Some Final Thoughts on the 2017 #FemGeniusesInBerlin

 

Sachsenhausen Concentration Camp (Zlevor)

Sachsenhausen Concentration Camp [Photo Credit: Annie Zlevor]

By Annie Zlevor

Throughout this trip, I encountered many difficult questions that I have been struggling to answer. After three weeks of exploring Berlin, meeting with local activists, visiting museums, and attending walking tours, I find myself only a little closer to understanding their answers. More often than not, my experiences have left me with new questions, wishing I could spend more time in Berlin. On my final day in the city, I would like to consider these questions and reflect on how my recent experiences have allowed me to more critically examine them. I hope to apply what I have learned in the course and continue furthering my understanding of identities, forms of oppression, and memorials.

First, I want to consider our navigation of identities and subjectivities. How do we see ourselves and acknowledge how others see us? This question has helped me reflect more deeply on my own positionality and how society chooses to perceive it. In the spaces I have been welcomed into during this trip, it was important for me to understand how my own experiences exist in relation to the experiences of others. Having a greater awareness of this has better enabled me to listen critically and appreciate the narratives people share. Therefore, I discovered that my primary role ought to be that of a curious listener. This blog serves as an extension of this curiosity and as an ongoing attempt to understand the marginalized communities of Berlin and my role in it.

Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe (Zlevor)

Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe [Photo Credit: Annie Zlevor]

After speaking with local activists, I began to question how and when people decide to confront forms of oppression and when they choose to affirm or challenge stereotypes. These questions reminded me of our “Rethinking Masculinities” panel and our discussion with Post-War Generation Black German Women. Spending time with Black and Turkish activists in Berlin has allowed me to better understand how individuals chose to deal with racism and sexism. While each experience is unique to the individual, it was clear that in their navigation of public space, they are never divorced from activism. As Musa Okwonga plainly stated, “You’re Black all the time in Berlin.” And although it is the Afro-German’s right not be discriminated against and exhibit self-determination, they must to spend their life in opposition to racism. They are not getting paid to spend their time confronting oppression, yet the burden so greatly lies on them.

How people choose to confront different forms of oppression also reminded me of our discussion with Salma Arzouni about their work with Gladt and SAWA. I felt that Salma consciously and efficiently navigated what needed to be achieved in their own fight against racism and sexism. Although it is exhausting work, it seems as if they effectively prioritize their goals when trying to combat oppression in a community. As someone who works day and night to support queer communities in Berlin, Salma has to carefully decided how to spend their time. They described the sacrifices they had to make in order to achieve their short-term initiatives. For example, instead of spending their time arguing with the local government at the risk of receiving cuts to Gladt’s government funding, Salma decided to temporarily halt a particular kind of political activism. For the sake of Gladt, Salma now chooses to spend that time helping queer people secure a permanent place to live. While this achievement might not seem monumental to some, it is life-changing for those people who now have a place to sleep at night.

Memorial in Schöneberg (Mills)

Memorial in Schöneberg [Photo Credit: Nikki Mills]

Additionally, after visiting many museums and memorials, I hope to gain a greater understanding of how certain histories have been told. I personally need to take more time to consider who writes these stories. More specifically, I want to understand the implications for those who speak for themselves and those who are being spoken for. Also, it was important for me to learn more about what groups of people were involved in the creation of Jewish memorials. I was curious if Jewish-Germans often gave input on their construction and who decided what to include in it. As Sabine Offe writes in “Sites of Remembrance? Jewish Museums in Contemporary Germany,” “We do not know whether individuals, confronted with the obligation to remember, do indeed remember what they are supposed to” (79). However, while some forms of remembrance can be more accurate than others, figuring out a way to accurately commemorate an event such as the Holocaust is beyond complicated and nearly impossible to accomplish. As a result, I am reminded of the importance of looking at historical sites more critically. This causes me to further question how we decide to honor a community that is not monolithic. For instance, I hope to better understand how a memorial can erase the individual experiences of a population. As R. Ruth Linden describes in “Troubling Categories I Can’t Think Without: Reflections on Women in the Holocaust,” a generalized representation of a group of people “fails to be accountable to lives that are actually lived: situated in bodies with limited means of making sense of…world-historic events in which they participate as…cultural subjects” (27). As a result, this adds another layer to the complexities of memorials and how people choose to represent communities. I hope that we more often attempt to honor the experiences of individuals since it can be easy to erase these differences when trying to honor an entire group.

