European Color Blindness and the Displacement of Racism
Priscilla Layne and David Kim in conversation in times of COVID-19 and #BlackLivesMatter.
Invited by the Thomas Mann House, Priscilla Layne, Associate Professor of German and Adjunct Associate Professor of African, African American and Diaspora Studies at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and David Kim, Associate Professor of German and Global Studies at the University of California, Los Angeles, met for a virtual conversation to reflect together on the current state of German Studies and Germany in light of the latest BlackLivesMatter protests on both sides of the Atlantic. They work on topics in Postcolonial and Critical Race Studies, Black German Studies and world literature. In this conversation, they address what the US and Germany might learn from each other and their interlinked histories of racism.
David Kim: I am grateful for the opportunity that the Thomas Mann House has given me to engage in such a timely conversation with you about racial injustice in Germany and the United States and about the Black Lives Matter movement. We are recording this conversation on Juneteenth, thought to be the longest running celebration of the end of slavery in this country. On June 19, 1865, President Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation reached Texas through an order read aloud by Union General Gordon Granger in Galveston, but the word actually arrived two and a half years late. I couldn’t think of a more appropriate date to host this conversation about racial injustice and collective mourning. So thank you, Priscilla, for joining me via Zoom today. I’d like to begin with a somewhat personal question that is deeply of interest to me. How have you come to study German and how did you become a professor of German?
Priscilla Layne: My journey to becoming a Professor of German is pretty idiosyncratic. I always preface it with the fact that I grew up as an only child and was just always bored and looking for new things to try. So, when I was young, around nine or 10, I had this obsession with Indiana Jones, which now, as someone who studies post-colonial issues, is a little embarrassing because when I watched the films as an adult, I was thinking: Oh, you know, there are definitely problematic representations of people of color there. But when I was a kid, it was just really exciting to me — the idea of being an archeologist and traveling the world and speaking a lot of languages and in several of the films he’s fighting against the Nazis to recover stolen art. That was my first-time hearing German. In the neighborhood I grew up in, in Chicago’s Roger’s Park, there were a lot of immigrants. It was a very diverse neighborhood. And one of my classmates was a Romanian immigrant and his sister had learned German back in Romania. So, he gave me a couple of books to get started. And then I was just lucky to be in Chicago, in the Midwest, where there’s still these older high school programs of German. And it just happened that the seventh grade at the junior high that I went to had German offered. When I started as an undergrad at the University of Chicago, I enrolled in German again for my foreign language requirement. The moment that stands out most for me was reading The Metamorphosis by Franz Kafka in my humanities class. I could relate to this feeling of alienation or being on the outside. Growing up, I felt like, “Oh, I’m American, but my family has this different culture and I don’t really fit in.” And then on top of that, going to magnet schools and special programs, I was often the only Black kid in class. So, when we were reading Kafka’s story and using a metaphor to describe this feeling of being other, this just really spoke to me.
D.K.: That resonates a bit with my own experience. I was born in Venezuela, but my parents are of South Korean origin. We pretty much lived around the globe until my 19th birthday, 11 years of which were in Germany. So, for much of my adult life, I associated a lot of my identity with German culture or the German language. I was well integriert, so to speak, but along the way I had a similar sense of alienation. I mean, on the one hand, I looked Asian; on the other hand, I felt German, but this was not to say that I did not feel a certain sense of estrangement. In any case, thank you so much for sharing with me your personal life story. That’s really interesting. Now I’d like to delve right into the Black Lives Matter movement. The first question has to do with this transformative capacity in contemporary global politics. The latest protests on both sides of the Atlantic show that we have reached a watershed moment where the importance of grappling with racial injustice, police violence and the ongoing brutality that people of color face on an everyday basis is recognized not only by those who are immediately affected by these manifestations of racism, discrimination and so forth, but also by white allies. Obviously, the impetus is the murder of George Floyd, but his is just one of many, many names. I want to ask you: Why do you think this specific event has captured our imagination in such a transformative way? What do you think has engendered the sort of broad-based public support and empathy for Black communities in the United States?
P.L.: That’s a really good question. I think this moment, this happening during this pandemic, probably has a lot to do with it. Even though I’m aware of systemic racism and the ever-present threat to Black lives, three months into this pandemic, part of me felt like we’re all suffering. People are suffering so much in the U.S. with unemployment, and Black people are being affected disproportionately by the disease due to systemic inequalities. People are stuck at home and just globally, we’re all suffering through this. We’re all looking for a cure. We’re all hoping this gets better. So that maybe the communal experience of this pandemic might have made this touch home for people even more.
