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Wannsee Lake, Theorizing Race and Racism, and the Carnival of Cultures: Our Second Weekend in Berlin

Lake

Melissa and Casey on the Wannsee Lake Beach

Our second weekend in Berlin was eventful but also relaxing, which was deliberate. I planned to wake up late (but still early) on Saturday to go to Wannsee Lake with some of the FemGeniuses. However, I (thankfully) didn’t wake up until 11 am, and didn’t leave for the lake until 1 pm, arriving around 2 pm. Melissa, Kadesha, Casey, Stefani, Ximena, and Nicole had already arrived and had taken quite a few dips in the lake already. I bought a slushie and sat on the beach only to enter the water a short while later to watch Melissa, Kadesha, and Casey go down the slide a few times. The water was nice, but I didn’t get too wet. I really came mostly for the pedal boats.

Boating

Nicole and Kadesha on the Pedal Boat

Nicole, Kadesha and I waited about 30 minutes for our chance to ride—Melissa, Ximena, Stefani, and Casey opted out, but we had so much fun! It was so relaxing, even with the pedaling! I can’t wait to come back next summer and pedal boat with Tony, AJ, and Chase! We rented the boat for an hour but only boated for about 30-40 minutes, but we all could honestly see how someone would spend a whole hour out on the water wading around with the other boaters, the ducks, and the swans—yes, swans!

Tipica

Casey and Melissa Sharing at Tipica

An hour or so later, Melissa, Kadesha, Casey, and I had dinner at Tipica, which was pretty good. Stefani, who left the lake early, and Blaise also joined us. I had a pretty awesome Mexican Fizz drink—not sure what was in it—and some nice beef tacos. Yummy to the tummy, indeed, but definitely not cheap. Haha! Still, I was full enough to go back to my apartment and get some good shut eye.

Hatef

Hatef Soltani of CrossPoint

I woke up a bit earlier on Sunday to meet with Nadine Saeed of the Oury Jalloh Initiative, along with Hatef Soltani and Mahdiyeh Kalhori of CrossPoint, in order to discuss racism and justice in the U.S.. Nadine also invited Beril to discuss racism and justice in Turkey. I was honored that we were invited by Nadine to be part of this documentary, because I’ve become more committed to transnational theoretical, pedagogical, and artistic activism (not in that order and inextricably linked, at least for me), and talking with her has been a large part of that deeper commitment.

I spoke at length about Trayvon Martin, Oscar Grant, and Marissa Alexander in order to communicate the necessity of intersectional analyses and activism. As a theoretical activist, I find it troubling when, especially within “liberal” and “progressive” communities, people denigrate theory in an effort to communicate the necessity of action. For instance, sometimes my audiences, including my students, grow frustrated when they ask what they can “do” to affect change, and I respond that theorizing is one of the most important things that can be done in response to injustice.

Nadine

Nadine Watching CrossPoint TV

Theory is simply a way of thinking about, understanding, and explaining the world. And it’s my contention that theory killed Trayvon Martin and Oury Jalloh. This same theory sentenced Marissa Alexander to 20 years for self-defense. Of course, George Zimmerman killed Trayvon Martin. And the police killed Oury Jalloh. And the United States legal system sentenced Marissa Alexander. However, those murders and that sentencing would not have been possible without white supremacist heteropatriarchal theories about Black and Brown bodies and lives, theories that suggest that these bodies are not worthy of love, affection, and protection, theories that suggest that these lives don’t matter and that they’re not worth saving. George Zimmerman began to name himself as Latino, especially during and after the trial, but that still does not exempt him from this theoretical framework. Only this kind of thinking would allow Zimmerman to see Trayvon Martin as inherently dangerous and violent because of his gender, his race, and his clothing. Only this kind of thinking would allow someone to see Marissa Alexander as anything other than a victim during her trial.

Beril at Oury Jalloh

Beril at Oury Jalloh

I was also quite interested in Beril’s narrative about her own struggles as a young Turkish woman studying in the United States. I was particularly intrigued by her relatively recent realization that uniting in struggle is one of the most important ways in which we can fight injustice, because isolated and disjointed communities are a strong tactic of those that are invested in our subjugation. I also appreciated learning more about the struggles Turkish communities face, especially pertaining to migration and the demonstrations last summer in Gezi Park. I’m really looking forward to seeing the outcome of this conversation, because all of the CrossPoint videos I have watched—earlier today and since returning to my apartment—have been terrifying and powerful.

Carnival

Carnival of Cultures 2014

After the interview, Celine and I went to the Carnival of Cultures to watch some of the parade. The Carnival is held from June 6-8 around Pentecost, and is organized by Philippa Ebéné, Executive and Artistic Director of the Werkstatt der Kulturen. Celine and I had fun taking in some Caipirinhas and talking about politics, as we love to do with each other, but we couldn’t help but notice the overwhelming sea of white faces at the parade. Black attendees were scant, and so were Black participants in the parade (at least the short part we saw). Both of us are fully aware that there are plenty white folks in many parts of Africa, but we also wondered why there were few Black African folks marching in decidedly African parts of the parade. I don’t know enough about the Carnival or the parade or Berlin or Germany—and we only stayed for a few hours—to provide a salient analysis of the “goings on,” but I am interested in learning more about the history of the Carnival, which is more than 60 years old, and its relationship with the culture of Berlin, including all of its migrant communities. Along these lines, I was made aware of some racism that Philippa has faced while planning the Carnival, and I’m eager to learn more about the role that has played in the organizing process. Perhaps I’ll write more about this next summer…lots to ponder.

