implicit assumption that only whites are Germans. Similarly, Afro-Germans like Ika Hugel-Marshall and May Ayim, recount the experience of being asked where they are from, implicitly assuming that Blacks do not belong to Germany and are solely temporary habitants.
The question now is what does racism look like today? Has the situation really improved or has it solely changed its form to become more subtle and instituionalised within our societal framework?
Nicole Tan is entering her second year at Colorado College. She is from Penang, Malaysia and currently lives in Auckland New Zealand.