D.K.: I think you’re absolutely right. If we look back at the sequence of events, there was a substantial increase in discrimination against Asians when the pandemic broke out, obviously because of the fact that COVID-19 had started in China. So, I think you are right to say that COVID-19 and racism are our two invisible enemies that don’t rest, even now. Another question that might be of interest to the readers of our conversation has to do with a historical contextualization that goes beyond our present moment. I’m interested in knowing more about a certain comparison between the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s and #BlackLivesMatter. I’ve just asked about what it is that the latest series of events have captured — a certain imagination that hasn’t been there before. I think, in that regard, maybe the fact that the BlackLivesMatter movement is much savvier in using popular media, social media, for mobilization. That might be a big difference to mention in regard to a difference, but what do you think are some other ways of differentiating the two movements?
P.L.: What comes to mind is how clearly diverse #BlackLivesMatter is, and that is really out in front. So, I feel like when it comes to the civil rights movement, there were definitely queer people involved, for example, but you probably don’t hear as much about it. I feel like the civil rights movement may have been plagued by the respectability politics of the day. There was this idea that if you want to get people to listen to you to respect your rights, you have to look a certain way, make sure you’re being respectable, engage in the discussion in a certain way. I feel like nowadays, we need to let those respectability politics go — that’s just a distraction from the fact that we’re being dehumanized. We’re not being respected. And with diversity, I meant that, as you mentioned at the beginning of our conversation, #BlackLivesMatter has been very adamant about respecting Black trans lives, Black queer lives. There’s a quote that I read from one of the founders, Patrisse Khan-Cullors, that went along the lines of, you know, ‘When Black people get free, everyone else gets a bit more free.‘ For me, #BlackLivesMatter is really about this intersectional fight on all of these fronts saying, ‘we need to respect people’s humanity.’ And I think that’s something that people often get wrong with it when they hear ‘Black Lives Matter’ and they think it’s only about Black people. It’s not. It’s about freedom that affects all of us.
D.K.: In the 1950s and 60s, there was a strong emphasis on a democratic liberal notion of civility — that is, the need to abide by a certain set of rules and norms. And there was a predominant emphasis on peace and nonviolence. But a lot of that stuff has now been criticized. How do you see #BlackLivesMatter take up these issues in a more radical way, in a transformative way, as opposed to the hope of making incremental, small changes in reform?
P.L.: Yeah. I think there’s definitely a degree of disillusionment that we feel today that was maybe not there in the sixties. I think of Obama being an important marker, right? So, when Obama was first elected, I think for a lot of African Americans, it was just a shock. I personally never thought this would happen in my lifetime. I didn’t think white Americans would ever vote for a Black president. And, in that moment, I was like, ‘wow, something is happening.’ And I think after eight years of Obama, seeing the ways in which he was blocked by Republicans, but also the ways in which he was complicit in the system, complicit in U.S. imperialism, I feel like there were a lot of Black people who felt like, ‘wow, okay. So even if the president is Black, you can’t save it.’ I feel like today’s Black activists are a lot more willing to critique capitalism and question to what extent it’s even possible to have any kind of equality under a capitalist system. And then you can also look at the fact that some of the gains that were won during the civil rights movement have been recently lost or threatened with some of the voting laws that Republicans try to enact. So, I think my generation is a lot more disillusioned about what change is actually possible.
D.K.: What you’ve just said ties in nicely with my next question, and it is one I frequently get asked from those who don’t live in United States and have a distant understanding of what is actually happening on the ground. Given the fact that popular media focuses on problematic narratives or representations of Black lives, one frequent question I do receive has to do with looting on the streets. The question is: to what extent do you think is violence a legitimate expression of the rage, frustration, anxiety, and disillusionment that Black people experience and have lived with for centuries? How do you make sense of that expression of rage?
P.L.: Well, I can understand where people are coming from. I think that, in American politics, you often see that in order to get people’s attention, you have to affect their money, the money flow. And I think the looting accomplishes that and another thing I would say: There is also this frustration among African Americans that this country was built on their backs. The backs of a lot of people of color and they usually don’t own anything. So, I think that’s also part of the frustration. Why should they continue supporting the propping up of this society that they have no part of? They have so little of the wealth. I have a pretty cushy job, so in a way, who am I to criticize people who are struggling every day just to make ends meet, just to eat, based on some other kind of morality? I feel like violence can be necessary when it comes to having lived in Germany for a couple of years — when neo-Nazis are coming to punch you, I’m going to fight back. I always love to use the poem by Kurt Tucholsky, “Rosen auf den Weg gestreut,” this satirical poem about the necessity of using violence to deal with fascists. One stanza goes, “If they should call for hate or violence/ Just let them talk, it is their right/ And keep your protestations silent/ You wouldn’t want to start a fight.”
