‘How are you?’
Whenever someone asks you this question, you assume they care and truly want to know. Because of the plethora of blog posts and videos you came across during ‘Mental Health Awareness Month’ that emphasised the importance of honesty when asked this banal question, you promise yourself to be open and true at all times, assuming the best of others while gauging boundaries. So when you walk into the downstairs bustling cafe of Factory Berlin Görlitzer Park, the day after another racist and/or Islamophobic incident – sometimes you can tell which it is, other times, you know it’s both – you search for a familiar face as your heart quickens its beat, and a heaviness settles in your chest.
You bump into one of your peers, Anna, who not only stops to say hello, but proceeds to ask, ‘How are you? How are you finding Berlin?’
You remind yourself that not all white people are the same, and everyone deserves the benefit of the doubt and most people care and so on and so on. That since she asks, it means she wants to know; she wants to listen.
You let out a huge sigh. The incidents of racism replay in your mind like a broken record. The subtle micro-aggressions, the not-so-subtle slights – each one etched into your memory like scars on your skin.
Anna points to the empty chair at the pod where she’s sitting and invites you to join her.
You don’t hesitate to say, ‘Yes, I’d love to.’ Someone needs to help you understand this city, and who better than a German?
You plop your bag onto the chair. ‘Would you like anything from the cafe?’
She shakes her head no. ‘I just had oats and berries for breakfast.’
So, you hurry to the counter to order a flat white with oat milk and a chocolate croissant. The room is filled with the low hum of conversations, but your ears catch the undertones, the hushed whispers that seem to follow you wherever you go. You’ve become adept at deciphering the language of glances, the silent judgements that fall upon you the moment you walk through the door. It’s a language you never asked to learn, but one that has become as familiar as your heartbeat.
You grab your order as soon as it’s ready, not stopping for your usual prolonged chitchat with the friendly barista.
Anna’s typing on her MacBook as you approach her, but once you place your drink on the table, she shuts her laptop and pats the space next to her. You don’t bother taking off your denim jacket as you settle in the seat; the chair creaks under your weight.
‘So, tell me, how are you finding Berlin?’
You let out a deep, heavy sigh.
Frown lines slowly appear on her forehead. ‘That bad?’
You recount a few of the weird, crazy, scary things that have happened to you in just two months of living in Berlin, including the lady on the bus from the day before who pulled you by your shirt to move you out of the way. You describe the violations disguised as normalcy, the moments when you were spoken over or dismissed.
Anna nods as you go on, expressing the right emotions at the right time. Her sighs have the correct depth, her hums the perfect tone.
When you finally exhale, she says, ‘I’m so sorry, so very sorry to hear you’ve been going through all that.’
You shrug, your typical response when people express apology for something you’ve experienced – particularly when it’s race or religion-motivated. You long for the freedom to simply be. It’s not that you don’t appreciate the sympathy, it’s just that quite frankly, at this moment, you find yourself tired. Exhausted really.
Anna clears her throat, then holds your gaze with a slight smile. ‘You see, the thing is, the British have a colonial history and Americans have a slavery history, so because of this, they feel the need to be nice to immigrants.’
She looks to you for assurance, but your expression remains stoic because you have no idea where this is headed.
She continues anyway. ‘But in Germany, we have no colonial or slavery history, so people don’t feel that they have to be nice to immigrants.’
You are taken aback, unsure how to receive this consolation Anna seems to be offering. Beyond the context and consequences of her statement, the actual fact doesn’t sit well with you. You’ve certainly heard of Germany’s colonies, so you beg your brain to recall everything it knows about German history beyond the holocaust but it’s not forthcoming. And if there’s one thing you’ve learnt in your short time in Germany, it’s that when you quote anything as fact – particularly as a foreigner, eine Ausländerin – you must be accurate. People won’t blink before they call you out, and there goes your integrity. You need your integrity to remain intact.
A tightness finds its way to your chest and settles, so you grow desperate to escape this hell you find yourself in.
Anna remains quiet, her gaze fixed on you. So eventually, you say – even though you will come to regret it long after you find out the accurate facts and go on to commit it to memory, reciting it to whoever will listen – ‘Thank you. That’s good to know. The thing is I don’t want them to be nice to me.’ You shake your head. ‘I don’t need them to be nice to me. I just want to be treated as a human being – in fact let me be invisible. I just want them to let me be.’
