Some Final Thoughts on the 2019 #FemGeniusesinBerlin

Top (L to R): Matthew FitzGibbon, Bella Staal, Kelsey Mattox, Cam Kaplan, Samuel Vang, Maggie O’Brien, Avia Hailey, Nizhooni Hurd, Alexander Jobin-Leeds, and Lauren Hough; Middle (L to R): Miles Marshall, Professor Heidi R. Lewis, Cameron Bacher, Nicole Berlanga, and Eileen Huang; and Bottom (L to R): Caroline Livaditis, Maysie Poland, Mekael Daniel, Dana Maria Asbury (Course Associate), Mimi Norton de Matos, and Zivia Berkowitz

have to start by saying that the five-year anniversary of the course started out with a bang for a few reasons:

  • It’s the first time the course has been full. In fact, we exceeded the maximum enrollment limit of 16 by one student;
  • two of my students were able to secure funding to come conduct research—Judy Fisher, Feminist & Gender Studies Major ’20, 2019-2020 Triota President, 2018-2019 Shannon McGee Prize winner, and Fall 2017 #FemGeniusesinBerlin alum came to conduct transnational studies of American Indigeneity; and Mekael Daniel, Feminist & Gender Studies Major ’20 and 2019-2020 Triota Vice President came to conduct transnational studies of Blackness;
  • and we were joined by my niece-cousin-boo from Memphis, TN, Kelsey Nichole Mattox, who turned 18 and graduated from high school recently. So, her presence was especially meaningful. In fact, she had never gotten on an airplane until she traveled here, excitedly letting us know, “I decided to go all the way!”

Judy and Mekael arrived the same day I did, and we trekked to Radebeul (near Dresden) to attend the Karl May Festival so Judy could observe, think about, and examine Native American participation in predominantly white festival culture in Germany, as well as white Native American hobbyism. Imagine the raised-eyebrows of every single one of my friends and comrades in Berlin when I told the about this—haha. Judy and Mekael also went to the Great Indian Meeting at the El Dorado theme park in Templin the following weekend to continue Judy’s work. Shoutout to my colleague, Dr. Santiago Ivan Guerra (Associate Professor of Southwest Studies at Colorado College), for introducing Judy to the significance of hobbyism in Germany, illustrating the collective efforts necessary for critical theory work.

Also, it’s worth pointing out that it’s been a while since the #FemGeniusesinBerlin were so full of #BlackGirlMagic (2015 was the last time, to be exact), and I couldn’t have been more excited about that. One adorable and powerful manifestation of that was Avi(a) leading several rounds of “Deep Truth, Truth,” a game that allowed her to bond with her classmates, especially her roommates, but also with Dana and I one day during lunch. “Deep Truth, Truth” starts with someone asking another person if they’d like to share a deep truth or what one might refer to as a “regular” truth. A “regular truth” could be anything from sharing your favorite color to a song that you hate; however, a “deep truth” is usually something that one might not share in a group like this, because lots of us don’t know each other well enough to be comfortable with that kind of vulnerability. Then, once the person being questioned decides what kind of truth they want to share, the questioner asks a question. After the question is answered, the person being questioned then gets to ask another person in the group a question. I got to ask and answer twice (one truth and one deep truth), and learned a lot about the students that day. Neat stuff.

In “short,” the 2019 #FemGeniusesinBerlin were such a great bunch even though we most certainly hit a few snags along the way. Here are some (definitely not all) of the most memorable moments:

  1. The weather hitting 90F degrees, something I’m pretty sure never happened in years past, and doing so several days each week.
  2. Bella’s cube bear.
  3. Mekael, Judy, and I being photographed by a stranger (with consent) at the Karl May Festival and finding the very poorly-filtered but very cute photograph on social media (posted with consent).
  4. Lauren’s RBF and fierce modeling skills.
  5. Avia’s phone fan and ridiculous pranks.
  6. Zander playing Captain Save ‘Em, and gettin’ hollered at all along the way.
  7. Eileen’s “hey.”
  8. Nicole being almost entirely silent then shakin’ up the space with the loudest, most hilarious laugh you ever did hear.
  9. Vang asking to sit on our roof (which would most certainly result in his untimely death), asking about transporting beer back to the U.S., telling us he got “hemmed up by 12” (which turned out to mean he was approached by some ticket-checkers on the subway and allowed to continue his trip with a mere warning…side eye), telling folks about sex stores, and gettin’ hollered at for almost every single thing all along the entire way.
  10. Discussing the advantages and risks of comparative analysis.
  11. Mimi’s sneakin’ in and slam-dunking the graffiti workshop brainstorming session.
  12. Miles’ hair flips, especially because they don’t even have a lot of hair, and lessons in lipstick.
  13. Caroline “showing off” her knowledge of the German language (see below).
  14. Matt trolling the entire class almost the entire time and then agreeing to draw a troll during our graffiti workshop.
  15. DeAira Cooper, 2015 #FemGeniusesinBerlin alum, coming to visit.
  16. Dr. W. Christopher Johnson, Assistant Professor of History and the Women and Gender Studies Institute at the University of Toronto and husband of our Course Associate Dana Asbury, coming for a visit and joining us for a few sessions.