D.K.: You’ve just mentioned the example of a German neo-Nazi potentially threatening your life in Germany. So, I’d like to use that observation to think about #BlackLivesMatter in Europe. Obviously, the protests resonate with what is happening here in the United States, but what do you think are some of the historical contexts that make those protests on the other side of the Atlantic different? We can think about the removal of colonial statues or conversations about reparative justice in Europe. We can think about the ongoing institutional racism in higher education, healthcare, education or the criminal justice system. But what are some of the meaningful ways of thinking about #BlackLivesMatter within European contexts?
P.L.: I feel like, in Germany, when it comes to the issue of #BlackLivesMatter, it is entangled with issues of citizenship and migration and refugees. Because as far as I know, a lot of the victims of police violence, or the people who have died in police custody, have been African refugees. And that adds a further layer to the conversation because I would say that refugees are people who are even more subaltern. If you’re undocumented or if your status is temporary, you’re invisible in many ways. They are hyper visible and invisible at the same time. So, I think that’s a way in which the conversation is very unique in Germany and in Europe. Damani Partridge has written about how fundamental the question of citizenship is to conversations about race in Germany.
D.K.: What do you think about the notion that there is a deliberately European manifestation of color blindness that gives its different mark on the ways in which mainstream European cultures continue to deny or disavow the colonial past here in the United States?
P.L.: I often feel like the European color blindness has to do with displacing racism to the U.S. I feel like racism in the U.S. often is so blatant. If you think of Jim Crow, lynching and things like that, it is so in your face, but I think it can often be easy for white Europeans to say, ‘Oh, well, we don’t do that. We didn’t have slavery. You know, that this is an American issue.’ And you hear people say the same thing even about the academic discourse like critical race theory. I mean it’s really problematic because, in a place like Germany, for example, if you can’t name it, if you can’t name racism, if you can’t use the word race, even if it’s a social construct, how do you fight against it if you’re not allowed to name it? And I think that’s one of the big struggles that Black Germans are dealing with. Fatima El-Tayeb has written extensively on this in European Others. And I have encountered that myself in Germany — that when I say something is racist, I have white, German liberals come at me and say ‘no, we don’t have racism, it’s xenophobia, that’s not racism.’ So, part of the problem is people not wanting to name things. Another thing that I’ve encountered is with a white female German academic that I had a conflict with over issues of race: She said to me, ‘well, I don’t see you as Black. For me, you’re just a human.’ And I just thought, well, that’s just silly! Like, come on! It’s just strange to me that you want to say ‘oh, I see no difference.’ Because really, it’s so dishonest. I spent my entire life as a Black person and have been both negatively and positively affected by that. So, for me, someone saying to me, ‘I don’t see you as Black,’ is erasing all of that. It’s like you’re pretending none of this stuff happened in my life. Audre Lorde, in that documentary by Dagmar Schultz, had an interesting remark about this. She said, ‘‘We must meet each other as full people, in so far as we can within a racist structure… Anything that I don’t recognize, that operates between you and me, if I don’t recognize it, it’s going to be used against both of us.’ Just acknowledging what makes someone different isn’t a bad thing. It’s when you try to attach values to the difference, that’s when it gets tricky. But I think acknowledging that someone is different can be done with respect and it’s usually necessary for understanding where they’re coming from and for respecting their own experience.
D.K.: I agree with you. I think, on the one hand, there is the complex influence that Holocaust memory has on any other memorial culture dealing critically with the past. In other words, there are moments when memories of the Holocaust can have a complementary effect on the ways in which people grapple with the colonial past and their own racism. On the other hand, there are certain populations that say, ‘well, we already have the Holocaust and we shouldn’t be dealing with another colonial atrocity.’ Or it is the most important or the only significant memory culture for Germans, as we have recently seen in the controversy surrounding Achille Mbembe. And then it’s also that institutionally ingrained European civic practice of color blindness where you emphasize a certain humanism, but then that humanism is completely colorblind.
P.L.: And that humanism is so racist in a way. Like when you look at the origins of humanism and who is considered human and who is not, plenty of racist texts come up in those earlier conversations, too.