She nods. ‘Yeah, I hear you. It sucks that a lot of them still think that way.’ The emptiness of her words rings through your head.
Here you are, at a supposedly diverse, English-speaking university, in the ‘most diverse city in the world’, and this is what your life has become.
‘Hm-mn,’ you say, as you pick up your bag and head upstairs with the tightness spreading from your chest to every muscle in your body. The entire walk up the four flights of stairs, your mind shuffles between berating yourself for your insufficient knowledge of Germany’s history and attempting to piece together the purpose of the information Anna decided to relay to you. What did she stand to achieve, you wonder? What purpose does this hollow consolation serve?
When you finally find a place to sit, you don’t look up Germany’s colonial history. You cling to the hope that Anna meant well, desperate to delay the inevitable impact of the revelation of the truth.
Later, you’ll stumble on – and find comfort in – Kei Miller’s words which articulate what your mind struggles to come to terms with:
The Big Things, the Important Things, they stall on our tongues and they never come out. We find ourselves strangely worried about hurting the feelings of those who hurt our own. We don’t want to make things awkward or uncomfortable. At a point in time, black bodies all learn the lesson that whenever racist things are said to us, they were not really meant. Of course, of course they were not meant. There was no ill intention. Or the person was going through a rough moment, or they were drunk. We should never, ever confront the person, because that might make them uncomfortable, or hurt their feelings. Their hurt feelings are more important than our own. The job of the black body is always to absorb1.
As the day progresses and the gnawing feeling intensifies, you realise you have no choice but to confront the truth. Even if the world deceives you, you cannot deceive yourself. But this university campus, once a sanctuary, suddenly feels alien and hostile. So, you vow to face the truth, to learn Germany’s history in the solitude of your room. There, within the confines of your space, you can be, you can breathe, and you can allow yourself to mourn the loss of the hope you held onto when you boarded the plane from London.
In the whirlwind of life’s unexpected turns, Berlin found its way into my existence within a mere fifty days. I hadn’t planned to move there. Having lived in Lisbon for eight months prior, Berlin’s history felt like a distant concern, overshadowed by the immediacy of settling into a new place. My research had focused on practical matters: the safety for Black people and the general life experiences of Black women in Berlin. The depth of the city’s past, beyond what Mr Barry’s History class had taught me, didn’t seem crucial at the time. I assumed I would learn as I went along, a naivety that would soon be shattered.
The encounter with Anna, a seemingly well-intentioned peer, revealed a startling reality. Her lack of knowledge mirrored a broader ignorance, not just in her but in countless others. On that day, I initially attempted to delay my education to convince myself that Anna’s intent was to console rather than dismiss my experiences, that she was coming from a good place. But other similar encounters throughout the day made me realise that this matter was no longer about me; it was a collective amnesia about history and its repercussions.
Anna’s lack of knowledge, while hurtful, served as a stark reminder that there were several others like her, people unaware of the depths of their own history, blissfully ignorant of the struggles faced by others. Like Anna, they probably also went around making the same justifications for the atrocities that they and the people around them perpetuated and inflicted on others. Making me, the victim, the problem.
I was the one who invaded someone else’s country, so rather than demand to be treated better, I simply needed to understand. While I wondered why it had become my responsibility to learn the history of this country when its so-called citizens were left oblivious, I realised that for me and others like me, this was a matter of life and death, so learn I must.
When I arrived home, I embarked on a relentless journey of self-education. Armed with my browser and my note-taking app, I delved into the depths of Germany’s past. Determined to never ever be caught off-guard, to memorise the facts, to have them ready to roll off my tongue and confront the lies people have sold themselves.
This was the zest and energy I had in the beginning, when I first arrived in Berlin, although several encounters – micro and macro – wore me down, each one chipping away at my resilience until existing became exhausting. Suspicion crept into my interactions, colouring my perception of people’s intentions. To the point that an innocent query of how I was finding Berlin became a loaded question, and the first thing I did was weigh my options – particularly the pros and cons on my mental health – before responding with, ‘Some days are better than others, but such is life.’ This phrase encapsulated the emotional rollercoaster I found myself on, a mantra that underscored the highs and lows of my journey in this foreign land.
