5 Days Ago, I wrote about a racial profiling incident I witnessed while doing a photoshoot in the park. It’s a story that resonated among People of Color and white people although for many different reasons. I hope this post will answer some questions and give both sides a little bit of direction.
Here we go.
So what happened after I walked away? Did I ever see The Gambian again? And how do you cope after an experience like that?
There were so many levels to the police encounter in the park that I needed to process, from the interaction itself to all of the structural issues the confrontation exposed before my eyes. I was triggered. And for days, I had flashbacks. I worried every time I saw a police officer. That they would recognize me. Get me. “Now you’re getting a kontrolle!”
I thought about The Gambian.
The poise of his surrender. His words: “It isn’t the first time.”
If you think about all of the things implied that were not his first time, but a regular occurrence, a part of his life:
A reminder that his skin is a
social stamp of disapproval.
How did these thoughts about skin get here? And more importantly, how could they manifest to these frontiers?
When the police finally let me go, The Gambian was waiting for me ahead on the path. I went to him.
“They let me go. Then I saw them come for you and all I could think is ‘I hope I didn’t get her in trouble!'”
I thanked him for waiting.
I gave him his phone back. We hugged and exchanged names and numbers. And then after a moment something peculiar happened: we both suddenly and awkwardly remembered that we didn’t actually know each other, and that we were now only connected by this violent experience.
This is why Safe Spaces are vital for People of Color. Day-in and day-out we are dealing with the aggressions inflicted on us by a white supremacist society. From being invasively stared at in public spaces, to followed in stores, to run up on by different branches of “authority” under the guise of “objectivity” and “normalcy”, it’s a lot to cope with.
Often here in Germany (although from those I’ve spoken with I think this is reflective of much of Western Europe) we are alone in these situations, and more often than not, no one around us stands up to protect us let alone even acknowledges what they are truly witnessing us go through.
In the United States, we can find each other. There are many majority-Black environments in the US, so despite our internal issues, these are visually communal spaces. By that I mean that here, in contrast, I am often the only Black person on the train, in the store, on the street. My external word is very isolating, and when you throw alienating experiences on top of that, by the end of the day I’m exhausted and alone. Drained.
And that’s me in my identity intersecting on loads of privilege.
I saw a glimpse into the life of The Gambian’s. What does a day in his shoes look like?
The thought overwhelms me.
This is why Safe Spaces are vital for People of Color. Places where we can find each other, come together, focus on our mental health, nurse our wounds, and heal together. This isn’t a new idea. It’s the common conclusion many of us come to when living in such a hostile environment.
So some friends and I began organizing a Safe Space in our city for People of the African Diaspora. The city’s first event by and for People of the African Diaspora.
An open mic. For only us. Only our voices.
A night where the silence is silenced and Black stands in the spotlight.
I told The Gambian to come and spend time there. Meet some new faces that don’t look like the ones who’d just kontrolled us. “I will be there.”
We shook hands and I went to my next appointment. I say that so eloquently, but really it was a dinner date with another American I’ve met here. She’s a super cute New Yorker with an obsession for crispy duck summer rolls.
I walked into the restaurant. Everyone was white, suited, and drinking good alcohol. I’ve been to this place a million times, but on this day the juxtaposition of the environment was jolting.
“Just a second!” The waiter said from the bar, “I know who you’re here for!” And he led me to the only other Black person in the restaurant.
“Why are you late?” She asked me. I sat down and told her everything.
My privilege and oppression do not live separated from each other. I can’t separate what happened in the park that day to the nice evening afterwards in a fancy restaurant surrounded by the same people, who, in another costume, would be the same ones down my throat. And so, as someone who tries more and more to understand the relationship between the contradictions of my identity, I am working to create these Safe Spaces that I speak of.
Two weeks later, I threw my ukulele in my backpack and headed to a local cafe.
The night had come.
My friends and I had managed to organize this event through a conversation with the cafe-manager, the chef, and local Black People we’d met through either different organizations or meet-ups, on the street, in the train, in the park, or… for example…
When my friend was accused by store-workers of trying to return a used shirt (we all can see the micro-aggression here), he left with his money back in pocket and The Cameroonian who was re-stocking the shelves and had overheard everything.
Turns out, The Cameroonian is a poet.
And that’s how things went. By showtime, we had a collective of creatives from Haiti to Eritrea, Cameroon to Germany. The United States. The Gambia.
The cafe had no idea what we had planned. And we wanted it that way. Working with white people who often want to co-opt, we kept them in the dark as much as possible. They offered us promotion. We turned it down. We worked from a strictly grassroots approach and in their [white-savior] eyes, they saw a flop.
When I walked into the cafe on Event-Night, the tables were still spread out, white patrons sat drinking fair-trade coffee, no chairs were set for the performances, and there was no concern on the workers’ part.
