Comenius Garten, photo: Nacre Journal
On a rainy summer day in Berlin-Neukölln Edna Bonhomme, Moritz Gansen and Sara Morais dos Santos Bruss met for a ‘theory conversation’ loosely centered around the theme of the issue, General Public. Initially planned to be held at a public garden in Rixdorf inspired by the work of the philosopher and educational reformer John Amos Comenius, due to the closure of the garden for maintenance work, the discussion ended up taking place in a nearby beer garden.
MG: I suggested that we meet at Comenius-Garten because it’s a very peculiar and rather little-known kind of commons in Berlin: a space that addresses the general public with a particular focus on the neighborhood children, somehow following John Amos Comenius’s demand that everyone be taught everything in its entirety (or with a view to the whole): “omnes omnia omnino excoli.”
SMdSB: I’m not sure about this notion of everyone having to do everything. We live in a society, or in a community of people, where we distribute labor for a reason. If I wanted to do everything myself, then I could live somewhere else, by myself, in an isolated cave or whatever. The positive notion of living together in a community or in a society is that you don’t have to do everything. But at the same time, I realize how that very quickly goes into distributing identities that go with that labor. That’s what I was thinking when you brought up Comenius and his philosophy.
EB: As such, I would advocate for giving people a possibility to do more, or to have more—that is, something for everyone without a strict division of labor, whether that means access to creative spaces or other things. Imagine a world where plumbers would have time to paint, or where janitors would have time to make music. Even if they were not “good at it” or professionals at it, developing a world where there is something for everyone would mean giving marginalized people in society the space to actually reach their creative potential, or the potential to build things together, and not always be pigeon-holed, in certain kinds of roles, just because “I happened to be good at this one thing, or that thing.” I like the idea and the possibility of being able to do anything and everything, or at least have access to it, so we don’t fall into a trap of specialization, and in many cases, segregation of people and roles.
MG: I think that’s what I wanted to talk about. Who is this ‘general’ public, who are the people, the children who come to this garden to learn, and to learn together? For many people in this city, in this country and elsewhere (though not everywhere), the prime image of an institution of learning is school, with the entire complex of affects associated with it. In that peculiar garden, the idea is perhaps to present a different image of or for an institution of learning. Still a school, but without the clear compartmentalization of learning that usually comes with that. It’s about some form of ‘holistic’ life-long learning, and there are all kinds of problems with the underlying humanist assumptions of that, but at the same time, on a practical and political level, it’s an example of real commons within this city. But then again, you have to know about it. You have to know about it, and you have to know that there’s a buzzer that’ll grant you access, and that you can press it, that you’re allowed to go in. In a weird way, this threshold allows it to be the peculiar commons that it is.
EB: It makes me think about other green spaces in the city of Berlin, and how people can have access to it, or use it, like Tempelhof Feld. It is such a layered place: from the legacy of Nazi Germany, to the American military presence, to the arrival of refugees, Tempelhof Feld is a complicated space as a former airport turned park. Then it’s also a public space that people can access to have their parties and picnics. But as someone who’s lived in Brooklyn, I find the groups in Prospect Park, the multi-ethnic and multiracial communities to be far more intermixed in Brooklyn, than here. In Berlin, I often find that distinct ethnic communities lead parallel lives, often separate and visible. They see each other from the outside, and there can be a semblance that the public is somehow multi-ethinic, multi-racial, or “tolerant”, but it is a veneer. I see a parallel separation, parallel segregation, in the German/Berlin context of Tempelhof Park, as a kind of microcosm of broader divisions in German life.
