Interview Valerie-Siba Rousparast
For this group talk we met online. With each participant writing from home, we engaged in an hour-long discussion on art, the importance of community work, safe spaces, and the presence of structural discrimination in Germany. Cienna Davis currently runs the online platform Soul Sisters for Black women in Berlin and Germany and Jessica Lauren Elizabeth Taylor organizes and produces the Black in Berlin Salon, creating a space for Black people in Berlin to discuss issues of discrimination and empowerment. Taylor’s next project focuses on archiving the knowledge that can be recovered and saved from grandmothers, mothers and daughters.
Hi Cienna, what made you start Soul Sisters?
Davis: Soul Sisters started from a free performance workshop for Black women. After the performance, we all wanted to stay in touch and continue performing together. My friend made a FB group Soul Sisters for the 7 of us to stay in touch. Every time we met a Black woman we were like “Hey, you should join Soul Sisters!” Now Soul Sisters has almost 800 women in the group. In the beginning the main organizers would meet like 2-3 times a month determine the goals of the group and organize events – movie nights, selfcare parties, picnics, dinners, and going out together. We also organize bigger events like the Black Arts Retreat, colorism workshop, an interracial couple lunch, and Soul Sister Struts where we challenge ourselves to be bold and assert the presence of Black women in Berlin by walking together in public.
What we are becoming is a network for Black Women to get introduced to the Black community in Berlin. Online and offline, we educate and empower one another. We’re very strongly invested in anti-racism and Black feminist practices. We try to be able to have open conversations, but also be aware of power dynamics and not using stereotypes against one another. There is a big part of Soul Sisters that’s just online. There are some women I’ve never met, but I think the more you come to the events, when you start to interact with us outside of Facebook then you also get more out of the online space. We also have a public Facebook page, which is a platform where we share our views and promote events like Black In Berlin.
What are your goals?
Davis: After finishing my studies I would love to work on Soul Sisters full-time to establish our group as a legitimate e.V with enough funding to have our own space to host regular events with paid employees. It would be amazing to have a place where Black Berliners can look to for social, political and practical guidance to navigate life in Berlin. Connecting people with political organizations and communities, helping with housing, hair workshops, political rights training, lawyer consultations, etc. We would love to do workshops for Black girls to uplift and inspire, but also to learn from their experiences. We would also share our space for all Black organizations for lectures, workshops, parties, etc.
I am anxious to professionalize our online presence and really take advantage of our growing platform. To not just share articles, but to create our own content and have a blog featuring where Black women can write about the Black experience in Berlin, review events, etc.
Along with that, I would like to find ways to implement linguistic diversity in the group. To work towards offering more content and activities in German. Being able to hire a diverse group of women to curate events would be a step in that direction!
In regards to the arts, we just finished the first official Soul Sisters Berlin performance at Ballhaus Naunynstrasse called „Mirror Mirror“ so it would be great to continue performing and making art together.
Black In Berlin is a salon format. Who are your speakers, who is the audience, Jessica?
Taylor: It started as something that I needed, something very selfish. A way for me to connect with people. But then it became this community dialogue.
It started in 2013 and it began as a conversation amongst a group of people late at night one evening. Basically there was an issue of a magazine in Berlin, Ex-Berliner called “African In Berlin” that was totally exploitative and used a lot of stereotypes of the African diasporic community. And this was shortly after I had moved to Berlin, so I was really shocked at the way that a progressive magazine was covering the issue of being Black in Berlin. They had a panel discussion on the issue with some prominent members of the community. Basically the panel was a disaster. The editors completely talked over the panelists and they didn’t have much space to really converse. Afterwards mainly white audience members asked questions like “I went to Nigeria and didn’t experience racism. So how could you say that you experience racism in Germany?” Just totally wild. After that a group of us stayed and we spent the rest of the night having a talk. I thought, what if we could have this kind of conversation more often. That’s how I started the salon. The response was overwhelming. Now there are like 60-70 people at each event. It has been on hiatus for the past several months though.
In your performances and in your art, race is always a present topic. Now you are focusing on the experiences of femmes.
