Dismantling Structural Racism: Kwesi Aikins on Politics in a Postcolonial Society

By Nia Abram

KwesiThe sun shone bright as the hot pavement carried us to our next destination. We shuffled into a cozy room, as our Heidi and Aishah chatted with their colleagues. From my seat at Each One Teach One, I could peer around the corner into a quaint colorful library. The library houses books written by Black authors, functioning as a historical archive for Black people. The room in which we were sitting is also home to several afterschool events and learning opportunities for Black children and adults. When the chattering settled, our teacher for this afternoon—Joshua Kwesi Aikins—stepped forward.

IMG_8989Aikins is an academic and political activist who has been active in the Afro-German movement, such as Initiative Schwarze Menschen in Deutschland (Initiative of Black People in Germany), for the last 15 years. His roots lie in Ghana, thus he does activist work in Ghana, as well. Eloquently, he illustrated the inner workings of his political activist framework by emphasizing that theoretical reflection—which yields epistemic, analytical, and political benefits—can be an effective methodology for this kind of activism. His emphasis on epistemology reminded me of Maisha Eggers’ “Knowledges of (Un) Belonging: Epistemic Change as a Defining Mode for Black Women’s Activism in Germany.” In this article, Eggers tracks the ways in which Black women in Germany have used their own production of knowledge to dismantle the present “racialized knowledge.” As a result, epistemic change has facilitated social and political change inside and outside of the Black empowerment movement. Along these lines, Aikins and the activists alongside him have been lobbying the United Nations (UN) to make use of the Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination (CERD), and they have had some success. Aikins has presented his collaborative findings on discrimination of all types (e.g., LGBTQI of color, Turkish, Jewish, Blacks) to the UN, and they have decided to put pressure on the German government to make legislative change.

M-StrasseAfter giving us an introduction to his work, Aikins parsed out the specifics of the postcolonial structures that Germany retains. First, he defined the word coloniality as the notion that colonialism is embedded in our current society, noting that our societal structures cannot be boiled down to only colonialism. According to him, there are five symptoms of coloniality: Coloniality of Power, Coloniality of Knowledge, Coloniality of Being, Power of Ignorance, and Ignorance of Power. Of these five, the Coloniality of Knowledge is the most interesting to me. This, in Aikins’ words, is simply the hegemonic knowledge of the “dead men of five countries.” In other words, our body of knowledge has been created and established by white males from five main western countries. The Coloniality of Knowledge erases the fullness of history and strips marginalized people of writing their own stories. Philipp Khabo Köpsell echoes these sentiments in his poem “A Fanfare for the Colonized.” He writes, “O they will tell you of tradition/ of the mapping of the world/ of the mapping of your minds,” and then colonizers will deny the consequences of their actions. Köpsell goes on to write, “Is this what it is? Like this?/ We can’t read the script? Like this?/ We don’t write our own stories?/ We can’t navigate in landscapes/ where the white men claim of glory?/ Motherfuckers we have maps too!” Both Aikins and Köpsell emphasize the eradication of the Black narrative from colonial history that still occurs today.

May UferAlong these lines, Kwesi told us that Germany denies conducting genocide in Namibia to this day. Although it is technically the first genocide of the 20th century, people frequently overlook it. This denial seems oxymoronic when there are still street signs and subway stations with derogatory names targeted at black people that clearly signify Germany’s colonial past. For example, Mohrenstraße is a street name that still exists. Mohren’s latin root means “dark,” but it also means “stupid” and “heathen.” This word has been historically used to degrade Black people in order to uphold white supremacist power structures, and its usage in a public space is a constant reminder of German colonialism. In response, Aikins has worked with Berlin Postkolonial and the ISD has begun to change the names of street signs to those of historical Black figures. The first sign to be created was in commemoration of May Ayim. The prior street name, Gröbenufer, commemorated a white male colonialist, Otto Friedrich von der Gröben, who theorized the racist notion of colorism. When May Ayim’s new sign was installed, there was also a plaque installed that explains the history of the sign. Aikins notes that the point is not to erase history, but rather to document it from all perspectives.