Comenius Garten, photo: Nacre Journal
SMdSB: Yes, that’s a general German problem, I think. I grew up in South Africa and the issues of that place were so apparent… Whatever their problematic views may have been, white people had to face the issue, they had to constantly engage with black people, and with other people of color. There was no way to avoid the fact that our realities in South Africa are structured by race. And it was a real topic of discussion. Here in Germany, however, everyone sort of acts as if it’s not a topic and everything is good. But, we have so many people who live here and who are subtly not considered German. During the pandemic, it became especially apparent, who isn’t considered as members of the society by the majority. For example, when the virus broke out in a meat processing plant, the German reaction was, oh, but the virus has not spread to society. It is very clear that the Romanian workers at the plant were not considered part of this society, although they provide essential services of putting food on people’s tables. That’s where my hesitancy towards “everything for everyone” comes from. I feel that just access is often not enough. Like for example, I studied the internet, and the internet was supposed to be accessible to everyone, but there were voices that were so much louder than everyone else. Of course people could go online and educate themselves, but in practice the situation is more complicated than saying: we will provide computers to children…
MG: I guess those are different things, then: mere technical accessibility and truly having access in the sense of an understanding of how things work, what some call ‘media competence’. Access as such is a separate issue from that level of noise, and how to deal with it. There’s an obvious challenge in providing equal access. What we can see now is that a lot of people just don’t know how to use the internet, or at least they get trapped in other people’s–and companies’–abuses of it.
EB: Or like my mother, for example. Both of my parents are immigrants from Haiti. They are from a generation of people who immigrated to the United States in the 1970’s and 1980’s. They do not own a computer. My mother acquired a smartphone a year ago so that she can communicate with me since I live abroad, without having to go to a call center. What has been interesting about the COVID crisis is that since she is an essential worker, a janitor in a hospital, she is connecting with entertainment and programs online and she was elated that she discovered YouTube through her cable provider. Television, if you are in the US context, has given people of my mother’s generation, who don’t have a computer, access to the internet. In a way that wasn’t possible 5-10 years ago. Her digital literacy is not unusual for a Black working-class migrant, who doesn’t have access to physical resources, or a physical computer. At a certain point, when a person has had to deal with other traumas that had to do with the events leading up to and surrounding migration, or dealing with aftermath of leaving an authoritarian regime, it can be difficult to find the time or mental space to learn new things. Learning and unlearning might require letting go of the traumas that haunt us.
MG: This may be a slight shift of topic, but I wanted to ask you, Edna: what has been your experience of working on the podcast, “Decolonization in Action”? Who are the people who listen to it?
EB: It’s been interesting. I started the podcast before the pandemic erupted and expanded my collaborative approach to my creative and activist practices, while also finding solace in solitude. I found that in terms of the production, it’s been quite easy to work primarily online, socially distant, through digital recording or voice notes. The ongoing global pause that has resulted from the pandemic has forced me to connect with people who are in South Africa, Zimbabwe, or the Philippines. The pandemic has forced me to get more international and intentional about who I connect with and what types of themes the podcast presents.
MG: Do people get in touch, do they email you, looking for another way to discuss what you talk about in the podcast?
EB: Sometimes people connect with me through social media and sometimes through Twitter. Twitter’s another world. As you alluded, some people have a very loud voice, and people go back and force. It can be a battlefield, let’s just say that.
SMdSB: Yeah, but you don’t want to retreat from that as well, right? As you were saying, there is so much positive, and possibilities, with what can happen on the internet. It’s a question of having the energy to put yourself in there every day, and try and be louder, or strategize in a way that quiets other voices, or problematic infrastructures, or challenges them.
EB: For some people too, the internet, and some of the social media platforms are far more democratic, than publishing houses, then magazines and newspapers, and academic universities. There are people who I have not physically met, but who I’ve become acquaintances with on social media because they are doing amazing work around Afro-futurism, or around podcasts, or other creative work. There is one doctor, Uché Blackstock, a Black woman who has been doing wonderful research for HIV/AIDS and writing about the pandemic, so I followed her on Twitter and she followed me back. And I said to her, I really admire your work, and she said, me too, and it was like OMG, Black girl magic! There are those possibilities because of social media. If I reached out to a New York Times editor, it would be unlikely that they’re going to be that enthusiastic about me. I have nothing to offer them. Those institutions already have a system in place, there’s gatekeepers. If you are not an expert in a particular way that appeals to them, why would they respond to you. So, thinking about these hierarchies, within the context of how social media can dismantle power and how it can be democratizing, is something I find interesting.
