What is Racism?: A Discussion with Sandrine Micossé-Aikins

By Jade Frost

IMG_8785On this sunny Thursday morning, our class filed into the room, with smiles on our faces and coffees in our hands, where Sandrine Micossé-Aikins was awaiting for us. Our jet lag was behind us, and we were ready to listen to as she started her talk by telling us about how most plays, especially those that are considered anti-racist, are performed in black face. She also told us that the use of blackface in plays is considered to be normal. The room gasped when hearing this, and we were hanging on her every word. In “Reclaiming Innocence,” Sharon Dodua Otoo writes, “It is this ‘normalization’ which is perhaps the biggest failure of this production. A claim to universality must be able to incorporate the visions and perspectives of those who do not fit these norms—especially if the production claims to be precisely about them and especially if the ensemble claims to take their issues seriously.” Along these lines, Micossé-Aikins continued on telling us about the play I’m Not Rappaport, and showed us a picture of a white man with a big grin on his face standing in front of the play poster which showed two white men, one in black face. The whole class was taken aback by this picture, and we were even more disgusted by images from the second play, Unschuld (Innocence).

IMG_8789Unschuld was a play that was done in black face, which caused quite a stir in the community. As a result, Bühnenwatch (Stagewatch) organized a protest during which 42 people came to the play and left when the two actors came on stage in their black face. The producer and director of the play had to temporarily stop the show, because the actors were in disbelief. Afterwards, the manager of theatre contacted Bühnenwatch, and a discussion about Unschuld was held with the cast about the problem with black face. Micossé-Aikins, who is a part of the Bühnenwatch, told us, “Well, we opened up the discourse, and although [change] is super slow, it is going somewhere.” As a result of this conversation, the cast of Unschuld stopped using blackface, but there were still some issues going on. Starting out with chuckle, Micossé-Aikins said, “We [in Germany] are 30 years behind almost everything. I mean the ‘Best Play’ award went to a play that was done in black face and went as far as to use cushions to make the Black woman character’s butt look bigger.”

IMG_8793The whole class was in disbelief in various ways, some shook their head while others laughed with Micossé-Aikins. This could be seen as an example of Pierre Bourdieu’s “gentle violence” that is defined in Maisha Eggers’ “Knowledges of (Un-)Belonging: Epistemic Change as a Defining Mode for Black Women’s Activism in Germany,” in which she claims that “‘gentle violence’ (soft violence, soft power) signals oppositional possibilities of disrupting and dismantling dominant and repressive systems and symbolic orders through critical scholarship.” When asked about what the Black actors thought about the theatre community in Germany, she stated that it is very hard for them, because they almost never get hired and when they do, it is for stereotypical, supporting roles. This reminds me of Jürgen Lemke’s “Gay and Lesbian Life in East German Society before and after,” in which he writes, “Often we find ourselves missing emotion, we have a need for solidarity and closeness. Many of us withdraw to our old positions, and become observers.”

IMG_8794The discussion ended with Micossé-Aikins talking about racism in other forms of art. She posed the question, “What is racism really?” and continued, “No one is really talking about it Germany. Someone does artwork thinking that it is fine and appropriate, meanwhile some people could see it as racism not art.” In the introduction to The Little Book of Big Visions, she writes, along with Sharon Dodua Otoo, “The vocabulary of resistance is merely a means to an end and not the end in itself.” Sandrine Micossé-Aikins’ words affected us all. It was in that session with her that I saw a parallel between American and German ideology of Blacks and how they are treated. I also noticed a new perspective on racism, art, and discourse. Not too many people are choosing to engage in the dialogue that is happening and are, therefore, kept uninformed. Micossé-Aikins is right that Germany may be slow, but they are going somewhere. Who knows where the direction will lead this country, but we can only hope for the better.


IMG_8839Jade Frost is a rising junior at Colorado College from Salt Lake City, Utah. She is double majoring in Feminist & Gender Studies and English Literature, with the hopes of becoming a journalist or working at a publishing firm. She is involved with Black Student Union and The Cipher magazine on campus. Jade’s hobbies are reading, creative writing, binging on Netflix, going for drives, dancing spontaneously and hanging out with friends and family. She enjoys discussing topics such as Black feminism, women with disabilities, and social constructs. Her favorite TV Shows are Law and Order: SVU and Gilmore Girls, and her favorite movies are Love & Basketball and Mulan. Jade loves pretty much all types of music, but her top hits are “Ladies First” by Queen Latifah, “Video” by India.Arie, and “A Change is Gonna Come” covered by Leela James. Jade is excited for this course, so she can learn and discover new things.

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Our First Weekend in Berlin

In planning this course, I decided to include mandatory activities in the mornings and afternoons on weekdays so that the students and I could have our weekends “free” to explore the city. I did tell the FemGeniuses about most of the things I had planned in case they wanted to join me for some things. So, on Saturday, I planned to visit the Berlin Dungeon. The problem is that I didn’t pay attention to the fine print on the tickets, so I didn’t know that we shouldn’t wait in line for the English tour. So, we ended up missing it and had to come back on Sunday. That meant that I spent most of Saturday hanging with Celine.

