14 months ago I took a break from university in order to focus on the knowledge I want to learn (like structural social issues and my identity within it all), and to get my thoughts together on these things… at least somewhat. After having an abortion, and beginning to recognize the manifestations of sexism and racism more clearly in my personal life, it was time. So I took this year off to wander the world, to read, to write, and to listen.
The first stop of my travel-year was Thailand in September 2014, then I visited the US over Christmas, then backpacked a bit through Eastern Europe in February. I taught English in Spain in March, visited Africa for the first time in May, visited Amsterdam for the 500th time in June, came back to Germany, and then chose Thailand as the final trip, to come full circle in this year of introspection. It was my third trip ever to the Land of Smiles and the place where the chapters of my life always seem to change.
While on the final trip, I blogged about some of the realizations I have had concerning the roles the white people in my life have generally played in my life up to this point. I realized that Whiteness is a drug that white people can’t shake, and the triggers had become so jolting that I was forced to re-examine the conditions of my relationships with white people and begin to transition those relationships into ones that are healthy for me. Like with my white grandma.
At least with my grandma there’s some distance. But honestly and critically examining my relationship with my white boyfriend has been a rollercoaster.
In the last 18 months, I’ve grown to hate heteronormativity (I’ve found it possessive and sexist), and from talking to my girlfriends, I know I’m not alone. It’s in the language we use for heteronormative relationships. From thoughts like “He’s my boyfriend. She’s mine.. etc” and all the possessive manipulation and abuse that comes with that to other words like “break-up” and “ex-“. These terms are violent and reinforce this idea that a heteronormative relationship is the only valid relationship. It’s not!
So I know that my white boyfriend and I are transitioning away from this sort of relationship, but not with the same violence.
But one thing is bright and clear… I am moving out.
When I returned home from Thailand in early October I immediately began searching for a place of my own. As a student who just took a year off to travel, my options were limited. In Germany, it’s very common to live with roommates. It’s called a WG (Wohngemeinschaft). And honestly, it can be great when you live in a city where the ethnic diversity is 50% in the population of everyone under 25.
Or so I thought.
I wrote to apartments everyday for 3 weeks. Most of the people I was writing to were white. With the people offering rooms within my budget, I almost never received a response. Sometimes I’d get emails as though a renter was addressing masses of people saying things like, “Thank you for your interest in the apartment. After 65 inquiries, we are no longer accepting any more. Good luck!” Other times people would just write things like “No”.
I began to look at rooms above my price range. Once someone invited me to see their room and when I arrived they didn’t open the door. Another time a girl invited me to see her room in a 5 Bedroom WG. For days we went back and forth arranging a date and time. At 1am the morning of our meeting, I got this message:
Warm hug… fuck you!
Of course, the added stress and frustration didn’t make life at home with my white boyfriend any easier. He offered a watery “I’ll help”, but I began to think about other options. How does a Black Person find a flat in a city of housing discrimination?
I talked to one of my Afrogerman friends who has his own studio apartment. “My white family member signed the guarantee and paid the provision.”
Provision means “commission” in German and from what I understand, basically that commission goes to this “realtor” that is hired by the original owner of the flat. I’m still not sure why owners do this, but I do know that the realtor gets 2 1/2 times the rent for “finding” the apartment for someone.
So basically, if you find an apartment for 1,000 Euros/month, in order to get it, you have to pay a guy 2,500 Euros just because… So overall, you have to have 3,500 Euros to spend just to get a 1,000 Euro flat, and you better be ready for next month’s rent.
My grandparents also went this route when we first moved here four years ago, but at 17 years old that wasn’t my problem so I didn’t get how fucked up this can be. It severely limits who can rent apartments, so everyone is fighting for provisionfrei (provision-free) housing. Aka WGs.
But there’s only like three official websites for people to put up ads for WGs, which is why sometimes renters receive 65 or even 100 requests, making it even harder for PoCs to find a home.
