Navigating White Spaces: An Intersectional Analysis of Activist Work by Men of Color

 

By Ryan Garcia

A couple days ago, I was walking around the Friedrichshain-Kreuzberg borough when I was approached by a German student in University doing research on the perception of borders and the personal effects they have on our lives. Borders, in my opinion, are synonymous with limitations constructed to separate those who fall within social norms and those who deviate from them. It wasn’t until today’s discussion about masculinities that I thought about borders affecting social constructs, such as masculinity. Throughout history, Berlin has felt the effects of borders, from physical borders like the Berlin Wall to mental borders such as performing within a stereotype. Keeping this idea of borders and division and linking that idea to masculinity allows an intersectional approach to what it means to be masculine and of color based on multiple factors such as class, race, ethnicity, socioeconomic status, and gender to name a few.

Prior to jumping head-first into our discussion, we were briefly introduced to three men of color who disturb traditionally white spaces in their own unique ways. We were first introduced to Musa Okwonga. While his parents are from Uganda, Okwonga grew up in London, England. Musa is a queer-identifying poet, musician and writer who has also made films for NGOs. His writing is primarily focused on sports, politics, gender, and sexuality, while his music is focused on transforming negative circumstances into positive experiences. After meeting Musa, we met Noah Hofmann. He is avid blogger on Facebook, which tends to be personal in nature. While he does not label himself as queer, he feels limited by heterosexuality. Noah has tried acting and jokingly stated that he left it for those who knew what they were doing. He then proceeded to give music a try, which then led him to writing. We were then introduced to Mutlu Ergün-Hamaz. He is a writer and a student currently pursuing a Ph.D. in Sociology all while being a parent. Although he was born in Berlin, his parents came to Germany from Turkey to work. Mutlu was influenced during his teenage years by an Afro-German who knew his brother. It was through his brother that he began working with Phoenix, an organization which offers anti-racism training for the white community along with empowerment training for people of color. Phoenix has allowed Mutlu to deal with negative circumstances and factors in his life in a positive rather than destructive way.

In order to navigate Berlin as men of color, Musa, Mutlu, and Noah have to deconstruct masculinity and realize what it means to them. Without trying to redefine masculinity, Noah has realized that gender and its relation to masculinity aren’t necessary in order to give up its toxicity. Mutlu’s background in antiracism work has allowed him to get a first-hand experience in what it is like to be viewed as a man of color. When he walks into a room, people see a Turkish-Muslim man. By being aware of this perception he has humbled himself in way to know his place and how to navigate a space. After more than fifteen years with Phoenix, he knows that being socialized as a male “can be limiting and imprisoning.” Mutlu developed a freedom within feminism and the parallels between being socialized as male and of color. Along these lines, May Ayim writes, “racism goes hand in hand with sexism” (82). They are both social constructs with material implications that are evolutionary in nature, functioning similarly because they are both born of natural phenomena such as being born a certain race and being born a certain sex; something that you cannot change.

Class (Garcia)

L to R: Dana Asbury, Nikki Mills, and Annie Zlevor [Photo Credit: Ryan Garcia]

On this note, Marion Kraft writes that the effects often felt by racism are due to institutional catalysts, such as the political climate that Berlin faced throughout the war and during the reunification period. More specifically, she writes, “Racism in everyday life and in the media, corresponds with institutionalized racism” (11). Musa had an interesting take on this as he delved into a much deeper conversation on what it feels like to be a Black man in Berlin. He stated that by being Black in Berlin means that you are often seen either as American or an asylum seeker, a feeling that dehumanizes you. He noted that Black men here are threatening to white cisgender men, because Black men have been stereotyped as taking women from the men. Musa dove deeper into this statement as he explained the animalistic perception of Black men by white women and how Black men are fetishized because white women fear them. Because of this there is no clear division between activism and living out his life. He is constantly having to navigate the spaces he’s in, stating that “being Black feels like being on trial all your life,” in and out of the city.

Despite the negative circumstances these men face every day, positive affirmation, reciprocity, and empowerment are just a few politics that help them navigate public spheres. Along these lines, Mutlu stated that you must free yourself and positively construct a way to deal with circumstances as a self-help mechanism. He provided us with an anecdote on how he rejected socialized perceptions of men of color. He used to put honest positive affirmations where he looked the most, his desk and his bathroom mirror, and he would eventually absorb these affirmations and began to believe them, which was empowering. Another mechanism they discussed regarding responses to racism is to simply not care; not caring about what is said about you and deciding for yourself that you can be what you want to be. They noted that if you focus primarily on what the opposition says about you, it slowly chips away at who you are because of fear about how to relate to stereotypes, something that kept Musa from experiencing things white men can experience without the fear of performing within or outside social norms. The fear of stereotypes often leads to a dangerous questioning of our identities: Am I masculine enough? Am I queer enough? Am I Black enough? Mutlu states that we cannot buy into limiting constructions of identity, because they are degrading and often lead to violent erasure.

On a different note, the men were asked about their reactions to the whitewashing of queer spaces. Musa navigated this conversation by stating that social media has become a tool for exposing this reality. More specifically, social media has allowed us to amplify the voices of people of color and their narratives to counteract white washing. With these circumstances, education is key—it be used as a means for navigating white spaces. Being educated is seen as a luxury that most people of color don’t have access to, so to use that as a social mechanic is very powerful. We often see the white queer community use and idolize women of color but disregard their existence and narrative. A resolution to this issue is to elevate those voices that are often silenced.

Group Photo (Asbury)

L to R: Mutlu Ergün-Hamaz, Ryan Garcia, Noah Hofmann, and Musa Okwonga [Photo Credit: Dana Asbury]

We ended discussion on the question, “Have prior existing borders and modern borders affected the way masculinities have been perceived?” Musa responded by discussing colonial borders that exist physically and mentally. To better understand this concept, I turned to May Ayim‘s “Racism, Sexism, and Precolonial Images of Africa” when she writes,

The fact that theories of race were developed and circulated exclusively in continental Europe makes it clear that “race” is a social endorsement that has little to do with biological difference. Consequently, whenever “race” is invoked it is understood as a relational concept that consists of distictions drawn between one’s own group (in group) and another group (out group). (11)

Race here is not just understood as a biological difference but a socially constructed concept that creates borders between communities. The “in group” being those who perform within the social norms and the “out group” being those who deviate from the norms. This is all an effect of colonization and imperialism, both of which used borders to separate their people from those who did not fit the category of their people.


Garcia (NA)Ryan Garcia is a first-generation rising sophomore at Colorado College. After taking Feminist Theory this past block 6, they decided to dive right in and declare a Feminist & Gender Studies major with an intended minor in Race, Ethnicity, and Migration Studies. They are currently working with the Bridge Scholars Program at CC and co-lead the Queer Community Coalition. This is their first time abroad, and they plan to make the most of this educational experience from getting lost on public transportation to being awed by the tour sites. With an intersectional and transnational approach, they hope to apply prior knowledge to various discussions and tours while also learning more within their field of focus—Queer Studies.

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