IMG_8991Aikins concluded his lesson with a final articulation—we have the ability to make positive change. If we realize that history is layered with similar and distinct connections, we can track the transcendence of oppression through time. By doing this, we have identified the structural oppression at hand. This is the kind of oppression that is not only institutional and individual, but is also a layer of oppression that is socially shared, sustained, and reproduced through everyday culture, education, and media. However, I was confused as to how could we track our history as Black people when it is constantly being erased. Aikins responded explaining that although it is hard to piece together our history, it is becoming easier. More importantly, we can track our history through the ways we’ve resisted. This reminded me of the ways that the gay and lesbian communities remembered the Holocaust. For instance, in “The Pink Triangle and Political Consciousness: Gays, Lesbians, and the Memory of Nazi Persecution,”  describes this fragmented collective memory—gays and lesbians were so marginalized and traumatized from the events of the Holocaust that they were hard to discuss and remember. However, they were able to find a collective memory by wearing the Pink Triangle to resist the oppression they were facin. It seems that Aikins is prompting us to do the same, so as to rewrite history by filling in the erasures with the people, places, and experiences that we do have access to, which can even be in our own backyard.


NiaNia Abram is a rising junior, an Environmental Science major, and an avid dancer at Colorado College. She has lived in central New Jersey, Atlanta, California, and northern Jersey (in that order), but in the end, she calls north Jersey her home. Nia enjoys hiking and creative writing, as she often retreats to nature to write short stories and personal essays in her free time. Some of her favorite movies include Coming to America, Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, Mulan, Howl’s Moving Castle, and, of course, Harry Potter. She has taken an interest in Feminist & Gender Studies, and may have the opportunity to declare a minor. However, she hopes to use her knowledge as a feminist and an academic to address environmental justice issues through an intersectional lens. Optimistically, her future career will allow her to start a non-profit organization that brings environmental science and outdoor education to underprivileged urban girls through a program that teaches science, empowerment, and social justice.

“Not So Tangible but Still Real!”: LesMigraS and Intersectional Anti-Violence Work in Berlin

By Spencer Spotts

Author’s Note: For the privacy and safety of their clients, the names of LesMigraS staff members and photos of the facility have not been included.

LesMigraS IIn the United States, LGBTQIA+ rights and issues are a hot topic, as the media obsesses over Caitlyn Jenner, the Supreme Court’s decision on same-sex marriage is heavily anticipated, and Orange is the New Black approaches its third season premier. While Berlin may appear to be ahead of the game in addressing LGBTQIA+ issues, our visit to LesMigraS reshaped this perception for me and highlighted how much work there is to be done and how very few people are doing it.

IMG_9013Founded in 1999, LesMigraS serves lesbian/bisexual women, inter* and trans* people. The organization “is engaged in antidiscrimination and antiviolence work, offers counseling and a space for self-empowerment,” and provides multiple services for their clients and their families/friends. Programs and services include, but are not limited to, counseling, workshops, film screenings, empowerment programs, support groups, and anti-violence/anti-discrimination networking. For example, they offer various forms of counseling (e.g. legal, psycho-social, partner/spouse) that address a wide range of issues (e.g. discrimination, coming out, migration, partner and sexual abuse, and other forms of identity-related violence).

