White Men Sleep the Best (english)

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von Iris Rajanayagam und Mai Zeidani Yufanyi

White Men
In many ways Germany suffers from the same racism as the rest of Europe. The social acceptability of racist ideas and views has been creeping back into European societies for about three decades now, and has seen increasing legitimation in the last couple of years. For Germany this can be seen most evidently in the recent election results in which the far-right party the AFD got more than 12% of the votes.
Unique to Germany is its location in the middle of Europe with no common borders with non-European states and its covert history of a short-breathed but distinguished colonial power and a major role in the two World Wars.
Germany is pursuing a deliberate policy of amnesia regarding its colonial past, post-colonial privileges and current obligations[2], making it extremely difficult to truly deal with racism within the society.

The presence of racist micro-aggressions is as prominent in German society as it is in its institutions. It is unwilling to accept that it is a society shaped by century-long and diverse migration. Hegemonic imagery of the “Bio-German[3],” and the notions of identity, belonging and entitlement that come with it are constantly re-enacted and affirmed by both society and its institutions. The country’s juis sanguinis, the right to citizenship through kinship, is a denial of the citizenship to many who were actually born there and stands in sharp contrast to the internationally prevalent citizenship regulation juis soli or citizenship by birth.
The entitlement of the white German is played against all Persons of Colour. In Germany, a land rebuilt by foreign workers after a war lead by racist and imperial ideologies, the notion of the “guest worker” was meant as an invitation of workforce from southern countries, to come and undo the self-inflicted destruction but then go back to ‘where they came from’. The shock from the aspirations of such “guests” to stay where they built lives was one of an angry host[4].
Consequently, the atmosphere is one of an intensive and constant struggle against strong windmills for each and every Black Person and Person of Colour in Germany. This circumstance is especially detrimental to Black Women* (BW) and Women*[5] of Colour (WoC), who find themselves in a context of everyday experiences of dehumanization, othering and the permanent feeling of not belonging combined with a rejection of and a threat to one’s bodily existence.

It is long acknowledged that mental health is as decisive for our quality of life as the physical one. It is essential for our wellbeing and a determinantal factor in our ability to learn, work and participate in social life[6]. Just as much as any other issue, mental health is a political issue which affects our private or public lives. This should be kept in mind also when we talk about the mental wellbeing of BW and WoC, especially in Germany where the issue of racism is a historically very laden one. Located in the intersection of race, gender and often more than one other categories of discrimination, like class, sexuality or (dis)ability, BW and WoC are at the receiving end of multiple forms of aggression. In these instances isolation, marginalization and exclusion originating in racism are grouped with gendered and sexual violence and prejudices for example, but not exclusively, domestic violence, real-estate and job market discrimination and beauty standards which can’t be matched.

In this situation, deficiencies in mental health are a matter of fact that could have a detrimental effect on our capacity in actively participating and exercising our rights, which then leads to our exclusion from social processes, such as democracy or productivity. A structurally created condition, that BW and WoC have little chance to avoid successfully. This condition has already been recognised to cause a Posttraumatic Stress Disorder[7](PTSD) comparable to the one experienced by soldiers on the battlefield. In addition to the individual experience of these kinds of aggression is the awareness of one’s own position in society, one’s ability to transcend this position and the prospects of loved ones transcending it. This awareness might have a very isolating effect in an individual’s life even if one is considered a “success” under capitalist standards. Although the consequent depression and anxieties are undoubtedly a mental health problem, it is not an individual problem that can be fixed by receiving a certain amount of psychological treatment or a dose of anti-depressants. A symptomatic treatment might bring temporary individual relief, but the root problem will still cause pain. It is a depression that comes as a direct result of the above-mentioned assortment of aggressions BW and WoC have to face in their daily lives. As Bobby London writes from the US American context “My depression is the direct result of anti-blackness and all of the cruelty that this country has shown to black people. My depression is political and should be treated as such” [8].

