Provocation vs. representation - A response to uncritical press on Rammstein's "Deutschland"

So even though there was quite a wave of responses to Rammstein’s music video for their song “Deutschland,” which dropped back at the end of March, I was surprised by how little of it addressed the casting of a black German actress as a key figure in the video. I was excited to read the piece about the video and the band in general in last week’s New Yorker, but was honestly taken aback that they too kept silent on this important part of the discussion regarding German national identity. I therefore wrote and submitted this letter, which I don’t anticipate will be published and am thus simply putting out to the world here on my blog.

I was surprised by Amanda Petrusich’s choice not to mention Rammstein’s casting of the black German actress Ruby Commey as Germania in her piece “Hardcore History: Rammstein’s Heavy and Cathartic Camp.” By omitting discussion of Commey’s prominent role in the music video for “Deutschland,” Petrusich is perpetuating the problematic myth of a postracial Europe, even as she describes the video as demanding that we “not look away from any of this.” It is unclear why Rammstein chose to portray Germania as a young black woman, yet if the intent was to represent the lived realities of the millions of Germans of color, the video failed utterly. As is generally the case in textbooks, politics, and pop culture, German colonialism was skipped over (unlike in Rammstein’s horrifying video for “Ausländer” released this week, in which the band members act as colonizers of an unnamed tribe of topless, submissive women), as was the rebuilding of post-war Germany by primarily southern European and Turkish guest workers, or the fact that one in three children today has at least one foreign-born parent. As one of the most famous German bands of our time, Rammstein puts forth a particular image of Germany to the world. It matters what this image is, and it matters how it is discussed. Rammstein’s choice to cast Commey did little to push against the racialized, exclusionary narrative of German national identity, as provocation is not the same as representation, and Petrusich’s piece sadly failed to acknowledge this.

Becoming a Dr.

Two days after successfully defending my dissertation, and therewith officially gaining access to the club of folks with “PhD” after their names, I boarded a plane for Baltimore to attend the bi-annual Society for Research in Adolescent Development conference. I felt dejected and utterly exhausted, and anxious about having to discuss the defense experience both with people I knew and didn’t know. SRCD proved to be precisely the right salve for my wounds, however, as I listened to critical, anti-racist, reflective, and progressive panel discussions, round tables, and symposia on topics relevant to my personal and academic interests.

My defense was not such an experience. I anticipated tough, probing questions, but what I encountered were accusatory queries all framed around the basic question of “Why are you criticizing the status quo?” Instead of asking me about my methods, analysis, or implications, I was asked to defend the existence of microaggressions to a professor who stated that she didn’t believe in them, to lay out an argument for why I didn’t want to use the cultural distance model by a postdoc who firmly believes in static cultural differences, and to explain how my knowledge on identity in Germany could ever really be viewed as valid since I “have an American background.” Basically, I was asked to defend my decision to engage in anti-racist, social justice oriented work, rather than to discuss the work itself. I should have seen this coming, but somehow I thought that if my committee actually read my dissertation they might want to discuss its contents. What became clear was that instead, they wanted me to make them feel better about their choices to not engage in similar work.

The whole experience made me sigh a deep sigh of sadness that this is still the norm, that pushing boundaries always leads to push-back from above, and that white folks sure don’t like to be told that they’re perpetuating racism. It also made me so glad for a break from Germany for a few weeks as I reflect, regroup, and move forward.

Post-conference reflections

Yesterday we wrapped up the second Cultural Diversity, Migration, and Education conference hosted by our research group at the University of Potsdam. It went surprisingly smoothly, thanks to great student assistants and numerous volunteers, as well as the ever friendly, patient leadership my advisor Linda Juang provides. Overall I feel very positive about my own experience at the conference as well, though some of my take-aways were not entirely what I had expected.

I presented my third dissertation chapter, which is currently under review for publication, comprised of a critical review of terminology used in recent psychology and education research in the German context, focusing on labels related to the heritage/ethnicity/nationality of participants. Using a constructionist thematic analysis of terminology from 167 articles, I found extreme inconsistency and a largely racialized, exclusionary use of labels, with authors often mixing "migrant" and "migrant background," not reporting generation, and using "German" to refer, either implicitly or explicitly, to white Germans solely of German descent.

I presented this research on the last day of the conference, after having sat in the audience of numerous presentations from top researchers who, in their own work, continue to reiterate such Othering while simultaneously engaging in research focused on promoting positive relations in increasingly diverse contexts. In personal discussion with some of these researchers, it became clear that they do not see the issue with calling someone a "migrant" who was born and raised here, or researching that person's "acculturation into the host country." The argument I often hear is that, well, that's what everyone does. Yes, "everyone."

