What if you are lesbian, from the East and black with a proletarian background? How I found reconciliation with myself.
Upon recently receiving an inquiry for an event, I was, once again, reminded, of how I came to know Kimberlé Crenshaw and what significance her work has (had) for me. The inquiry cast my memory back to the early 1990s, to the year 1993 to be precise. During an exhibition in the Ruhr area, young white artists were engaged in various forms of feminist struggles in the 80s and 90s. Along a student journal titled “Emanzenexpress”, the aim was to create an inter-generational feminist space for encounters. So far, so contemporary. By all accounts, one 1993 edition, which had ‘racism’ as its overriding theme, included a letter penned by me in which I reported on an example of racial police violence committed at the Tübingen train station. In their inquiry, the event organizers express their desire to use this letter as the starting point for a discussion. There is also mention of ‘fascinating articles’ on the tightening of asylum law and on the attacks in Solingen.
This immediately evokes an awareness in me of the continuities and ruptures, and the everyday racism I felt 30 years ago resurfaces in my body. I am especially disturbed by the feeling of helplessness in me, which had held me captive for weeks in view of the legal repercussions of police racial profiling at the time that I had experienced. Spurred by this helplessness, I penned the open letter which ended up in the journal mentioned above. The letter restored my course of action. Yet, the feeling of helplessness remained. Despite the solidarity from my queer feminist Black community back then, I was not able to verbalize the structures behind the various power mechanisms that operated entangled in (this) racial profiling. My helplessness stemmed from the fact that these collective experiences of racism remained structurally invisible. In the social perception, my experience, too, remained a singular, isolated case. The collective knowledge, which is anything but that, was not yet able to pave a structured way.
Almost 20 years later, I then got to know Kimberlé Crenshaw in 2011 at a community event in the Berlin district of Kreuzberg. Organized by Cengiz Barskanmaz, Maisha Auma and others, the aim of the event was to entrench the concept of intersectionality also in Germany and Europe. A vital and long overdue matter. All of us were aware that this meant to not only engage in academic but especially in activist work. As activists/scholars, we embraced the subject, and Kimberlé accompanied this work. However, it was only during my work as a trans-cultural trainer for critical race studies and critical whiteness together with Katja Kinder and Maisha Auma that I learned that political intersectionality means more to us than intersectional understanding of racialization, class, gender attributions and (access to) education. Above all, it means that, in the collective experience of my particular position as a Black (German) lesbian activist coming from the East and from the proletariat, I am receiving an offer to heal, indeed to reconcile with myself. I was also aware of the impact of the various dimensions of inequality inscribed in my body back in 1993. After all, they led me to clash with the police and the law. I was not aware, however, that the singularization of my experience of racism was systematic in every sense of the word.
The realities of life encountered by BPOCs are often characterized by the fact that they are accused of being ‘too much’ in something or, at the other end of the scale, ‘too little’. In my case, the attributions assigned to me were ‘too loud’, ‘too undiplomatic’, ‘too aggressive’, and ‘lacking sufficient empathy’—the list could easily be extended. I have carried these attributions in me for a long time and they have taken hold of me for far too long. They have made me angry, have doubts, and, above all, made me doubt myself. They have repeatedly held me back where it would have done me good to march forward. In my work on political intersectionality, it became increasingly clear to me what these attributions truly mean. They disguise the real power and keep us occupied, as Toni Morrison has so aptly described when speaking of systemic racism. Recognizing my compartments that the ‘angry Black woman*’ label has brought me, gave me the opportunity to learn and appreciate my/a complex background. This has now made it possible for me to positively engage in the various dimensions of my being. It also decreased the (my) struggle over the years and I was able to begin celebrating my Black, queer-feminist, gender non-conforming identity and to reconcile myself with my ‘angry’ and despairing/doubting self of 1993. From a BPOC perspective, there is a healing proposal to be derived. But, in healing, political intersectionality also gives us an opportunity to liberate ourselves. Power not only obscures (itself), it also operates in division dynamics.
If we aren’t being addressed by the ‘too much’ or ‘too little’, the proposal of a selective or, rather, momentarily ‘exactly right’ is all too gladly made. I call these the dubious proposals we get. Language, education, a canon of knowledge, and presumed habitual security, are all too gladly extracted from our complex backgrounds to offer us temporary legitimacy. It is not uncommon for this legitimacy to be readily granted to the detriment of other BPOCs (in the room). It is also toxic, because it offers the opportunity to ‘overlook’ and/or not see the ‘too much’ or ‘too little’ in us, i. e. our multi-dimensional experiences of inequality. This proposal can be revoked at any time, and we would once again revert to simply being ‘too much’ or ‘too little’.
Even today, I’m occasionally addressed as the ‘angry Black woman’, but, through the years, the grey hair, and, above all, the understanding of political intersectionality entrenched in me, I can now also feel it: It’s not me, it’s you, system… And this is precisely how I have been able to return to action and disengage from the helplessness.