It Could Happen To You: And It Probably Already Has

What happened last night needed to happen. All of it. Every single thing. Over the last eight weeks Alvin and I had been trying to meet. Setting a date and time was like playing ping pong, but we both sincerely wanted to see each other, we both also lead very full lives, and I suspect that we are both people who need to meet others when we feel up to it. Alvin’s the kind of person that you want to be friends with as soon as you meet him, or see him, in my case. The Gay Museum had invited me to exhibit new collages and to give a talk on Black superheroes, post colonialism, and LGBTQ comic book characters. For just under thirty minutes I used this platform to speak about Black matriarchs as supersheroes, and to address racism in the gay community. Oh yes, even if they never asked me to come back, I was going to speak about something which many of you have experienced and continue to experience, and a gay museum is just as good a place as any to address this issue. Why, just in preparation for the exhibition, the head curator said the word ‘nigger’ to me five times without batting an eyelash. He later fired an intern who confronted him and ‘accused him of being a racist’ after our ‘prep meeting’ took place. “You should run for a position on the museum’s board, and help the museum to become a more inclusive space”, he suggested when I wrote to him about the problematic things he’d said. We’ll talk about this story later. Let’s get back to Alvin who attended the artist talk that I gave at the museum. Alvin was the first to speak during the question and answer portion. “Sometimes in Paris we take a White friend with us to the club and we let him stand in the front to make sure that we get in”. That’s a thing, I thought. Alvin had a lot more to say that night, not too much, but enough for me to want to get to know him better. He disappeared as soon as the discussion ended and was a ghost on Facebook. It would be a month later before we met again. Now that he’s in my life, I’m not letting him go until he’s ready to leave. After not seeing each other for a few weeks, I pushed aside my personal problems, showered, and told my baby sister that I was going out to meet a friend and that I would stay for one glass of orange juice. “Mm hm”, she said, with a knowing smile, on her way to Venice beach in sunny California. How did I do with the glass of orange juice? The final tally: two glasses of orange juice, two glasses of Cointreau, two White gay men analysing their White privilege, one gay White man complaining about being at the other end of my activism, one doorman telling us that the bar we wanted to enter was full, and six Black friends forced to go our separate ways because race as always, has the power to control the movements of Black people.

They were all there, plus a few others that I didn’t know yet, and B was there too. Out of respect for my friends, I will use initials to protect their privacy. Him Noir is four weeks old today, and in four weeks time the work that I am doing for the blog has received a lot of local attention. An image created from Things You Can Tell Just By Looking At Him, is featured on the cover of the October issue of Tip Magazine a very well known publication here in Berlin. Stil Bruch, a Berlin based television program, also interviewed me about my work and my experiences with racism here in Berlin. “So how did all of this happen? Did you promote your work, or did all of this attention just come to you”, B, asked? “It was really a matter of timing I guess. Two journalist friends saw the photo series and because the Deutsche Hisotriches Museum is running an exhibition on German colonialism, I guess it was just the right time”, I explained. “I’m from Austria. I’m White, I grew up in a place where there aren’t Black people and I have to ask myself how I am racist. If I am thinking racist thoughts.” Exactly. He’s aware that he has of course learned to think in frameworks that are racist. ‘You don’t get a cookie’, as Ifemulu would say, but, phew… you get it! Bringing my chin just a bit closer to my neck in two swift movements, I nodded in agreement. How do White people come to these ‘conclusions’, I wondered? Without warning my thoughts wandered to Tyrone, a mutual friend of ours who is half German, half American, half Black, and half White. During that summer where White Europeans announced on a regular basis, “You’re so dark”, Tyrone stood next to me, laid his arm across from my own and said, “I just want to see who’s darker because I’m mixed.” B was eager to speak about race, and Him Noir. “We’ve all internalised conventions of race. As a Black man I have to process what I’ve learned in order to see myself clearly”. “Really”, B asked? “Yes of course”, I answered.

