RACISM IN THE UNDERGROUND
What experiences of racism do Black people have in Germany? How important is representation? And what does it mean to organise shows as a Black woman? A conversation with two organisers in Freiburg’s subcultural music scene, Gabriele Henties and Sévérine Kpoti.
BY LARISSA SCHOBER
September 13, 2020, 12:00 CET | Updated on September 14, 2020, 02:30 CET
What was it like for you to grow up in Southern Germany?
G: I grew up in a working-class family in Willstätt. It was already clear to me at the age of four or five that I didn’t quite fit into this Germany. The questions that came were always: “Where are you from?” “Where do you really come from?” As a working-class family it wasn’t easy either, because we didn’t have much money and therefore were not seen as respectable in the village.
S: I was born in Freiburg. When I was three years old, my parents divorced and I moved to Berlin with my mother. My father lived in Switzerland for some time, then he went back to Togo. I never particularly stood out in Berlin, but when I was on holiday with my grandparents in Freiburg, I had similar experiences: you were seen as “different.” Later we went back to Freiburg.
G: I had many experiences of racism, and when I commented on them, I often heard from white people: “What are you getting upset about, you’re not really Black,” because I don’t have very “dark” skin. Especially in the village, of course. It’s annoying.
S: It’s also annoying because it comes from both directions: One time you’re accused of not being white, the other time you’re not really Black.
G: As a person with a Black and a white parent like us, you’re often sit in the fence. And sometimes you get the feeling that if the white person likes you, they don’t see you as Black. If they don’t like you anymore, you become Black again.
S: Yes, clearly! This is interpreted as others see fit. It’s been with me all my life. Also through visits to my father in Togo. There I am perceived as white, and I am also a stranger. Here I’m seen as Black. I’m always not quite part of the whole. This can of course lead to inner conflict and confusion. When I was a child I thought that I was different only in Germany and with my father I belonged there, but that was not the case. It was a shock [for me].
G: I think that’s the case with many people—when you meet the family on the African side you get to hear that you are completely white. Here you are Black. When I was a child I felt this inner conflict and asked myself: What am I? It was not easy to find a label for yourself.
Do you have a label for yourself now?
G: Yes, only now it’s not so relevant anymore. But to be able to say as an adolescent: I am [that] and it’s okay, it would have been important. Today I don’t need that anymore and BIPOC is completely enough for me. But I could have used the term 15 years earlier.
S: It’s the same with me. In my youth I would have needed a way to define myself clearly. For me, POC is good and I am glad that the term has become established, but I only use it externally. I’m through with it personally.
You are both active in the subcultural scene in Freiburg. What exactly do you do?
S: I have been part of the organization “Slow Club: Association for Necessary Cultural Measures” for about seven years now. The organization has been running the small but fine “Slow Club” for ten years. I coordinate the booking team, do public relations, and take pictures at concerts. I also book bands for our programme myself. I like punk, but I’m not stuck when it comes to the music style. “Salon Riot,” a series of events with which we offer queer and feminist artists a stage, is especially important to me. We want to make female artists visible. The music industry is still very male, white, and heteronormatively dominated. We want to break that down.
G: I have been organising shows here since 2013 with the group SlacklineCityShows, and we mainly book DIY hardcore punk bands. It’s of course very bitter at the moment. Since corona the concerts are sorely missed. It’s unbelievable how long it’s been since I’ve been to a show and how long it’s been since I organised anything!
How did you get into the music and subculture scene?
G: I went to a lot of shows at the self-managed youth centre “Kessel” in Offenburg, and the structures there are similarly open as in the Slow Club, so I started to participate. Thus I was able to bring bands from different corners of the world into the Kessel, organise a great evening, and get in contact with people I would have never met otherwise.
S: I also went to shows a lot. At the Slow Club I slipped from the bar into the booking area and realised that I really liked it. Of course it’s also self-interest—I book the bands I’m up for. That’s the great thing about being able to create something in a place where everything is organised in a grassroots, democratic way.
Subcultural places often claim to be non-discriminatory. Is this claim put into practice, from your experience?
G: Of course there are still problems and stereotypical role assignments. For example, the catering for the shows is often left up to me. When I talk to the men from my concert group about it, they say things like “I didn’t notice that” or “I thought you liked doing that.” They then help, of course, but I think they should notice it by themselves. That also has a lot to do with the fact that many are unconsciously used to women taking care of everything.
S: In Slow Club you can’t tie this to gender roles. But it’s often the same core team that takes over the unpleasant tasks.
