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.

“I Want You to Listen to My Story!”: An Afternoon with Mutlu Ergün-Hamaz

By Jade Frost

MutluAfter our class’ harrowing experience with the tour guide on Friday, I was particularly yearning for this session, because we had the pleasure of meeting Mutlu Ergün-Hamaz. When we all had shuffled into the room and sat down at the table, Ergün-Hamaz set the tone by saying, “I didn’t prepare a PowerPoint presentation with pictures, because I want you to listen to my story and my narrative. I read about the tour that you guys had, so I want you to pay attention to my story.” After hearing this, I was quite elated that our class was finally going to hear a narrative of Turkish people in Berlin that was not going to be misrepresented.

Ergün-Hamaz was born in the late 1970s in Berlin. Both of his parents came as guest workers from Turkey in 1965. He and his family actually lived in our cozy town of Wedding for a short while before they moved to a more predominately White area in Charlottenburg due to his father’s job with the civil service. This was an exception since there was a German law that mandated Turkish people to live in certain areas like Kreuzberg, Neükolln, and Wedding rather than areas that are predominately White. Ergün-Hamaz went on to discuss how he and his brother’s education was very different in their new neighborhood. The White teachers in Wedding often assumed that Turkish children were dumb and taught them the bare minimum. In their new neighborhood, however, the students received a more advanced education.

IMG_9250Their peers isolated Ergün-Hamaz and his brother, because they were Turkish. So, as he grew older, Ergün-Hamaz became interested in Hip-Hop. He said, “I liked Hip Hop, because it was a culture of resistance.” He talked about listening to Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five and watching Beat Street. His reasoning was not that Turkish people are the same as Black Americans, but that both cultures experienced oppression and developed a commitment to resistance. In Heinz Ickstadt’s “Appropriating Difference: Turkish-German Rap,” he states, “Turkish-German rappers (in Berlin and elsewhere) have indeed appropriated especially black cultural assertions of protest and of difference to articulate their own difference from a dominant and hostile German culture” (572). Along these lines, hip-hop in Berlin was a vehicle through which Turkish Germans could begin to reclaim Germany for themselves. Ergün-Hamaz, under the name Sesperado Lyrical Guerilla, even began to write hip-hop lyrics. While he no longer writes and performs rap, he continues to use Sesperado as a stage name for various other kinds of performance.

As far as the “dangerous 36 Boys” that our misinformed tour guide told us about, here is the real story. There was a young Turkish woman who was attacked and beaten in Kreuzberg by a Nazi gang. The Turkish community in Kreuzberg was enraged by this, and started to carry knives and baseball bats to protect themselves and their neighborhood. They wanted to send a message, “Don’t fuck with us! This is our neighborhood and we protect our own, so don’t think about it!” These groups weren’t formed to create tension within the community, they were formed to protect and keep their community safe. However, racist interpretations of these communities cause them to be primarily interpreted as extremely dangerous.

DiariesAfter the fall of the Berlin Wall, things changed. The problem was that Turkish-Germans were excluded from Germany’s reunification narrative. White Germans were telling Turkish-Germans to go back to Turkey, and would rant about the Turkish-Germans “taking” all of their jobs. In “‘We Don’t Want To Be the Jews of Tomorrow’: Jews and Turks in Germany after 9/11,” Gökçe Yurdakul and Y. Michal Bodemann claim, “With the collapse of the Berlin Wall, a chaotic social environment and cheap labor from East Germany led to mass unemployment in the Western part of Berlin” (50).  During the same time of the fall of the Berlin Wall, The Satanic Verses by Salman Rushdie was published, and continued to skew the narrative of Muslims. This book, along with the end of communism, led to the scapegoating of Muslims. When 9/11 happened, the Turkish-Germans and Muslim community were under suspicion again. As Yurdakul and Bodemann point out, 9/11 “cast a dark shadow on all Muslims in Germany and at the same time paradoxically perhaps, intensified anti-semitism” (51). The Germany government sent records and files of all Muslims or people with Muslim-sounding names to the FBI.

Still, Turkish Germans have consistently resisted such racist efforts to dangerously misrepresent their history and culture. Along these lines, Ergün-Hamaz discussed his membership with Phoenix, where he began to participate in anti-racism and empowerment training sessions. It’s important to point out that these trainings do not necessarily teach people how not to be racist. Rather, they focus on how we are all racialized. For this reason and many others, Ergün-Hamaz said that we should be aware of the implications of using the term “people of color,” because it is important to not blanket other races experiences as the same. Phoenix’s work reminded me of Sidonia Blättler and Irene M. Marti’s “Rosa Luxemburg and Hannah Arendt: Against the Destruction of Political Spheres of Freedom,” in which they write, “The knowledge that mattered to them is tied to concrete experiences articulated within the context of thinking and acting in a community with others” (89). It is the knowledge the communities develop and disseminate that matter.

IMG_9256Now, Ergün-Hamaz has finished his Master’s degree and has written a book, Die geheimen Tagebücher des Sesperado (The Secret Diaries of Sesperado), which he wrote for the minority audiences who may be empowered by his experiences. He is also continuing his work with Phoenix. I am truly grateful to have listened to his story and to hear a narrative of the Turkish-Germans that was told with passion and complexity. It was in this session that it really hit me why we are here. Throughout this trip, we have listened to narratives about what it is like here from those who have been marginalized and oppressed. We are here to find these often hidden spaces and listen to these often hidden and silenced narratives.


JadeJade 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.