Unlike most of the Jewish memorials, there were two important instances during our trip where I noticed groups of people deliberately telling their own story: the Friedrichshain-Kreuzberg (FHXB) Museum and the Roma and Sinti Historical Walking Tour. The FHXB Museum exhibit was a collaborative piece that the local community came together to create. They directly told the history of the district where generations of their own families grew up. I felt this participatory exhibit was representative of strong community relationships and also much more effective in the telling the histories they chose to portray. Additionally, the Roma and Sinti walking tour did much of the same work. The Roma high school students who led the tour self-organized and researched all the material presented. Further, when I asked the students what their parents thought about the tours they were giving, they responded, smiling: “Our families are very proud.” The energy and passion the students exhibited on the tour I feel could have been easily lost if non-Roma and Sinti people led it.

Roma and Sinti Memorial (Zlevor)

Memorial to the Sinti and Roma Victims of National Socialism [Photo Credit: Annie Zlevor]

Lastly, after three weeks of listening to and engaging with marginalized people in Berlin, I am left wondering how I can take what I have learned out into the world. Firstly, I hope to do this by recognizing the importance of going beyond academic work. While reading and discussing articles and books are beneficial in developing a basic understand of the material, the practical application of Feminist and Gender Studies outside the classroom is a hard-fought war. By spending time both inside and outside the classroom, I feel as if I can most effectively support marginalized communities and become more consciously aware of their situation. As Sidonia Blättler and Irene M. Marti describe in “Rosa Luxemburg and Hannah Arendt: Against the Destruction of Political Spheres of Freedom,” if people understand the complexities of human relationships, this subsequently “drives them toward solidarity with outcasts and emboldens them to a collective struggle against the oppressors” (89). I feel my future goal must be to join this collective struggle. By knowing my place and understanding my own identity in relation to others, I feel as if I can do this and support marginalized groups in their fight against forms of oppression.

Cheers

Photo Credit: Heidi R. Lewis

2017 FemGeniuses in Berlin Blog Index:
Click here to view a slideshow, and follow us on Instagram and Twitter to see even more pictures and videos!

#FemGeniusesInBerlin 2017: Our First Two Days” by Hailey Corkery
Taking Down The Wall of Religious Intolerance: Jewish History in Berlin” by Olivia Calvi
Gladt and SAWA with Salma Arzouni: Representation in Political Social Work” by Nora Holmes
The Anne Frank Museum and It’s Place in Contemporary Germany” by Liza Bering
The Told and Untold Stories of Berlin: A Walk-Through History” by Talia Silverstein
Navigating White Spaces: An Intersectional Analysis of Activist Work by Men of Color” by Ryan Garcia
Africa in Wedding: Germany’s Colonial Past” by Jannet Gutierrez
A Young Jew’s First Week in Berlin” by Nikki Mills
A Permanent Home for Friedrichshain-Kreuzberg’s History: The FHXB Museum” by Annie Zlevor
The Porajmos: The Hidden Narratives of the Roma and Sinti” by Hailey Corkery
Writing Ourselves into the Discourse: The Legacies of Audre Lorde and May Ayim” by Nikki Mills
A Day in Amsterdam: Seeking the Voices at the Margins” by Olivia Calvi
‘Nobody Flees Without a Reason’: A Walk Through Berlin’s Queer History” by Ryan Garcia
Memorialization: The Past in the Present and Why it is Important Today” by Liza Bering
ADNB des TBB: Intersectionality and Empowerment in Anti-Discrimination Support Work” by Nora Holmes
Mauerpark: Graffiti as Art” by Jannet Gutierrez

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


Annie Zlevor Blog PhotoAnnie Zlevor is a rising junior from the shores of Lake Michigan in Racine, Wisconsin. She is an Organismal Biology & Ecology major and a Feminist & Gender Studies minor. Annie is also a pre-medicine student, and hopes to attend medical school. In her free time, Annie enjoys eating Lebanese food, going fishing with her family, and taking lots of naps. Currently, you can find her spending some time outside the lab learning about Berlin’s hidden histories. She is excited to be exploring Germany for the first time and hopes you enjoy reading about her experiences.

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.