G: That could be because of your structures: you have more fixed structures where you have to assume more responsibility. Comprehensible structures promote equality. But overall I am very satisfied with my left-wing environment. I would only wish that more bands with women and POC would be booked. Punk is white-dominated, but there are other bands and we have to make them visible!
S: You can achieve so much through booking! I take great care to book bands with women and/or POC. This visibility is important; people on stage have a role-model function. If you always only see white men on stage, it is much harder to trust in yourself to make music if you don’t fall into that category. I would like to see more bookers, especially men, paying attention to booking not only white male bands. Apart from that, I’m also satisfied with my subculture bubble when it comes to racism. But sexism remains a problem there, too.
G: Subtle sexism is unfortunately still very widespread in left-wing subculture scenes.
S: Absolutely. I always notice how much I have to prove myself as a woman and fight for my chances. Those things also intersect with each other. A cocktail of racism and sexism.
Racism is not a problem at all in the subcultural milieu?
G: In my concert group I really never had bad experiences. But sometimes with bands. A musician once said to me: “But you have such a beautiful big butt.” He assumed that that’s why I was “ready to mate.” Wow. A discussion like that ruins the whole evening.
S: I had very similar experiences. In the team and in my environment I can move as I am. But yes, bands. The later the evening, the more beer, the looser the tongue. Then sometimes racist slogans come out. I remember a situation in which I spoke openly about it and confronted the band again the next day. We now refrain from booking that band again, because they were not really reasonable. They didn’t come up with more than a “Sorry, I was drunk.”
G: What actually happens in my environment is that my experiences are not taken seriously. Because white people cannot fathom what happens to us.
S: Yes, the relativisation is a problem. Fortunately, in recent years there has been a general sensitisation to the topic, and I move in circles that are considerate. But still my experiences are always played down or justified. Some people don’t understand that maybe something that was said was “not meant that way,” but the frequency of what is being said and the experiences is what hurts.
G: We hear the same thing over and over again. How often am I asked where I come from. Willstätt is not enough as an answer. People ask: But where do you really come from? I am also regularly asked whether I am adopted. You would never ask a white person you hardly know something like that! I don’t want these kinds of questions all the time.
S: Especially not as a first question. It means the other person is primarily interested in where I come from. Other things about me as a person are less important.
G: For me, the question always conveys the message “you are different.” Before we talk about anything, we have to establish that. You should always ask yourself if you would ask the same question to a white person. If not, then you shouldn’t ask me that question, either. It’s easy, actually.
S: Yes, this “otherness” has to be staked out first.
G: What also happens often is that people touch my hair. I often straighten my hair to avoid that.
S: It was the worst as a child and lost some importance with age, but it still happens and has become a real trigger for me. Some people still don’t understand that it is abusive and hurtful and justify it by saying that my hair is just so beautiful and different. Strangers also do it, on the bus for example. But at the same time there are also people who don’t want to sit next to you on the bus. That also happens often.
G: Besides questioning such experiences, another problem in my environment sometimes is the lack of awareness of my situation as a POC. The other evening we sat outside in a larger group. When the police came, some people thought they had to provoke them verbally. Then I had to point out that I didn’t have my ID card with me and that a check would have more consequences for me than for my white friends. They stopped after that.
These are situations of oppression for me because I have a very German-sounding name, and it happened to me several times that the police didn’t believe it was my name. It’s just a different situation for a POC than for a white person to be subjected to a stop and search without an identity card. I am not believed to be me. It is so humiliating.
S: And this brings us to structural racism.
G: Yes. The idea that you can’t be Black and German. And that you are more dangerous than a white person by default.
Are you often checked by the police?
G: Sure. Racial profiling is a problem. I am often checked on the train, many times as the only person out of the whole compartment. And then they ask for my ID very loud and clear, as if I didn’t know German.
S: I’m often not sure why I’m being checked, whether it’s because of the colour of my skin or because of my alternative style, my tattoos, etc. But I really do always keep my ID card with me because I am afraid of being checked for no reason and experiencing uncomfortable situations. During a bike check, two white male police officers once treated me in a way they would have never treated a white person. Speaking exaggeratedly clear, asking if I could understand them at all. I felt totally defenceless and was so angry.
What else do you understand to be structural racism? And how do you classify your personal experiences there?
G: For me the personal and the structural levels are connected. Since 2015, many people have dared to show their racism more openly. That’s what I get personally. But they dare to do so because there is an “established” party, the right-wing extremist party Alternative for Germany [AfD], which normalises and further institutionalises racism.