Ignorance is Never Bliss: Our Turkish Tour Experience

By Meredith Bower Street ArtDisappointing is, without a doubt, the best way for me to describe our experience on today’s Turkish Berlin Tour. Fortunately, our class readings have given us insight on the lives of Turkish Berliners in the past and present. My favorite is “’We Don’t Want To Be the Jews of Tomorrow’: Jews and Turks in Germany after 9/11” by Gökçe Yurdakul and Y. Michal Bodemann, which opened my eyes to the fierce racism that Turks experience daily in Germany. It has gotten to a point that, as Yurdakul and Bodemann point out, “leaders in Turkish immigrant associations stress the similarities between the racism against Turks and anti-Semitism” (45). Scarier still, this racism is quickly shrugged off by many Germans. Turkish rights are simply not seen as important. Yurdakul and Bodemann further explore this in their comparison between treatment of German Turks and German Jews. They address a “double standard, tolerating Jewish practices while opposing Turkish ones” and how this “is another reason why Turks have associated themselves with Jews, and ask for equal recognition in public space” (57). After our readings, I hoped to explore these issues even more, and had numerous questions lined up—mostly regarding the aggressive stereotyping that surrounds the Turkish community. Unfortunately, my questions had to go unanswered, as the tour took an unplanned turn and ended after only thirty minutes. Rather than addressing and problematizing the hurtful narrative that Heinz Ickstadt describes as the “fantasy” of the “‘bad, bad Turk,’ a mean tough, deceitfully clever with his knife—in any case, potentially a criminal” (572) in “Appropriating Difference: Turkish-German Rap,” our tour guide actually played into this stereotype. He warned us “not to be afraid” of the surrounding residents in this predominantly Turkish part of Kreuzberg (a neighborhood we have been to multiple times and in which we have never had any issues). Though he did speak briefly of the migratory history of Turkish communities and how that created major identity crises within the community, I felt as if he treated the original Turkish status of “guest worker” as though it were something the Turkish ought to thank the Germans profusely for, because it was the Germans who “saved” these people from “disaster.” This standpoint is extremely privileged coming from a white, German male, and obviously does not consider the theories and politics of those who actually experiencing that hard, treacherous labor. Stop RassismusFurthermore, his narrative focused primarily on violence and “street gangs” that he claimed were mostly influenced by American hip hop narratives, such as the films Colors and Menace II Society. There was no mention of any resistive and/or generative aspects of the Turkish community in Germany. Rather, Turks were portrayed as a nuisance. And sadly enough, this seems to be a typical mindset. As Jin Haritaworn points out in “Queer Injuries: The Racial Politics of ‘Homophobic Hate Crime’ in Germany,” the “post-migrant population” is represented as “unassimilable and disentitled” (71). Haritaworn further explains how the Turkish community is viewed as a bunch of “homophobic Muslims,” people who “cannot handle diversity and present an urgent threat to it” (71). Therefore, they take the blame for most homophobic hate crime taking place in Germany. Because of this, the tour came to a dramatic close as Heidi and all of us cringed when our tour guide laughed and told us he could not take us into a T-shirt shop run by a former member of the “36 Boys,” because “we would probably get stabbed.” At this point, Heidi intervened and the next twenty minutes consisted of her strictly (and intellectually) informing him just how offensive his tour had been. He was shocked at Heidi’s accusations, though he did listen to the criticism and even began taking notes on what Heidi was saying. Despite his attempts to understand, the deed had been done, and I was incredibly saddened by how he constructed the Turkish community. Had I not had any previous knowledge about the Turkish community here, including Kreuzberg, I may have believed that the community is erratically violent and that Kreuzberg is an area that needs to be avoided at all costs. In reality, however, I have not seen or experienced any cold-hearted aggression from a Turkish person (and we live among Turkish folks in Wedding). I have also thoroughly enjoyed spending a few of my days and nights in Kreuzberg. The major issue at hand here is, as Heidi addressed with him, his perpetuation of extremely dangerous ignorance. Unfortunately, his tour company assigned him to lead this tour when he knew nothing of the topic. Our tour with him was the first “Turkish Tour” he had ever done. From the very beginning, he spoke of using Wikipedia as his source of information in order to build this tour. It should go without saying that an entire community and its history cannot be whittled down to a single Wikipedia search. Fuck Ur SexismAll of the emotions, experiences, issues, and viewpoints that should be discussed when teaching about Turkish history, culture, and politics cannot be quickly jotted down in a notebook at the naïve request of your supervisor. Accurate, complex narratives demand passion and intellect, and clearly there was none within this man who declared to us that Turkish history is “boring.” Today was a spot-on example of how racism continues to be deeply intertwined into society. To be clear, the racist is not necessarily the blatant asshole on the street shouting derogatory terms. Many racists today are the ignorant (and sometimes very “nice”) ones who do not care enough to educate themselves. It is necessary to stop this, because without an awareness or acknowledgment of their ignorance, skewed narratives, such as the one we experienced today, will continue to be shared, learned, and maintained.


MeredithMeredith Bower is a sophomore at Colorado College from Dallas, Texas. Though her major is undeclared, she loves to take courses in Feminist & Gender Studies and English. She is also planning to take prerequisite courses for Nursing School. She is a member of Kappa Alpha Theta, and participates in a weekly ballroom dance adjunct. Her ideal meal would be pepperoni pizza with a Diet Coke followed by a big scoop of gelato. She loves sleeping in late and cuddling with her cat, Lola. Alongside Lola, she also has another cat named Izzy and a dog-named Molly. Fun fact, she is also a certified vinyasa yoga teacher. Meredith is extremely excited to be in Berlin and cannot wait to start exploring!

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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.

RfR

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.

RfR III

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.

Rfr II

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