by Praveen Sewgobind, University of Potsdam
In October/November 2016, I, a PhD researcher at Potsdam University, was travelling to two conferences in Toronto and Innsbruck to present papers. Both conferences offered participants a possibility to outline critical perspectives on dominant discourses, hegemonic structures, and provide a platform to engage in discussion and forge alliances.
The urgent need to come to terms with a world in which the racist gaze and powerful racialized perceptions and power structures are thriving, came to the fore as I was on my to the conference in Toronto, and then, again, as I went home from the conference in Innsbruck.
Welcome to Iceland
On 26 October, I was travelling from Schiphol Amsterdam Airport to Kevlavik International Airport in Iceland, on my way to Toronto. I was planning to attend and present a paper at a conference titled Truth, Lies, and Manufacturing Memory. My paper – an analysis of the contemporary Black Pete polarisation in the Netherlands – addresses issues of racist imagery, white power structures, and coloniality.
During the stop-over in Iceland, I am somewhat surprised that we, the passengers on our way to Toronto, have to pass Icelandic security. We are hardly in Iceland proper, as we are merely going from one gate to another in the airport. I have no plans to visit Iceland, but have to present my passport in-between the two gates.
The Icelandic policeman looks at my passport, examines it thoroughly and at length, and asks whether I could show another ID document. “No, this is my passport”, I reply. The situation seems somewhat Kafkaesque: this is the purpose of an ID-check, right? One shows ID, which should be a proof of a true and existing identity, in theory at least. I am promptly asked to stand aside and am then asked to follow another police officer to a separate room in the airport’s main building, as the other passengers of the WOW-air flight (about 100, I estimate) wait in the queues. All of the passengers who were checked before me (all white) have passed without any problem. I am told to wait in a room, where toys for children are stacked in one corner, and a baby crib is placed in another corner. I assume people under suspicion are taken here, asked to leave their child in the room, and are then taken along to be questioned, and/or (strip)-searched.
Memories of Israeli interrogations at Ben Gurion airport start to pop up, humiliating experiences, which took several hours. But my flight would be departing in 20 minutes… What to do? How to behave? I asked myself. I started to feel very uncomfortable…and all kinds of scenarios now rushed through my mind…Shall I just tell them they are racist, or ask them politely? Risk that they will keep me even longer, and miss my flight to Toronto? A police officer enters the room, and just stands there…looking at me, trying to look tough. He does not say a word, and then leaves again. After a few more minutes, the other police officer returns, and starts to ask questions. Where am I going? I tell her that that is printed on my boarding pass, which she holds in her hands. To speed up things, I tell her that I will be in Toronto for six days. What will I do there? I tell her I am a PhD researcher and that I will attend an academic conference. She responds with some amazement in her voice. “Ah…you are a researcher….”. “Yes”, I answer. I am a researcher at Potsdam University in Germany. She hands me my passport and boarding pass, thanks me for my patience and orders me to walk back to the queue.
While we are doing that, I ask her why I was singled out. “I do not know, sir”, she replies. Then she asks where I was born. I tell her I was born in Suriname. No sign of recognition, apparently, but another question: “But you are Dutch now?” I think what a way to respond to this ridiculous question. They have just scanned my passport many times, checked my persona, looked into all kinds of databases, and apparently have not found anything on me, except for a confirmation that, indeed, I am recognised as a Dutch national. “Yes, I am a Dutch citizen”, I reply. It now occurs to me that they probably did not believe the passport was real, that there must be something wrong. This non-white person showing a Dutch passport – that is asking for trouble and is inherently suspicious, obviously.
I wonder how many people of colour have to go through the same humiliating ordeal. This is a route to Canada and the US, and they have seen persons of colour before, surely. But I have to rush to my plane, which I manage just in time, and wonder what to do…..I could and perhaps should write to Icelandic human rights and anti-racist activists, politicians even, to publish this story. Because I know I have not been the first person who had to undergo this special treatment, to be otherised, singled out, treated as a potential criminal just because of the colour of your skin, and because a name – non-European or exotic? – does not correspond with their perception of a Dutchness/Europeanness! I am glad – very glad – that a few hours later, I show my passport to a Canadian border official. She is very friendly (as I wonder from which region of South Asia her ancestors are from, which gives me an odd and distant sense of belonging, although she wears a uniform…) and dutifully asks what the purpose of my stay will be. I tell her that I will give a presentation at an academic conference in Toronto. She smiles even more radiantly, hands me back my passport, and wishes me a good time in Canada.