Taylor: Yes. In my new series, which is called “Muttererde” , I interview Black femmes about their matriarchal lineages. I became very interested in knowledge about my mother’s mother’s mothers. As a Black American oftentimes our knowledge about our history is limited, because it has been erased or destroyed or if it hasn’t been, it’s too traumatic to talk about. A lot of people have a strong oral history, because they don’t have the documents, but in my family, we don’t have that. When my mother asked her mother about her childhood or what it was like growing up, she would say “Leave me alone” and I think that speaks to a lot of the trauma that was put on Black femmes. So I became really interested in the African diasporic matriarchal experience. It’s really to create an archive, with the salon as well. All my projects they include a discussion around race that is inherent, but it’s really to build an archive, to dialogue, not to put on a show for anyone.
Were there any parallels that you could see in those stories?
Jessica: Oh definitely! A lot of us don’t know intimate details of our grandmothers. How many of us know the hobbies or could talk about the sex life of our great-grandmothers. Even less so wit Black femmes. We just filmed it and it premiers in December.
How do you experience discussions about race and discrimination in Germany?
Taylor: Um, because a lot of the discussions that I’ve been to are very limited, beca.e the language is very limited. I mean there is not even a word for “Rasse”, for race in Germany. The word racism wasn’t added to the dictionary until like 1997. The conversations are very behind. I’ve noticed that oftentimes the people having the conversations, mainly in academic institutions, are often white professors, who are removed from the true experience. So they are just pontificating on the experience instead of living it. I think there just came out a word that is equivalent to cultural appropriation in German. All of these other words like Microaggression are in English.
Davis: Going on with what Jessica said, US.-American imperialism forces Black people around the world to see themselves in the Black American experience. We have this strong visible history of fighting against racism and for civil rights that the terminology created in the US and the UK is adopted to address anti-black racism around the world. It is kind of sad that you have to engage with the English language to have these conversations, but I think that there are a lot of Black German and Germans of Color, who are doing a lot of academic work to address racism in German in the German language. I am super impressed by many of the afro-german people I meet, who are super knowledgeable and know their stuff about racism, but there is an extreme discrepancy between their understanding and the ignorance of many white people in Germany when it comes to racism. The simplest things are mind boggling to them. You really have to start at square one. Someone will call you the N-word to your face in Germany and is like “what’s the problem?”
Is it part of anti-racist activism to educate white people, does it help even?
Taylor: I don’t consider myself an activist, I consider myself a community organizer. But in all of my work and work with Black In Berlin and work as an artist in general I never think about educating white people. Or educating anyone really. I approach the work as an exchange or a dialogue. If someone learns something along the way – great! But I think it’s more important for me to provide a space for people to share and to open up and exchange.
Davis: I think that, if you ask any person of color about talking to white people about racism, we can all echo the same responses we hear.
Davis: Like “I’m colorblind.”, “‘That’s reverse racism” or “Why can’t I use the N-word?” all this stuff. I think educating white people is part of anti-racism activism, but it’s not part of my activism. I would rather teach Black women to love and empower themselves. White people need to get creative and think about how to fix the problem. There are people who were previously Neo-Nazi extremists and they have rehabilitation for people like that. Maybe they should start looking at that more and see how they can approach their family members and friends. To expect People of Color to do that labor is racist!
Davis: I’m already dealing with racism and discrimination in my own life. They want me to teach them on this? ((Both laugh))
Taylor: I always say, white people, talk to each other! You have the same resources as I have. Aside from personal experience, in the age of the internet and social media, just take the time and sit and deal with each other. And there is lots of white people, who are doing that work – actually. But I think it could be more and I think it could be on a more organized level. Like Cienna said, talking to family members, correcting people.
Structural racism is part of the German neo-colonial system. Does Germany lack awareness?
Taylor: We can see that Germany is far behind. When the UN comes to the country and spends time conducting a national survey and deems the country unfit for handling the emotional and physical trauma of everyday living of African diasporic people then that’s a huge red flag. The German government political system doesn’t respond effectively. It’s built in structurally. I mean, Germany doesn’t even take statistics about race, because they deem that racist. So it’s hard to even start at the go-line, because it’s so deeply embedded into the system.