S: The topic of AfD also concerns me. Since the last local elections, the AfD has been represented in the local council in Freiburg. That election is already a sign.
G: White people fear for their supremacy, which is structurally conditioned. Many don’t like the fact that the cityscape is becoming more colourful and that they have to pay more attention to different things [not involved in their reality]. They see themselves as restricted in their freedom. This fear of change strengthens the AfD. The people wish for a return of the indefinite “back then,” which the AfD promises—no foreigners on the streets, and the woman stands well-behaved at home at the kitchen stove.
S: Change is a process. Maybe it needs more time.
G: If POC had been equally present in the media for a longer period of time, the change would not be so huge. It’s only just beginning and it will probably take another 100 years until a diverse society is normal.
S: I hope not! But I also don’t know why change is so difficult for many people and why it is happening so slowly.
G: White audiences are simply not trusted to accept more [change], and the media always play it safe. There has just been a debate about the German statement of the music magazine Rolling Stone. The two German musicians Joy Denalane and Ilgen-Nur gave an interesting interview about sexism and racism in the music industry, and it was supposed to be the cover story. But in the end the American rock musician Bruce Springsteen landed on the cover again.
S: Rolling Stone as well as German television remain white and male [dominated].
How do you deal with all this? What is of help to you?
G: Subculture is an important safe space for me. Finding safe spaces where you can live out your life definitely helps!
S: Having a safe space helps enormously. It’s good to be surrounded by people who understand me and with whom I can have constructive discussions if they disagree. But who also let me speak and listen to what I am saying.
I think that’s extremely important because many people don’t listen properly when it comes to racism. It is important to have people around you who can do that and to find areas where you can let off steam, create something and know that it is appreciated and recognised. That is good for self-confidence.
Reading also helps me a lot. There is more and more literature and blogs written by POC. I think that’s great. To read books in which I find myself again. Alice Hasters, for example, encourages me a lot. You can see that you are not alone. It’s empowering.
G: Also being represented [helps]. So one can see in the media that not everything is just white. That Black people are also invited to talk rounds.
S: Exactly: presence. In the media, but actually everywhere. In the theatre there are hardly any Black actresses*. Generally, onstage. If their presence increased, it would help everybody. We can find our own personal strategy for dealing with these problems, but actually many things have to change on a structural and social level.
This article is supported by the Stars4Media pilot project.
Photo Credit: Sofia Coeli
The terms POC (People of Colour) and BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and People of Colour) are self-descriptive terms by people affected by racism. People of Colour originated in the course of the civil rights movement, and BIPOC is a newer term that tries to make different historical forms of oppression clear.
Slow Club is a club in Freiburg that is run on voluntary basis by the association “Slow Club – Verein für notwendige kulturelle Maßnahmen.” In addition to shows and exhibitions, readings and theatre performances also take place there. The club is open, and anyone can join. In 2020, Slow Club was awarded the Backstage Club Award as German Club of the Year.
SlacklineCityShows is a group of people who volunteer to organise concerts at different venues in Freiburg. They mainly book bands of the hardcore-punk genre, a development of the punk rock genre.
DIY (Do It Yourself) is a political idea meaning to do things—in this case music—in self-organised and non-commercial way.
Racial profiling means that police authorities check people based on their skin colour or other external characteristics instead of concrete suspicion.
Alice Hasters is a German journalist and author of the book Was weiße Menschen nicht über Rassismus hören wollen, aber wissen sollen (What White People Do Not Want to Hear About Racism but Should Know).
Empowerment means actions and processes that increase the degree of autonomy and self-determination in people’s lives and enable them to represent their interests in a self-responsible manner.
Sévérine Kpoti (44) lives in Freiburg. She is a learned tailor, works in a shop for fair trade clothes and as a freelance photographer. Both are active in the Freiburg subcultural scene.
Gabriele Henties (29) grew up in Willstätt on the German-French border. At 18 she moved to Offenburg, and since 2013 she has lived in Freiburg. She works as a production assistant
Sévérine Kpoti (44) lives in Freiburg. She is a trained tailor and works in a shop for fair-trade clothes and as a freelance photographer.
Both are active in the Freiburg subcultural scene.
Photo Credit: private
Photo Credit: private
Gabriele Henties (29) grew up in Willstätt on the German-French border. At age 18, she moved to Offenburg and since 2013, she has been living in Freiburg. She works as a production assistant.