Not in my Name

Sanaa Mtaani - Kunst in der Stadt

Not in my Name

by Michau Kühn

 

As we were preparing for our trip at our project group’s first meeting, we were faced with the question of what it meant that we, as White1 students of German nationality, were travelling to Nairobi. We were to publish a catalogue about the local art scene there and report on it to a predominantly German audience. Would we do this from a White position? And if so, what would that mean? Would we be perceived as White in Kenya, and if so, how would we deal with it? These questions sometimes more, sometimes less consciously haunted the Sanaa Mtaani project like a red stain. In striving for consensus, we had to deal with quite a lot of controversy. These debates also had an impact on me — with each step I noticed that my impartiality gave way to mental and emotional baggage that was steadily growing heavier. This personal account sheds light on some aspects of this complex topic, namely, of how one becomes White in Germany and, in my view, what sort of individual responsibility goes along with this. What then is in my baggage? In the bag there is the story of how my oldest child did not want to play with another child in kindergarten because he was Black. My backpack contains my growing insecurity about being White and the problematic aspects of our project. In the suitcase there is an awareness of the existing system of global inequality and the conclusions I draw from it.

 

Bag: My four-year-old child doesn't understand that in Nairobi the police are not White

My recollections of the racial discrimination practiced by the police in my neighbourhood have followed me ceaselessly during my stay in Nairobi. One of my thoughts was that even if none of the people I encountered in Kenya knew of these events, they would very likely become victims themselves of this kind of discrimination were they ever to visit.

Swift9 painting a tribute to Malcolm X.

My children, four and six years old, live in Berlin right next to Görlitzer Park which was recently declared a nightmare for parents with little kids by the national media. It is not a beautiful park, yet it is very hip. A couple of years ago, it also turned into the base camp for many young African men. The majority of them are said to be refugees with precarious or illegal residence statuses. In order to “protect” the inhabitants and their kids, the police have conducted 138 raids over the course of last year meaning an average of every second to third day. And this looks as follows: there are the big raids, widely reported upon in the media, which take up to eight hours. Teams of police surround the whole park block and control each entrance. Then the police forces – in civilian as well as in ‘Robocop’ gear - storm the park and go on a manhunt. Every other expression for this procedure would be a euphemism. All Black people are declared fair game, independent of whether they are having a barbecue, hanging out, just visiting the park with friends or family, or going after their daily business. The bodies, clothes, and belongings of every single one of them are searched and their papers are thoroughly inspected. Those who run are caught and thrown to the ground. Often, more than one policeman kneels on their backs. The men are handcuffed and led away through the park for everyone to see, as if the police were dealing with capital offenders. Even my four-year-old understands the pattern that many a silent spectator refuses to admit to her- or himself: “They won't do anything to us. We are White.” In the side streets, one can see people retreating rapidly from the park, hoods over their heads and hands buried deep in their pockets, trying to hide each suspicious centimetre of their skin colour.

Then there are the daily arrests: on our way home from the kindergarten, we see a Black, handcuffed man surrounded by a number of plainclothes policemen being pressed against a park wall. His scared and pain-struck face is squashed against the stone by gloved hands. Incensed, I stop and insist that they treat him like a human being. They wave a paper from his pocket and ‘explain’ to me, probably expecting to be met with understanding: “It's written here, he's not allowed to be here.”

And then there are the usual little harassments: again on our way home from the kindergarten, again the police. A single police car races through the park heading towards an African’s meeting point. There are only two policemen in the car, meaning that they can't accomplish anything. But that doesn't seem to be the goal, anyway. It is clear that all they want is to see thirty Black men fleeing from them. When they finally cease and slowly drive past us, satisfied, out of the park, I voice my disgust. Not understood because I don't share their satisfaction, they yell at me: “Do you want them to sell drugs to your kids?” Yes, some of them sell weed – so what? The nightmare at Görlitzer Park only begins when the blue lights flash. At the kindergarten, there is a book that exists in almost every child’s room. In it, they read repeatedly: a nice policeman does traffic control, helps children and the elderly to cross the street, and also hunts evil thieves – our friend with a helper syndrome. But then we go home through our park and see this same, ‘nice’ policeman go about his work.

This has been our sad, daily routine for years. My kids have already experienced all sorts of these situations and grown accustomed to them2. But how did the kids absorb them? These experiences have unsettled and frightened my kids. One of them says about his cousin, who has a very dark skin tone, that he likes him despite the fact that he looks like a Black person. And even though he is usually quite fond of travelling, he does not want to come to Namibia with me. To my question why, he replies, with the honest language of a four year old: “I don't like Black people. I’m scared of the police.” By now, my child is two years older. As a parent, I was very uncertain, and, in a sense, helpless in the face of this problem. By now my kids understand, according to their age, that the Africans in the park are not evil thieves and that the violence comes unilaterally from the police. Finally, they understand the injustice of the situation.