MG: What’s also very interesting is this question of institutions. All of us have some kind of relationship with institutions. Edna, you’ve been a fellow at the Max Planck Institute for the History of Science here in Berlin…
EB: Yes, my Postdoctoral fellowship at the Max Planck Institute ends in December 2020.
MG: And you, Sara, have a new job at an institution, TU Dresden. I don’t have a job at a university right now, but…
SMdSB: …you have your own institution!
MG: Yeah, that’s the reason why I wanted to talk about this. I’m enrolled at a university, TU Darmstadt, and affiliated with Centre Marc Bloch, a research institution that’s in turn affiliated with another university, or actually several universities. And then there’s precisely this other institution I’m affiliated with, which is probably, to some extent, the reason why we’re now meeting here. Because Anastasia [ed: Nacre Journal] met Sara and I through diffrakt, and I also met both of you through diffrakt. When we started diffrakt, it was out of an opportunity. There was no premeditation. There was this space that had been a publishing space for a long time, and some of us had been working there, for that publishing house, Merve. When they moved from Berlin to Leipzig, we wanted to somehow maintain what had been a site of theoretical production for such a long time. So we had this uncommon problem of having a space but no real idea of what to do with it. There was no pre-existing collective, but we assembled some people and started to invent something that eventually came to be called diffrakt. It was a more or less conscious decision that this was not to be a place either too closely connected to the university or to the art world, where, I think, most ‘theory’ happens right now, if it happens at all. I keep thinking that perhaps that decision may have been a little too hasty, a little too blunt, and a little bitter even in its motivation. At the same time, however, we’ve never really cut ties with the university or the art sphere. Almost all of us are implicated in academic work in some way or other, doing PhDs, having completed them, working at universities or in their periphery, and many of us have ties to art institutions. In that sense, diffrakt is still distinct from larger institutions, keeping its distance, but it is, as Sara said, itself a kind of institution, for funding reasons and so on. It’s a crucial question actually, and I keep thinking and arguing with people, whether institutions can, at least in principle, be used in an emancipatory way, whatever that might mean, or whether they’re inherently problematic, corrupting whoever enters them…
Comenius Garten, photo: Nacre Journal
SMdSB: I think we mustn’t pretend like we exist outside of capitalism. I mean, of course it is a very fraught concept, the university, and even the most radical practices are appropriated within it. But I love teaching, because I love this moment when young adults suddenly realize how theory applies to their life. I think that’s where a lot of anger that I had as a young girl growing up was soothed a little bit. Engaging with feminist theory for me was like, oh, it’s not some bundled-up thing I have inside, it’s actually embedded in the infrastructures that I live in. And I am very grateful to the university for that moment, because I gained agency with this realization, and I hope to pass this on to as many young people as possible. At the same time, of course, institutions are incredibly flawed as they are involved in the capitalist system of production.
EB: I agree with you. Unfortunately, we live under capitalism, and its machinations are ubiquitous in this world. At the same time, I would push against something you said, specifically the remark that university and the art spaces are the only sites of theory. It assumes that theory can only happen or mostly happens amongst intellectuals. I would say not. In fact, if anything, people outside of the academic or formal institutional context, are very theoretical. And, I see them exercising that theory. Particularly, when I think about Black women in my family, or those who have no relationship to me, they are exercising theory through language, poetry, and speech. In the kitchen, in the fields, in the way they connect with the Earth, in how they see the stars, the heavens, whatever else. It may not get recognized as such because of how classism operates, and the over-emphasis of pointing and looking to intellectuals as bearers of knowledge, for information and politics, but there are more ways of thinking about theories. The work of Chakanetsa Mavhunga, a science studies professor from Zimbabwe who is based at MIT, looks at how African philosophy and African genius can be found in informal spaces. For him the African laboratory is the kitchen, in which one can experiment heavily. And I would even go beyond that.