A friend got me into some private facebook groups for people looking to rent. That’s how exclusive this whole process can be. I wrote to everyone. Some people posted little ads about themselves and how they are looking for rooms in certain areas of the city, at certain price ranges. While there weren’t many responses from renters, I noticed that PoC ads were almost never answered whereas white men would get comments from other white people like “Hey! I’m renting my room, message me!”.
After three weeks, I began to get desperate. But my heart sank every time I thought about the possibility of living with a misogynoir. Like when I lived with two white guys who kept a calendar up of naked white girls they had taken down during my interview, and put back up once I signed the contract. I moved the calendar one day after seeing it, and they put it back up. They marked their territory: I had no say.
Thankfully, I was able to move (to Thailand for that trip last year) so all was fine in the end. Unless I was headed back to it???
Or maybe just go the provision route? Or go home? Or go off into the sunset again?
Then two things happened: First this white girl invited me over to see her room in a flat where the main contract was actually held by an Afrogerman guy. Yes! So I was waiting on that when.. I saw an ad for the main contract of the 2 bedroom apartment right in my area for just a little more than some of the rooms I was looking at in 4 and 5 bedroom flats! Provisionfrei! Yes! It was perfect. Not only would I have a place to live, but I’d have the power to decide who I live with!
The ad was for a viewing of the flat for 30 minutes the upcoming Saturday. Yes, you read correctly.. 30 minutes.
When my white boyfriend got home I told him how he could “help”. We were going to the viewing together. I would be his American cousin looking for my own flat in Stuttgart now that I’ve gotten a new job (which was true, because through all of this I also got a new job), and he was helping his lil cousin out language-wise. Plan set, I checked for the address. Within an hour, the ad was deleted.
On Saturday, we arrived 15 minutes early to a line that wrapped around the building. Most of the people were PoCs. There was a South Asian guy, two Turkish guys (a father and his son, who was probably just starting Uni), a East Asian couple (also probably students), some Spanish girls doing an internship, and three white guys (also probably students). There were other people too, but that was the basic ratio of different people there. I was the only Black person.
We waited for 20 minutes until this tall skinny white man in a cheap suit walked through us. It was like a movie. He didn’t even look at us, just walked right through us straight to the door. He unlocked and opened it and said “Come and look”. And everyone began to rush in.
My stomach sank deeper than it had all month. I’ve been reading Audre Lorde and her words lit up in my head like electricity… of the way white supremacy separates PoCs to fight for the crumbs instead of uniting for the pie! And here I was, a competitor.
We came upstairs and went through the flat. One by one because it was so small. There was the foyer with four doors: One to a toilet, one to the kitchen, and the last two bedrooms. The kitchen was long that led into a small nook on the left and to the right a bathroom with a bathtub (sometimes European houses have very weird layouts). Of the bedrooms, one was huge with a stinky old carpet, the other smaller, but decent. But to be honest, out of all the rooms, the toilet room was probably nicest.
At first the white man goes into the main bedroom and stands there. My white boyfriend immediately goes to him, makes a joke, and they strike up a little friendly conversation. I walked away. I felt physically ill by this man’s racist energy, and here was my boyfriend able to just… talk to him, and him be friendly and open back. That’s Whiteness.
The white man ended up in the kitchen. He sat on the counter top while the rest of us walked past his shoes to look at the the nook and bathtub. At one point I went to look at the bathtub room again while my white cousin was checking out a bedroom. I got sucked into the traffic jam of people and it suddenly stopped in front of this white man’s shoes.
The Spanish girls started first. They were saying things like, “Excuse me Sir, would you please give us an application? We are both here doing an internship and really need a place to live. We have money and can pay!” And then everyone started telling their stories. Indian guy doing his master’s up at the university (it’s an engineering school). Same with the couple from China. And the whole time the white man huffed loudly and handed them applications. An application to the Spanish girls left of me, an application to the Chinese girl on my right. He went all around the circle, but didn’t give me one.