 

Backpack: What do I have to do with it?

But where do I and the project stand? How did it come to pass that in the context of this project we were confronted by the following questions: “Why is the topic of being Black or White so important? By problematizing this issue, don't we ourselves divide human beings into groups? Why can't we travel to Nairobi as human beings and meet other human beings at eye-level? Do you yourself bring stereotypes with you?”

In my youth, I was a sympathizer of the Black Panther Party of the 1960s and 70s, active in solidarity work for Mumia Abu-Jamal, and sometimes enjoyed with others putting Nazis in their place. The demarcation lines were clear: racists were always the others. But surprisingly before our trip to Nairobi I felt increasingly unsettled by the idea of finding stereotypical views within myself. I mentally prepared for a Black majority society, as if I was in fact going to encounter ‘the other’ there. It felt like a burdening challenge. Of course on site a lot was different from the habitual, but I sighed with relief as I made the banal observation that Nairobi’s inhabitants go about their daily business quite ordinarily. Could it be then that some prejudice had sneaked its way into me, the anti-racist?

A comparison: We are all well aware of the manipulative function of advertising, but with what matter of course do we think ourselves too smart to get involved with it. Opening our dressers and fridges, however, we find that advertisements somehow determine our buying habits. We deceive ourselves by thinking that we bought these products, not because we succumbed to advertising, but because we tried them out ourselves and deemed them to be good and right. More often than not, the images transmitted through advertisements, however imperceptibly, achieve their goals. But what does this have to do with the stereotypical images burnt into our minds? Some examples: In the morning I open the newspaper and read about Africa: HIV, famine, and humanitarian catastrophe. On the way to university there is a poster for a development organisation asking for donations. Their motto is: “White person, Africa cannot make it by itself and therefore needs your help.” Shortly afterwards, I pass the Regent Hotel in Berlin Mitte, where a Black male standing in front of the entrance, wearing a colonial servant’s outfit, waits to open the car door for the genteel people. Then I go to the university cantina to eat. The women sitting at the registers are mostly White, but those at the dishwashing station, however, are mostly people of colour. I leave through the History department’s course catalogue and find that Africa seems again to have had no relevant history. On my street again, I notice a sticker: “Refugees Welcome”3. And I could come up with more examples.

In summary, what stays with me on a normal day is the image of a submissive, under-qualified, economically weak Black person living at the edges of society. Each of these images of Blackness is simultaneously complemented by a White equivalent. They are not like us, and vice versa. As we feel valorised, the door to chauvinism is opened. Of course, I know these images are wrong or incomplete, but I know this is also the case in advertisements. Adding the experiences of this single day to the 12.440 days I have lived thus far, it seems self-evident, that this Eurocentric and chauvinist indoctrination could not have past me without leaving a mark4. And once the image is absorbed, one becomes a disseminator of that image.

Apart from these manipulative daily images, there are the privileges given to us at birth. Racism always happens in two ways. When one person is discriminated against, somebody else profits – at least for a time. (Even if both parties are ultimately losers since: “Where there is repression, I am not free!”) Our everyday commodities are produced by and on the backs of ‘the other’. At the park, we know that we can pass the joint without being molested, while next to us the manhunt is in full swing. Also the world is an adventure playground at the disposal of White middle class youth. We can take a look at far away regions and metropolises and make reports back at home as allegedly objective observers. Even if we regret the situation, we think we ‘know’ that other societies are deficient. That is why, in so far as we are ‘good’ people, we can help others to become more like we are today, delighting in the role of the benefactor. The avowal to reject these privileges is not hard. In the context of this project, I seem to have made use of several of them. Thus, my participation in it was not at all selfless. I found the overall form of the project, in which White students gave an account of Nairobi and its art in form of a catalogue for White students, problematic. As a student of African Studies, however, I should take this opportunity to finally visit an African metropolis. As a graffiti enthusiast, I also had a chance to look at the local scene. The motif of the helper, the idea that this catalogue can support local artists, is not hard to make out here. Would Kenyan students spending ten days in Berlin be able to open as many doors to the national art elites as we did? I cannot begin to estimate how many pre-established images (also expected by the reader) are reproduced in this catalogue. The bottom line is that as participants we gain much more from this project than the local artists: we went on a sponsored trip, during which we gathered new experiences and had the opportunity to produce a publication. Not to be misunderstood: we were aware of many critical questions and did actively try to find answers and solutions. This is why, as was explained in the introduction to this catalogue, we chose the interview format to let the artists speak for themselves instead of reporting on them. We were often welcomed in Nairobi and the project itself was met with approval and was given much support. Nonetheless, I think that it is important to make the problematic sides of it transparent.