SMdSB: But I think to some extent that’s why I was so drawn to diffrakt. Because I really enjoy this non-teleological, not output-oriented way of doing things. University is so obviously output-oriented. The adjacency, if I may call it that, to formal education, doesn’t necessarily influence the content [ed: at diffrakt]. In that sense, it’s one of those places, where you are ‘adjacent’ to university, but then you can go and do whatever the fuck you want, basically. You just invite people you find interesting and you talk to the people who you feel have something to say. And I think it is really marvelous. That’s a good way of re-appropriating that space. I mean you can call it ‘art-’, you can call it ‘university-adjacent’. But I think it is carving out a space for something that is not entirely marketable in a classical sense, and that is quite lovely, I think.
MG: There’s a danger though that it’s just an illusion that we’re able to create a space like the one you’ve just described. I mean, it may well just be another part of ‘the machine’. Of course you can go there, learn some things, accumulate some cultural and academic capital, and then move on back to those other academic or whatever spaces, where you can then do the thing you’re supposed to do there. For diffrakt, right now, the greatest hope may be that, even if it’s an entangled and messy thing, it can still in some way contribute to changing how some institutions work. At the very least, people who engage with diffrakt may get exposed to a variety of approaches as to how to run a space as a collective…
EB: Even if it’s trying to challenge the institutions that we recognize, it is still a collective that is organizing within a space. And space is so important: you need capital to maintain that space, to pay the rent, ensure the electricity is on. To support this infrastructure one seeks out funding, so that one can compensate the guests, or pay for residencies, and provide resources for intellectual and creative labor. And then the entire world becomes this thing which requires some form of labor, value, capital, and exchange. And that is something that a collective has to reckon with. How do you use that time and that space? Unfortunately, I am a neoliberal subject: almost always working. That in itself has to be challenged amongst people who are artists, activists, theorists, and writers. Cultural work, or creative work, that’s still labor, and doing it all the time, without rest, is what capitalism wants. This is also something that, when developing collective spaces, one has to acknowledge. How do we engage in the ethics of anti-work, the ethics of rest, and the ethics of care? And putting that into place, while also leaving room for people’s various ethnic and racial and other identities to be involved, of different class backgrounds to be involved. These are tough questions: Theoretically, what do we want, but actually, how do we do this?
SMdSB: That’s also super antagonistic. Because on the one hand you want to create something that is outside of the monetary infrastructure, but then, at the same time, that means that you may be exploiting someone, or there will be some form of self-exploitation, at the very least, or exploitation of others who you invite for a meager fee. That’s the paradox of it. And then, even if you have funding, and want to pay the people who normally are not getting paid, you then have to validate productivity, and invite star speakers. This also applies to the university itself, where there are funds. You can’t just escape this production of value…
MG: …but is that actually true? Or is it rather a fantasy of some kind of duty that you feel you have towards the institution?
SMdSB: Good question. I think, of course, in theory I could invite anyone. But if I only invite those who are not involved in the theoretical work at all, as it is seen in the eyes of the university… like for example if I plan a lecture series. Could I do that, would this be a problem? This insecurity is also about my performance anxiety, and about anxiety of being kicked out of the inner circle.
EB: But I think it’s ok to be outside the circle. I think it is a good question: does one need big stars and academics, in order to continue a project within a university setting? One of the things that I was able to do at my institute was to start a podcast. It is not useful for any kind of academic merit in any shape or form. But the people I have invited thus far have been transgender, refugees, migrants, people without PhDs, people who don’t have a formal education. I see them as experts, and I give them a platform.
MG: Did you do this on purpose?