Depending on the area of the city, Berlin can sometimes be relatively safe and comfortable for queer-identifying people to be open about their lives. There is a history of political and social activism for queer rights in Berlin, as explored by Erik Jensen in “The Pink Triangle and Political Consciousness: Gays, Lesbians, and the Memory of Nazi Persecution.” He writes, “In the late 1960s, in the wake of the civil rights protests, antiwar demonstrations, and the second wave of feminism…gays and lesbians [began] to organize on a broad basis and push for radical changes in their legal and social status” (321). Seemingly, however, only entrance into this increasing tolerance of non-heterosexuality is that you are a white, able-bodied, cisgender man. Anyone in LGBTQIA+ communities that falls outside this category will immediately notice the lack of resources, funding, and representation for them and their peers. In “Queer Injuries: The Racial Politics of ‘Homophobic Hate Crime’ in Germany,” Jin Haritaworn discusses this trend and notes the appropriation of “intersectionality” by white Leftist organizations. Haritaworn writes, “Dominant identity politics are learning the language of intersectionality and masquerading as multi-issues to gain representational power and a competitive edge over migrant organizations in struggles over public funding and recognition” (78). In our week and a half here in Berlin so far, we have repeatedly heard this narrative of funding discrimination. LesMigraS, which caters to a more intersectional and wide range of identities, is not unfamiliar with this experience of limited funding and resources.

IMG_9012Nonetheless, LesMigraS recognizes the importance and necessity of resisting this type of economic hegemony. As a result, intersectionality and inclusivity are the driving forces behind their work. Although their part-time staff only consists of nine members, all of them represent diverse and various backgrounds. For instance, most of their services and programs are offered in multiple languages, and workshops are carefully developed to address a wide range of topics and communities. Not only is LesMigraS providing resources where they are very heavily needed, they are also advancing the work and scholarship surrounding LGBTQIA+ issues and identity in Germany. Similar to Jensen, Clayton Whisnant writes about the progress and evolution of gay history. In “Gay German History: Future Directions?,” he writes that “the study of Germany’s gay history since its meager beginnings in the 1970s [was] driven forward by a relatively small cadre of devoted historians” (1). However, what Whisnant fails to acknowledge is the political and social location of these historians and what (or more specifically who) they are studying. The majority of the research that Whisnant highlights follows the history of gay and bisexual men in Germany, who are also assumed to be white cisgender men. In contrast, LesMigraS released a report in 2012 (developed over three years) that focused on the violence and multiple discrimination experiences of lesbian/bisexual women and trans* people in Germany. The translated title reads “Not So Tangible but Still Real,” and is a compilation of a large survey, six narrative interviews, and one focus group. The results showed that on average, lesbian/bisexual women and trans* people of color or with a migration background (self-identified) experienced higher rates of discrimination and violence as opposed to their white participants. LesMigraS expressed to us that, to their knowledge, their study is the first and only report in Germany to focus on these communities and multiple discrimination.

A gift for the #FemGeniusesInBerlin from LesMigraS!

A gift for the #FemGeniusesInBerlin from LesMigraS!

While LesMigraS may be the only organization of its kind in Berlin, they by no means are lacking in power and credibility. White gay men may be dominating the political and institutional spheres of queer identity, but LesMigraS is rewriting the cultural and social history at high speeds. Their resistance and impact, both on the day-to-day basis as well as long term, needs to garner more attention from LGBTQIA+ activists in Berlin as well as in the United States. Furthermore, LesMigraS provides the perfect example of how conducting intersectional and inclusive work is possible, effective, and above all, incredibly necessary.


SpencerSpencer Spotts is a rising junior at Colorado College, with a major in Feminist & Gender Studies and a minor in Race & Ethnic Studies. His hometown is Thornton, Colorado, and he is a first generation student. Spencer currently serves as the co-chair of the Colorado College Student Organization for Sexual Safety (SOSS) and hopes to pursue a career in sexual violence and sexual health education for LGBTQIA+ communities. His research interests include sexual violence, emotional partner abuse, effemiphobia in queer communities, and the experiences of LGBT youth. He also has a background in theatre and occasionally directs productions at Colorado College. He works as the Open House Intern for the Colorado College Office of Admission and occasionally writes for The Catalyst independent student newspaper. Last but not least, Spencer is a proud and active Starbucks Gold Card Member.