When you haven’t seen a good friend in a month of Sundays, a smoky, crowded, pick up bar, is not the best place to catch up. After speaking with B for the duration of one glass of orange juice I meandered over to Alvin who introduced me to G, a handsome man with a beautiful smile and a lot of moves! Alvin and G recanted last weekend’s escapades at The Bar, which we were thinking about going to later. “So there we were having a good time and a guy spotted us, and walked right up to ask us if we had speed”, Alvin began. “It was so annoying. ‘You’re a racist’, I told him”, added G. The three of us spoke about patience, the merits of speaking with people who want to be corrected, or want to unlearn racism. If you feel like doing the work, by all means, please do so! If you feel like, “Nah. This is not for me to take on”, I’m with you. The most difficult thing about experiencing racism on a regular basis is the attempt to reconcile that people who practise racism are in effect projecting manic, absurd, deranged ideas on to specific groups of people, while granting White people autonomy, individuality, and objectivity. The men and women who grab their belongings as I walk by are not living in the same world that I am: a world where anybody can steal my belongings, deny me my rights, and potentially end my life because I am a Black man living in one of many racist societies. Dismantling racism, and creating a new order based on equity would make these strangers just as vulnerable to the indignities that await me and other non-Whites. White people would no longer be inherently good, on the right side of history, the standard of normality, or safe from the maltreatment and the injustices which await people of color. When I cross the street because it’s late at night and there are two White people strolling carelessly in front of me, or when I buy canned mangoes which taste of nothing because they don’t have what I want at the supermarket but I have to purchase something, I think, They are free because I am not.

Last night I should have been at home working on a very different article for Him Noir, but I dismissed this thought as I looked around at my brothers, friends new and old, people like myself, Black and gay. There was power in our union, and I thought, Maybe this week’s article should be about the power of community. I need to enjoy this. Like many of you, some of the problems that I have come with the burdens of living in a racist society. One of the problems that I put aside to see Alvin, involved the organisation of several documents that I need to put together for a court case which I won in 2014. After having a stack of papers knocked out of my hand by the de facto owner of the restaurant where I worked, I learned that behind my back this man had on several occasions called me a nigger and a faggot. Two days later I was fired and told never to come back to restaurant. Thankfully I received a grant for legal aide. I won my case. The only catch is that once a year I have to file paperwork proving that I cannot afford to take on the fees that piled up. Organising all of this, looking for a new apartment, and searching for a new job can be a bit overwhelming. Sipping on super sweet O.J. I leaned back, looked at the smart, talented, young men around me, and sighed a sigh of relief! S, a friend that I’m still getting to know was also there. We both surveyed our brethren, taking it all in. “This is just great. All of us here. You can tell when we’re together that people feel intimidated, and jealous at the same time”, he remarked. S went on to tell me that he and a few of the guys had went to one of the many gay clubs here in Berlin, and that they were asked at the door if they knew that this particular club was a gay club. “I used to get that too”, I said, shaking my head. “Yeah it’s weird, but they also told us that if we had any problems that we should come to them, and they said the same thing to a White friend who was recently there.” This same club, decided to organise a charity event meant to stand in solidarity with global Black Lives Matter movements earlier this month. They planned the event, booked dj’s and live acts, and later recruited The Frauen Collective and the ISD, two organisations advocating for the rights of Black people here in Germany. The Frauen Collective and The ISD selected the charities that would receive profits made from the event. Many people of color do not feel like this club is a particularly safe space for us, which ultimately lead to The Frauen Collective and the ISD disassociating themselves from the event. The club decided to go on with the party, and to donate the funds made that evening to the charities selected by the organisations listed above. The event had been renamed Learning Solidarity. While S and I discussed racist door policies, I asked myself a few questions. How do you learn how to support non-White people who fall under the LGBTQ spectrum, when your administrative team is comprised solely of White people? What motivates an organisation to ‘learn solidarity’, and to create a space where non-Whites can feel comfortable?

