During a niveous day of winter break, my friend from BCB, experienced racism at a bar in Berlin.
Let’s pseudonymously call my friend Sam.
Sam told me that they were out with a friend touring the city when they decided to stop by a bar for a beer. So stop they did, in a bar south of Berlin. They ordered two pints of beer. The bar had around six people, well eight including them, busy doing what people at bars do: drinking, talking, serving, some thinking, some not thinking.
Then Sam’s mum called.
They had not talked in weeks, so they had a lot to catch up on. Sam talked with their mum at length. They talked in their native language, which is not German. During the call the bartender began mimicking Sam’s conversation, condescendingly spewing gobbledygook, with no sense of shame. The barroom turned into a den of racist mimicry. Four of the five people, all men, laughing, Sam crying, the other, one, of the five men, compliciously uncaring—it was such a frustrating experience given Sam and Sam’s friend, barely spoke any German as they are international students and pretty new in Berlin.
Both Sam and Sam’s friend were petrified, stunned.
It’s hard to know how best to react when one encounters a foreign situation—racism—in a foreign land. Any small thing could escalate into a massive disaster, especially when the space—the barroom—is unsafe, and the people are making you uncomfortable. What do you do? Do you run? Do you stand up for yourself? Do you call 911? It’s difficult to know what to do. Just as the experience is foreign to you, so will your reaction be, foreign, new, uncertain.
Sam’s friend consoled them and did something somewhat unusual—he got up from his seat, picked his wallet, walked to the counter, looked at the publican, said nothing, opened his wallet, took out some money, coins, counted the coins, paid the bill, in coins, slowly placing them on the counter one by one.
Having paid the bill, in full, in coins, they both left the bar, leaving all its occupants dumbstruck, silent.
From one perspective, the paying of the bill, in coins, was just that—paying the bill in coins. But from another perspective, it was something more, a statement, an act of resistance, risky. Although this was risky, non-confrontational, and a far cry from how demoralizing Sam was treated, it still made a statement against the horrendous racism meted upon Sam. There are more overt tools of resistance but what do you do in an unsafe environment? Resist subtly. Sam’s friend’s brave and daring act of resistance is akin to something from James C. Scot’s Domination and the Arts of Resistance (the book pretty much documents how underdogs, powerless people, subtly resist powerful overlords through symbolic confrontations, most famously foot-dragging).
Nevertheless, it is sad that the choice of reaction doesn’t showcase the feelings, and emotional damage such racial animus caused both of them, Sam and Sam’s friend. The mimicry and laughter were so dehumanizing that the counter reaction wasn’t—couldn’t at all have been—cathartic. It is as if the bartender, and the five men felt threatened by the non-German language of a jovial mother reconnecting with her child.
Sam’s story is one of many. I know of someone who was blatantly called the n-word in these very Berlin streets, and of some students who were harassed by German teenagers based solely on racial animus and the infamous swastika debacle when a student residence hall was defaced last semester. These occurrences are not limited to BCB; people experience various forms of racism in trams, clubs, restaurants, et cetera on a daily basis.
These present day forms of racism smear the concerted efforts throughout history, to dismantle the deplorable acts advanced by racism. It’s through the global efforts that a grab bag of despicable acts such as racial hatred, segregation, slave trade, and apartheid were either completely quashed or largely curtailed. These changes did not happen on a whim, they took slow, painful, unified efforts—efforts which spanned years, decades, centuries.
With the rise in everyday forms of racism, both overt and covert, with our world divided, we might be regressing towards, rather than advancing away from, racism. This is to say combating racism is not easy, it can be murky, it can be disheartening, it can be very polarizing.
So divisive are the topics surrounding racism and anti-racism such that even anti-racism efforts are frustrated by anti- anti racism efforts. In the United states, the cause célèbre “critical race theory,’’ which was at the heart of SCOTUS justice Ketanji Brown Jackson’s nomination hearings, is a particularly divisive issue. And, Europe still struggles with respecting Islamic practices like the wearing of niqabs and burkas. Division, which seems to be racism’s lifeblood, still lives on.
Racism now seems like a dual disease: a virus, a cancer; unbreakable, incurable.
But all hope is not lost.
Overcoming this division is integral in the fight against racism. With solidarity we can dismantle the divisiveness sown by racism.
Solidarity takes many shapes and forms. For instance, the film industry successfully united to make the Oscars more racially representative through the revolutionary acts of the twitterati using the hashtag #OscarsSoWhite. This unified injection of anti-racism to pop-culture has the significant potential of immunizing the world we live in from viral loads of racism.
In Germany, the Meet a Jew program where Jewish volunteers meet with various non-Jewish Germans to facilitate a dialogue on acceptance, awareness and education in ways to normalize Jewishness in Germany’s social fabric, is helping the country heal from its dark antisemitic past. It is this effort to bridge the gap between the othered and other members of society that can help our society progress from the divisive us versus them categorization sown by racism.
