Africa: Politics and Societies South of the Sahara

Critical Whiteness: Finger on the Trigger

Posted in African Politics, Global Africa by ruben eberlein on August 10, 2013

BlackWhiteStalinist self-criticism, bans on talking, trigger warnings: The discussion on Critical Whiteness in Germany takes weird turns on its margins. An interim interjection.

It must have been a queerish picture for sure: Here my mate Mike who at the time was called only “the large”, on his side myself who was lucky not to be called “shorty”. The 1990s had just begun, and both of us had escaped the east German provincial backwater only recently. Now, we wanted to conquer the world. Why not to start with Kenya and Tanzania? Beautiful beaches, relatively cheap, politically stable. Come on, Nairobi calling!

Never in my whole life I was more intensively pointed to my being white than in course of the coming three month. Even in course of preparations for the travel, much material was collected for a long pamphlet against the illusion of ascriptions, and in retrospective even small things seem significant to me. There were, for instance, the shoes of the French Foreign Legion: “They prevent bites by scorpions and snakes”, assured the salesman in the travel shop; but during our travel we never met creatures like these. And there was the first-aid kit that would have been of no avail in case of an emergency.

“Mzungu, Mzungu”

The heaviest pieces of luggage, however, turned out to be certain parts of a view on Africa that had not much in common with reality. One piece of it was my conviction that blacks are always the oppressed and whites were all out to exploit them. For Mike, President Daniel arap Moi was back then no more than a bloody dictator who mugged the country with his clique of Kalenjins. That view came closer to reality than my perspective that supposed Kenya as being a country manipulated by the west and held in dependence in favour of the whites. It would have been better for me to secretly study the international press during my civic lectures rather than get lost in dispensable debates about the theory and practice of socialism during the old days in the GDR.

On every occasion during our trip in Kenya, we were confronted with our whiteness. Take the rastamen in front of our hostel in the city center who were offering to sell their weed to us immediately after our arrival (and did so a few days later). Take the harlots in the neighbouring “24 Hours Modern Green Bar” who persistently refused to accept our apologies not to sleep with them and our insistence that this decision had nothing to do with their appearance or the small money they wanted to charge for their services. Take the permanent hustling on the streets and the children calling “Mzungu, Mzungu” that accompanied us permanently. As said before – the picture we offered must have been strange for Kenyan eyes, two whites with funny hats, mid-length trousers and washed-out t-shirts.

My arrival in Africa, all in all, had been a shock. In review, I cannot detect racist attitudes in a narrow sense of the term even when it came to misunderstandings and embarrassing situations because of preconceptions on my side and the people I encountered. The little piece of the continent that was “my” Africa for now, was different, indeed, to east Germany, Berlin and Erfurt, Leningrad, Paris and Warsaw. It smelled differently, the soil had a different colour, and often the habits were different. To register things like these and to articulate them has nothing to do with racism.

Drifting into the Aggressive

The concept of Critical Whiteness constitutes an important and useful contribution to Postcolonial Studies. It serves the necessary reflections about the privileges one enjoys as a white vis-à-vis migrants and so-called people of colour. Once again, as so often in scientific and popular discussions, Germany is a latecomer, and possibly this fact explains the aggressivity of some adherers of this paradigm who push Critical Whiteness into absurdity.

Take for instance a recent panel discussion of the Berlin-based daily Die Tageszeitung (taz) that focused on racism in language and escalated into mayhem due to the conduct of the host Deniz Yücel (taz) as well as a group of activists of Critical Whiteness. The latter were agitated by the constant use of the word “negro” (Neger) by the speakers Leo Fischer (Titanic, a satiric magazine), Mely Kiyak (journalist) and especially the moderator Yücel – nota bene in historical quotes for example by Martin Luther King or in an ironical context as for example in Titanic magazine.

One discussant, Sharon Otoo, a writer and an activist of the “Initiative of Black Peole in Germany” (Initiative Schwarze Menschen in Deutschland), left the panel after a certain time, because she “did not want to be a part of such a disrespectful and ridicule debate”, as she explained in an article, published later by taz. Host Yützel apologised for his own excitement and brawling in another text, but did not distance himself from his opinion that the intervening activists must be anankastic personalities which he compared to Catholic nuns accidently confronted with Youporn on the internet: “Similar is not only the religious defence, similar is also the inquistorial furore which one employs. In this regard it means: The word ‘negro’ is bad, bad, bad and must be elimitated, eliminated, eliminated”, he writes.

Even the label “people of colour” can be understood as a discrimination by people who construct their identities not according to their ancestry or the colour of their skin. Yücel elaborates his points in an article for the online edition of taz: “The credo of these people who, for instance, organise in the ‘Initiative of Black People in Germany’ and who claim to speak for all ‘people of colour’ but represent – similar to the officials of muslim organisations – not more than themselves, comes down to: ‘I am black, therefore I know. You are not black, and that is why you don’t know.  Even more: You are white. That’s why everything you say will be utilised against you.’ (This credo they do not own exclusively, certainly: You are Christian, German, European, heterosexual, male – this is why you don’t know.)”

