Berlin is said to be diverse, international, cosmopolitan. But who has a right to the city? An opinion piece by Akwugo Emejulu.
Nobody really explains this to you, but living in Berlin confers upon you unwanted superpowers. Walking in Mitte or Prenzlauer Berg, I test these powers.
This person, quite ostentatiously, grabs their bag and shoots me a dirty look as I walk past them. That person then quickly crosses the street with a sneer. But more regularly, what happens is that I find myself playing chicken with other pedestrians. As we walk towards each other, both in each other’s way, who will give way so that we can share the sidewalk? I’m giddy with excitement to see how it will play out—even though I already know the outcome. On principle, I almost always refuse to give way, unless the person is elderly or disabled. Why? Because it is expected, indeed it is demanded of me that I shrink and scatter, and get out of the way. So, what happens is what always happens, we collide and I keep moving forward, living my life.
This “game” is so familiar to Black Berliners that one of my friends told me that as a child, she gave these encounters a name, Frau Arroganz. She told me that before she had the language to name the racism she encountered on the streets—being stepped on, pushed out of the way, bumped into—she tried to make sense of it through a game of courage, of refusing to move, refusing to be invisible. These collisions contain a contradiction—the revelation of Black people’s unasked for and undesired powers. We are both invisible and hypervisible on the streets of Berlin. Simultaneously a visible threat to the assumed whiteness of public space, and an invisible object to be ignored and disregarded.
Don’t believe me? Think I’m being oversensitive? Perhaps I’m even being a bad guest during my short stay in Berlin? That’s a superpower too. Or rather, as Cassandra found to her peril, a curse, of telling the truth and constantly being doubted and disbelieved.
The invisibility/hypervisibility contradiction plays out through looks and stares. I am intrigued by the open and unashamed staring by men, women, and children. Sure, I guess I’m pretty enough but let’s be honest, I’m not to everyone’s taste. The looking has a meaning. It is also a kind of collision—a politics enacted through the visual and the imaginary. When I get stared at on the tram, on the U-Bahn, in a café, in a restaurant, I always make a point of looking back until the other person looks away. The defiance of looking back, of staring down someone who looks but cannot actually see you, is a common response among Black Berliners I have found. I carry on living my life, but a little unsettled and uncomfortable—which, of course, was the whole point of the staring in the first place.
How can this be? Berlin, I’m constantly told, is so diverse! So international! So cosmopolitan! Everyone speaks English here! And sure, Berlin is full of people from everywhere. But, obviously, not everyone belongs everywhere in Berlin—especially if your passport is the wrong colour or your legal status is questionable.
In this regard, Berlin is like anywhere else in Germany—albeit more dishonest in its self-mythology. That is what these collisions, both physical and visual, are about. They are a reminder—a warning—of my unbelonging. And it’s funny because I’m just a temporary visitor who speaks poor German here in Berlin for six months on a fellowship. I’m an American academic but I’ve been living in Scotland for 20 years. I know Berlin very well. I’ve been visiting for more than 15 years. I’m not pretending I belong—but I have nevertheless found spaces of belonging, little pockets of home—despite these brutal collisions.
And it’s interesting how English operates in the city. On the one hand, it’s a marker of Berlin’s difference, one of the many ways it distinguishes itself from the rest of Germany. Nevertheless, this language is constantly weaponized. When I’m with my Black German friends in a bar, at a gallery, or in a restaurant, I’m always interested to note how, as a default, English is automatically spoken to them. They usually answer in German and force the conversation into German as a way to demonstrate and demand their belonging to the space and to the city. Another collision, this time, of mother tongues, which mark the borders of inclusions and exclusions of Berlin.
The experiences I’m recounting aren’t particularly life or death but they certainly set the terms for one’s life here. These collisions show me what is possible here and how Black life is meant to be delineated.
None of this is new. Exactly 70 years ago, Ralph Ellison published one of the great novels about, among other things, Black life in the big city. In Invisible Man, Ellison’s nameless protagonist famously observes: “I am a man of substance, of flesh and bone, fiber and liquids—and I might even be said to possess a mind. I am invisible, understand, simply because people refuse to see me… Like the bodiless heads you see sometimes in a circus sideshow, it is as though I have been surrounded by mirrors of hard, distorting glass. When they approach me they see only my surroundings, themselves, or figments of their imagination—indeed, everything and anything except me”. The refusal to see and the projections of their fears and desires on to me and other Black folks in the city, is what fuels these collisions.
What is to be done? Can anything be done? That’s also a superpower, being called on for solutions to problems not of your making.
There is no real solution, frankly, as this is about the nature of being and belonging to Berlin. These collisions must be put in a broader context about the dynamics of life in this city. About how the post-wall city has been constructed for the comfort and security for a few at the expense of others. Tenants getting forced out of their flats and priced out of entire neighbourhoods. Migrants’ rights activists protesting deportations and claiming spaces for belonging in the face to state violence. The struggles over German memory culture—about what and whom to remember and why. All of these conflicts tell us something important about Berlin’s self-conception and give us a map for thinking again about who has a right to the city and how the nature of a city is exposed as we travel through it—how we collide and what we learn from these intersecting lives, dreams, fears, and memories.
This article has also been published in a shorter version in German on 14 December 2022 in the German newspaper taz.
Akwugo Emejulu is a Professor of Sociology at the University of Warwick and a Richard von Weizsäcker Fellow of the Robert Bosch Academy in Berlin. For more than 15 years, she has been visiting Berlin and knows the city very well.