The individual hurt about a non-individual pain is an experience that is difficult to describe. The cliffs of depression are all-encompassing and thoughts of sanity and questioning thereof are hard to avoid. Moreover, the glim perspectives of ever overcoming this constant war and achieving humanity and worthiness in the eyes of others and of oneself often lead to hopelessness and self-doubt. Unlike the survival of a war or a natural disaster, where sticking together against an acknowledged, known and common “enemy” can actually strengthen a community, endurance in the face of racism in so called “civilized” western societies is harder to unite against, and the location of the perpetrator is most often denied and contradicted. Naturally the power of community in dealing with and fighting against racism must not be underestimated in this context. Nonetheless, isolation is hard to overcome specifically in the rural and smaller towns of Germany, where the white, individualist, almost always conservative, (often right or even far right) Christian, German society surrounds you and the sheer numbers of BW and WoC are in absolute minority.

The obscure phenomenon of latent racism is in no way dormant to those also experiencing it in the major cities of Germany. The uncovering of racism as a system that ensures an “unequal distribution of resources” [9], which privileges the members of the dominating society whether they are aware of it or not. Without this understanding, a dismantling of a racist system can ultimately not be reached. It is important to mention that this understanding has to take place in the white dominant society and its individuals as well as in the minds of Black and PoC and our communities. As James Baldwin mentioned in conversation with Nikki Giovanni in 1971 “It’s not the world that was my oppressor, because what the world does to you, if the world does it long enough and effectively enough, you begin to do to yourself” [10]. The constant resistance against engraved values that devaluate one’s own humanity is the double consciousness du Bois was talking about.
Racist violence, whether latent or direct, can be self-blamed, and lead to self-hate which contributes to the already existing self-devaluation resulting from the way our bodies are being shown on western mainstream media[11], objectified in public rhetoric and dismissed as a nuisance in world politics, a result of “How the non-European body is situated within the universal” [12]. Class projection combines very effectively with racial prejudices. And the circle of poverty joins racist discrimination.
In addition, mental illness is often heavily stigmatized and reaching out for professional help is seen as a sign of weakness, failure, self-centeredness and selfishness. The lacking self-treatment and the misreading of self-treatment as selfish is a key element to our mental and physical downfall. But even when a realization of the importance of self-care occurs, finding help often means fighting a whole set of hurdles. Finding a female therapist of Colour, which is able to help in Germany for example is a nearly impossible task. Opting for a male therapist or a white one not means only that some intrinsic problems will be left misunderstood or not understood at all, but also that the specific implications of the location in the intersection of this social position will be left out. The ignorance inherent to their position in society will weaken their ability to help, although it may not completely nullify it.

Resistance and Empowerment
Let us look at the options of mental resistance to the pressure we encounter as BW and WOC in German society of the 21st century. For us the initial step is banal but decisive; talking about it. In a place where Black lives and lives of Colour are constantly erased from public and political spheres, the mere raising of voices can be a strong act of resistance. In doing this we have to keep our intersectional identities visible. Each time we give up a part of our identity, be it being a “woman” for the sake of Black liberation, or being “of Colour” for the sake ofwhite feminism, we betray the whole of our identities and not only the specific part. Because our identities are intersectional, our Blackness is read only through our queerness and our womanhood is read only through our positioning as “Muslims”. One cannot be separated from the other, and should not be tempted to. The appropriation of certain positions by the more privileged individuals should not deter us from taking the same positions and calling them our own. Each layer of our identity must take its shape and space so we can realistically portray our lived experience.

The lightness in the suggestion to just “talk about it” should not be misunderstood as an assumption that this task is easy. To talk when all we learn is to be silent or silenced is a hard task, and very often the feeling of not “being heard” has a fatal effect on our ability to raise our voices. The idea, therefore, of raising one’s voice with the sole intention of reaching ourselves could offer a solution to this problem. Just like we trim our nails and brush our teeth, expressions of our identities should also be seen as an act of self-care. Whether it is by writing short daily logs, engaging our academic involvement in the expression of our identities or letting our children know who we are, embracing our multiplicities is a good start. It is here that the power of a community is felt the strongest, an important and essential form of wellness in our context is spending time with our respective communities and loved ones, voicing in a community diminish the effect of not being heard in the mainstream society, therefore talking for ourselves does not end where our bodies do, but is being shared by people that often do not need or demand special explanation or justification.

