One afternoon, the day after a particularly bad storm in Berlin, the clouds began to open up and the sun shone into my living room. As I exited my apartment I commented to no one in particular, ‘It’s so nice out’. Fast forward twenty minutes later, as I rode the tram towards my destination, I looked out the window as it began to down pour. There I was wearing only jeans, a sweater, and a light jacket, with no umbrella or even a scarf to use for cover.
I got out at my stop and waited underneath the awning for shelter thinking the rain would let up soon and I could continue on my way. Another ten minutes passed, heavy rain still fell, and I was trapped in the same spot. Instead of continuing to wait I decided to take my jacket off, cover my head, and make a run for it. After I made it across the street I stopped under the balcony of one of the buildings to check my phone after it alerted me of a new message.
The person I was supposed to meet would be thirty minutes late due to transportation delays. It was bad enough that I was beginning to freeze because my legs were soaking wet and my body had no coverage because I had taken my coat off, but then I’d have to find something to do for the next half an hour. There was an ‘open’ sign flashing at a bar, cafe combination nearby so I figured I could order a coffee and sit inside for a while to warm up.
As soon as I walked through the door, the eyes of every person in the room were focused on me. I had entered a classic locals haunt, a Berlin smoking bar, with walls filled of paraphernalia from around Germany and no sign of the cafe part that was advertised outside. While I made my way to the bar top to order my drink everyone’s eyes followed. Quickly I realized I wasn’t going to feel comfortable sitting down and enjoying my drink so I would just take it with me.
It also dawned on me that this place probably didn’t get many tourists so I ordered my drink in german. “Haben Sie Kaffee für take away?” The woman behind the bar snapped, “To go?” In the past, take away and to go implied the same thing but I simply replied, “Ja, danke.”
I set my backpack down on a bar stool to remove my wallet and I noticed the two men sitting at the bar watching my every move. Seconds later the man seated closest to me leaned towards me with a half smile on his face and asked me in English, “Where are you from?” I told him, “The US,” the look on his face seemed unsure so I added, “near Washington D.C.” He was satisfied with my response.
“And what are you doing in Berlin?” After I informed him that I was a resident he replied, “For how long?” I told him, “One year.” He continued, “And, it’s okay for you…living here? You feel okay?” He wasn’t asking out of genuine concern for my satisfaction with the city I resided in. “Yeah, it’s fine,” I answered. Then he quipped, “You should learn German.”
As the woman behind the bar handed me my coffee, I threw in two splashes of sugar, unable to stir it because she gave me no utensils, and quickly walked out of the door without saying another word. While the exchange between myself and the man at the bar was unpleasant and undercover hostile, I recognized what he was implying. Because it wasn’t the first time during my year of living in Berlin that an elderly white man asked me if I was “okay”.
A few months before I was dog sitting for the weekend and took the mixed breed puppy for a walk on the main road by my house. I was meeting a friend after our walk so I wanted to make it brief. As I pleaded with her to hurry up and use the bathroom a man, who was seated quite far away from where I was walking rushed over and stood directly in front of me.
My german isn’t that great now but back then it was even worse. When the man started speaking in german I politely asked him if he could speak in english. He smiled and struggled to find the words he had just rambled off. I figured that he was lost or looking for a particular place. But in actuality, he thought I was the one that was lost.
After also starting with the question of where I was from, he continued on with “Are you comfortable here?” At first I was taken aback by the question but I answered that I was. He looked so confused, almost hurt, as if he had taken a pill that was hard to swallow. As he shook his head he said, almost to himself, “Before the wall fell, there wouldn’t be any Black people walking here, walking their dog, it just wouldn’t happen.”
I couldn’t figure out the purpose of his line of questioning and given that he was standing so close to me, I wasn’t sure if I should be afraid or not. He didn’t seem to approach me out of malice, early on he told me that he had lived in the States for a period of time, but regardless of his intentions, I was incredibly uncomfortable.
These interactions are the equivalent of going to a store where they sell expensive things and having an employee of said store come up to you and ask you if you’re looking for someplace else, because obviously you’ve stumbled into the wrong store. When you assure them you’re in the right place they follow you around because they are suspicious of your existence. You stand out, you don’t look the part, you don’t belong.
There are many times while on the street, in a bar, or public transportation where people stare at me. Most of the time I think nothing of it, going about my day without a care in the world, then there are these times where I’m confronted about ‘what I’m doing here’. It’s a common question thrown around which, to me, means, “Why are you in this space where you don’t belong?” Whether the offense is intentional or not, the impact is the same.
Granted, I am a foreigner in this country and I don’t look the part, being Black and all, increasingly who looks like what from where ever looks less standardized. At the same time, these inquisitions are like a fruit fly that doesn’t adhere to being swatting away, annoying yet harmless. It’s nothing compared to having the n word called out at you on the street or not being able to get a job because of the color of your skin or the style of your natural hair, or the systematic precedent holding back people of color in the United States.
Whether I live in the US, in Berlin, or most other places, I’ll get confronted about where I’m from, judged on the way I speak, and at times, be made to feel like I’m in a place where I shouldn’t be. So if anyone wonders if I am comfortable being in a place where I may look out of place, I hold my head high and assure them that I am because no matter where I am in the world, I have built enough strength to stand tall and be comfortable in my own skin.
Photo by AtlantaBlackStar.com