Afro-Germans: Bridging the Gap Between 29 Years

Wednesday, November 12, 2014
Marquese Robinson

What exactly does it mean to map multiculturalism? Perhaps even more difficult is, what exactly we mean when we say multiculturalism? When I decided to apply for the Mapping Multiculturalism grant, these were the first two questions I needed to engage. After much deliberation I finally decided that I wanted to focus on racial multiculturalism in Germany, specifically Afro-Germans. I set out to put the German Chancellor, Angela Merkel’s words to the test that Germany was indeed a multicultural society. There were a multitude of methods and variables that I could have chosen to use to measure how multicultural Germany might be. I wanted to examine the business community, utilizing a method developed in South Africa under the program Black Economic Empowerment (BEE). Companies are graded in seven areas ranging from how many Black Africans are in management positions, to how much the company invests in skills development programs in underdeveloped communities. Each category has a different value, but combined, the max score a company could reach is 100. I had planned to locate businesses with scores across the BEE scale and interview both Black and non-minority employees. I wanted to get a sense of whether Afro-Germans believed that Germany was multicultural, and if so, to what extent. I set out for Berlin and began my project on the first of July 2014.

My first interview was with John K., who works as an independent producer of social justice themed documentaries. We spoke for nearly 3 hours after which I had developed a completely new vision for my project. From the interview I learned that the development of black consciousness in Germany, and even the term Afro-German, is not even 30 years old. John K. had been actively involved in the initial development of community of black Germans. The non-profit Initiative Schwarze Menschen (ISD) and the book, Showing Our Colors: Afro-German Woman Speak Out (1992), were the two main results of black professional Afro-Germans coming together in 1985. The organization and the book served as my two main resources. I no longer desired to use the BEE method, or focus on businesses, but rather professional Afro-Germans, specifically those who had been active in the events of 1985 that spurred the vibrant networks between professional Afro-German alive today.

I conducted several interviews and each contained enough information and insight to write at length about, and so did Showing Our Colors. One of the most surprising and maybe even startling implications was how similar the themes I encountered while reading the book were to themes that emerged during my interviews. The two most reoccurring themes were feelings of alienation and how the various shades of blackness influence the degree to which one feels alienated. I discovered that “feeling like a foreigner” was equally likely to occur in retail shops, restaurants, and even on the street. The feelings would most often arise from encounters in which someone commented “You speak German so well.” or in which the question, “Where do you come from?” was asked. Many of the professionals I interviewed stated that they often felt insulted when they had to prove their German-ness. Lighter and darker pigmented Afro-Germans experienced varying racially charged encounters both in terms of quantity and severity. The variations even extended to how much race caused internal conflicts. One individual, Patricia B., summed it up this way “[I] went to places that welcomed me to work there, despite knowing I was hired because I am light skinned, with straight hair, and speak fluent German. Imagine if I had an Afro.” I did however, also find differences of receptiveness to any form of prejudice depending upon one’s childhood. The relationship between the Black parent and the family of the German parent was most important. Those who had families that were accepting of the interracial relationship, recounted the fewest amount of racially charged or prejudicial encounters. All of the professional Afro-Germans I interviewed agreed on two things; first, that Berlin is the most accepting city for different races and cultures, and second that prejudice and racism today is as prevalent today as it was 50 years ago but that it manifests differently. Despite having very different histories with people from Africa, Germany has many parallels with America in terms of race relations.