There is also another cool contrarian approach to anti-racism called the Theory of Enchantment. In lieu of quotidian hand-wringing and often combative anti-racism approaches—which often redline one particular race as the cause of all racism—the Theory of Enchantment strives to create a safe space for everyone irregardless of their race, to talk about race, racism and anti-racism, in a harmonious manner, through solidarity, with love, with compassion, with respect, without ostracization, without animosity, without underscoring the realities, and indelible historical occurrences that have been disproportionately meted upon racial minority groups.
The BCB community exuded solidarity in the past couple of months—Black History month (February) and International Week Against Racism (March 14-27). During these times, students participated in events, dialogues, and efforts within Pankow and Berlin in solidarity against racism. In addition, As you probably noticed, BCB has a new banner, hanging on the balcony of W16, with the inscriptions ‘Pankow bekennt Farbe! Gegen Rassismus. Für Menschenrechte.’ (roughly translated: ‘Pankow declares clearly! Against Racism. For Human rights.’)
On March 23, BCB’s Student Parliament, the DEI Office and BCB’s Civic Engagement Office led a discussion about War, Asylum and Racism. This discussion looked at the role race plays in how different European countries receive and treat refugees, especially the discrepancies observed in treatment and medical coverage of Syrian and Afghan refugees compared to Ukrainian refugees. Understanding these discrepancies, and critically investigating how racism is handled on a global scale is quintessential to dissecting how racism trickles down into our everyday lives. Exploring remnants of past forms of racism in our current system is essential to tackling systemic racism. Sam was attacked on a personal level but racism plays a role both on a micro and macro scale in society. Learning not to ignore the various roles it plays in our society, will help us root it out more effectively.
Our community in Pankow, ranging from educational, political, NGOs to religious organizations, also hosted a range of workshops, guest talks, exhibitions and conversations geared towards the fight against racism. The slogan Pankow gegen Rassismus (“Pankow against racism”) played a vital role in spearheading this unified effort. The weekly English Hour is an excellent example of how we can come in contact with our neighbors, showcasing the academic excellence BCB has to offer while also having a sincere exchange through dialogue with our immediate community. During the International Week against Racism, English Hour and the Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Office came together for an event introducing anti-racism as a concept, concentrating on understanding racism in the German context. The talk was in German, a language that is accessible to most participants in the English hour program.
One event in particular stood out to me: the Joint Neighborhood Campaign at Rathaus Pankow on March 25, when local organizations and residents of Pankow hosted an event to discuss how diversity, empowerment and solidarity was crucial to building solidarity in the fight against racism. This event was invigorating and helped shed light on the experiences of different people in Berlin not just on racial grounds but within artistic, religious, academic, and civic realms. The event showed me the amazing social capital we can build to combat racism and how creating social cohesion can cushion our societies against acts of discrimination.
However, Black History month, and International Week Against Racism occur only at a fixed time of the year, which means we can do more to normalize anti-racism .
Because every day, every week, every time, anytime really, is a time to fight racism.
The fight against racism starts with self examination and then builds up to a communal introspection to create an understanding on how to uproot racism from our societies. As the fierce anti-racism advocate, Malcom X, once said, “A race of people is like an individual man; until it uses its own talent, takes pride in its own history, expresses its own culture, affirms its own selfhood, it can never fulfill itself.” Anti-racism ought to be filled everyday with unity, boldness, fortitude, freedom.
To me, everyday anti-racism revolves around unified efforts to document, respond to, and support victims of anti-racism . For instance, when my friend was being mimicked in a dehumanizing way, the men at the club should not have laughed; they should have stood up against the bartender. But it seems like there are zones in Germany where racism is tolerated, so my version of anti-racism would involve documenting these places and actively inoculating anti-racism into them. This would rely on unity and solidarity as their bedrock. And some organizations do indeed engage in this type of vision. Various organizations in Berlin work around the clock to document and fight anti black racism, anti Muslim racism, anti Roma racism, anti Asian racism, among others.
There are also organizations which take action against various forms of discrimination; for instance, The Berliner Register documents incidents and takes action against different forms of discrimination and ADNB, provides counselling to victims of discrimination.
It is this solidarity to investigate, formulate, document, and assist others that will cement the fight against racism in our day to day lives.
At BCB, the Diversity Equity and Inclusion Office whose inception students fiercely fought for in 2020-2021 has made various efforts to create awareness and critically assess racism and discrimination. The office supports students when they face racism and discrimination in Berlin streets as well as organizes events geared towards fostering unity and embracing diversity within the BCB community. May Zeidani Yufanyi, head of the DEI office at BCB, recently organized a series of events to talk about anti-racism. These talks help to contextualize anti-racism within the BCB community, and more is still to come. These efforts could be magnified to include other unifying events like a cultural day, a joint dialogue on experiences with racism or what to do when one encounters discrimination, in order to make BCB more hospitable and to create solidarity among BCB community members in the process.
The well of universal solidarity in the fight against racism should—must—never dry up.
To dismantle racism, we should work in solidarity, together, as students, citizens, cosmopolitans, family, friends, as Bard College Berliners.
This article was written in collaboration with May Zeidani, Head of the DEI office at BCB. Thanks May!