When you look at Leonela, you see a joyful, radiant and beautiful young woman, who is full of energy and compassion and who always has something encouraging to say. At first sight you wouldn’t imagine the rejection and pain she has already had to go through in her life for one simple reason – the colour of her skin.
Leonela was born and raised in Berlin. Her parents moved to Germany from Mozambique in the 80s. Although she never saw herself as “different”, she experienced racism from an early age. In role playing games in primary school she never got to play the teacher, but instead always got the role of the dancer or singer. During sport lessons everyone expected her to be extremely sporty, although that wasn’t a strength of hers. Other kids always saw her hair as special, but never as normal, like the hair of white girls. She always felt the pressure to fulfill expectations that white people had when they met black people and when she didn’t do so, she had to listen to comments like, “I thought that’s what black people do/ say/ are…” or “You actually are more white than you look.”
After she finished high school, Leonela moved to the small town, Marburg. Though she had many black friends in Berlin, there she was one of only a few black people and stood out much more than in the german capital. For most fellow students she was the first close black friend. That meant that she had to answer a lot of questions about her descent and culture and she oftentimes felt overwhelmed and alone. The reply, “I’m from Berlin.” was the truth, but because of the colour of her skin often not enough. She knew that everything she did – good and bad – would also be projected on other black people.
“It was very painful for me to wonder if I could really be myself. Or did the colour of my skin determine who and how I should be? Or how people saw me? I often felt, and still feel like they put me in a box.”
If you are reading this you’ve most probably witnessed situations like the ones Leonela experienced, or perhaps experienced them yourself. And if you are white, you might not think that those situations were racist. However, everyday racism exists everywhere, also in Germany. Black people and people of colour have to go through the pain of being discriminated against, put down and seen as “different” every day.
“Can I touch your hair?”, “Can you get sunburned?”, “Where do you really come from?” People who ask these questions usually don’t mean any harm. But still, they are racist. Why? That’s something white people often don’t want to hear about. But if these things happen again and again they give black people the feeling that they don’t belong. Alice Hasters explains in her book, “What white people don’t want to hear about racism, but should know”, she describes how racism shapes her everyday life as a black woman in Germany. It becomes clear – racism isn’t just a problem of the far right. To confront oneself with one’s own racism is painful at first, but the only way to overcome it.
We live in a society where pencils in “skin colour” are white, most nylon tights and make up are white, where most of the dolls and superheroes are white too and where kids books show mainly white people. That way we learn from the very beginning (often subconsciously) that there is a norm – and the norm is white. Black Germans and people of colour don’t belong to it. And that’s not all – we also learn from an early age that Africa is poor and backward and black Germans thus also. The german anti-racism trainer and author, Tupoka Ogette writes in her book “Exit Racism”: “Racism is a macro social construct. Yes, it is also the exceptional act of an evil individual. But racism sits deep in every area of society. All of us are socialised racists from the cradle. Our task is to unlearn it step by step.” That means: Taking action against racism starts in the heart of every individual and also means unlearning things we thought were normal.
For Leonela, her experiences with racism contributed to finding her own identity. “Most of the time I shy away from conflict and I think many black people, like me, have decided to get rid of their pain in a safe environment – at home or within the black community. I share my struggles with my black friends and especially my sister and we often cry together. But most importantly: I know who I am in God and that’s what defines me. I can put all my hope in him and experience that he heals again and again and helps me to forgive others for their ignorance.”
But Leonela has also seen how her white friends have become more and more interested in this topic and how they are beginning to understand that they are part of a racist society, without meaning any harm. “I am grateful that I left my comfort zone and invested in friendships with white people. I think that interpersonal relationships enable change. We have to stick together, be there for one another, keep our hearts soft and open and be willing to change our thinking. Listening to each other, love and forgiveness are keys to eradicating racism. And that takes all of us.”
This is Leonelas dream: “I want my kids not to be defined by the colour of their skin, but uniquely and exclusively through the identity that God has given them.”
Leonela, 21, Marburg/ Germany