Davis: I think right along that lines. Because German history is already so dark with the stains of the Holocaust and World Wars. So I can see, why Germans would be like “Could we really not talk about racism?” But that’s ignoring their own colonial history and how they benefit from colonialism. Like the Berlin conference to divide African countries was in Berlin, Germany! It’s clear that racism is not really part of the national dialogue, but when racism does come up, it’s usually in relation to the Holocaust. People think: “As long as I am not a Neonazi, i’m not racist.” And also with the whole statistics about race that’s something that was really shocking to me. Back in my community in the US I could always pull out the statistic and say “Hey, this university is supposed to be for the public. The public is 30% hispanic, why is there only 5% Hispanics at this university?” What also shocks me here, i’m around so many turkish people everyday. Why don’t I see them at my university? And I can’t back it up without the empirical data. This whole thing about statistics being racist really backfires and prevents Germany from dealing with racism.
Taylor: And it’s a situation that’s frustration and troubling, because you walk down the street everyday and you see the “Stolpersteine” and you think Germany does such a great job at remembering. But yet they’re effectively erasing this other part of history.
Cienna, you have been part of a group of Black femmes that have faced racism at a nightclub in Berlin that has an official anti-racist policy and you have been in a magazine covering identity politics recently. What are your experiences with the German narrative on racism in the media and in general?
Taylor: We can see that it’s pretty one-dimensional. I hear stories from friends all the time that are in prominent German newspapers and offices, where white german people work, who experience microaggression and racist comments every day. It completely infiltrates a society, because they are ignorant on the subject…sorry I lost my train of thought, it’s the pregnancy hormones! CeCe, maybe you start talking.
Davis: It’s difficult to say, because my German isn’t that great. With the things that involved me… I was only able to read the previews of the articles involving me from the Exberliner, I haven’t even had the chance to read the whole issue. From what I read and heard from others, they really were flippant and dismissive about the importance and necessity of identity politics. Why would they even think that identity politics is something that their magazine could handle when they’re clearly so biased against it? I feel these topics are just becoming more trendy and magazines like Exberliner are just jumping on the bandwagon without actually being invested in any real progressive ideology. What Ex-Berliner did is entirely unacceptable. I wonder why they think that that’s okay. They exploited my image probably thinking putting a Black woman on the cover would be provocative! [Editors note: The magazine supposedly used Davis’ picture for the cover without her consent.] What’s really disappointing to me about Berlin is that you come here and think this place is so different and there’s so many cool, progressive, and radical people and then behind it, it’s almost empty. Maybe that’s too harsh, but it’s definitely challenging being a politically-minded Black woman in Berlin.
With what happened at SchwuZ to me and my friends, the first article that came out was like “Which side is right?” The interviewer posted the stories online without ever reaching out to the victims of racial profiling that night. They quoted a random person, who happened to see the incident [Editors note: Where a group of Black femmes were supposedly not let into a club, because they were to loud waiting in line. We reported about the incident here.] and a comment by a Black woman that they just took from their facebook page. How lazy can you be? Just jumping to publish the story without seeing the full picture. When this whole Ex-Berliner thing happened again it was like, is this a trend of lazy inept journalism? Missy Magazine was actually the only publication that respectfully reached out to us about the SchwuZ incident. Missy published the only article that accurately and honestly told our side of the story.
Taylor: We live in our small bubbles and i’m realising that more and more this year. The Soul Sisters plattform, Black In Berlin, Missy Magazine are all small niche bubbles. Very effective work is being done inside of them, but i’m reminded of it often and it’s always a good reminder to step outside of your world. Because as I said I work in the very narrow arts and culture sector and of course even in Berlin in these places the majority of openings and exhibitions I go to are all white. The artists and the curators and the audience. Having travelled throughout the country I can speak to the lack of knowledge on Black history and African diasporic history by mainly German communities outside of Berlin, but also in Berlin the young people don’t have a grasp of this knowledge. That’s why I feel like people are really behind here. Even in my work situation with people my age or younger and even they don’t know any of this. They don’t know not to touch my hair. These are people that you see in the club, open-minded, liberal, progressive people. That’s what’s troubling to me. The lack of awareness by these kind of people.