MG: Okay, so it wasn’t just something that happened…
EB: Of course not, I knew what I was doing and I was committed to doing that, because of my desire to promote marginalized voices and to give space to the people who are normally left outside of academic curriculum. In some respects, I think the podcast doesn’t benefit my career, but it feels far better, it is more interesting and colorful. I feel a lot more satisfied doing the things that I do on my own terms, while I still have access to the institution.
MG: I asked whether you did it on purpose partly because of our experience with diffrakt. At this point, whiteness is still a big issue for us. The ‘absence’ that we had in mind when we started was a different one, or perhaps that’s just another way of saying that we failed to properly deal with all these other blatant ‘absences’. When we started, we looked at philosophy or ‘theory’ in the context of universities and art spaces. If you examine philosophy departments in Germany, it was–and still is–mainly performed by men. I don’t know the exact numbers now, but I believe about 80% of all philosophy professors in Germany are men. At the moment, the Free University here in Berlin is actually a rare exception. So when we started, we wanted to make sure to avoid all-male panels and so on. And then, at some point along the line, we realized that we no longer needed to think about it. It just happened and we’ve been inviting far more women. Which is quite interesting, I don’t quite know what precisely happened, but in any case, it was interesting to observe. But now we need to pay attention to other factors of exclusion as well.
SMdSB: I think that this becomes something that you internalize. It is something you automatically drift towards when you feel like you want to do certain work. I also noticed a similar thing happening to me. I want to work with theory, but with people who are not universalizing, who are not pretending that academia is an apolitical space. And I automatically drift to women and POCs who have historically theorized quite differently. If I think about German white male philosophers, they will not talk about the body as something situated or specific. It’s almost a self-cancelling mechanism. As in, I am not going to invite people who talk about things in a way that I don’t find interesting. So it’s a two-way mechanism of theory and of how I understand it and how it applies: so not inviting all white men is a “natural” trajectory. And I don’t have anything against white men per se, strangely enough.
EB: Part of the problem is that, not in a #allwhitemen way, but most white men often don’t consider the intellectual labor or contributions of women, people of colour, people of the Global South. Many of them are not actively thinking about how to redistribute power and resources to the global majority or to give them a seat at the table. That’s why I hate the term “minority”. Black people are not a minority, globally. We are not a minority on the African continent or in the Caribbean. It’s interesting to think about how we are forced to work alongside this white cisgender men who don’t think about us. I am not a vision of genius to them. When I ask people, who do you envision when I say the word “genius,” usually people say “Einstein”…
SMdSB: …and they don’t even know what he did…
EB: …Well, actually, we do learn a lot about Einstein in the US context. In Princeton he found refuge in the forest, by walking through the green spaces around the Institute for Advanced Studies. When I lived in Princeton, I pondered about how Einstein lived in this New Jersey town as I walked around, and cycled, and ran through that same forest. Coming here, to Germany, I am seeing the ghosts that are haunting this land. It is interesting to think of how Albert Einstein, a genius in his own right, lived and engaged with spaces like Berlin, Germany, and eventually ended up in a settler colonial state like the US.
MG: Does the concept of genius matter to you?
EB: It matters to me in the sense that, since the Enlightenment project, if you think about figures like Immannuel Kant, if you think about Montesquieu, Diderot, Rousseau, etc., their version of genius was anti-Black, which is what Zakiyyah Iman Jackson mentions in her new book Becoming Human. They had a vision of the world, where they saw themselves as the upper echelons of intellectual and “rational” thought because of their white European background. Kant’s Critique of Reason, argues that Black people, or descendants of the African continent, lack reason. For some of these Enlightenment thinkers, they don’t think Black people have the capacity to think, to learn, to grow. So for me, it’s not just a question of this abstract notion of genius which is occlusive, but it means to be able to say, for me as an African-descended person, that not only do I have the capacity for reason, but that I am to move between so many different worlds, always translating, and do so with compassion while existing in this skin. And of course, people have read about it: Aimé Césaire and Hannah Arendt made the connection between the Enlightenment project and fascism, and with slavery and colonialism. Adorno and Horkheimer as well, in their work Dialectic of Enlightenment, and more recently Achille Mbembe, in his book “Critique of Black Reason”, where he points directly to the pitfalls of the Enlightenment project. For me, the notion of genius can be a productive site when it is tied to African descended people or Black people can challenge the centuries of slavery and colonial experience, and the experience of just abject discrimination. Because we do have that capacity, and yet it is still somehow taken away from us by many white European intellectual projects.
