“No One Seemed to Care About My Skin Color in Israel. It Was like Going Undercover…”

Masaneh Ceesay is 27, dialog moderator for “Dialog at School” and participant of “Your Story Moves! Encounters of Young People in Migration Societies”. He comes from Wiesbaden, lives in Berlin und works as teacher for German as a foreign language.

What connects you to the topic of “migration” and how did you get involved in this project?
The topic affects me directly. My name is obviously not German and that’s a good thing. My father is from Gambia. He immigrated to Germany in the early 1980s. He met my mother here and then you know…love! My mother is extremely German, so I’m pretty much in the middle, also regarding my look. I am a teacher of German as a foreign language. This means that I have to deal with a wide variety of cultures in my job. I came to “Your Story Moves” because I used to be a dialog moderator at “Dialog at School”. In this project, the dialog moderators go to schools in Berlin and deal with school issues in a democracy-oriented approach. They design the program according to the interests of the students, while using their views and experiences as tool for education. As the saying goes, “You pick them up from where they currently are”.

You said your mother is a typical German. Is there such a thing?
By that I don’t mean character traits but rather the phenotype. My mother is super pale and has freckles and my father is black as night. My statement was in regard to the appearance. It plays a big role in my life because I don’t look German. I can express myself as good as I want. I am also a German teacher and a grammar Nazi as well. But when people look at me, they think I’m from somewhere, but definitely not from Hessen. We certainly find ourselves in the field of clichés and stereotypes when we talk about something like typical characteristics. Nevertheless, this is something which is being used and reproduced. One cannot ignore it.

How does this shape your life, living as a German in Germany but not looking like a typical one?
I often get asked “Where are you from?”. I occasionally ask the same question back or give a simple answer. The problem is that many people think that racism depends on the intention. This is not the case at all. It is not a question of whether there are bad intentions or not. Yesterday I picked up a package from my neighbor and he replied: “I can’t even pronounce your name.” He could have tried at least. According to German phonetics, my name can be pronounced quite well. The same goes for my last name. At my former job, I once said to a colleague that the whole racism issue annoys me because it always means that I should explain myself as a non-white person. I told my colleague “This is your problem, you have to take care of it” and she was outraged that I marked her as white. All these little things are permanently present in my life. Going into all things would be too exhausting for me, so I just leave most of them uncommented.

You work every day as a teacher with people who have similar experiences. What do you give them on the way?
In fact, I find it quite good to be a German teacher, because I am not only responsible for teaching the language, but also for other cultural elements – say how to curse! (laughs). It is my job to give an insight into German society. It is helpful that I am in the front line so to speak and can show them the diversity in Germany but also talk about serious challenges. Students are often shocked by subjects such as the NSU complex. I realize that I am influencing the way my students experience Germany in different facets. In that sense I am happy to be what I am. I teach them German, but I don’t look German. On the one hand, it annoys me when people say that I am not German because of my appearance. On the other hand, I know that I don’t fulfill the phenotypic expectations. The question is not whether this is the case or not. The question is what we associate with being German. Whether someone who is brown or dark-skinned can be German at all. I have zero accent, at most a Hessian dialect. Everything except for my skin color speaks against the fact that I could be a foreigner.

In Israel you said that you felt like being “undercover” without being noticed because of your skin color. Would you have thought, that you would experience this freedom in Israel?
Before we flew to Israel, I didn’t think about what experiences I would make about myself. I was rather thinking about the larger political issues and that there is a lot of catching up to do, knowledge-wise. On the second or third day I noticed for the first time that apparently nobody seems to care that I am there. I was pleasantly surprised. When I walk around in Germany, I draw people’s attention on me. I believe that everyone who looks different feels the same. One might say that it is because of my excessive tattoos but then again I have a decent amount of tattoos, same as half of Berlin. Sometimes it’s hard to interpret people’s looks.

Young people in a migration society: Could you connect Israel with migration at all? What was your view before and after?
I had an overview of the history of the state of Israel. I knew how the state was founded completely on the idea of immigration. The Arab population should not be forgotten of course. They were always there. Israel is an immigration project that didn’t just start with the Shoah. So it didn’t surprise me that there is such a diverse ethnic mixture. In that sense I noticed for instance that it is not such a special thing to be black in Israel. Many come presumably from Ethiopia or Eritrea and those have a hard time in Israel. But it is similar in some places in Germany. I was once in a supermarket in Cottbus with an Iranian friend. They looked at us as if we were aliens. I said “hello” to the cashier and she looked at me like a robot. You can see this in many places in Germany. And somehow I got my own share of luck in this, especially with my weird neighbors. They blame me for doing crazy things that I have no idea about. In Wiesbaden my neighbor thought that I smash my furniture every night and therefore drive to Ikea every day to buy new furniture. One of my other neighbors had mental health problems and made a lot of fuss at night. But my neighbor was pretty sure that it was me making all the noise because … Who else would it be if not me! When I confronted her, it turned out that I wasn’t even there at that time. The only answer was that I should be thankful for what the country is giving me. What was she talking about? What is this racist shit about? Her answer was – wait for it, it gets better!: “I am also an immigrant. I am a half-American.”