Davis: I feel very insulated. Since my German isn’t that good and I wear my headphones most of the time, I can block out things pretty easily. As soon as I don’t have my headphones on, I’m introduced into a whole new world. I experience sexual harassment like most women, but it is painted by my race with people calling me “African Queen”, “Cappucino”, “Latte”, like all this coffee-related stuff. Also i’m a student and I work at the university. The university is a space where it’s very white male dominated, but in the university I can at least voice my critique and have an outlet for expression. The university for me is not a safe space, but a space, where I can foster a critical view on things. So what happened at SchwuZ and with Ex-Berliner came as a shock because I’m not used to dealing with as much direct and blatant racism and ignorance as others.
Taylor: Just quickly, the situation with Ex-Berliner was most illuminating to me, because it revealed the power dynamics. To understand racism, sexism you have to understand that. It really highlighted those positions.
I feel that power dynamics is something that hasn’t been a subject in Germany for a long time and is just now found to be something related to discrimination.
Davis: Maybe it’s that there are such extreme cases of hatred and discrimination in Germany that you look over the subtle and various ways of that power dynamics operate. “I dated a Black guy”, “I’m colorblind” It’s like, “We didn’t threaten you with violence, so how can i be racist?”
You talked about being harassed before, Cienna. Intersectional feminism seems to be new to many in Germany. How do you experience feminist communities in Berlin/Germany?
Davis: I don’t know how much I engage in feminism in Berlin. It sure can sound strange from the outside, but there is so many ways that mainstream feminism can be very oppressive to Black women. On panels about feminism, usually just white women are invited to speak, but names like Beyoncé are being used to attract audiences for such events. I wonder where are the other non-white feminists at those events?
In many ways I feel like, I don’t know how many people are in solidarity with me and that makes me cautious.
Taylor: I’ve just noticed that the mainstream feminism is created from Western Feminism, which is white feminism. When you hear about statistics from feminist movements, they talk about pay wage gap, they always quote the statistics for white women – which are different for Black women and women of color.
Davis: Also I recently took a class on feminist literature. I’ve only ever taken courses on Black feminisms. It was interesting so see how the syllabus was constructed with the canon of feminist literature without including the texts of Black and other feminists of Color who were writing at the same time as Betty Friedan and Simone de Beauvoir. Realities of Women of Color are continually skipped over and it makes it difficult for me to engage.
Are there other organizations that you feel like are doing something to fill that void
Jessica: The District Kunst und Kulturförderung have started a feminist curating workshop that works towards intersectionality.
What does self love mean in the context of Black feminism for you? Is it part of your activism?
Taylor: Lately self love has meant taking time to tell my own narrative. And realizing that it’s important and has value. Self love has also meant taking up space. I used to feel that a lot of the institutions and openings were not for me, because I didn’t see anyone who looked like me either represented artistically or in the audience. It was an unlearning process to figure out that I belong and I have value. Self love means putting myself out front in the center.
Davis: For me, I think education has been part of my way towards self love. Growing up, I was mainly in white and Hispanic communities and I was always a minority. And when you’re in that position, you always feel oppositional. You feel like you’re not good enough, not pretty enough, not womanly enough. You can really internalize a sense of your own inferiority. For me, going to university really taught me about the history of colonialism and how ideas of Blackness and whiteness are really put together as a way to ensure that everything associated with Blackness is the complete opposite of whiteness and therefore, if whiteness is humanity then Blackness is uncivilized, wild and savage. Learning that makes it easier to deconstruct. It makes it easier to find a new sense of understanding for yourself, and taught me how to look in the mirror and think “I’m not the side character, I’m the lead in my life role. I can be loved.”
That education could also happen more through media. How would you wish for German media to change?
Taylor: I would just like my story to be shared as a human story. I’m sick and tired of talking about race!