MG: I’m partly asking this because my work as an historian of philosophy has been concerned precisely with the dismantling of genius. For me, the objective is often to trace all the processes of translation that produce this semblance of individual genius, this image of genius, which is in fact a result and a matter of collective work. On the one hand, I think that this dismantling can act as part of the project of decolonization, but, on the other hand, I can also see where it can come at odds with it. By dismantling the concept, one also dismantles the potentially empowering moment of reappropriating that notion of genius that’s been denied to people for centuries.
Comenius Garten, photo: Nacre Journal
EB: I am very supportive of projects that are collective, both intellectual or otherwise, through labor, and by redistributing wealth, redistributing the intellectual spaces, and making university spaces truly accessible, for anyone from various backgrounds, socio-economic classes, can access that space, and give access to that space unequivocally. Pointing to African genius or Black genius, for me, is an extension of Mbembe’s work and Mavhunga’s work, whom I had mentioned earlier. But I am also not trying not to advocate for respectability politics, that’s something I want to shy away from. I just want to point out that there are so many Black intellectuals that have existed, and that they don’t get cited, they don’t get recognized, or get recognized post-mortem. Like Ida B. Wells, a writer and a journalist, who received the Pulitzer prize ninety years after her death. Ninety years! She was doing such amazing work around abolition, anti-lynching, prolific writer, ran out of southern towns in the United States by KKK. I can’t even imagine, it’s like fighting Nazis all day all the time! She was doing that. And she was recognized only post-mortem. The idea of this collective intellectual equality, is what we should be striving for. And that’s the project I would want to be a part of. But trying for that without acknowledging the violent intellectual history or projects that have existed. The balance is to say: how do we acknowledge the past? How do we correct it? How do we empower the people who had so much taken away from them, including the confidence to say: I am a genius. This is what I am working through, in my decolonial practice. At the same time, I also get to know the colonial traditions and languages that shape intellectual production.
SMdSB: That’s exactly where it re-articulates inequalities, with only people of color being burdened to do that work. Then we end up with rehabilitation work that is again, like what you mentioned before about being able to code-switch, that same person’s responsibility. I took part in a festival where someone I spoke to said to me, “I have to know the work of Kant, and Hegel, and all of these people, to do my work on Césaire”. He had to know these European intellectuals’ works to actually be able to talk about the things that you just mentioned and to be taken seriously. Especially for POCs who have other knowledge and traditions… I wonder how much do you think can happen through peaceful educational work? I understand that it is important to the community and so on, but in the end the people in the positions of power will not go quietly.
EB: I think it can be peaceful. But if we talk about toppling statues that are markers of colonialism, at the end of the day that can’t happen through polite emails.
SMdSB: …or even theory reading groups, right?
EB: Absolutely not. I am very skeptical of academic institutions being reformed from within without there being a complete restructuring and perhaps, just, demolition of some of these spaces. At the end of the day many of them, especially those in North America, are built on stolen land, with the free labor of the enslaved Black people, and profiting from that. There are slave quarters at Princeton University that have since been converted to dorms. And even here, when we think about the legacy of Alexander von Humboldt, with the embedded colonial tendencies, or Robert Koch, who experimented on African people. These names have been normalized, and in German society people like to say, oh no, colonialism is a British problem, or that the French were particularly violent, or that American militarism is the worst. I absolutely agree that these other imperial powers have caused harm globally. However, I think more can be done to interrogate how German academic institutions were tied to non-consensual experimentation through the complicity of colonialists or eugenicists. And there is going to have to be some degree of self-reflection on a societal level.
