by Jeannine Kantara
It happened again the other day. „You have lovely hair! Mind if I touch it…?“ The hand of the white woman reached for my curls. „Actually, I do mind!“, was my immediate reply. The woman halted in apparent surprise about the unexpected refusal of her request. What could be wrong with touching a black person’s hair in order to find out how it felt? It was just an innocent gesture. After all, she meant no harm. In fact, she was probably convinced that I would be grateful for her flattery. Well, most of all, she wanted to satisfy her own curiosity. It did not even occur to her that through her „friendly“ gesture she – a stranger to me – invaded my privacy. So what? Considering the rising amount of racist attacks on black people in Germany – only a few of them make headline news -, this little episode may seem insignificant, annoying at the most. However, if you are black in Germany such incidents are part of daily life and to deal with them requires patience and stamina. It is not just about „fending off“ unwanted physical advances from well-meaning strangers, but also escaping their invasive and silly questions. Questions such as „Do you get darker in the summer?“ or „With your background, you must have rhythm in your blood, right?“ Or the immortal classic: „Oh, you are German? But where are you really from?“ Black. And German – even in 2008, for many whites that is still an oxymoron.
As a child, I quickly learned that I was „different“ and that skin colour mattered. My appearance was usually commented with attributes such as „cute“, „exotic“, and „natural“. It was only later that I understood the patronizing connotation of such compliments; that my appearance stood in vast contrast to the German self-image and could only temporarily tolerated until I „went back home“. For many white Germans, black skin and curly hair still trigger the need for categorization. As the late Afro-German writer May Ayim put it in one of her poems: „Growing up in Germany, I learned that my name is Negro and that people are the same, but not equal. And that I am too sensitive when it comes to certain issues. Growing up in Germany, I learned to regret being Black, being „mixed“, being German, being African, not being African, having German parents, having African parents, being exotic, being woman.“
It’s been more than twenty years, since Black Germans started organising. The publication of the book „Farbe bekennen“ (Showing our colours) in 1986, led to lively discussions among Black Germans about identity and identification. The largest groups came together in Berlin and the Frankfurt area. Apart from a detailed historical overview, the book contains the personal stories and biographies of sixteen Black German women. Many readers, like myself, could identify with their stories and discovered similarities in their biographies. For instance, growing up as the only black child in a white environment, the lack of black role models and the feeling of exclusion and „being different“. The book also helped to understand that racism is not an individual subjective experience but that its structures are firmly established within society: Despite the differences in our social upbringing and personal circumstances, we found many parallels in our experience of racism. The city of Berlin proved to be a fruitful ground for the development of an Afro German community. In the late 1980s, Berlin was still a divided city, the East being occupied by the Russians where as West Berlin was „shared“ by the US, French and British forces. With its vibrant cultural life and unique political background, West Berlin was a melting pot for people of various ethnic backgrounds. Black Army personnel, British, French or American as well as African students and artists were a regular feature of public life.
In the summer of 1987, the Initiative Schwarze Deutsche – ISD (Initiative of Black Germans) – later changed to Initiative of Black People in Germany – was founded in Berlin. It was also the year when the first edition of the Black German magazine „afro look“ was published by a group of students. It featured articles and essays on a whole range of issues such as black history, sociological aspects, and health questions and, of course, political issues. It criticised racist language in German schoolbooks and the media as well as institutionalised racism. It featured stories about black personalities and served as a platform for political and cultural events that would be of interest to black people. The fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 led to further growth of the community and offered new insights into Black German history East and West of the border.
The first years of the ISD were dominated by the need to just „be together“ as often as possible, in an environment that was exclusively accessible to black people. The deliberate „demarcation“ from the all-white environment that most Black Germans usually lived in, provided a „safe haven“ to get to know each other and talk about the emotional and physical scars that racism had inflicted on many of us. The ISD seemed like a sanctuary, where explanatory rituals about ethnic background seemed unnecessary, where we could simply „hang out“ with each other. Such seclusion was vital for the growing of a Black German community; only in this secure space it was possible to develop a healthy self-image. A move that was and still is criticised by white people to the extent of accusing Black Germans of „counter-racism“. Calling ourselves „Afro German“ or „Black German“ was another important step in the self-determination of the black community. There were heated discussions about terminology, both with white people as well as among Black Germans, since we all had internalized racist language. Even today, Black Germans have to explain why they do not want to be called „mulatto“ or „coffee brown“. Such discussions that often result in the claim that we are „just a little too sensitive“. In fact, it is often white people who react sensitive when confronted with their own internalized racism. Even otherwise open-minded white intellectuals who claim to be „beyond racism“ often start lecturing black people about racism. „What is wrong with calling you ‚coloured‘? After all, you are not that black.“
There are no official statistics on Black Germans. Until recently, ethnic criteria did not feature in national censuses. One reason is the long-term refusal by the Germany government to acknowledge that the Federal Republic of Germany is in fact an immigration country (Einwanderungsland). Sensitivity towards Germany’s Nazi history is another. After all, not long ago racial categorizations where effectively employed to persecute people. In 1995, the Federal Representative for Foreigners (!) (Ausländerbeauftragte) issued an „Encyclopaedia of Ethnic Minorities in Germany“. It stated: „Even in the 1990s, Black Germans are still regarded as foreigners. Their presence in Germany is understood as temporary und their social roots are often and exclusively seen in connection with the occupation after the Second World War.“ However, the history of black people in Germany dates back to even before the First World War. At the end of 19th century, many Africans from the German colonies (Togo, Cameroon, Tanzania, Namibia) settled in the Motherland and started their own families. In addition, Black French soldiers came to the Rhineland area as part of the occupation troops and fathered children with white women (these children were labelled „Rhineland-Bastards“). The Nazis did not sanction relationships between black men and white German women. Their children became the targets of racist legislation. The „Law for the Prevention of Genetically Diseased Offspring“, enforced in July 1933, also led to the forced sterilization of Black German children. In post-war Germany, the focus was on the so-called „war babies“ – mostly the offspring of Black American GIs and white German women. At the beginning of the 1950s, the German Parliament discussed the issue of these „mixed-raced children“, suggesting that they should be sent back to their fathers‘ home countries, since they would adjust more easily to the local climate… In the 1960s, young men from the newly independent West African countries were invited as students to East and West Germany that led to further Afro-German offspring, as did the recruitment of contract workers from Mozambique and Angola to the former GDR in the 1980s.