As both hands of the clock moved to the left, my mind slowly dictated how to make the most of this night, for myself, and for my work. It made sense to write about the wealth found in being in the company of my brothers. “Can I write about this? Can we go to the photo booth to take pictures”, I asked. “Sure”, was unanimously echoed within the group. With another glass of orange juice in hand, I cosied up to a new friend who we’ll call M. M is a singer, and you can tell this straight away because his speaking voice is light and wavy. We spoke about setting high standards for the work that we create as artists, being single and being… joined. M mentioned that it’s important to be focused, and I questioned that. “Is it? I think it’s only important to have a focus because we live in a society that tells us we have to produce things. When we meet others we have to be able to say, ‘This is what I do, but also who I am’”, I blurted out loud, being inspired by Tyler Durden and Byron Katie. “Im super open, and then I’m not. Maybe I’m saying too much. Sometimes I can be really self deprecating.” Self deprecating. Hovering over the syllables of self deprecation, I arrived at a conclusion which currently orbits my consciousness. I cannot afford to be self deprecating. As a young-ish, gay, Black, migrant, I have to build myself up because there are so many things that could tear me apart before they tear me down. A blogger asked me recently, “So what do you think about these tumblrs where Black people are posting lots of selfies, talking about how fine they are”? “In a world where ‘Black features’ have been caricatured for centuries, where Black people are not featured prominently in fashion and entertainment media, I’m all for Black people celebrating themselves. I cannot criticise them.” That was my answer and I meant every word of it. Grandmother used to say in her high Texan accent, “It’s a po dog that don’t wag it’s on tail”!

Marc with a “c” had joined us. He’s a good friend who was once my supervisor, and it’s common for us to run into each other while out and about. “I bought your Tip magazine. I’ve read about your experiences on Facebook and it’s difficult to think of these things are happening here in my Berlin. I never have to think about this”, he exclaimed. “You have the freedom to live your life without thinking about racism, but non-Whites often have to think about racism and to deal with it.” Alvin, M, and the others were getting bored and had decided that we would go to The Bar. Marc decided to join us, and so we skipped through the rain, losing M somewhere along the way. When we got to the door, the bouncer refused to let us in. “The bar is full. You can come back in thirty minutes”, he said, blocking the stairway. The Bar is the same place mentioned in I’m Black I Can’t Be Homophobic. This is the place where I worked as a dj, and where I was fired for essentially not wanting to deal with racism anymore. Alvin, and everyone else except for Marc, understood why we had been denied entry. Five Black guys, racism, you do the math! “I used to work at this bar. I don’t believe that it’s full on a Thursday night? Are Gabriela and K working”, I asked? “Why are you making trouble. I said it’s full, that’s it. If you know them, call them and tell them that you are here and that you want to come in.” “I can see inside of the bar. Every time someone comes out I can see that it’s not that full. Why are you not letting us in? Tell me your name please?” Alvin and the others had found shelter from the rain. “Get out of the rain! We’ll just go somewhere else. He’s not letting five Black guys in”, said one of my friends. “Four people left, can four of us go in”, I asked? “No, I told you to come back in thirty minutes.” “What’s your name? I’d like to know your name”, I repeated. He wouldn’t tell me. Cold, annoyed, and angry, I joined the others, stepping out of the rain. “We’re going to another party in Prenzlauerberg. Do you want to come”, Alvin asked? “I’m so mad, I want to speak to my friends who are working tonight.” “We’re just going to go somewhere else. You can come with us.” G, had hailed a taxi. Marc had decided to try to get into the bar on his own, to see if they would let him in. “If you get in, please tell Gabriela and K that I’m here and that I want to speak with them”, I requested. This was happening. We were going our separate ways because we could not be together, and we could not be together because racism enables others to dictate where Black bodies can and cannot go.