In order to escape the hegemonic power construction of identities and include our multiplicity, a safe space is needed. Self-definitions are a critical stage in empowerment processes. These definitions can and should be flexible, reflexive and modular but they have to resist a definition by the surrounding society, which would probably benefit from the established power relations. These spaces are not necessarily physical spaces but rather platforms of self-definitions and self-representations with the reduced risk of violence and aggression in connection to those identities. Safe spaces are by definition also exclusive spaces and this has to be kept in mind when aspiring them. “Safe space in the women’s movement, was a means rather than an end and not only a physical space but a space created by the coming together of women searching for community.” [13] It is precisely this aspiration and search for community that should lead us to the establishing of safe spaces, these communities do not exist in a vacuum and will inherently bring with them different kinds of power dynamics and disagreement but they do indicate a devotion to a common political and social goal. More than a concrete space they search to set standards of respectful practices[14]. This is not to suggest that a safe space can ever be reached and maintained but rather that it should be a never-ending process of making the space we occupy the safest we possibly can, continuously wrestling with our own positions in the power relations within which we find ourselves, a safer space.

In addition, this kind of self-expression has to come with the process of self-reflection. This might lead to both pain and disappointments but eventually the process empowers immensely. We are all privileged in some ways, and our knowledge of our privileges is imperative to our health, as well as to the health of those around us.
In this sense it is not only our mind and mental health that deserves the attention. Reclaiming and decolonising bodies should take a priority as well. Reclaiming our bodies, as they are, the spaces, which we occupy and the art that we create is of high importance and reduces the need for a reaction in the presence of an action. Acts of decolonising can be seen as forms of resistance but at the same time a medium for us to actively practice self-care. The process of decolonising the body is eminently important in this context, also and especially in Germany, where as mentioned above, a colonial history and its consequences are repeatedly denied and played down. Racism and its experiences inscribe themselves onto our bodies and travel over generations. Therefore focusing on the “body” as the carrier of an experience, even if a mental one is essential. Acts of decolonising the body can mean the littlest things like being consciously aware of one’s own body, treating and taking care of the body as a vessel for our wholesome wellbeing, avoiding stressful and painful situations and giving it the time to heal when those are unavoidable. Listening to our bodies and seeing the strength that lies in them, regardless of how these are marked, racialized, othered etc. Trying to reverse[15] the way we resist by starting to understand what the experience of racism does to our bodies and mind rather than explain why they should not be done. So recovery and healing are an act of resistance. By not recovering from the trauma, we let the stress caused by the exposure to racist aggressions, take a hold of us and we accept it, even if merely because we can’t resist any more. “Stress is the body’s response to carrying more than it can bear”[16].

Pasquale Virginie Rotter, an empowerment and diversity trainer and moderator, suggests that an effective way to embrace the healing processes is to sincerely take in the pain it brings with it. In an interview[17] she mentions that the decision to be in the moment is for her a decisive element. The physical effect of “merely viewing” racist violence unfold, is as if one endured it on oneself. In that sense, she explains, the saying “touch one touch all” receives a whole new meaning. The decision to be in our body and accept the impact this has over our physical and mental state empowers and often breaks patterns of negligence and repression of emotional reactions. Merely by giving space for the reactions, such as anger, grief, helplessness, surprise, fear etc. to really take place instead of trying to repress the, empowerment is achieved, patterns are broken and transformation and healing are underway. For Rotter it is the moment of deciding which is so decisive - breaking the cycle of being the passive victim.

First and foremost, we must learn to practice acts of self-care and wellness without feeling guilty of doing so ourselves.
We would like to end with a poem by May Ayim[18], which speaks for itself:

“borderless and brazen: a poem against the German “u-not y.”
i will be African
even if you want me to be german
and i will be german
even if my blackness does not suit you
i will go
yet another step further
to the farthest edge
where my sisters – where my brothers stand
o u r
i will go
yet another step further and another step and
will return
when i want
and remain
borderless and brazen

for Jaqueline and Katharina
Translation by May Ayim


[1] “Nobody sleeps better than white people”, “Lack of sleep has been linked to health problems including obesity, diabetes, high blood pressure, heart disease and stroke, and premature death. It also increases the risk of car accidents and medical errors.” NPR: Want To Get A Great Night's Sleep? Head To South Dakota. Angus Chen. February 19, 2016

[2] For example Herero and Namaqua bones
Berlin Post-Colonial and

[3] The idea of German identity invariably coinciding with whiteness

[4] Even 50 years later the chances these families and their offspring have to survive and succeed are enormously affected by xenophobia and prejudice as much as racism on all levels, from legalization bureaucracy over white supremacists, the racist education system and up to police brutality and an inherently racist judicial system.

