Christmas marks many people’s favorite time of year. Students pack their bags and leave campus to celebrate the holiday at home with family. If you didn’t grow up in a big city, it’s inevitable that you’ll meet up with half your former schoolmates at the local pub after Christmas dinner.
That’s where I ended up — with a group of friends, drinking beer, observing people we knew in high-school, and laughing at the clichés they fulfilled.
Sitting close by were some people who had spent a few months in India or Australia, where they quickly became worldly and enlightened. Now they returned to Germany in Goa-pants and dreadlocks, as self-proclaimed experts on the countries they’d visited.
And in another part of the bar, a group of do-gooders who spent $3,000 to do volunteer work in Ghana, and came back with hundreds of selfies with sweet African kids and babies.
Or people like me: you may have escaped the peacefulness of your homey small town, and met new people in a big city with a similar passion for social issues and feminism. You may be hit by how much you’ve changed while your small town has hardly been touched by time.
On one hand, this may have the effect of soothing constancy, but on the other hand, it can lead to heated debates. Like the debates that unfolded in a packed small-town bar this Christmas.
For some a reason, I started discussing the new Harry Potter performance with a friend, specifically the fact that a black actress has been cast to play Hermione, much to my delight.
My friend seemed less euphoric. He thought this step was risky for a huge franchise like Harry Potter. Many fans were already disappointed by the casting choice and claimed they wouldn’t go to the play.
This is the classic capitalist argument, which Walter Benjamin posited in his essay on the reproducibility of artwork years ago. Like him, I see a huge potential for liberation in film and theater — but only if there is adequate representation; as Benjamin would put it: the right for everyone to be filmed.
Those who like to go to the movies know that Hollywood cinema (and even television or theater) do not enjoy diverse representation.
For instance, Hermione’s skin color was never mentioned in the novels written by J.K. Rowling. The only description of Hermione is that she has curly hair, big teeth, and is very clever. Nevertheless, a lot of fans are upset by the casting of actress Noma Dumezweni.
My friend argued that this was a matter of consistency; people expect to see a white Hermione. I partially agreed with him, but also added that race is a factor here, and that consistency plays a role only because whiteness is considered to be the norm.
This argument struck him, a white man, as provocative. He said that I constantly post such statements on Facebook — coming from a black perspective — which sound like I have something against white people. A classic retort when you take up the issue of race with a person of color.
Of course, as a black woman in Germany I try to question the status quo, and to show that racism does not begin when someone who calls me “Negro” on the street, nor does it begin with the burning of refugee shelters.
It’s clear that such behavior is unacceptable and racist, but many people don’t realize that racism begins much earlier. Racism begins with micro-aggressions, which I experience on a daily basis.
Without asking permission, strangers touch my afro and seem surprised when I don’t welcome the behavior. I receive compliments on how beautiful my skin tone is, because it’s not too dark.
These are not compliments, this is a form of racism.
The simple question, “Where are you from?” is not simple, it’s loaded. Because in nine out of 10 cases, when I respond that I’m from Düsseldorf, they reply “Yes, but where are you really from?”
When I say “near Munich,” people are still not satisfied. I know they usually have no ill-intent and are just trying to show interest, but regardless, their probing implies my skin has too much melanin for someone from Munich.
What I was getting at in my discussion with my friend was that it is of absolute importance to question the views of the majority. And that has nothing to do with hatred of every single white person on this planet. Nevertheless, that is how my responses may come across.
I am told that when I constantly address the theme of race, I only give race more weight in society. But our society is still a long way away from the utopian color blindness that many people claim already exists.
Yes, race is a constructed category and it would be great to be rid of it, but that doesn’t mean that this constructed category is not massively integrated in our lives, leading to an unfair distribution of power. Because that’s also what racism is: an unbalanced, uneven power structure which benefits some and causes others to suffer.
And yes, this relates to the fact that there are hardly any people of color in major, prominent roles. Media has a huge impact on us and, by and large, it fails to create a satisfactory representation of the real world — the world it creates consists only of white heterosexual men.
I wish that my lived experience as a black woman in Germany would be taken seriously. I wish that people would, at least, read my Facebook posts on racism at universities, our colonial heritage, and intersectional feminism, before they judge the pieces as expressions of hatred towards white people.