Following my participation, albeit a small but contextually accurate part, in “Searching for Winnetou”, the 2018 documentary film on Indian hobbyism, with a million dollar budget very different than my own, both in finances and tone, I was invited to write an op-ed published to CBC Docs. I talk about the matters in the news the past days, but also discuss some important realities and people ALWAYS IGNORED BY GERMAN MEDIA AND SOCIETY whenever Winnetou, Indian hobbyism, cultural appropriation and racism are mentioned.
My Background as Informative on Multiculturalism & the Difference between “White” vs. “non-White” Behaviors
One of the many things some people never think about or even consider, which is a reality faced daily by persons like myself in Germany who may have written about or become “labeled” as a critical of “German culture” (aka cultural appropriation) and Native stereotypes. What those who most often interact with me, only is a product of stereotypes and stereotyping, the dehumanization of Natives, BIPOC or other people of color, that even some who are anti-racist rarely think about. It’s dehumanization because there is ZERO interest in me, but only in what I can perform or supply for others.
My research focuses have long been Indigenous intergenerational historic trauma, which inevitably includes that of Indigenous and original peoples of Europe. I’ve a Master’s in Native/Indigenous Studies, which many assume relates only to Natives of North America as if those total 13 years of combined higher education didn’t include extensive study of European history (past and present), cultures and world civilizations also. Besides my own personal interests and studies since I was a child who happened and was thankful to grow up in an extremely multicultural environment. They don’t think about it, which is fine enough, but its almost always done without according the same regard they would show a white peer working in similar topics, which they assume to have an interest in and having studied cultures other than their own. This is a critically important realization that needs acknowledgement. It is such a common demeaning, undermining and harmful attitude and position POC academics, scholars and professionals face in Germany, even from many Germans who believe themselves open-minded, anti-racist and “global” citizens.
My upbringing was very different than the way I see some Germans believes makes them “open-minded” and appreciative of all cultures because they grew up in Berlin , Köln or Frankfurt with mostly topical access to or ability to observe or perform “cultures”. I talked about it before, for example in this panel at DBS Studios moderated by cultural consultant Cavana Hazleton-Lee, “Can you copyright culture?” I grew with close friends from Taiwan, Hawaii, Germany, Spain, Hungary, Puerto Rico, Korea and Japan, where we ate most meals together, we had sleepovers between us children. I went to dance and languages classes with them, they went to get-togethers with us. I was able to learn and listen to firsthand experiences from other cultures, at their knees, learn about their cultures by helping prepare their foods, tend their gardens and doing handwork or learning musical instruments.
When we were grew up, they cared for our children, too, feed them food from their mouths and rocked them to sleep. We cared for theirs. Here in Germany, what I experienced was Germans may invite you to their homes, but coming to yours? That’s a different story. They may invite your children over to a party, but their children go to your home, let alone have a sleepover? That’s a very different story. Parts fear-based behaviors but also a control/trust factor. Somewhat natural behaviors, of course with one’s children, but POC are treated very differently than white peers.
I began studying genocide, political history when I was 7 or 8 years old, as a European Jewish and others Holocaust survivor from Germany was a part of our group. Her perpetual sadness touched me deeply, and I wanted to know about it, not just certain years, but what was the psychological lead-up to a country and peoples deciding genocide was acceptable, especially as both sides of my family, whether African or Native American, were also subjected to an ongoing genocide. I spoke about that in my personal essay on Medium, “When I Think About America.”
I mention this because the topic of cultural appropriation, misuse and abuse in Germany is both terrible and understandable to me. Like other European peoples, newer designations and originals, there’s been cultural loss but the overwhelming majority was at the hands of their European peers. This must be stated every time. Natives suffered later from what Europeans first did to their own. That doesn’t excuse appropriating cultures or parts of cultures from others to escape one’s trauma. That only continues cycles of violence. We see this a lot in Germany, and its recognized and expressed not just by POC, and shouldn’t be used (but is) by those claiming stopping racist, appropriation of Native cultures is “taking something away from us (Germans!!).”
I and others like me are examples of how you do not have to culturally appropriate, misuse or abuse, and you can be part of other cultures and peoples in a very personal way individually when you are informed, welcomed, rooted. In fact, if I had to create a film, a piece of art or narrative about myself or upbringing, it would have to include my perceptions and experiences with cultures not my own. But whether that or anything else, it absolutely needs to involve Cultural Humility. Germany, as a whole, does not have this or teach it. It’s just the opposite. In the majority of Europe and western society, from a young age people are not only taught to consume, but to see it as innocent exploration or appreciation, and later to justify it and reject any criticism. Largely without knowing anything about the history, origin and effects of such Eurocentric behaviors and practices or the history, cultures and narratives of those people FROM those peoples.
The Things Forgotten in All These Discussions & “Debates”
Like I said above, you don’t have to be culturally appropriative and abusive, dismissive or reductive in interacting with other cultures. When I make kimchi at home, having learned to both grow all the ingredients needed and to make it by a still very close family friend who is Korean, I would never create a business selling it, small or large. I wouldn’t write about it for my non-Korean friends to consume either. Some of my closest who-still-are friends growing up was a German-Mexican family, the father was a German soldier and engineer who came to work at the same Army base my father was stationed at in the USA. He’d met his Mexican to-be-wife when she was living in Germany with her family. Their kids are my sister and I’s age. Summer parties, sleepovers, and many sports outings together. When I wasn’t getting along with my parents, they listened. Of course, there was the age difference, but earlier this year when I heard the wife had passed away, I called to talk to the husband. Now, at age 50 and 80+ years old, it was more relationally balance of mature experiences.