I could go on and on and on. I will never forget this group. Such a great summer through it all, which led to my new phrases: Must be June. Must be Berlin.

2019 FemGeniuses in Berlin Podcast Index:
Click here to view a slideshow, and follow us on InstagramTwitter, and Facebook to see more pictures and videos!

Jewish Berlin Tour” by Nizhooni Hurd
Topography of Terror” by Zander Jobin-Leeds
Jasmin Eding” by Avia Hailey
German Colonialism Walking Tour” by Mimi Norton de Matos
Each One Teach One e.V.” by Maysie Poland
RAA Berlin” by Nicole Berlanga
RomaniPhen e.V.” by Samuel Vang
Pořajmos Walking Tour” by Cam Kaplan
Synchronicity with Sharon Dodua Otoo” by Maggie O’Brien
Rebellious Berlin Walking Tour” by Bella Staal
FHXB Museum” by Lauren Hough
The Memorial to Homosexuals Persecuted under Nazism” by Cameron Bacher
Queer Berlin Walking Tour” by Miles Marshall
Schwules* Museum” by Eileen Huang
Trans*sexworks” by Zivia Berkowitz
Graffiti Workshop with Berlin Massive” by Mekael Daniel
Urban Nation Museum for Urban Contemporary Art” by Caroline Livaditis
Street Art and Graffiti Walking Tour” by Matt FitzGibbon

To read and/or listen to the finales and view the indices and slideshows for previous FemGeniuses in Berlin, click here

The Power of Our Own Spaces: A Conversation on Colonialism and Belonging with Iris Rajanayagam, Melody Ledwon, and Mona El Omari

By Baheya Malaty

IMG_0673As we emerged from the Rehberge U-Bahn station into the blinding sunlight, it dawned on me that this would be the last time we walked together to Each One Teach One (EOTO), the organization which has been kind enough to allow us to use their space for several of our sessions. Today was our hottest and fullest day yet here in Berlin. Between the nearly 90 degree temperatures and the three class sessions, I wasn’t sure how my energy level would hold up as I walked to our last session. But even as I walked, the heat and exhaustion slowing my every step, I felt a great sense of anticipation and excitement. Contrary to any of our previous sessions here in Berlin, this one would be a space for people of color (POC) only. POC spaces have been critically important to my mental health and well-being. Beyond that, though, POC spaces have also inspired me greatly and provided me and people whom I care about with the opportunity to really thrive in community together. In the past, POC spaces have been brilliantly creative, passionate, and supportive. Despite my exhaustion, my expectations were high.

IMG_0676And needless to say, I was even more blown away and inspired than I thought I would be. At EOTO, we were met by the Director of the organization, Melody Ledwon, as well as our two presenters, Iris Rajanayagam and Mona El Omari. Originally from an area heavily populated by Turkish and Arab migrants in West Germany, El Omari moved to Berlin and began working with Der Braune Mob, a Black/POC media-watch organization. As a Jordanian Muslim queer woman, she became involved in feminist and queer Muslim self-organizing throughout Berlin. For Rajanayagam, her involvement with political activism began when she moved to Berlin ten years ago. Her search for a space in which she could both conduct her activism and feel comfortable as a woman of color led her to become involved in self-organizing. Additionally, she wrote her Master’s thesis on colonial continuities in Germany with an emphasis on refugee and asylum policies.

Within the first five minutes of the session, Ledwon referenced a theme that would remain critical to our discussion: the notion that people of color are constantly forced to defend their right to “come together on their own terms.” We are always told that we are self-segregating, that we should focus on becoming more “integrated,” met with blank expressions when we explain why it is important for us to come together in our own space. However, as El Omari, Rajanayagam, and Ledwon articulated, POC spaces are absolutely critical to our empowerment, our learning, our community, and our creativity. In the foreword to Showing Our Colors: Afro-German Women Speak OutAudre Lorde writes, “To successfully battle the many faces of institutionalized racial oppression, we must share the strengths of each other’s vision as well as the weaponries born of a particular experience. First, we must recognize each other” (ix). One tactic of white supremacy has been the intentional fracturing of communities of color, as well as the erasure of Brown and Black cultures and histories. For people of color, then, coming together on our own terms allows us not only to build community, but also to determine a collective vision, a way to move forward. Along these lines and regarding her work with Der Braune Mob, El Omari spoke of the importance of going beyond work that is strictly reactionary. Not only does the organization critique the presentations of Black people and people of color in the media, but it also creates an archive of alternative media and news articles in order to encourage people of color to write their own stories and to break the silences of the mainstream media. A critical part of her work at Der Braune Mob, then, has always been asking the question: What do we as POC communities do to empower ourselves? Mona explains that focusing on this question afforded her the opportunity to reflect, think, and develop visions for the future on her own and with other people of color.