SMdSB: I think a lot of people who live here have that same feeling. I think particularly amongst POCs here there is this feeling that this culture, it’s not theirs anyway. My mother, who has lived here for so long, she has no engagement with Germany at all. And she is completely “apolitical,” as in she is not connected to the reality of politics and how it impacts her life. And I think it is because, to some extent, she is basically not addressed as a political being. There are so many people who live here that way. For many people agency comes with connectivity, and with a moment when you feel like you can change something.
EB: You are right. There are many people of African descent, Turkish, Muslim, Arab-descent, who are born and raised here in Germany, and some of them have been challenging these power structures, through organizations, within university, outside university, through the legal and political systems. First, I want to recognize that there are groups, that they do exist. And other groups led by Asian-descended people. Asian-German connections are complicated and I am glad to see people writing about that history right now too. At the same time, it’s hard to predict what would drive people to act, or what they need to act. Sometimes just the identity itself, of being racially profiled, that kind of subjecthood, may create an active process by which you start to question what the world is. You may start to question the role of the police. Start to question what Germany might be. As opposed to someone else, who can “blend-in”, someone who is British, or other Europeans, they may not challenge or question the German nation-state.
SMdSB: I am thinking of the people who retreat into the privacy of their own homes, and even in my own experience I can relate to it. When I watched the Audre Lorde Film, the Berlin years, the bit about May Ayim was heartbreaking. Where she talks about meeting other Afro-Germans after years of systemic racism being projected only onto her body it’s like she didn’t even know there were other black people in this country, and then she thought: this just happens to me! And then you retreat and you feel like it is this burden upon you. She had felt this sense of no agency, and then, once she connected to other Afro-Germans, realized there was a shared history, like you were saying. She credits her agency to Audre Lorde, and I think that shows how being written into a place is vital for your sense of agency there. And engaging with one’s history, engaging with the structural aspect of it, which I think is not necessarily what happens for everyone, is what may really allow one to realize one’s own agency.
EB: The example of May Ayim, an Afro-German poet, highlights how there is a degree of alienation in being an Afro-German. Her poetry speaks to not trusting the society and to that trauma of being raised Black in Germany. And some of those demons have popped up back at her, and that, eventually, led to her suicide. At the end of the day, she did not feel fully comfortable in this city, in Berlin, in Kreuzberg. Because German society is deeply racist. And that’s what it does to brilliant people like her. Brilliant Black queer women. It’s this complicated thing, it could eat you away, to the point that you are describing. When there is either a retreat, or it could be something that people are working against in groups and organizations. And it can also be just exhausting. It could lead to so many different pathways that we also have to recognize and acknowledge. Not every Black person in Germany is going to be, with a fist in the air, that’s not a reality. But everyday racism, and being perceived as a foreigner, can eat away at people.
SMdSB: Then there are people who are strategically placed in public media… The other day I read an article in Die Zeit, an article by two black people whose stance on everyday racism they encounter was almost directed to somehow delegitimize the critique of it. What they said was that it’s not so bad, or even kind of flattering when someone is curious about their Afros. And because Die Zeit has a good reputation it seems like a strategic positioning of these two people into this media outlet. They kind of reduce racism to a matter of opinion and hurt feelings (or the lack thereof), and it really shouldn’t be about that.
MG: This is actually part of a bigger problem with who gets to speak about what. Deutsche Welle for instance recently invited Edna…
EB: …Oh, yes, it was such a trip….
MG: …and it happened just after various German media had been criticized over whom they had invited to talk about the Black Lives Matter protests: white people–‘experts’, of course–who would talk about racism someplace ‘over there’. Public television shows did a very bad job, but after a few days of ongoing criticism, they eventually managed to do a little better. But how did Deutsche Welle approach you?