[5] When we say Women we mean WLt*I*, which stands for Women, Lesbian, Trans, Inter. The Gender-asterisk (*) is used herein in order to include the different and multiple Gender Identities. Persons who are not assigned female at birth but define themselves, understand or feel as such, just as much as people who do not assign themselves to any specific gender. Our intention is to break the idea of a binary Gender division- Man/Woman- and allow alternatives of perceptions, self-definitions and identities.

[6] EU high-level conference: EUROPEAN PACT FOR MENTAL HEALTH AND WELL-BEING. Brussels, 12-13 June 2008

[7] Psychology Today: Can Racism Cause PTSD? Monnica T. Williams, May 20, 2013 New Republic: How Slavery’s Legacy Affects the Mental Health of Black Americans. Alma Carten, July 27, 2015



[10] James Baldwin and Nikki Giovanni’s Extraordinary Forgotten Conversation about the Language of Love and What it Takes to be Truly Empowered.

[11] 11 Hall, 1997

[12] Kahlon, Rajkamal, 2016, Artist Talk: Weltmuseum Vienna.

[13] Mapping Gay L.A.: The Intersection of Place and Politics. Moira Kenney, page 24

[14] 14 What’s a ‘safe space’? A look at the phrase’s 50-year history/

[15] Natascha Nassir-Shahnian. MID-Dossier Empowerment Heinrich Böll Stiftung Mai 2013.

[16] Hooks, Bell (1993). Sisters of the Yam. p. 53. South End Press, Boston (Mass.)

[17] Interviews mit Pasquale Virginie Rotter, Antidiskriminierungsreport 2011-2013, S. 28-29.

[18] May Ayim (1960-1996) an Afro-German poet, educator, and activist, who’s thesis at the University of Regensburg, Afro-Deutsche: Ihre Kultur- und Sozialgeschichte aus dem Hintergrund gesellschaftlicher Veränderungen was the first scholarly study of Afro-German history. Ayim worked as an activist to unite Afro-Germans and combat racism in German society. After strenuously preparing for Black History Month in 1996, Ayim suffered a mental and physical collapse. She was admitted to a psychiatric ward in Berlin in January 1996, and was treated for depression. After being diagnosed with multiple sclerosis her medication was stopped and she was discharged in April 1996. Continuing to struggle with depression, Ayim was readmitted in June following a suicide attempt and discharged again in July. She killed herself on the 9th of August 1996, by jumping off the 13th floor of a Berlin building. She still plays a major inspirational role in today’s struggle of Black Women and Women of Colour in Germany today.

Mai Zeidani Yufanyiist Sozialwissenschaftlerin; in ihrer Arbeit beschäftigt sie sich u.a. mit postkolonialen Migrationsgesellschaften in Europa, Asyl- und Migrationspolitik sowie Identitätsfindungsprozessen im Kontext von palästinensischen und israelischen Gesellschaften. Als Woman of Colour, Migrantin und Palästinenserin spielen intersektionale Ansätze eine zentrale Rolle in ihrer Arbeit. Sie ist außerdem seit 2005 Aktivistin der “Karawane für die Rechte der MigrantInnen und Flüchtlinge“ und Mitglied von “The VOICE Refugee Forum“ seit 2007.
Iris Rajanayagam ist Historikerin/Sozialwissenschaftlerin (MA Geschichte, Humboldt-Universität/University of Dar es Salaam). Programmreferentin beim Verein xart splitta und wissenschaftliche Mitarbeiterin im Projekt „Passkontrolle! Leben ohne Papiere in Geschichte und Gegenwart“ an der Alice Salomon Hochschule Berlin (ASH). Sie arbeitet u.a. zu postkolonialen Theorien. Ihr Fokus liegt hierbei insbesondere auf kolonialen Kontinuitäten in der deutschen bzw. europäischen Migrations- Flüchtlings- und Asylpolitik, Intersektionalität sowie rassismus- und diskriminierungskritischer Theorie und Praxis. Iris Rajanayagam ist aktiv in The Caravan for the Rights of Refugees and Migrants. Zudem lehrt sie seit 2014 an der ASH im Modul “Rassismus und Migration“.