Celine Pergamon Museum

Celine at the Pergamon Museum

First, we visited the Pergamon Museum. Even though Celine grew up in Berlin, she’s been enjoying some of our official tourist activities, because we both are learning a bit more about the “official” narrative of Berlin. This is importance, since we both are also invested in studying and teaching narratives that are often silenced in these spaces. Along these lines, we thought we may have invented the discipline Critical Tourism Studies, but I see now—after a quick Google search—that this already exists. Haha. The Pergamon Museum was full of lots of fascinating things that were “excavated” by Germans from various places and during various times. At one point, the woman in my headphones said something like, “This room is full of items from various times and various places in order to give you an idea of what a mansion might look like.” I thought that quite odd, but also quite telling about the ways in which Africa—the entire continent, of course—is still often constructed as a place outside of time or specificity. I didn’t take copious notes, but see pictures here!

OTA Kitchen

Stefani, Melissa, and Beril in their New Kitchen

On Sunday, the FemGeniuses moved from their two separate apartments into one. This is the apartment I planned for them live in for the entire course, but I booked them too late and had to separate them for the first week. I think they’re all glad to be together, and of course, the apartments are just as beautiful as they are when Tony and I visited them in November.

OTA Bedroom

Melissa and Kadesha in their New Bedroom

While the Zehdenicker Straße are a bit further from the classroom, they’re also a bit closer to me, and while the Greifswalder Straße students are a bit further from me, they’re also a bit closer to the classroom. So, this is really the ideal location.

Brunch

The FemGeniuses at Café Hilde for Brunch

We also had a group brunch at Café Hilde, which was really nice.

Berlin Dungeon

Heidi, Casey, Kadesha, and Kaimara after the Berlin Dungeon Tour

Later, Casey, Kadesha, Stefani, Blaise, Melissa, Kaimara, and I went back to the Berlin Dungeon, which is “a 60 minute journey into 700 years of Berlin’s horrible history.” Yes, 700 years in one hour. I got the sense from visiting the website that this was a semi-scary, amusement-park type place, but it was scarier than I thought. People jumped out at us in scary costumes. We were “trapped” in a maze of mirrors. A butcher locked us in a dark room where fake knives poked us in our chairs. Yes, it was something else. At one point, we entered a mock courtroom in which Stefani was put on trial for “murdering the fashions” in Berlin. That was pretty funny, but I think Stefani felt a bit strange being put on display. I think my son will enjoy this when he comes, but I think my daughter will be having none of it. Haha. I would share pictures, but we weren’t allowed to take them inside.

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Mutlu Ergün-Hamaz (Sesperado Lyrical Guerilla)

Later that evening, I met Celine’s family and we walked around Kreuzberg for a bit. We also visited the Roses for Refugees at Oranienplatz, which is organized by AfricAvenir International, AFROTAK TV CyberNomads, Berlin Postkolonial, Bühnenwatch, glokal, Initiative Schwarze Menschen in Deutschland, and Tanzania-Network. Roses for Refugees has been happening every evening at 6 pm from April 13 until June 21 in order to express solidarity with and show support for refugees. On this day, Mutlu Ergün-Hamaz (Sesperado Lyrical Guerilla) read poetry and a short story. At one point, he read, “Sometimes our brain races away from our soul.” Ever since then, I’ve been thinking about what this means for those of us committed to justice. I often find myself asking my students and myself to listen and to be compassionate—to not let our brains run away from our souls—as we think about ways in which we can try to change the world.

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Police Conducting Surveillance of Roses for Refugees

During his reading, I turned slightly to my left and noticed two police vehicles conducting surveillance of the park. I asked, “What are they doing here?” and Celine responded that they sit there 24/7, in shifts, watching the park, policing the refugees and their comrades. She told me that folks who sleep in the park aren’t allowed to have blankets and that the police will arrest and deport anyone who doesn’t abide by this and/or other unjust laws. This, of course, reminded me of Martin Luther King Jr.’s declaration that “one has a moral responsibility to disobey unjust laws.” It seems, then, that police and government in Berlin, similar to what I know about the police and government in the United States, has allowed their brains to run away from their souls.

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Roses for Refugees

One of my new comrades in Berlin, Sharon Dodua Otoo, is an instrumental force for Roses for Refugees, and when I posted a short video of Mutlu reading his work in the park, she asked if the FemGeniuses would be interested in reading poetry on Wednesday night. In honor of the late Maya Angelou’s life, we’ll read from her work. In doing so, I hope that we remember more wise words from Mutlu—“Not because they’re evil but because they’re people.” It seems that part of the human condition entails denigrating, subjugating, marginalizing, victimizing, and hurting each other. Not because they’re evil but because they’re people. Not because we’re evil but because we’re people. I’ve come to the conclusion that the only other way to live is to fight, to resist. To know that we will live…fighting, resisting. To know that we will die…fighting, resisting. With a heavy heart, Celine and I—with Celine’s friend Ana—joined Melissa and Kaimara in order to attend an event honoring the life of the late Stuart Hall at the Balhaus Naunynstraße. I actually wasn’t aware of this event—Melissa found out about it after doing some research on Grada Kilomba—so I didn’t require the other FemGeniuses to attend. Also, I decided to let Melissa blog about it, so you can read more about it when I post it tomorrow or Wednesday. So for now, I’ll just end writing that I am truly honored to be here in Berlin learning so much and having an opportunity to also share my own knowledge. It really is helpful to know that we are not alone in the struggle.

More to come!

Heidi