EB: Twitter. I tweet regularly, and I have been writing for Al Jazeera, The Nation, and for a couple of other publications, about racism, health, and epidemics. I didn’t write to them–they reached out to me. But I know some people in Germany want to avoid talking about racism, or the word Rasse or Rassismus because they view racism as an American problem.
SMdSB: Similar to the notion that there is no racism or discrimination by the police here in Germany, and that’s why they don’t have to have studies on it, right?
MG: I feel like I remember that in the mid-nineties we kind of talked about racism in primary school, in a small town in the West of Germany, but many other people who grew up in Germany have told me that they couldn’t remember to ever have addressed racism at school. Today, I wonder whether that was actually quite a progressive thing that teachers did at our school at the time. But what I also seem to remember is that the bottom line of it all was that we don’t see colour. Though all of it was certainly well-intentioned, this narrative precisely avoids the fact that there is such a thing as racism in Germany. It was (and still is) an ideological magic formula to make racism go away.
SMdSB: A lot of theorists, especially in the US, have argued that this post-racial ideology has emerged from the identity politics, or not out of it, but out of a misreading of identity politics. This misreading is an attempt to negate or say, OK we have now addressed the problem, and we are over it. Now we have to invert the problem of identity politics towards saying we are all human. That is something that emerged in the 80’s and was strategically and structurally applied in order to delegate protests to the margins. Meanwhile, identities have rigidified to be included into consumer categories. It is interesting to observe how these things have emerged and how they coincide with political events.
EB: Often, I have realized, people in Germany have a very narrow definition of what racism is. Most of it has to do with people thinking of anti-semitism as the only form of racism, or that racism was something that only occurred during the Nazi era, and that the tensions between people of German and non-German descent gets characterized as Auslanderkulture, a cultural difference. I wrote an article on the xenophobic and far riot in Germany in the 1990s riots, that were targeted against African and Asian descended people. And the narrative is, oh it was mostly East Germans, or only in former East Germany, and it was in the poorest places, where they felt threatened by the “sheer number of migrants.” However, there were anti-migrant laws in Bavaria and other West German provinces. In Hoyerswerda, which is located in the former East, Neo-Nazis used molotov cocktails to target the migrants during a week-long riot in the early 1990s. The police did nothing to stop them. And the local residents were supporting these neo-Nazis. In the end these African and Asian people were just bussed out of the town. They literally forced evacuated people from their own homes. But the way it is talked about is: oh it’s different cultures, they were… too loud.
MG: When you say that there was a lot of emphasis on anti-semitism as the prime form of racism in Germany, this also reminds me of a specific type of pseudo-antifascist narrative, reminding people that the Jews whom the Nazis persecuted and killed were actually Jewish-German, and that still there was violence against them–those stupid nazis! As if that would’ve been totally okay had they just not been German.
EB: Right… I don’t like to play impression Olympics, so I would just say, I would like there to be more accountability about more literacy in mainstream German society about how anti-semitism, Islamophobia, xenophobia, and anti-Black racism intersect in many layers of German society.
SMdSB: It is also a question of how they are all related. It has to do with the historical condition of “making foreign”. The history of Jewishness in Europe is the history of a specific community and their othering. And then we also can’t forget that European territories had Islamic rule at some point in time. These are many uncovered, or hidden, histories that we, here in Europe, choose to ignore.
EB: We can start with what Europa means which derives from ancient Greek Mythology. It refers to Zeus going to the Phoenician lands which are the present Lebanon and Greater Syria. As the myth goes, Zeus sexually assaulted Europa, and brought her back to what is now called Europe. At the same time, Europe has had a violent past against Jewish and Muslim people who lived here especially through the Crusades, the Spanish Inquisition and Eastern European pogroms. Europe is a scary place, but the United States has become so far scarier people who look like me. In some ways, I am choosing the lesser of two evils, I am choosing to deal with this place, for now.