But in this moment, I was hungry to know what crimes Imperial Germany had committed on my continent, and this began my re-education on Germany’s History. In a matter of a few minutes, I learned of Germany’s atrocious past, from the colonies they held from 1884 to World War One, including territories in modern-day Tanzania, Burundi, Rwanda, Namibia, Cameroon, Togo and Ghana2, to their 1904-1908 genocide and massacre of the Herero and Nama people of Namibia, to the 1905-1907 Maji-Maji war in East Africa (Tanzania) in which over a quarter of a million of Africans were killed, and ‘the majority of those killed died not by bullets, but by starvation and other consequences of war, because the German “Schutztruppe”, or colonial military forces, had burned down fields and villages’3.
Treptower Park, the very station I frequented daily to make my way to university, which also donned a 12-metre-tall statue of a Soviet soldier in remembrance of the 80,000 Red Army soldiers who died during World War Two’s Battle of Berlin4, was where the first German Colonial Exhibition of 1896 took place. The exhibition not only displayed ‘war ships, colonial goods, and industrially manufactured goods from Germany, but also human beings’5 similar to the human zoos in the United States and various other European countries. The park featured reconstructed models of villages in Germany’s colonies across the African continent, and this included 106 people from these communities, who had been unwillingly taken from their homes to be displayed for the entertainment of white people in Berlin. The reality was like a tidal wave, the shock of it all made my heart ache.
But what cut even deeper was the realisation that this history, this brutal truth, was hidden from the public eye. Throughout the time I lived in Berlin, none of this knowledge was public information, neither was it prominently taught in schools – if at all. In 2021, 125 years after the exhibition, a group of activists, artists and educators known as Dekoloniale, came together to commemorate ‘the inhabitants of the Colonial Exhibition’s villages through a new permanent exhibition at Treptow Museum’6 featuring details of their lives and the forms of resistance they showed against the oppression they faced.
Treptow Museum stood a mere sixteen minutes from my home during my first nine months in Berlin. It was a place that bore witness to my vulnerability and resilience. Every day, I stepped onto the train platform, a space where fear coexisted with determination, I became adept at standing far from the platform’s edge, a silent precaution etched into my routine. On the streets, I found myself navigating a delicate dance, choosing to walk in the middle of the road when no cars approached or making myself as inconspicuous as possible when passing vehicles rolled down their windows, carrying with them the weight of vile words and prejudice.
In those moments, I discovered a quiet defiance that allowed me to navigate a world that often seemed unyielding. Treptow Museum became a symbol not only of a painful past but also of my unwavering resolve to stand tall, even in the face of adversity. But it was also, where I was stopped on my way to the grocery store by the only Black man I ever saw in the area – days before I was due to move out – who had jumped off his bike from the excitement of seeing another Black person, and spoke to me so warmly like we were long-lost friends. His broken English and my struggling German somehow created a bridge of understanding between us. I often think about that encounter, a precious memory of how I felt seen in that moment.
And now, with Germany’s colonial history being brought to the fore, I wonder if other Black and visibly Muslim people in the area feel safer than I did or if this knowledge has become white noise, and things have simply carried on as they were. I wonder if when a Black or Muslim person is asked how they are doing, it’s because people truly want to hear them and see them.
1. Miller, Kei. “The Things I Have Withheld.” Web log. Under the Saltire Flag (blog), May 8, 2018. https://underthesaltireflag.com/2018/05/08/the-things-i-have-withheld/.
2. Amt, Auswärtiges. “Colonialism as Shared History: Exploring Germany’s Colonial Past.” German Federal Foreign Office, October 7, 2020. https://www.auswaertiges-amt.de/en/aussenpolitik/regionaleschwerpunkte/afrika/shared-history-conference/2402998.
3. van der Heyden, Ulrich. “The History of German Colonialism – Archive Guide to the German Colonial Past.” Willkommen – Archivführer Deutsche Kolonialgeschichte. Accessed February 20, 2023. https://archivfuehrer-kolonialzeit.de/index.php/history?sf_culture=en.
4. Haynes, Suyin. “How Dekoloniale Is Interrogating Berlin’s Colonial Past.” Time. Time, October 25, 2021. https://time.com/6075827/berlin-colonial-history-dekoloniale/.
5. A., Ayah. “Did You Know? Take a Look into Germany’s Little-Known Black History.” Travel Noire, March 9, 2022. https://travelnoire.com/did-you-know-little-known-black-history-in-germany.