Me at WannseeUntil next time,

Heidi

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Paul Gilroy, “The Struggle against Racism in Britain (1976-2012): Its Implications for Justice and Democracy”

By Nicole Tan

Werkstatt

Werkstatt der Kulturen

Our running feet stopped when we saw the line ahead of us. A line that wound up being two flights of stairs with no end point in sight. This was the accumulation of Berlin dwellers, both temporary and permanent, eager to listen to what Paul Gilroy had to say about “The Struggle Against Racism in Britain.” This event was a microcosm of a larger conference at the Werkstatt der Kulturen which explored “the practices and norms of the justice system in our postcolonial world.”

Once we got in, the next struggle was finding somewhere to sit in the crowded, buzzing room. We were fortunate enough to grab the last handful of red pillows that we could place on the ground. It was prime viewing. From where I sat, Paul Gilroy’s face was blocked by the computer screen propped up to his side no matter which way I craned my neck. Fortunately, I was still within visible sight of his dreadlocks which communicated a message of their own, swaying from side to side every time he expressed an idea with more fervour.

Gilroy

Paul Gilroy

I have no doubt that you’ve heard Winston Churchill’s famous phrase, “History is written by the victors.”This evening, Gilroy elaborated on this theme by considering the creation of historical knowledge. From here, came the question, who are historical actors? Who is given the right to create historical narratives?

Having grown up in a British colony myself, I found myself nodding along fervently in agreement with his argument that history is created by the dominant voices of the time. In school, I was taught about how Sir Francis Light had “founded” Penang. At home, I was told by my father that, in fact, Penang was stolen by Sir Francis Light from the Sultan of Kedah. When I asked my grandmother, who had grown up during the time of British colonisation, she assured me that the British had saved us from savagery, providing us with civilisation. So, the question is, who creates our history?

The act of colonisation both requires and is synonymous with the creation of racial hierarchies. In “Reclaiming Innocence,” Sharon Dodua Otoo argues that “the justification of the atrocities that racism […] and colonialism, required the extensive dehumanisation of people of African descent.”  The repercussions and implications of this belief is what our class has been exploring here in Berlin. With Heidi’s direction, we have looked at both the racism directed towards black soldiers who occupied Germany following the end of WWI and, by extension, children of these soldiers. Defined by dominant society as “occupation babies” and “Rheinland bastards,” the experiences of these individuals has been characterised by alienation, marginalisation and a sense of not belonging within Germany’s predominantly white society.

Gilroy then went on to explore the question, what exactly has changed in our postcolonial society? How is racism represented today? Given the focus of his talk, Gilroy considered the history of racial riots in Britain, comparing the riots of 1981 to the more recent ones of 2011.

Gilroy II

Paul Gilroy

Gilroy explained riots broke out all over Britain in 1981 due to racial discrimination. When the “sus” policy was introduced, police forces began stopping and searching “suspicious individuals” at will, the majority of whom were Black. However, when riots broke out all over Britain for similar reasons in 2011, they were not considered race-specific, rather they were interpreted as the end result of ungovernable gang power. From Gilroy’s perspective, the key difference here was the absence of a racial riot descriptor in 2011.

Why is this difference significant? In his talk, Gilroy described the “institutionalisation of racism.” Whilst the riots of 1981 were evidently rooted in explicit racial profiling, today racism has started to take more subtle forms. Parallel to the idea of attaining social mobility in pursuit of the American Dream, failure in Britain today is considered a matter of personal responsibility. Rather than recognise the absence of equal opportunities for individuals across different racial and ethnic groups, blame has been dispersed amongst the individuals themselves, perpetuating a far more subtle form of racism.

Paul Gilroy’s valuable insight into racism in Britain helped me draw parallels to the evolution of the Afro-German experience here in Berlin. At the end of the First World War, racism was seen in far more explicit actions like sterilisation programs for Black soldiers, programs evidently designed to prevent miscegenation or racial mixing due to a perception of Blacks as sub-humans, moral and incorrupt. Today, however, racism often presents itself in hidden forms. Throughout the literature of Afro-German women, we have come across the repeated and common experience of people being surprised that these women are able to speak such good German. Whilst this statement seems harmless, inherently it reflects the implicit assumption that only whites are Germans. Similarly, Afro-Germans like Ika Hugel-Marshall and May Ayim, recount the experience of being asked where they are from, implicitly assuming that Blacks do not belong to Germany and are solely temporary habitants.

The question now is what does racism look like today? Has the situation really improved or has it solely changed its form to become more subtle and instituionalised within our societal framework?

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NicoleNicole Tan is entering her second year at Colorado College. She is from Penang, Malaysia and currently lives in Auckland New Zealand.