As we continued to unpack the importance of people of color having the opportunity to assert a space, our discussion turned to the legacies of colonialism on the notions of inclusion, belonging, and citizenship in Germany. When Germany began its colonization of Namibia, German law stated that if you had a German father, you were German. As the rape of Black women by white men as well as sexual relations between Black people and white people created an increasing population of mixed-race babies, the German government decided to change the law. Now, if you had a “drop of Black blood, you could not be German.” Thus, the notion of German-ness as whiteness was born. The notion of Germany as a nation-state with colonies reinforced the binary between whiteness and blackness, German-ness and foreignness: the nation-state of Germany was white, and its colonies were Black. To this day, the law of (white) blood reigns supreme in Germany. For example, El Omari provided the example that if your great-great-great grandfather lived in unified Germany before the Second World War, but was in fact a white Polish citizen, you as a white Polish citizen would be able to obtain German citizenship. On the contrary, people of color who were born in Germany but lack a German passport can be deported from the country in an instant. Thus, in order to be German, one must be white. Similarly, in the introduction to Winter Shorts, Clementine Burnley and Sharon Dodua Otoo discuss the problematics of the prevalence of the term “people of a migration background” in Germany. More specifically, Otoo writes,

The phrase “person of a migration background” seems to suggest that you can see or hear whether a person is of “foreign” descent or not. However “person with a migration background” is a euphemism. It is rarely used to describe certain white non-Germans—I think white US Americans for example do not feel addressed by it. On the other hand, people who were born and raised in Germany, and who do not look white, are often labeled as having a “migration background.” (15-16)

IMG_5741Hence, if you are not white, you do not really belong in Germany. You are a “guest worker,” a refugee, an asylum seeker, or a visitor. El Omari, Rajanayagam, and Ledwon all testified to the fact that most people assume they cannot be German because of their color. They spoke to constantly being asked questions such as, “Where are you really from?” and “When are you going back?” In fact, a few years ago, El Omari was taken off the voter registration list, because a German government official saw her name and automatically assumed that she could not be German with a name like hers. Additionally, the police began to search for her, because they assumed that she was an “illegal” migrant, and when she protested, German authorities explained, “You must understand, we thought a person with a name like yours could not be German.” In Showing our Colors, May (Optiz) Ayim speaks to notion that her identity as Afro-German is read as unintelligible and not really German:

You planning to go back?
What? You’ve never been to Papa’s country?
What a shame…Well, if you ask me:
A background like that, it sure does leave its mark
Me, for example, I’m from Westphalia
and I think
that’s where I belong. (138)

IMG_5745The notion of belonging as a person of color in Germany is a very complicated one. On the one hand, because German-ness equals whiteness, people of color are excluded from the German identity. Still, as our session with these three amazing women came to a close, I could not help but see some silver lining to the situation at hand. This is not to excuse the erasure and exclusion of people of color in Germany or to say that it is justified or to glorify it in any way. Rather, I wish to emphasize the ways in which German people of color have been able to establish spaces together on their own terms and develop a collective vision for the future. As today’s session with El Omari, Rajanayagam, and Ledwon taught me, the power of POC spaces is incredible. Not only do they function as ways through which to heal and build community, but they also offer us radical liberatory possibilities. POC spaces allow us to create and exist within a space on our own terms. Colonialism has taken so much from people of color; people, land, resources, cultures, and histories have all been destroyed and erased. Thus, the act of people of color creating and gathering in a space on their own terms is radical in and of itself; it represents the reclaiming of our bodies, our histories, and our cultures. Perhaps most importantly, as Melody taught me today, POC spaces allow us the opportunity to thrive together.


MalatyBaheya Malaty is a rising junior at Colorado College studying Race, Ethnicity, and Migration Studies and Feminist and Gender Studies. As co-leader of Students for Justice in Palestine and the Feminist Collective (FemCo), they are passionate about challenging Zionism and engaging in creative activism in solidarity with Palestine using a feminist lens. They are known to many of their friends as “Dad,” due to their superb barbecuing skills, knowledge of sports, classy button-up shirts, and their general Dad sensibility. Their dream is to one day develop a program through which students of color can travel to Palestine and learn about the occupation through a comparative, transnational, and feminist lens. Their alternative dream is to become a stay-at-home Dad.