Not long after I said goodbye to Alvin and the others, Marc emerged from the bar followed by Gabriela. They waved me over, and allowed me to enter the bar. I didn’t even look at the bouncer as I passed him. Marc followed me, and we stood by ourselves for awhile. “I couldn’t believe that he let me in! I paused just after passing him to see if he would stop me, and I was surprised when I just walked in.” “Well, that’s White privilege for you”, I said, with a silver laugh. “I see that”, he said, still not believing what had happened. “I’m surprised that he let you in. I didn’t think he was going to let you in because you were with us.” “He’s complaining to them now, saying that he had to listen to you all saying that he didn’t want to let you in because you’re (all) Black.” “But that’s what happened”, I nearly shouted. “I know. They are outside telling him that he can’t tell you that you can’t come in when the bar is full, and you can see that it’s not full.” I don’t know why that would be the main point, I thought to myself. “Have you ever experienced anything like this. Have you seen… racism like this before”, I asked? “No, never, not like this, and I can’t believe it. I’m going to post the words ‘White Privilege’ on my Facebook page tomorrow. That’s it.” “You should do that because White people will listen to other White people who speak up about racism. They might listen to me, but they’ll definitely listen to you.”

Gabriela came back into the bar and headed straight for us. “I’m sorry that happened. But you can’t accuse someone of being a racist”, she said. You can’t, I thought, and in that instance we must have been connected. “Well, maybe he is racist. He’s the best bouncer we have. We’ve all said racist things, I know I have, and maybe he is a bit racist. Do you want something to drink.” “Yeah, I think I do”, I said, taking a deep breath. “It’s messed up that we got separated from the guys”, Marc said, while we waited for our drinks. “I don’t know if I want to talk about it right now”, I said, but of course we spent most of the night talking about it. At the bar I noticed someone glancing at me. When I finally recognised who he was, I went over to give him a hug. “I saw you in Tip magazine and read about your racism project. It reminded me of a time where you told me something very strange. You asked me if I thought you were Black”, he said, as soon as I pulled away from his embrace. This was not the first time that I had run into someone who decided that Things You Can Tell Just By Looking At Him and Him Noir, were works which exclusively addressed comments that they themselves had directed at me. Isaiah wasn’t having it. “That doesn’t sound like something I would say. I identify as Black, and I’m proud of being Black. You seeing me as a Black person wouldn’t be a bad thing, but it depends on the context of the conversation.” “Well, I don’t remember that. I just remember that you asked me if I thought you were Black, and you criticised me, and yeah, I didn’t like that. I didn’t like you talking to me that way.” “Hmm, again, I don’t know the context of the conversation. This project has stirred up strong feelings for a lot of people, and some people that I know personally have taken offence to it, as if this project is about getting back at them. If you said something problematic about me being Black, what would be wrong about me bringing this to your attention? I’ve seen you a few times before this project was released and the last conversation that we had was about your wedding, so why are you bringing this up now”, I asked, keeping my cool. “Um, yes, my wedding was in June 2015. Ugh, I don’t remember the conversation. Maybe it’s better to talk about this when I’m sober”, he offered. “Maybe”, I said, while thinking to myself, Never! I ordered a second glass of Cointreau and went back to join Marc. We spoke for another hour or so before he decided to go home. I’m not sure why I lingered at the bar. What are Alvin and the guys up to, I thought? At around 5 AM I left, thinking about the article that I’ve just penned. I decided to visit the nearest photo booth on my own. Do you remember B, from the first bar? B asked if the comments printed on the t-shirts featured in Things You Can Tell Just By Looking At Him were a part of my own story, or if these were things that I had heard about, which happened to other people. “Everything that you saw in that series, happened to me, was directed at me, and there’s so much that you can’t fit on a t-shirt”. How do you communicate in one simple phrase that there is power and strength in our numbers, and that the very act of gathering together has been and continues to be threatening?

Isaiah Lopaz, Him Noir

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