The Contested Life of "People of Color" / by Edna Bonhomme

Last night, the English language’s presence in Germany was impugned—not for what it offers but for what it represents in leftist and marginalized spaces. I attended an all Black women’s panel on intersectionality and film where the discussion was mostly on healing, liberation, and empowerment. As a member of the audience, I was drawn to how we were immersed into a multilingual space, where we were able to hear people weaving between German and English, similar to how I grew up in Miami shifting between Creole, English, and Spanish. Children of many diasporas swim through a sea of languages in their everyday experience. What sparked the debate about English language was not what was said last night but from the night before. That is to say, one person in the audience described how some people are concerned that the term "people of color" does not have applicability in Germany. Underlying this claim was also a concern that Americans are often dominating and/or colonising leftist spaces and the history of racism in the United States is not the only history to tell. This is not the first time time I have heard this commentary nor will it be the last.

The history of “people of color” dates back to the eighteenth century when French colonists in the Americas (including present-day Haiti, Martinique, and Guadeloupe) referred to multi-heritage people of African ancestry as “gens des couleur.” This term, and many others, were politically charged to classify people with respect to their proximity to whiteness and subsequently freedom. By the mid-twentieth century, “people of color” took on another life. For people involved in anti-racist social justice work, “people of color” was one method of forming solidarity, for some people outside of formalized leftist spaces or the Global South the term was foreign. In a recent article by Nadra Widatalla, she commented on how the term “people of color” erases Black people. How can we understand “people of color” in the German context and why does it matter to have this debate?

In Germany today, some find it irrelevant in a space where some migrant and marginalized communities feel disconnected from each other. The alienation and fragmentation of migrants (or those who are perceived to be migrants) are grave and often occur along linguistic and cultural lines. We all have our stories, our struggles, our methods of survival and when resources and time are scare, solidarity is fleeting. What emerged in the conversation is that that one minority group’s visibility can be read as contributing to another' group’s invisibility. Yet missing from this logic is power. Who has the power to determine which groups are recognized, which histories are acknowledge, and which languages are told.

The English language is politically charged in Berlin, a city that was once divided along a wall and an ideological war. Beyond that, the English language can mean different things depending on who is speaking. For African descended people in the Americas, the English language, the Spanish language, the French language, the Dutch language, and the Portuguese language were imposed onto our ancestors. As was Christianity and European names. As Malcolm X said, “I didn’t land on Plymouth Rock, Plymouth Rock landed on me.” The social and political conditions that led to Black people in the Americas knowing and speaking European languages did not come by choice but through violent measures—something that many of us still live through. So it may appear that a Black American speaking English in Berlin is doing the work of propagating US cultural and linguistic “imperialism” when for many generations, our ancestors were the ones who were dispossessed, displaced, and . When we speak English, it is because we have lost a history. Yet, many of us are reclaiming that history through solidarity. Perhaps the term “people of color” might be fitting to find linkages and connections with others, perhaps not.

English should not be the only language we speak in leftist or marginalized spaces in Berlin—and neither should German be the only language. As Mahmood Mamdani remarked in his London Review of Books Essay on “The African University,” we have a world to win if we speak Arabic, Pashto, Trih, Kreyol, Turkish, Yoruba, and more with each other. European languages are not the monolith and we have a world to win if we also find ourselves sitting in a sea of opacity. What I do know is that more can be done interrogate one’s intention with language, the histories that shape our migration, and the potential to work against a system that continues to classify and divide us.