Listen to Mahalia while reading.
Text by Amuna Wagner
Photos by Hannah Wolny
At the age of 11 my friend told me that to her, I was not black. “I don’t even see it”, she said, convinced that she was doing me a favour by ignoring the “it” that stood between me and being fully German like her. This made no sense to me as I had never felt like my skin colour made me any less of a German until then.
Contrary to her belief that her “colour blindness” made us equal, saying “to me, you’re not black” meant perceiving and understanding me the same way she would understand and perceive a white German, thereby overlooking small but essential physical and cultural differences we undoubtedly had. With most people around me pretending not to see “it”, I stumbled through my teenage years in utter confusion and with a lack of self-understanding that only ended when I left Germany to travel and later study in London. By then, “colour blindness” had already left a strong impact on my life and it took a lot of re-self-discovery to finally become comfortable in my blackness after I had been denying it for years.
This had begun at the age of 5 when I told my dad I did not want to speak Arabic in Germany and it had increased until by the time I was 14, I had come to believe that braids did not suit me and that my hair should be straight and that when I tanned in the summer, my skin looked too dark. As well as hiding my curls and what my friends kindly used to call my “fat ass”, I was also constantly concealing my unease about their ignorant commentary. As a result of considering themselves “colour blind”, they had no second thoughts about being racist when I was around, trying to make me believe that nothing they said applied to me personally since to them, I was not black. Therefore I had no right to be offended when they called rap music “nigga shit” and talked about trying “a piece of the chocolate cake” when objectifying my black male friends. This so-called colour (and culture) blindness essentially took my assimilation for granted and further enforced it as I never felt comfortable to voice my opinions and criticize their ignorance. This was partly due to me being confused about what exactly it was that I was feeling uncomfortable with and therefore being unable to properly articulate my anger.
When I finally did, they started to see “it” very quickly. While I was living abroad with one of my Sudanese aunties at the age of sixteen, my self-understanding shifted from identifying as a black German to a girl of the African diaspora who grew up within German culture. When I was eighteen I went travelling for a year, met people from all over the world who did not try to assimilate me, but rather appreciate me the way I was. After a trip to Sudan I confidently identified as German-Sudanese and had no interest in proving to anyone that I was “fully German”, because I no longer felt like I was. I was fine with that, nationality no longer carried any meaning for me; especially after moving to London where people from all nations live together, seeing and accepting each other for what they are.
For the reason that I was no longer willing to give up my own multicultural world to supposedly enter the world of being a white German, my colour became so obvious that nowadays when I visit my hometown, people ask me why I have become so black. As if they can actually see a physical difference, but cannot understand why I would be comfortable being black when to them, I was fine pretending to be white. They do not know what to do with me and so instantly, my Germanness becomes debatable. They feel entitled to decide who is and is not German and anything they cannot understand cannot possibly be German, can it? In their understanding of identity, white and German are inseparable so they think the only way for me to be German means to leave my blackness behind. From my secondary German teacher telling me that stubborn children like me grow up to become the people that are responsible for oil wars in Africa, to another teacher exclaiming in frustration that “I can’t tell you this in your language” when German is my mother tongue, colour becomes visible when assimilation does not work, both as a result and an explanation for this failure.
In reality, it is always doomed to fail because colour blindness is a fallacy and if your eyes work well, you can only act like you cannot see “it” for so long. I have always been black and German and even if that makes you uncomfortable, it is not right to close your eyes and pretend to be blind when really you are just concealing your colour discomfort.