Grada Kilomba and René Aguigah discuss identity and difference (2015)

In 2015 the Berlin performance center Hebbel am Ufer (HAU) hosted the festival Return to Sender. Along with German-based artists and performers, the organizers invited African artists to respond to the traditions of European imperialism that have historically denied Africans the right to speak for themselves. Collectively, the artists engaged with the legacies of colonialism but also transcended those legacies by addressing new connections and challenges that bind different localities around the world.

For the accompanying publication the organizers included a discussion between the Portuguese writer Grada Kilomba and the German journalist René Aguigah, moderated by Anne Häming. In a wide-ranging conversation they talked about feeling at home in language, the public’s unwillingness to confront the crimes and legacies of colonialism, the fallacy of seeing Europe as simply “white” and Africa as “black,” and where the German discourse on race stands relative to the discussions in other countries. Near the end of their conversation, in the passage excerpted below, they found themselves disagreeing over how society should engage with “difference.” In general terms, to what extent does any discussion of difference reinforce the “othering” of particular groups of people? In more concrete terms, can white Germans ask a Person of Color “where do you come from” without being racist, and to what extent are terms like “Afro-German” open for public debate? 

Jeff Bowersox


Anne Häming (AH): [Achille] Mbembe also thinks: difference has to be proclaimed in order to be able to speak about marginalization and racism. Do you all agree?

René Aguigah (RA): Yes, difference should not be denied. I’m not so comfortable with phrases like “You’re just simply German.” Even if I was born in Germany, even if I live here and work in the German language – I’m very conscious of being different from the dominant culture; although this consciousness has of course been partially shaped by the dominant German environment. In the ’90s, post-colonial theorist Homi Bhabha once said: “I am white, but not quite”. I find this statement quite useful.

AH: And you, Grada, do you define yourself as “Other”?

Grada Kilomba (GK): I think what Mbembe means is first and foremost: I only become the “Other” when somebody has the power to define me as such – setting themselves up as the norm in the process. People touch my hair, look at me and ask: “Where do you come from?” You’re not discriminated against because you’re Other, you’re made Other through discrimination.

RA: This question can be quite mean in certain contexts, but taken on its own I don’t find it racist. It can also be the beginning of a conversation – a completely ordinary one or even a conversation between strangers in the emphatic sense, as Kwame Anthony Appiah proposes in his book Cosmopolitanism. And centres and margins, norms and deviations? They exist. You can fight them, change them, reverse them – and you should do that too. But you can’t deny that they exist.

GK: But it’s important to perceive that these norms and differences are always connected to exclusion. A new generation of Afro-Germans no longer wants to be asked where they come from.

AH: Would you call yourself Afro-German, René?

RA: Honestly, without having given it much thought, I avoid any word that would define my ethnic identity. “Afro-German” is perhaps factually correct, but the expression sounds as technical as “life partner”.

GK: I find this question unfair.

AH: Why?

GK: Because the term “Afro-German” has a political function. It has been shaped by the groups involved in order to define themselves and thus to isolate themselves from racist attributions. No matter how I position myself individually, a political movement should not be problematized. The same can be said for the question of whether I am a feminist.

RA: I don’t think the question is unfair. I’m quite thankful for it, since it showed me how far off any self-description as Afro-German is for me. I’m afraid there is no word for my ethnic identity that I would be satisfied with.

AH: In German there’s the expression: “citizen with migration background”. In mid-February migrant associations came together at a conference and decided: We want to be called “New Germans.” One critique holds that this erases difference and makes it difficult to name discrimination.

RA: I understand this impulse as a republican, inclusive one, one that does not look for “German” in the blood, but in the people that live here. On the other hand, the expression does level the difference that lies in “white, but not quite”. I have nothing against insisting on difference. But I still don’t find the question: “Where do you come from?” so bad. If somebody sees something in me that distinguishes me from, let’s say: dominant Germans, and impartially asks, that’s no problem. My perception of the world also obeys a play of model and variance.

GK: But you can’t separate the one from the other. For me difference is always associated with power relations and discrimination, with the gesture: you’re deviating from the reigning norm. A normality is set up, and that is derogatory.

RA: But marking a difference doesn’t always mean denigrating. And denigrating doesn’t necessarily mean excluding. They’re different things. Establishing a difference can be the beginning of a conversation, and we do have to speak with one another, to exchange – how else should we live with one another or even just alongside one another in a world of strangers?

Source: This interview was conducted in 2015 for the publication Return to Sender, which HAU Hebbel am Ufer (Berlin) published to accompany the festival with the same name. Translation from the German by Daniel Hendrickson.

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