Thursday, 27 March 2008

Black/White Germany

I've been reading the book Deutschland Schwarz Weiss by Noah Sow. It has an extensive English-language website here, in a slightly faltering translation, unfortunately. You can read a couple of extracts online - but the translator is not credited. The book is subtitled "everyday racism" and really does touch on a hell of a lot of sore points in Germany. Some of the examples the author presents are absolutely hair-raising, from strangers grabbing her hair to white mothers calling their black babies "little monkeys" (strangely, my white German mother-in-law calls her very blond son that too).

So, what do I think? First up, I found the style and structure incredibly irritating. The author works in radio and has written the book in a style I find just too conversational for comfortable reading. There are lists, interviews, suggestions, imaginary questions and answers, asides, photos with ironic captions, and I was almost expecting smilies to crop up at any moment. And while it's perfectly legitimate to quote from blogs and online forums to reflect public opinion, one or two of the sources for the factual material are too informal for my liking. Nevertheless, the book does seem well researched and more than just a compilation of "racism I have experienced". There are plentiful footnotes, an index and suggestions for further reading. Perhaps Sow is trying to straddle the divide between academic writing and actually reaching a broad audience. Being a minor celebrity (although I'd never heard of her), she might be the right person to do so.

Of course, it's not intended as a comfortable reading experience. The first couple of chapters are an out-and-out accusation hurled at the feet of the white readers the book expressly targets - which I felt might be better off placed further in, rather than scaring people off in the first few pages. But, subsequently humbled by rethinking one's own unconscious prejudices, the reader may then be all the more open to what Noah Sow has to say.

And that is plenty. At times I was reminded of 70s Britain - only this is Germany in the year 2008. The book made me realise how little I know about black Germans, a generally neglected subject. For example I was unaware that there have been black people here since French colonial troops occupied the Rhineland after WWI - most Afro-Germans I've known have one "non-German" parent. It also raised an issue I was aware of, but in a different context - the country's racist determination of nationality, based on "German blood". And it pays a lot of attention to language and the media - which is miles behind even Britain when it comes to showing black people and ethnic minorities in any other context than as criminals or victims. Or, of course, athletes and entertainers. The English Wikipedia entry on Afro-Germans is a case in point, carefully detailing the history and current situation, then listing almost exclusively musicians, sportspeople and filmmakers under "modern Germany". (Oh, and Naddel - a woman previously famous for being cheated on by an 80s pop star, but now, I see, topping the pops herself in Austria, in a fetching pink dirndl. Not sure if that's post-modern irony or just plain B-list celebrity survival strategy.)

So I have to say the book has worked on me. It's got under my skin, making me look differently at people and their behaviour - as well as myself and my behaviour. And it reminded me of the very talented Afro-German poet May Ayim, whose collection Blues in Black and White is available in English translation (by Anne Adams). Get Amazon UK's last copy here, quick!

Germany has a long way to go on the racism front, and this book is a moving testimony to that fact. On the book's website, the author writes:

I would like to see my book translated in order to start a new and widespread discussion in as many societies and countries as possible about whether we’re actually still making progress or if we ceased somewhere along the way at the level of miniature concession of the majorities.

I certainly wish her luck with that. Whether it's a landmark piece of writing that will stand the test of time, I doubt. But it just might be the straw that breaks the camel's back, opening enough people's eyes to provoke debate in Germany - and actual change.


Anonymous said...

just a side note: nothing strange about your mother-in-law calling her (grand?)son "little monkey". That's just a common term of endearment, as strange or non-strange as terms of endearment in any language are.


kjd said...

Thanks Dave. It seems to annoy him though, being in his mid-30s.
I still think Sow is right about it being racist when applied to black children, however endearingly it may be meant.

Bowleserised said...

Oh, I have a story or two, but they're not my stories, so I won't tell them on a blog. But there does seem to be a weird, bare-faced naivety to German racism.

kjd said...

I'd say Sow's book confirms that. A lot of what she highlights may even be well-meaning. Comments like "I bet your son will make a great basketball player" or the whole "Weisse Massai" phenomenon. And I suspect she's targetted the book at precisely these people.

I have problems with distant in-laws mouthing off about scrounging foreigners, then saying, "Oh, we don't mean you." And of course with the way the labour market works, anyone like me who didn't train in Germany has little chance of finding decent work in most areas. But I could be a lot worse off I suppose...