 

Suitcase: To refuse complicity

Different forms of racial discrimination are part of the collective Black consciousness. No Kenyan must ever visit Görlitzer Park for this to be so. It is not without reason that the sprayers of Nairobi refer to Black leaders, such as Nelson Mandela and Malcolm X, and know the stories of Mumia Abu-Jamal and Trayvon Martin. Racism is a problem which people of colour have to constantly live out and fight. But foremost, it is a problem that essentially has its origins in the White majority societies. Our societies are everything but political, economical and cultural beacons in a world of deficiencies. They are built upon the century-old fundaments of colonialism and slavery. This colonial epoch is not over. In the Global South, economic exploitation, ecological devastation, and political repression continue through a neo-colonialism which persists unabated. In short, our wealth is the result of their poverty. The territorial borders of our societies are plastered with their dead bodies. Meanwhile, in Germany vociferous demands are being made once again to send German soldiers to Africa. All of this happens as a result of big capitalism’s world politics – however, it happens in our name and, on different levels, we also profit from it.

Another kind of world, in which we could encounter each other globally, as different human beings, is possible. But it is not the world we live in. Eye-level equals equality. As long as my interlocutors in Nairobi don't have the chance to conduct a research project in Berlin and interview me in Görlitzer Park without falling victim to racial discrimination, and as long as kids in Germany grow up with the assumption that it is normal for German policemen to engage Black people with violence, there can be no equality. People of colour in our social circles, listening to music by black artists, or going on a backpacking trip through the Global South are not vaccines against chauvinism. Because we grew up in a racist society, we must thoroughly examine our racist imaginary along with the accompanying role-playing, unequal opportunities, and perspectives. Also in order not to give ourselves to the illusion that we can simply decide that now and here an encounter on eye-level is given in a wider context. The baggage with which I travelled to Nairobi, which I still carry, is difficult, problematic, and complex. By examining this problem, I become a more aware person with each step, and thus freer.

There is a wide arc that seems to hover above Görlitzer Park, my own Whiteness, global power relations, and the cultural encounters in Nairobi. Nevertheless, each seems to be weaved in to the other. We cannot help that we were born into a racist society in which the alleged superiority of White people is fed to us from childhood onwards. And it is also not our fault that we live in a state that is a leading protagonist and profiteer of capitalist and imperialist global power relationships. However, we have an obligation to avoid the guilt of silent complicity. It is our responsibility to reflect on our behaviour and to question our ideas, to contribute to a world in which children only understand racism from history books, and where each of us here and now takes the position: Not In My Name.

 

 

 

1 “Black and White denominate political and social constructions and are not to be understood as biological traits. Thus they do not describe the skin colour of people but their position as discriminated against or privileged people in a society informed by racism. While Black refers to an emancipatory self-denomination, White is explicitly used to describe a dominant position that is otherwise merely implicit. In order to reveal the constructed character of these terms, Black and White are capitalized.” (translation Charlotte Thießen) glokal e.V.: Mit kolonialen Grüßen... Berichte und Erzählungen von Auslandsaufenthalten rassismuskritisch betrachtet. Berlin 2013, S. 10. http://www.glokal.org/publikationen/mit-kolonialen-gruessen/

Since the project group as well as the readership of this catalogue is presumably essentially White and the text is also written to appeal to this group of people, the personal pronoun “us” refers to a White “us”.

2 The experiences of the people affected by this are not considered in this text. Although a minimum of empathy makes plausible speculations possible, I cannot report from this perspective. In preparation for this article, I talked to a Black man, chosen at random from Görlitzer Park, and asked him about his experiences with the police: “Racist, it's just racist. They call us ‘N-word’ and they beat us.“ Anonymous, Berlin March 2013.

3 I am aware of the motivations behind this slogan; however the word “welcome” also entails the position of a well-meaning host who has the opportunity to welcome someone into their home. He is thus popular because of his opposition to public agitation against refugees – a good thing in itself. Nonetheless, it should be possible to do this without the resonating paternalism. It should be the right of refugees to come here without explicit consent.

4 As a good introductory reading I would like to suggest a book which discusses the “key terms of the white, western system of knowledge in order to review the collaboration between racism, knowledge and power” (translation Charlotte Thießen): Susan Arndt, Nadja Ofuatey-Alazard: Wie Rassismus aus Wörtern spricht. Unrast Verlag, Münster 2011.

Einblicke in die gegenwärtige Kunst Nairobis.

Dieses Projekt wird gefördert durch die Stipendiatische Projektkommission der Hans-Böckler-Stiftung