I’m tired of being put in the Black or the diverse category. I can always tell when a curator or institution is reaching out to me because they need to diversify their programme. That’s frustrating. And it’s dehumanizing. So I would just like to talk about my work more. Imagine how much time and space I would have to do my artistic practice if I didn’t have to talk about race. I can’t even imagine!
Davis: Multiculturalism is becoming a real selling point in the US But only recently are diverse people like Aziz Ansari and Shonda Rhimes getting money to create their own narratives and tell their own stories. It’s almost like this generation is pushing to be seen and people are like oh, there’s money in that. It’s very inspiring, but also exploitative! When they don’t know how to deal with the issues, things go wrong. Like when I watched Blackula, a 1970’s Blaxploitation film, on German TV. I was very excited to see it, but then in the commercial breaks there were two German commentators drinking something called “Blacky.” It was an actual drink meant to be blood covered in afro hair.
Taylor: No! Okay.
Davis: It’s just this weird fascination and fetishization of other cultures that can be fixed when you let people speak for themselves.
Taylor: Also, with visibility comes fragility. Often you’re invited to boost and diversify their project, but they don’t know how to hold space for you, so you become this fragile being in their space and it can be dangerous. It can be literally dangerous. I’ve been in spaces with all-white audiences, who didn’t know how to talk about my art and I felt unsafe.
Besides your projects, what do you do to feel comfortable in Berlin?
Davis: That’s a challenging question. One of the things is: stay home. Many times, when you try to have one of those care-free nights in Berlin and want to forget about the racist things that happened that day or you want to celebrate something, or chill, or see a show, you always hit a wall. All of these “colorblind” people that just can’t get over your Blackness. When you think you’re having an interesting conversation and then they start to tiptoe their way into this thing, like, “I don’t really see color, but when I look at you, you look like you have so much to say. I’ve never been around Black people before.” And you’re like, we had a nice conversation and now I don’t want to see you ever again. Or you want to go out and party to Beyoncé, but then you don’t get in, because people think that you and your friends are just a bunch of loud “uncivilized” Black woman for entertaining ourselves in a line. Or even the other day we went to a spa to decompress and then I come home and find out that my friend was followed by a police officer on her way home.
Taylor: From the spa?
Davis: Yeah, from the spa. And things like this remind me why Soul Sisters is so important. Sometimes it’s the only time when we are together that we really get to feel comfortable. We can have each other’s backs in these things.
Taylor: I’ve become really careful about how to spend my time. I’ve stopped going to gallery openings, because I’ve been feeling so exocitized, people are petting me. People in the art world just treating me like a peacock, it doesn’t matter, what I’m wearing. Just putting me as the “other.” Also a lot of violent exchanges I’ve had in the streets with police officers or other people have given me a lot more anxiety. It makes me want to stay at home. That’s another reason, why I’ve started community organizing. So we can have these very specific spaces that we can have as safe havens.
What would you change about Berlin overnight?
Davis: Well, I wrote a short story about cutting off all white peoples dreads. And I would want to implant the feeling that I get every time I see a white person with dreadlocks or general cultural appropriation, so they could be overwhelmed by the physical and mental anguish that floods me. To give them an understanding of what it feels like to be oppressed, or what it feels like when people have prejudices against you because of your skin color or the way that your hair grows out of your head. Then to see a person wearing your culture— the source of your own oppression— as a costume for their own benefit. I think it could be a gateway to understand the complexity of racism in a more nuanced way. I think that there are deeper levels to it that I can’t ever articulate in a way that a white person, who just wants to look trendy, will ever understand. But maybe they could feel it.
Taylor: I’m gonna have to go with Cienna’s statement about education. I asked about some sensitivity and awareness training at my kindergarten for all of the teachers so many times. I even offered to lead it. I would instill that in all companies and all schools. Not just sensitivity towards race, [but] also sexism, and all big structural things.
Davis: I would’ve said education, but I’ve organised „diversity trainings“ in my work place and it was… something else. It takes so much more for them to understand!
Taylor: Well, this is my dream in my dreamland!