One of the things he shared with me was that his father had been a higher ranking Nazi official who had been stationed and oversaw operations in Yugoslavia. It was chilling to learn. He said that was why he had always especially wanted to live in and support a multicultural experience for his children, as he knew personally supremacist and Eurocentric thinking of any kind, any level, was inherently violent and harmful. He asked me if he had ever made me feel different or less than, and I responded that I had not. In fact, one of my outstanding memories of him was his taking the time to teach me the game “Tiddly-Winks”, when I had felt shy during the first sleepover. Another example that adult and child interactions can be innocent and supportive, not predatory, which is based on the adults behavior. He and I had a great conversation. I felt GOOD.
I mention all of this because there is always the possibility and option to not be abusive, appropriative or predatory. There is always the possibility or option the educating oneself and relearning how to better interact with others, and have humility to make changes in one’s learned behaviors, practices and beliefs. Many people choose not to do so, even when offered, even with the opportunity now more than ever before in history to receive firsthand knowledge. Yet this is not to say, that an upbringing like mine is the only way to have respect for other cultures. It is very much about how one is taught.
Another close friend I met while studying then working in law enforcement, grew up in a small town of about 600 people in Alabama, an entirely “white” town where POC were not allowed. He had never met a POC in person until he went to college in another city in the early 90s. He was raised to respect all cultures, to be anti-racist, curious and humble. He is an excellent example of what is possible, and in fact, was from a German immigrant family on both sides, with an entirely German name. If you didn’t know, Alabama was mostly settled by Germans especially through the mid-regions of the state. German is the 3rd most common European language spoken in the USA, and in the area I grew there were also 1st and 2nd gen German families, and thus bakeries, restaurants, culture groups, etc.
The summary of this post & my sharing of the above personal stories and experiences, is this quote from my op-ed for CBC Docs.
“Some Germans are culturally sensitive
In the midst of this racism, there are positive stories that we don’t hear about either. There are Germans who have learned better ways to appreciate and respect Indigenous cultures. Some have stopped dressing up and practice culturally responsible empathy. They recognize the part that white people have played in the exploitation of Indigenous people and want to stop it in all forms. They use their white privilege to improve intercultural understanding and work with Indigenous peoples on Indigenous terms (for example, the Native American Association of Germany).
Not all interest in Indigenous cultures and peoples is exploitative.
German media rarely if ever talks to such people, or if they do, exactly as Carmen Kwasny, the chairperson of the Native American Association of Germany, personally relayed to me, they are treated with antagonism, they are demeaned or even accused of betraying their race or trying to replace Natives. There are positive intercultural collaborations happening ALL of the time here in Germany, and across western society, but they rarely ever make the news. Instead, we are all bombarded by, if not outright white-centric often male focused opinions, commentaries, films, etc. then also the same demographic using other cultures in appropriative ways sometimes backed by a token or supporting Native or POC to justify in a “I can’t be racist, I have a Black friend!” kind of way. And they don’t just treat Native cultures and peoples that way, speaking over, silencing or “interpreting” them with little personal, extended knowledge, but women, the disabled and others, also. Any of their own peers they speak out about it or try to change such behaviors soon find themselves bullied, ridiculed and out of job, but still rarely with the structural power and force to oppress that POC are subjected to daily.
There are no positive effects from colonialism or white supremacist, patriarchal, Eurocentric, structurally racist, sexist, ableist systems dominant in western society, with its power gained from horrific, persistent discrimination and violence, psychological, verbal, emotional and physical of ANYONE they deem unacceptable. THIS MUST BE CHANGED FOR THE VERY SURVIVAL OF OUR WORLD. Please pay attention that I did not state that passively, such as “it must change”. No, there must be active steps to change this damaging, discriminatory systems privileging a small segment of one demographic. This is not to be misconstrued to be an attack on “white men”, but specifically to patriarchy, because those type of men of mainly white European heritage continue to destroy and abuse the best and brightest of their own peers, too.
I might word the quote below differently, but this is a solid summary of my and many, many others feelings, especially POC, marginalized, minoritized groups who have to daily face and often fight alone, even our children too often have too, when facing the societal crimes and effects of racism, white supremacist ideology, Eurocentrism and sexism/misogyny. Yet I and many of us continue to show solidarity with others, but aren’t often reciprocated in visible, tangible positions of resistance and opposition by those of “white” or those of primarily European heritage. And those who do, they also get forgotten by media and society. Cross cultural solidarity and support absolutely, but remember also, that we are often exhausted or frustrated when constantly expected to respond, listen to or be “informed” about similar shitories (this was initially a mistake in typing but I left it because it fits!), which are used to center “white” experiences yet again. That’s failure or lack of ability to actually be allies or work in solidarity by self-centeredness, a foreign concept and behavior in any Indigenous or original culture.
Don’t fall victim to or accept the deliberate twisting of positive statements, movements and terms like “woke and wokeness”, Black Lives Matter, and #MeToo, which have been used recently by some “experts” and German media to gaslight and victimize those who criticize and resist racism, sexism and patriarchy. Learn accurate definitions of racism, Eurocentrism, and eurocentric are educate yourself on contextual, historic and contemporary usage and applicable of those terms, which are almost always used to support racism, xenophobia and bigotry and to center “whiteness as rightness”.
“The word ‘woke’ has been purposely repurposed to deter the very work that people focused on awareness about injustice and on the urgent need to eradicate injustice were centering the word to accomplish.
Many have distorted a positive narrative so that injustice can persist.” -Bernice King, daughter of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.