Living in a multicultural bubble such as London often makes you forget about life outside of it. This week I took a late birthday trip to Berlin for 5 days. Prior to this trip I hadn’t really been outside of the country and had a chance to experience another culture whilst in my adult life; not since I was about 16, which was 6 years ago. Once we got to the airport I immediately noticed something a bit different to what I was used to. We were the only people of colour in the whole gate, and there were quite a lot of us waiting. Coming from London’s busy diverse streets, buses, tubes and trains I immediately felt like we stood out, and I was incredibly conscious of my surroundings. This could have been because I still wasn’t that used to airports and planes and I was on edge, but it kind of served as a wakeup call as to what I should expect while we were out there.
Once we got to Berlin, I spent the first 2 days just admiring this edgy new city. It was similar to London but so different at the same time. It had London’s cold demeanour with a darker more edgy aesthetic. Like how any other tourist would, I spent these days taking a bunch of pictures, exploring the city, figuring out how to get around, you know the usual tourist stuff. Once the excitement had passed and we had settled down, I started to notice things. Berlin wasn’t the most diverse city, well from what I saw anyway. There weren’t a lot of people of colour in the areas we went to, we’d see maybe a few a day; some days we would see only one or two black people and they were all a lot older and often by themselves. On our whole trip, we didn’t see many young black people, we were usually the only ones around in whatever areas we were in; which could have been why people kept staring at us. Whether it be when we were walking, on the train, getting food, or taking pictures; people just kept on staring. Which I ignored for the beginning of the trip, but by the last day It started to really get on my nerves.
I remember being in a busy cafe on our last day getting breakfast and when we walked in people were trying to shoot glances our way, quickly turning their heads away every time I tried to meet their gaze. I remember one occasion when we were strolling past the East Side Gallery observing the artwork. There was some graffiti on one of the pieces of arts along the wall. The graffiti said “It’s Leansha not Leesha bitch! Say it right nigga”, whatever that means. I didn’t see what it said initially. As we were walking and enjoying each other’s company, a small white woman bumped into me and turned and looked at me with the fear of God in her eyes, telling me she didn’t actually say it she was just reading out loud. At the time, I had no idea what she was talking about, because I didn’t hear her say the n-word nor had I seen the graffiti yet. Once we had passed her and had a look at what she was referring to and what it said, I looked back and caught her and her companions still staring at us, with the same scared look on her face. I don’t know what she expected me to do to her, about something I didn’t even hear but it really irked me. I mean, if you were so scared about the consequences of you saying it, then why say it in the first place? And am I some kind of monster to hit a woman in broad daylight or something? I’m not exactly the scariest figure, so what is there to be so scared of?
The staring wasn’t just from the white people however, the only other time we saw young black men on this trip was whenever we went to the main area near our hotel to grab some food. As we got off the metro and came down the steps into the station, we were welcomed by a large group of black men, all trying to sell us weed and various other drugs. They were there every night, not trying to hide what they’re doing, being incredibly obvious about it actually. I remember one occasion even, when they walked past me and awkwardly saying “Yo Nigga” in a heavy accent, not to intimidate but rather to greet someone who looked like them. It made me feel a little strange, imagining that this could have been me if my parents migrated to Berlin instead of London. Being a black man in London is hard enough, but I can imagine it being a lot harder for them out there. I felt like an outsider when I was only visiting, so I would think growing up there would be a lot harder, especially without much money. I don’t know if there are some programs or support spaces for these young black men in Berlin to turn to, but if there isn’t I would hope that changes very soon. It’s sad to see the only people who look like you, having to resort to selling drugs in the cold at a station every night, getting ignored and looked at like dirt when they could be out doing so much more with their lives.
This is not to say that my trip to Berlin was not enjoyable, I still had a great time on my trip but coming from a city like London and spending all my time here and then going to another city and being stared at by faces that all look so different to mine is just a strange experience for me, and generally just uncomfortable. Maybe I’m just immature when it comes to travelling and with time and after going to more destinations I’ll understand more and learn to deal with it better; rather than firing glares back and probably solidifying whatever racial stereotypes they already had of me.
Berlin is a great city, and I recommend it to anyone who likes History, architecture, great brunch, breakfast and oddly enough Korean food; just know what to expect when you head out there and you’ll be fine.