Racism is bad. Nobody can possibly deny this statement. But living right next to Berlin’s renowned Görlitzer Park has taught me a few lessons about people’s - and my own - susceptibility to racism.
Let me first tell you a little about myself. I have lived for a while in Kenya and I have many Black friends. In fact, my only long-term boyfriend was a Black Kenyan. I’m not a person who would claim that “we’re all the same”. I do believe that cultural norms leave a stamp on us and make us perceive and act in the world in different ways. At the same time, my experiences abroad and friendships to people with different cultural backgrounds have taught me that there is no “right way” of living and that everybody lives in a way that makes sense to them personally.
I liked to believe that I am free from any racist sentiments.
Now I live in Berlin, right next to Görlitzer Park. For those of you who aren’t familiar with the park’s legacy: According to Yelp, the park is the top rated place to buy weed in Berlin or, as Deutsche Welle puts it, “Görlitzer Park is an open-air marijuana emporium”. But you won’t find a mixed crowd of dealers. Both news articles about the park and my own experience confirm that the vast majority are African immigrants. I can say that I have been approached easily 60-70 times within the one year that I have lived next to the park – and every single time it was a Black dealer.
And this is exactly what I want to speak about. About the experience of being approached countless times by African dealers and what it did to my emotions towards Black people around Görlitzer Park.
When I walk down Görlitzer Park, I feel uncomfortable. I would estimate that 80% of the times I enter the park, I will be approached by one of the Black guys. Sometimes they would openly ask me whether I want drugs. Most other times, they would just ask me how I am doing. Generally, there is nothing wrong with approaching another person in a park. But coming from Germany, the cultural norms that I have been conditioned with tell me to act with suspicion. German strangers just don’t randomly chat to each other whilst crossing a park. Do African strangers do so? Well, even my experiences in Kenya have shown me that they don’t. When strangers approach you, it is because they DO have some intention. Maybe not always selling drugs, maybe they are interested to hook up with me. Or they want to sell something else. God knows. But in the bottom line, my emotional reflex is to feel very uncomfortable, to look away and to keep on walking. Repeated experiences of that kind have led me to the point where I don’t even look towards Black guys when I am in reach of the park, but I stubbornly keep on walking with a fixed gaze.
And this is actually the crucial point. You can’t control your emotional reflexes. The human brain is conditioned to develop stereotypes and form groups (if you doubt it, read some scientific evidence). And my experiences have made me develop feelings that even I would describe as racist feelings: I feel uncomfortable about any Black guy who I meet around Görlitzer Park. But despite being unable to control these emotional reactions, people ARE able to rationally control their actions and further generalisations.
In my example, I reflect on my experiences and say: “Black guys who hang out in Görlitzer Park are NOT representative of Black people in general.” I have too many Black friends who prove the exact opposite. And I can make myself aware that not even all Black guys around Görlitzer Park fall into the category of annoying drug dealers. I just remind myself that my Kenyan boyfriend would have been judged the same way if he hung out in the park – and obviously I would find the judgment totally absurd and unfair.
Lastly, I remind myself of the viewpoint of the guys at Görlitzer Park. Selling drugs is a shitty job. It is dangerous. Chances are high that they would have chosen a different job if only they could. And the random approaches in the park are mainly a product of their pressure to make money.
So what is my main point? It’s basically, that on the emotional level, we can all become susceptible to racism. Experiences like mine in Görlitzer Park make it all to easy to develop negative sentiments towards ethnic groups or people of a certain nationality. But then, between the spontaneous emotion and our response, our intellect must serve as our emergency break. In my case, I easily get back to my senses when I recall all the positive experiences with Black people. But what about those people, who are only exposed to raging news articles about Black drug dealers? Or even those of my neighbours who never actually talked to a Black person apart from those drug dealers in their life? At least in Berlin, there are many initiatives that try to build bridges between immigrants and Berliners, such as welcome dinners and the huge Welcome Party at Tempelhofer Feld. It’s that kind of events that in my opinion have the potential to lead the change.
So instead of arrogantly judging those who hold racist ideas, we should understand that it stems from one-sided exposure and strong emotional reactions. In my opinion, we need even more positive exposure to break the vicious cycle of racism. Help those who experience negative emotions towards foreigners by providing as many opportunities to interact with immigrants with all kinds of backgrounds and stories.