By this point, my heart is pounding. My arms feel numb. And I just want to leave. I want to get back over to my white boyfriend/cousin, but I’m locked within all these people and standing directly in front of this white man.
It became awkward because he knew he had passed me up. He was waiting for my story. “Could I also have an application?” I finally asked him. He began to hand me one and stopped, “Are you trying to live here too?” No shit. “Yes.” I said. He asked me, “Alone?”
And that’s when I froze. I knew he wouldn’t give me one if I said yes. And I knew he definitely wouldn’t give give me one if I said the truth: “Not yet! But I’m gonna turn this place into a PoC Safehouse!”
All that could come out with was “No.”
He said to me, “Who are you going to live with?”
Everything got hot and the walls felt like they were closing in. I must have sounded like a mouse when I said, “My cousin.”
He said, “Who is your cousin?”
In this moment I could see my white boyfriend through the doorway in the foyer, also locked between a sea of people. “That’s my cousin.” I said and pointed.
The white man gave me the application.
When I finally got to my white boyfriend, I told him the revised plan. “I don’t want to put my name on the application!” He screamed, but at that point, it was the only option. “Why did you change the plan?!” With a full audience, I couldn’t say all of the things I had just witnessed. And my white cousin didn’t trust me. In a moment of frustration, he retreated into sexist and racist doubt. I knew what was best and she changed it! This moment is crucial to understanding allyship. An ally is an inside man. Not the planner. The PoC/woman/whatever oppressed person is the person trying to survive. The ally’s only job is to listen. I wasn’t asking my white boyfriend to sign a contract. I was asking him to play a role. But he could no longer talk to the white man. His energy completely spoiled. We filled out the application and left. My stomach hadn’t felt so sick in months. I was so triggered by the experience and my boyfriend’s response to the changed plans. I had seen so many structural problems and could barely process it all. And from my boyfriend’s response, I was sure we wouldn’t hear back from the white man.
The only good that came out of it was that the car ride back to our flat was filled with one of the most intense conversations I’ve ever had with a white person. And while most of the experience was invisible to him, my white boyfriend had been exposed to glimpses of racism he had never seen before and was horrified to see.
A day later I did hear back from the white girl about her room though. I got it! Just go over and talk to the Afrogerman guy and get your contract. When I arrived at the flat, however, he told me there’d been a miscommunication. He wasn’t sure if he wanted me or a white girl coming for a 6-month internship. Woooow. But still, we talked for a bit. I asked him how he got the main contract. Provision.
I never heard from the Afrogerman guy again, but a few days later, the white man called my white boyfriend. They would give it to us. My white boyfriend told them he wasn’t able to get out of his main contract now, but that I could take it. They made me hand over a parent’s guarantee and a three month security deposit, but no provision. I signed the contract one week later. Even with the glitch, Whiteness prevailed.
As a PoC, your options are so limited when finding a flat. Money plays such a huge role in who gets main contracts. And whatever avenue you choose, whether to get a main contract or just a room in a flat, you are up against racism. There is a housing shortage here in Stuttgart. White people are the first ones who will tell you that. But they don’t know the half of it. They know those mass responses. They know someone telling them no. But the blackhole of white supremacist bullshit that PoCs get sucked into while house-hunting will remain forever invisible to them. My white boyfriend only saw it because he came with me.
As soon as I signed the contract, I began work on my apartment. I ripped out the old carpet, and painted the nook. I’ve put in a table and flooded the eating area with plants and candles.
I’ve also started looking for a roommate. Because with my power, I want to help PoCs. Especially Black women.
But most of the people who have responded to my ad are white men studying at the university. Or PoC men from Turkey or Syria. As someone who is leaving her apartment because of men, the last thing I want is to move into another apartment with another man. Of the girls, all white except two: One woman from Iran, the other from Venezuela. I wrote back to both women. Both backed out.
So now I’m up against a whole new set of problems. Which do I choose: Racism or sexism?