I began to grow nervous.
But as time continued, slowly our community of communities began to file in. And I was amazed at what I saw next: The immediate segregation.
The main door splits the cafe down the middle, and Black People instantly went to the right, white people to the left. So any bullshit about “I don’t see color” can kiss my Black ass.
But something even more amazing happened on the Black Side. You see, unlike the white side who were mainly Germans and definitely all Western, us on the Black Side were of the Diaspora. We are not a monolith. We are a group of people from vastly different cultures, languages, geography. And it can feel pretty weird coming from a world that alienates us while we’re already alone to suddenly a space of unity. We were physically united, but psychologically still very much triggered, fragmented, and confused. While we waited for others, we slowly began exchange, excited but shy to get acquainted with the people around us who were, on one hand strangers, and on the other intimately linked to our own identities, histories, freedoms, and limitations.
As more and more Black people came in, the energy of the space began to transform, and many white patrons left. A white woman walked in and asked me, “Is there some sort of event going on here tonight?” I smiled, “Yes, We are having an Open Mic for the African Diaspora.” I kid you not, this woman yelped. Yelped. And hurried back out the door.
A half hour in, my friend made the first announcement: “Ok! We are ready! Let’s move these tables, get these chairs, and begin!” Together, The Diaspora got up, re-organized the room, and sat down. In the front. The white people who remained quietly sat in the back.
My friend broke the silence, opened up the night, his words vibrating into the air:
Those of us who brainstormed and organized this event all agreed that togetherness – and more specifically Black Unity – should be at the heart of this event. Understand that tonight you have the privilege to witness Black Communion amongst African Peoples from across the Diaspora through song, dance, poetry, food, and so much more. We expect you all to be respectful of participants in the safe space and platform we have provided not only for our performers, but for all of the brothers and sisters here tonight.
I was the cute girl enthusiastically clapping at everything, getting everyone else to join me. We started with a game: My friend went through the different places of the Diaspora, we shouted when represented, and laughed when he said “Afro-Asians, give it up!”.
We sang children songs in Swahili (me), learned about Cameroon through pictures and poems, listened to Caribbean Spoken Word.
We also had four Signers present: A Deaf Afrogerman-Ghanian, 2 German SL Signers, and one American SL Signer. We did an exercise engaging the audience by interpreting words from Spoken English and German, to American SL and German SL, again into Adamorobe SL. Adamorobe Sign Language is an endangered Indigenous Sign Language used in the Adamorobe village in Ghana. Our Deaf brother had learned about the community in the land of his roots, and intrigued, shared its charm with us.
It was beautiful.
During intermission, we had dinner. The fresh food was prepared by a local Congolese woman, the chef who I had spoken with. I told her of what we dreamed to create at our event, “so make the food as though we are coming to your house.” She had nodded, hugged me. As the cafe workers brought out the food, buffet-style, we pushed all of the fragmented tables together, and created one giant table in the middle of the room. The Table for the Siblings of the Diaspora. The white people were respectful and sat at remaining tables on the outskirts. We got our food, sat down beside one another, and enjoyed the feast together. Having great conversations, making connections, expelling hearty laughter.
There was a moment while eating where I looked at The Gambian and thought of our day at the park. I was so happy to see him again, enjoying himself unapologetically. It seemed like life had come full circle.
This is why Safe Spaces are Vital for People of Color.
As we ate, I saw 4 Black People through the window, outside stopped and looking at the Chalkboard at the entrance:
OPEN MIC FOR THE AFRICAN DIASPORA
Come celebrate Black Love with us!
They caught my eyes. I waved them in. When they came in and saw what was going on, they said, “We saw this online and thought we’d check it out. So cool! We’ll be back with our guitar in 17 minutes!”
Then they came and after dinner they turned the stage into a full-on reggae concert.
The night had everything. A Full House. Poetry. Music. Games. Food. Connection.
At the end of the night, so many people were coming up to me and my friends, thanking us, asking us when the next event would be. One person told me they’ve been in this city 17 years, and had never experienced anything like what we had created by coming together. To feel safety. To breathe. To laugh. Together. Can you imagine? 17 years?
This is why Safe Spaces are Vital for People of Color.
I’ve since met three more Gambians.
We may not have the same daily experiences because of the prismatic intersections of our identities, but our freedom is dependent on our desire to understand each other and cooperate with one another. From that, I believe liberation will manifest, but that takes strong mental health, which takes self-care, which takes safe spaces.
This is why Safe Spaces are Vital for People of Color.
Our stories don’t end with police brutality, housing discrimination, or public microaggressions. That’s all simply the world we navigate in at this time.
Our stories lie in the moments we make together.
The way we absorb violence and emit peace.
As long as we breathe, justice is inevitable.