“No One Does Anything!”: Hegemonic Knowledge and Everyday Oppression
By Marcelo Kuna
Half the stories of the world are left unwritten,
Half the stories of the world are kept unread,
And so the people of the world will never notice
What disasters unprevented lie ahead.
Jason Robert Brown’s lyrics for the song “Cassandra” echo the mythological figure cursed to predict the future, but never to be believed. For some of us—refugees, immigrants, and non-normative bodies alike—that is an altogether familiar experience of daily life in what artists and other non-hegemonic thinkers call “indisciplinary” forms of displacement, ostracism, and exile (either voluntary or involuntary). I can certainly speak on this as a non-white person living in Western Europe, even if some people might read me as white based on my white-passing appearance (“olive skin as in Mediterranean or Middle Eastern?”), name (the very Brazilian ‘Marcelo,’ not the often misspelled and mispronounced Italian version ‘Marcello’), and my too-chic style for Berlin’s “poor but sexy” atmosphere—often perceived as “exotic” features, that in my work as an author I approximate to late North American scholar of chicana cultural theory, feminist theory, and queer theory Gloria Anzaldúa’s definition of a “mestiza consciousness.”
Let me shortly tell you a mundane story from past weekend at one of the Markthallen in Berlin (the indoor markets in that city), in order to illustrate what I mean by indisciplinarity in connection to a mestiza thinking. My cousin from Brazil whom I had not seen in over a decade came to visit me. We sat down next to a seemingly friendly stand inside the market, bought wine from another stand nearby, and it just so happened to be my cousin’s birthday, so he answered a congratulatory video call. I will admit that it was louder than German standards, but the reaction we got from the seemingly easy-going French business owner was not just disproportionate: it was downright bigoted.
Amidst ironic growls of “Magnifique!” and “les Françaises!” (which felt more like an euphemism for Ausländer, or foreigners), I was forced to stand up for both of us by snapping back in German: —“Excuse us for the noise, but we are not French, we come from Brazil!” “I don’t care!”—he answered.
No. One. Did. Anything.
This snippet of my daily bourgeois life is nothing if compared to the day-to-day microaggressions (and larger aggressions) that happen to darker-skinned people than myself, even in a multicultural city like Berlin.
In Germany, a country in which 1 million Afro-descendants are estimated to be living right now, and where it took many years for a high-ranking government official to use the term schwarz (black) “to question why people of African descent have to prove they are German even when they were born and raised here,” it is no surprise to see colorism playing a role in who gets relegated to menial jobs and who gets degraded even as a citizen of Europe’s largest economy. As a recent graduate from Humboldt University of Berlin’s M.A. in Cultural History and Theory, this writer has been experiencing only a fraction of the everyday biases that most non-white people face when applying for jobs and living their day-to-day lives, but it is still nevertheless strong enough to be felt in unsettling ways.
Since December 2022, the city of Berlin has been trying to reflect its social diversity in its cultural life, for example, through a pilot phase of a “diversity initiative” from the Senate Department for Culture and Europe, specifically in some of its cultural and artistic institutions, namely Staatsballett Berlin, Komische Oper Berlin, HAU – Hebbel am Ufer, Theater in der Parkaue, and Stiftung Stadtmuseum Berlin. This author has applied to work in the newly created positions as “Consultant in Diversity” in two of these institutions and, until the publishing of this post, has been rejected by one of the aforementioned ones, whose great interest from other applicants in Berlin caused the selection process to extend two months beyond the application deadline. What this proves is not only that there is great interest among Berlin’s creative workers of non-hegemonic ways of thinking to have their voices heard and to make an impact in the capital’s cultural scene, but also that the city desperately needs to expand these consulting positions, after its pilot phase, to other institutions as well.
As a matter of fact, it is in everyday situations that a non-white person (especially bodies as the ones cited in the opening of this text) can notice how the social construct of whiteness oppresses difference, and it disciplines and punishes indisciplinarity, much like what happened in the earlier anecdote with me and my cousin. I can also cite, for example, an Afro-Brazilian friend who has been ‘living while black’ in Berlin for over two decades now, and who is verbally harassed multiple times a month by racist persons during quotidian actions such as boarding the subway. Even in places of art production, where one would expect higher consciousnesses involved in critical thinking, another Afro-Brazilian friend with a remarkable résumé experienced a renowned (white) maestro refuse to acknowledge my friend’s artistry during a non-conventional staging of a Verdi opera.
A common complaint heard from non-white and non-normative bodies when enduring these ordinary situations of oppression, which notwithstanding should not be cast into normality, is the phrase present in the title and body of this text: “No one does anything!” While online posts on social media may display hashtags and ‘photo-ops,’ and even text descriptions in dating apps’ profiles have been increasingly displaying discursive essays on allyship to #blacklivesmatter, decoloniality, and other forms of support for the oppressed, the truth is, performative activism has never been so fashionable; just not outside of the virtual world.
So, I end my text with a couple of provocations for you, dear reader: What are you doing to fight racism and other forms of oppression in your everyday life? Do you stand up for others when you see similar situations as the ones narrated here happening, or do you sit/stand idly by? Believe me, the answer to these questions can save lives.
Marcelo Kuna is an artist and occultural scholar with an M.A. in Cultural History and Theory from the Humboldt University of Berlin (2023). Having also earned a B.A. in Dance from the Communication of the Body Arts program at PUC-SP, Brazil (2015), Marcelo studied there with Brazilian contemporary dance pioneers such as Gaby Imparato, Vera Sala, Zélia Monteiro, among others. A classically trained singer, the artist became an émigré in 2018, choosing Berlin as a creative home, in order to flee the growing unrepentant neofascism in Brazil. Marcelo lives and works in Berlin as a freelance artist and writer.
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Photo credit: © Jörg Meier