Estimates on the number of Black Germans range from 300.000 to 500.000, some even say one million. Lack of data hampers any scientific or political approach to gain more insight in the lives of Black Germans. Better statistics, I suspect, would lead to concrete demands – for example, the acknowledgement of Black Germans as victims of the Nazi regime or for qualified anti-racism laws. Precise figures would make it easier for Black Germans to be acknowledged as one of the largest, perhaps even the largest German ethnic minority with a history that dates back at least six generations. The „Mikrozensus 2005“, published in 2006 by the Federal Statistical Office, acknowledge for the first time ethnic diversity within German society as it focussed on people with a „migration background“. The report states that 15.3 million or nearly 19 per cent of the German population have a migration background, i.e. nearly one fifth of the German population has its roots beyond Germany’s borders! It does not give any information about how many of these people are Black Germans, but it is a start.
So what is a Black German? Another candidate for the infinite catalogue of silly questions is: „Do you feel more German or African?“ which translates into: „Do you feel more white or black? Are you in or out?“ I do not know what it „feels“ to be German and I certainly would not dare to define a universal „African feeling“. In fact, being Black and German is not a question of choice. The real dilemma lies with a white-dominated society that is incapable of and/or unwilling to question, let alone change its own self-image. Only three years ago, the term „Afro German“ was included in the German Duden, the Almanac of the German language. It followed years of campaigning by black people. At the same time, derogatory terms like „Neger“ (negro) or „Mulatte“ (mulatto) are also still listed as reference to Blacks. The editors of the Duden defended the word „Neger“, arguing that the discrimination of black people was not a verbal problem, but a socio-political one. To „clean up“ the dictionary would not influence that use of language. In other words, racist language is legitimate as long as people are still using it. Therefore, it should be in the dictionary. On the other hand, people justify the use racist terms because they are in the dictionary. It is a catch 22. Particularly, the media insists on the continued use of racist language under the cover of freedom of expression. Interestingly, the question of terminology is very evident, for instance, in the German commentatorship about Barack Obama who is frequently referred to in the German media as „coloured“ without acknowledging the derogatory connotation of the term. I wonder why no one ever questions the definition of „white“?
Although the German Department of the Interior has registered the highest increase in right extremist crime this year since 2002, there is a certain reluctance to discuss such crimes in reference to the firmly internalized and institutionalized racism within German society. In fact, even the existence of such institutionalized racism is often disputed. But such racism is everywhere and it is versatile. It is accompanies black people from their childhood into school and university. We encounter it when looking for a job or accommodation, at the shop next door or public authorities, on television and in the newspapers, from a neighbour or complete strangers, even in one’s own circle of friends or family. It appears in the form of prejudice and cliché, it is insulting and hurtful. And it kills. As long as racism is not seen as a social problem in Germany that needs to be fought against in all its forms, there can be no serious debate and racist attacks will continue to be part of everyday life.
Over twenty years ago, Black Germans started networking in order to empower each other as well as developing strategies for political cooperation. Over the years, publications such as the magazine „afro look“ (folded) or events like the Black History Month or the Annual Federal Meeting of Black Germans (still going strong) became integral parts of the community. The Annual Meeting which moves to a different city every year is a platform for discussions about history and culture, education and job opportunities, health and family matters as well as a networking basis and a place to „chill-out“. Meanwhile, the interest in Black German history has grown, especially abroad. There is a steady stream of inquiries from universities and researchers around the globe. But most importantly, it is the Black Germans themselves who are digging up and continue (re)writing their own history instead of being mere objects of study.
In 1986, a television documentary on Black Germans was titled „Germans are white, Negros cannot be German“. Twenty years on, such myth still exists in the minds of many people in Germany, even if reality looks completely different. However, the acknowledgement and acceptance of the fact that Germany is a multi-ethnic society is essential in understanding what it means to be German.
This article is an update of an earlier version published in DIE ZEIT no. 37/2000.