One interesting, and simultaneously inspiring and depressing, take-away was how divided these discussions were by rank, experience, and to a large extent, gender. Though many young scholars engage in unreflective, mainstream work, it was only among other PhD students, all of whom women, where I found not just understanding, but other folks doing similar work, problematizing similar issues, and feeling similarly alienated by the status quo in the rather insular world of psychologists and education scientists focusing on migration and identity in Europe. I had fantastic conversations with two other women, both of whom working in countries other than where they grew up, both of whom focusing on belonging, identity, and exclusion in their work. These conversations helped me remember that pushing back against the notion that "this is the way it is done" does not mean that that is the only way, nor the best or most equitable way. What it also made me remember though, is that the folks with tenured professorships, who therewith have the option to make or break one's career, tend to be the ones less interested in such dissent. Thus the depressing part of the realization. But, I will carry on, and keep fostering friendships and potential collaborations with like-minded young scholars. Critical mass also has power.

Teaching white Germans about teaching in Germany

I just got home from my final day of an intensive four day block seminar (spread out across two weekends, two weeks apart) and am glad that it's done, but am also feeling reflective about the impact of the course and my intentions, methods, etc. The course is one I have taught four times already, but only as a weekly seminar, so the format of four very intense days was new and different for me. Miracle of miracles, everyone actually showed up for the full course, except for one woman who told me in advance. Because mandatory attendance was voted out of existence by student councils across Germany over the past few years, it is now illegal to actually expect students to come to class, which I find insane and very frustrating (and as the article linked above shows, it *shockingly* has led to lowered grades). Since I wrote to everyone in advance for the block seminar that we would be doing required in-class work each day, that seemed to motivate them to actually attend.

And yet, they were still as reticent to actively participate as in past semesters. I have learned over the years that there is a stereotype about teachers in training that they are not interested in academic work, just want to be told what to do, and don't do the reading. This is perceived as particularly true among those training to work in elementary education. This, combined with all of the stereotypes about Brandenburg, doesn't paint a great picture of my students. What I have experienced in the classroom does not do much to push against these negative stereotypes, but I also know that many of my colleagues give in to them and have low expectations, don't require any reading, and just rely on student presentations to get through the semester. As someone who tries to live by bell hooks's Teaching to Transgress, I try to actively recognize my part in fostering an environment of high expectations, interest, equality, and engagement in the classroom.

But damn, that's not always easy. Especially when one of my key aims is to get them to critically self reflect and think about how their own identities, experiences, and socialization will affect their future teaching and students. In doing so, I am constantly thinking about my identity as a white US American immigrant woman, and how each of these aspects plays a role in how I am perceived and the weight my knowledge is given. In reading through a reflective writing task I had them do after the second day of the block seminar, I was once again reminded of how much resistance there is by so many people to breaking down their identities and thinking about how we engage with the world around us. But as I read their writing reflections from this afternoon I was able to see some small changes already - some appreciation of our individual and societal socialization, of the impact of inequity and inequality, and some acceptance of the evidence-based practice I was attempting to promote. So perhaps there is hope yet. But for now, rest.

So, what do you do?

When people find out that I am working towards a PhD, a natural follow-up question is about my focus. I find it difficult to answer this query, not least because I'm a US American getting my PhD at a German university, in a department titled Inclusive Education, though my doctorate itself will say psychology, and I actually situate my work somewhere between critical social psychology, migration studies, and sociology of education.

These complexities can be waded through, however, depending on time and level of interest. What I find more difficult is negotiating the conversation around my work itself. How I frame my research varies wildly, often based on my own assumptions about my interlocutor's politics, prejudices, life experience, and my own energy level. Am I prepared to be mansplained by yet another white German dude about why national identity is different in Germany because (the following is an estimate of the roughly hundred different ways I've been told this), "immigration is very new in Germany and people aren't used to diversity the same way they are in the US", after I have just said that I focus on national identity and Islamophobia in contemporary Germany? Am I ready for yet another assumption of white solidarity and an encouraging, "oh that's great you're doing research on that, there are so many problems with getting them to integrate," after I've just said I focus on migration and identity? Which version of my life story do I want to offer when I am inevitably asked the seemingly innocuous, "why on earth is someone from New Mexico researching discrimination in Germany?" Yes, why indeed.

So, to allow myself space to work through these and other questions as I do this work and have these conversations, I have decided to once again start blogging. At least this way all the versions of my answers will at some point be available for public consumption. Perhaps I'll just start handing people a card with a link when things get tense, as they invariably seem to.