Race and Class

Within certain political contexts, a particular view indicates that the authority to speak about Africa basically roots in origin and colour of skin. I particulary remember a happening at the meeting of the Bundeskoordination Internationalismus in 2006 that takes place once a year and brings together groups and people focusing on north-south relations and anti-racism campaigns. Two black discussants emphatically endorsed Presidents Mugabe (Zimbabwe) and Gbagbo (Côte d’Ivoire) in their workshop. They explained the violence fueled by them only with reference to an old-fashioned version of anti-imperialism of the Cold War era: We should be concerned, they argued, with the defence against imperialism and not with human rights, and that is why we all must stand together. Those who doubt this position are disrupters. After I intervened against this apology, I was suspected to be a spy and an enemy. In the end, I was forced to leave the workshop. Not one of the attenders protested against this behaviour.

The current debate about the employment of the word “negro” in historical or literary contexts as well as in the everyday life is only a side note within the whole discussion about identity, racism and discrimination in Germany. Slowly but surely, it is outpaced by reality. There are quite a number of successful black businessmen even in Germany. Not without reason, however, they settle in Hamburg or Munich rather than in Schwerin. Racism exists, no question, but is differently experienced, and this is decisively connected to the question of class affiliation.

An example: The father of my cousin Ben, this is my uncle, hailed from Congo-Brazzaville. The family belonged to the upper middle-class of the central African country. Ben was raised in this former french colony, but regularly visited Paris and Thuringia. As soon as his adolescence was over, the family was forced to leave the country due to the civil war and settled in Erfurt, later in Bavaria. I infected my cousin with the Heavy Metal-virus, in return his sister introduced me to HipHop at later times.

Today, Ben is a successful corporate consultant in Munich, follows the Bayern Munich Football Club in the whole of Europe and appears at the Oktoberfest naturally in traditional leather trousers and a chequered shirt. He’s so much Munich, and “Mia san mia” (We are we) is his credo. Racism, Ben tells me, does not play any role in his life. Certain remarks in this regard that still emerge simply rebound on him. „Mia san mia“, precisely, and his “mia” (we) includes his German friends and relatives, those living in Paris and Marseille as well as in Brazzaville and the villages of the Republic of Congo.

This may be totally different for less successful migrants. They are confronted with a racist bureaucracy and an immigration system designed for repellence that invites some “useful” and sends the many “useless” back into poverty and a life without perspectives. Because of their social status, they are forced to deal with situations in which experiences of racism are the order of the day. But one of the awkward realities of migration is that, in the end, it is not necessarily the poorest of the poor who manage to reach the iron curtain of Europe but the better educated and those who are able to afford the high transport costs for their journey. Does it mean that we should better talk about class than race?

Cosmopolitanism Versus Identity Politics

A good starting point for a meaningful debate about identities and racism in Germany would be to focus again on the class aspects and the marginalisation of people of different colours in this country without a denunciation of the successful and so-called integrated as being traitors of their blackness. “To be sure”, writes the philosopher Achille Mbembe in his illuminating essay African Modes of Self-Writing from 2002, “there is no African identity that could be designated by a single term or  that could be subsumed under a single category. African identity does not exist as a substance. It is constituted, in varying forms, through a series of practices, notably practices of the self.

In the end, “people of colour” is a construct like “Africa”, “blackness” or “whiteness”. The central question, in my opinon, is: Does it serve an (understandable) wish for belonging and an identity conceived as being something unchallengeable or does it help to expand the debate on racism and discrimination? I suspect that the journey, at the moment, goes into the direction of identity politics and distinction.

In course of this trajectory, practices of the construction of identity are at play that Mbembe excoriates in his essay. Both the culturalist and the dependency school of thought share the view of Africa and its habitants as being victims of almighty global forces. But reality bites hard: Especially in course of the last two decades or so, an African cosmopolitanism developed that questions the dogma of autochthony, that is the linkage of geographical origin and identity, and emphasises the autonomy of African actors.

At the continent, the (not seldomly violent) confrontation between this new cosmopolitanism and discourses of autochthony is in full swing. Not only the big cities in Africa, also the rural regions like the diamond mines in the east of Sierra Leone or the Democratic Republic of the Congo constitute sheer melting pots of different cultures and nationalities. At the same time, the politics of exclusion justified with reference to ethnicity or race spreads which should not come as a surprise when thinking about a situation of permanent shortages.

I think it is a central and important argument made by adherents of Critical Whiteness that anti-racism should be understood not as a condition but a steady process. This paradigm, I argue, holds for all sides of the debate. Stalinist-like self-criticism and bans to talk – the finger on the trigger – impede this process. They lead into a close which ends for some in a well-paid job at the university and for the many others in the everyday discrimination by the German majority.

Ruben Eberlein admits to experience negative racist happenings in Europe predominantly second-hand. He was, however, discriminated during different phases of his search for an identity as a follower of Metal, Punk and Anarchism by east German Nazis of different classes. Today he is a fan of US-american, british and senegalese Conscious Rap, but also listens to good Gangsta Rap. He currently lives in Berlin-Neukölln.

This text has been published in German in the latest issue of Blätter des iz3w.

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