D.K.: Yes, one time, I was part of a conversation where a faculty member of color was talking about her privilege at U.S. universities in comparison to their partners at European universities where faculty of color had less conversations about diversity, equity and inclusion. Universities in Germany don’t even collect data on students or faculty based on these criteria. And so, without that kind of sensibility, it seems very difficult to have a meaningful conversation that’s evidence-based, let alone anecdotal, because that would just be dismissed as a subjective narrative. You’re currently Vice President of the American Association of Teachers of German, and beginning 2022 you will serve as president of this organization. I also know that you are an active member of the German Studies Association board. What do you think are some of the roles that German Studies can play in advancing the debate on racism, discrimination and equality? What are some of the challenges that we continue to face?
P.L.: I think one of the roles that German Studies can play is that a lot of the foundational texts about the study of race are German. So, you look at Kant, or Hegel, or Herder — there are some really useful texts to pick apart and that’s a way to connect to other disciplines. One can bring those German authors into conversation with British, French and American authors in order to acknowledge that the construction of race was very much a global effort. So, personally in my own teaching I have this first-year seminar on Germany and the Black diaspora where I cover the history of Black Germans and their culture. And I find that, often times American students can feel very uncomfortable talking about race, especially if you have a class of mostly white students and only a few students of color. It can be very touchy. People get really personal about it or feel personally attacked. And I found that talking about it in the German context is a useful way of defamiliarization. So, we can critique what’s going on in Germany and then draw comparisons with the U.S. and this often makes students more open to be reflective about it. I would like to see German Studies move in a direction where they were more open to working with other disciplines, working with ethnic studies, women and gender studies, queer studies, African diaspora studies, looking for those connections and thinking about ways in which we can engage in these larger conversations.
D.K.: And as you know, the Thomas Mann House is a federally funded institution, which cultivates transatlantic dialogue. So, as you keep in mind the promises and challenges that you have just mentioned, what are some necessary things to cultivate, to support, in order to strengthen the dialogue between scholars of German in the United States and their partners in Germany? What are some of the things that scholars in Germanistikcan learn from us, as they understand the secular role that German Studies plays in this world, and what are some of the things that we can learn from them across the Atlantic?
P.L.: I’ve often been frustrated with Germanistik in Germany, just because, from my experience, back from when I studied there, as a junior in college, it just felt like things were very slow in terms of moving along. I often have the feeling in Germany that something has to be designated, legitimized, it has to be deemed ‘good literature’ in order to work on it. I feel like there is less risk taking, whereas in the U.S., I know people who work on graphic novels and pop music. If you can make an argument that this is interesting, then you write about it. I wish that, in Germany, they would loosen up a little bit. These structures of what is ‘okay,’ what is ‘legitimate’ to write about in terms of fostering the dialogue. And that ties into race too, because so few Black Germans make it into academia in Germany because of gatekeeping and structural racism. One of the things I like about Germany after my experience of being at the American Academy is the intellectual life there. When you go to hear an author read, all kinds of people would come. People who don’t teach, don’t research, but they’re just interested in the topic. And so, I think that’s something that would be great to learn from Germany. How do you create this public intellectual life that includes everyone?
D.K.: Breaking the barrier between academia and the rest of civil society.
P.L.: That’d be good! Because in Germany, newspapers, like Die Zeit and Süddeutsche come when an academic gives a talk. I mean, when does that happen in the U.S.? That would be great to just make intellectual life interesting for everyone.
D.K.: Well, thank you so much. We covered a lot of ground. I wish we could delve into all of these issues even more deeply.
P.L.: Yeah! I was just thinking that I would love to meet in person when this is over.
Priscilla Layne’s publications address topics like representations of Blackness in German film, postwar rebellion, and Turkish German culture. She has published essays in the journals German Studies Review, Colloquia Germanica and Women in German Yearbook and presented at conferences such as the German Studies Association, Society for Film and Media Studies and the Collegium for African American Research. She is author of White Rebels in Black: German Appropriation of African American Culture, published by the University of Michigan Press in 2018. She is working on a monograph about Afro-German Afrofuturism.
David Kim’s publications include Cosmopolitan Parables (Northwestern University Press, 2017), The Postcolonial World (Routledge, 2016; co-edited with Jyotsna Singh), Imagining Human Rights (De Gruyter, 2015; co-edited with Susanne Kaul), and Georg Simmel in Translation (Cambridge Scholars, 2009). His forthcoming publications are Globalgeschichten der deutschen Literatur (Metzler Verlag, 2020; co-edited with Urs Büttner) and Reframing Postcolonial Studies (Palgravce Macmillan, 2021). A recipient of the American Council of Learned Societies Fellowships, Kim is currently working on two monographs on Hannah Arendt and solidarity, and on the intersection of citizenship and international human rights.