Welcome to Germany
I am energised by the two conferences, by having had the privilege to have wonderful conversations with like-minded people. I am tired, but very satisfied. On several occasions during the conference at Innsbruck University, I talked to people about the rise of racist discourses in many parts of the world. Several presentations and workshops actually addressed narratives of, and resistance against the racist gaze, and ways to counter that. During the evening of the first day, we went to a local theatre to see a performance about racial profiling, Weisser Peter by Mohamed Wa Balie. In this wonderful piece, the public attending was effectively engaged in several acts, inspired by contemporary practices and debates about racial profiling. It was indeed, as announced, ‘a memorable evening of theatre about invisible racism and unearned white privilege.’
And so, the following event, experienced as I was returning home, goes beyond cynicism and smacked me right back into the real-life realities that we had just been discussing.
I am sitting in the train from Innsbruck to Munich, and despite a long history of being harassed by state officials in green uniforms – most notably near the border town of Bad Bentheim at the Dutch-German border – I am not thinking about these experiences. I want to go home, and think productively think about issues of coloniality, racism and whiteness. My thoughts cover practices, theory, resistance, and how to combine those, how to counter narratives, instigating critical thought and collective action.
As we cross the Austrian-German border, I see three German police officers slowly moving through the aisle in the train carriage. They look, they probe…they search for….abnormalities.
What do they think when they see me? Which associations are triggered when the police officers walk past me, see the colour of my skin, and then decidedly stop? Dark skin, brown, black….non-white…suspect, other, criminal, terrorist, illegal migrant….not part of the framework, to be checked, to be asked for ID. Yes, definitely to be asked for ID.
Deutsche Bahn, carriage number 22, of ICE 1506 from Innsbruck to Berlin. About twenty other people are sitting in the train compartment, all white. Obviously, I stand out, I deviate, I “light up” in the sea of whiteness. That realisation becomes inscribed, it seems, as such moments materialise, when the invisible hand that racialises me in that sea of whiteness chokes me, squeezes my throat, in that eerie event of exclusion, of being singled out.
I feel…the eyes of people trying not to look at me, knowing full well that they have seen that the police stop only where they see a non-white body…and they pretend to continue to do their business, continue to read their magazines, look outside of the window….while knowing that white German police officers are engaging in an act of public “racial profiling.” That phrase is a euphemism: the process it refers to starts with the act of implementing a so-called racial profile by a system of authority, but what it does, what it results in, is the forceful othering, an act of racial violence perpetrated against an individual, which does not stand on its own, but is merely one instance in the power structure of racism. The profiling triggers the event of the experience of a racial assault, which is infused by and is attached to all previous racist encounters that boil upwards from a life ridden with such events. This series of racial subjugation, alienation, oppression, attaches to the body of the person of colour, to my body, in a dynamic of racial strangling. The embodied serial burden of having been through, of having experienced the multiple and interconnected memories of racial subordination.
A tension is building in the train. They, three police officers stand in front of me, in a half-circle, asserting themselves, trying to make sure I somehow feel subordinated by their presence. I do not know what to think, I have a hard time to act….but I firmly ask them, before I hand over my passport, if they check every person on the train. “No, not every person”, the police officer replies. “No, apparently not”, I reply. “I get checked every time I pass a border, it seems”, I inform them. “And tell me”, I continue, “this has nothing to do with racism??” “No…indeed”, he answers.
One of the police officers is now trying to look very stern and attain a position of authority. He should contact his colleague in Iceland, they could go and be all tough and try to improve their composure. Idiot, I think. He does not impress me in any way. I look him in the eyes, unimpressed, with far greater vehemence and an ice-cold anger. Do not play this fucking game with me, I thought. You have no idea who I am, what I have done, in which situations I have had to maintain my stature against those who produce a racist gaze or utter racist remarks. You are just a German police puppet, you do not impress me in any way, I say to myself. I laugh at the way that you apparently need your gun, your baton, your canister with pepper spray to construct your position of power. My pride, my determination to fight racism and all forms of oppression supersede your constructed petty masculinity, your pathetic symbols, your fucking nothingness. You are just an insubstantial boy performing your wicked racist practices, dressed up as a figure of power. I am deconstructing your power with the knowledge that you cannot subdue me. My motivation to fight racism by any means necessary will vaporize your wicked illusions of superiority.
I think about how decades ago, Jews were taken to the death camps by German trains, how Gandhi was thrown off a train in South Africa, but also…how resistance against colonialism, racism and fascism was organised. That generates strength….and emboldens me, providing me with resilience, a notion that that is possible, sometimes against all odds, against the grain.
Welcome back to Germany, I think, as they hand me back my passport. There is lot to be done!
“When we revolt it’s not for a particular culture. We revolt simply because, for many reasons, we can no longer breathe”
― Frantz Fanon