Do you know this thing, when you say things in your head before others say these things to you?
Yes, that’s basically how I survived during my whole adolescence. That’s probably the reason why I’m so cynical now. I kept making jokes about black people so that no one else would do it. I’ve always reproduced every single stupid stereotype there is about black people and made a parody of myself. When I became 20 I realized it is enough and I simply said “fuck you!”. All of a sudden people asked me what happened and I became so aggressive. In my eyes this was the least that I could be. This is something I talked about during the “Living Library” method in Haifa.

Do you think as a teacher, that we need more biography work at school?
We definitely do! I happened to be as a youngster in schools with a 1000% migration rate. The same is the case in many Berlin schools. If you take a closer look, it becomes clear that subjects such as politics and history are connected to a hegemonic, male and white narrative. We need a biographical approach that really asks the students: “Who are you and what do you see yourself as?” We can use this to question the collective narratives. Schools should be places where students can develop themselves, so that they can later actively shape society. Biography work and empowerment is important for this, so that the students notice that their perspectives are worth something. At school, multilingualism is interpreted as a lack of knowledge of German. The federal government talks about diversity – every book has people from all over the world on the cover – but that’s about it.
The goal should not be to belong to the majority society. As if this is the only goal we could have. I don’t want to be more German than x-German politician so that I can be accepted. I want to be accepted for what I consider myself to be. This does not automatically mean that I am not part of Germany. Apart from the fact that German is only a construct, same as any other nationality. If we zoom in into a Berlin neighborhood, it becomes clear that we cannot speak any more about being either this or that. We are so many different things at the same time. Depending on where we are, we are something else. When I’m in college, I’m a nerd, when I’m at football, I am a rough guy and when I was in Israel, I was the German participant. ”

Can Germany learn something about diversity from Israel or can Israel learn something from Germany?
I have to be honest, I know too little about Israel’s diversity policy to be able to judge that. But what is massively missing in Germany is a critical study of the past. I often hear that we have worked enough on the topic of the Shoah. This is absolutely not true. If that were the case, we would not have the AfD in the German Parliament today. Colonial history is hardly mentioned in collective historiography either. The first concentration camp was by the way in Africa. Instead, streets are named after colonial officers who massacred people in the desert. Germany has to recognize its history in all its facets and talk about its implications today even in the deepest corner of Saxony.

Dealing with history was a topic which we tackled a lot during the program. Was there something new for you?
A fundamental difference is that we don’t hear the sirens ring in Germany. Abstrusely, not even on May 8th. This is just a normal working day in Germany. Compared to Israel, commemoration in Germany is rather pathetic, nothing is actually being done. Sure, a couple of politicians will say “sorry” and that’s it. But then again, it can be pretty annoying to identify yourself retrospectively with a historic happening, if you’re from a generation that doesn’t have a lot to do with it anymore. This is the case a lot in Israel. In any case I believe it is important to study the mechanisms of exclusion which were effective back then and are still effective today. This is the important lesson we can learn from history. Otherwise history turns simply into a way of just telling stories and ultimately a way or creating your own identity.

Studying mechanisms of exclusion: What kind of experiences did you have with anti-Semitism at school?
Many will hate what I will say. There are many cultures in which anti-Semitism prevails today and Germany is no exception either. The difference is that it’s not so common in Germany to say out loud what you think. I experienced this in my school days and later on working with children and young people. Prejudices are still alive and the good old traditional anti-Semitism is still there. The point is not to say that Muslims are anti-Semitic by definition, but it is important to say that there is anti-Semitism in this culture. Things have to be named and not silenced out of fear of further discrimination against the Muslim minority. But letting certain minorities discriminate other minorities is a no-go as well. I’ve seen that quite a bit. 

Do the teachers know how to deal with it?
The teachers do not know how to react to class conflicts. They impose draconian punishments and talk the students down. This is a major issue in the so-called problematic schools where the proportion of migrants is so large. Teachers have a certain social status and treat students like dirt. Then they wonder why the students don’t feel like going to school and prefer to hang out on the street.

What else surprised you in Israel?
I was totally surprised that the Israeli participants learned at least as much about themselves as we did about ourselves. People can exist side by side without knowing the realities of each other. There is a big discrepancy between knowledge and experience. It is very encouraging to deal intensively with these stories, to learn more about the others. Although it can also be extremely exhausting. But then again, the whole life is extremely exhausting. Diversity and everything is nice, but it also has dark sides that come with it. Talking about it is extremely important. It’s not enough to just go and hug trees happily. This is what I miss in German diversity policy. I use to satirize this by calling it “all the races sing together”, as if singing is the solution to all these problems. This is what I wish for the generations coming after me. You can talk as much as you want about people. But in the end you need to talk with them. Not only about them.

How would you like to end our discussion?
You mentioned once, that we might also get a little neurotic, having to constantly develop these defense mechanism in order to deal with our otherness. I have great resilience inside me because I know who I am and where I come from. No one can take this away from me. If you try to mark me as a foreigner, I wouldn’t even let you close to my protection zone. Because it is painful. But this is strongly influenced by the fact that I was born here and learned the language as a mother tongue. I would be lying if I said that I am not German. I was socialized here. I know everything about this country. I know the neurosis aspect from other people though. My wife for instance, she migrated from Russia. She speaks great German, but is often insecure. For example, she asks questions such as: “Do I speak well enough?”, “Do people hear where I am from?”.  I do not envy this feeling of insecurity. As I said, everyone has their own battles, but the potential lies in recognizing the common goals in these battles!

Read the interview here in German.


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