Legibility, contradictions and situated intersections in counterpublic spaces of Berlin
This blogpost explores how counterpublic spaces act as intrinsically intersectional spaces shaped by power, history and emotion. In his celebrated 2019 book Afropean: Notes from Black Europe, Johny Pitts sets off by train from Sheffield on a five-month journey across continental Europe. Pitts’ mission seeks to explore the everyday life of black European experiences, beyond the “standoffish academic vernacular” (2019: 5) and to look for instances of “reverse colonialism” that highlight the long-term social and cultural presence and influence of blackness on European culture. Here being black in Europe – Pitts himself is British and black – did not necessarily mean being an immigrant; he recounts how his own feelings of being European were often eschewed by his skin color, as “European” stubbornly continues to infer whiteness (Hund, 2017; Beaman, 2015; El-Tayeb, 2011). He initially embraces the term Afropean as a way to regard himself as “whole and unhyphenated” with the potentiality of “living in and with more than one idea” without needing to reach a tidy conclusion (2019: 1). While Pitts’ use of the term Afropean may seem to dismiss and compress or obfuscate the complexities of being black and British and working class and European and male, his search for Afropeanness within and across European spaces foregrounds the inevitability of its intersectional multiplicity. While Pitts may not actively draw on the notion of intersectionality, his reflexive embodied account of travelling as a black backpacker shows how situated intersections are not only “irreducible” to one another (Crenshaw, 1998), but where and when these intersections come to matter in European urban spaces and as they encounter counterpublics.
A compelling example of how these situated intersections manifest in and through spaces of counterpublics is offered in Pitts’ account of visiting Berlin in the depths of winter. Heading to his hostel, he confronts the everyday landscape of Berlin’s Friedrichshain district. Pitts walks past the pierced, tattooed bodies of white skinheads and the brutalist architecture of former East Berlin, and Pitts becomes unsure of how to make sense of this space and its inhabitants. He writes: “Where I’m from, I was raised socialist almost by default, but my experiences in Berlin unearthed a leftie atmosphere I felt nearly as out of tune with as anything I might find at a Conservative English country club, or a Republican American golf course” (2019: 167). Despite his affinity with leftist politics from growing up in Sheffield, a former mill town in the north of England, Pitts grapples with how to interpret the aesthetics he meets in Friedrichshain. Logos of eagles, death metal bands, “extreme no turning-back piercings” (2019: 169) and clenched white fists on view did not register with his notion of the aesthetics of socialist politics. These affects incite feelings of confusion, as Pitts admits feeling as misplaced in this leftie atmosphere as he might feel in spaces of conservative, right-wing groups. Notably, not only are country clubs and Republican golf courses the elite homes of conservative political views, they are also often spaces of hegemonic whiteness. Upon arriving at his hostel, the reception staff assure him that “Berliners are super open people” (2019: 169), despite the incongruities that he feels.
A couple of days later, Pitts describes happening upon a protest in the streets of Samariterviertel and the range of emotional states he passes through in the course of joining this crowd. Many of the amassed protesters were wearing black army fatigues or boots, while some wore balaclavas on their faces. The semiotics of the crowd gathered in public space were ambiguous to Pitts, but what was not ambiguous was the crowd’s whiteness. Once again, he describes being unsure of their politics, fearing they might be Nazis until one protester informs him that the punks and skinheads gathered here are anti-racist and anti-fascist. His interlocutor exuberantly informs him that this is an Antifa protest; they are going to “drink, party and fuck up some Nazis, it will be super-fun!” (2019: 170) The ambiguities and disorientations experienced and reflexively interpreted by Pitts as a black British male tourist in Berlin highlights how spaces, and their histories, foster particular counterpublic formations that must be read, interpreted and made legible to new participants – even when they possess similar political standpoints. Now that the intentions of the crowd were more legible for Pitts, despite the confusing optics, he describes shifting to a feeling of amusement at these heavily costumed young people. Pitts also describes feeling “very black” amidst the largely white crowd, and also very strangely conservative and uptight in comparison to the protesters. While they were ostensibly fighting for the cause of anti-racism, Pitts feels awkwardly placed as a black man standing beside a mostly white Antifa and mostly white police officers. He is embarrassed and unsure about how to act in relation to this particular counterpublic that allegedly speaks in his name.
Pitts’ incertitude soon melts into cynicism as he observes the freewheeling tactics of some of the Antifa protesters. To his consternation, they appeared to be having (too much) fun during this protest as they fearlessly taunt the police with gestures and chants. Pitts compares this atmosphere of carnival to the feeling of other anti-racist protests, recounting how emotions like rage and anger were so central to the Rodney King riots or Black Lives Matter protests in the US, or the UK riots in the wake of Mark Duggan’s murder. Pitts questions if anger and rage are absent from this display. However, upon further reflection, Pitts admits that he actually feels jealous watching these white protesters who are openly braving conflict with the police. As white bodies, they have more license to let loose, to shout at authority figures, to throw bottles in the street. Yet for Pitts, deciding which stance to take carried a different weight due to the irrevocable fact of his visible blackness. When he decided to rebel, it was different: “I was lumbered with the feeling that I was rebelling on the behalf of an entire people, and when I refrained from rebelling it was to challenge the opinion that I was proof of a black problem” (172). Pitts cannot act here as an individual; instead, his body is always already saturated with meaning and “lumbered” with the immanence of blackness. Manthia Diawara discusses how white actor John Travolta can ‘wear’ blackness and achieve transcendence in the film Pulp Fiction, whereas his counterpart Samuel Jackson’s coolness is innate and just who he is as a black man; blackness is not something he can take on and off (1998: 51). This feeling of weight and boundedness shapes Pitts’ action; his acts of resistance could be interpreted differently from his fellow Antifa protesters. While he feels the march may provide a “safe space” for the white members of Antifa to be dangerous or lose control, he is not convinced the space will afford him the same luxuries. As Bev Skeggs has described in Class, Self and Culture (2004), what might be mobilized as a cultural resource for one person can also work to fix, essentialize or even pathologize another, which incites us to recognize how the cultural can have an exchange value that is collected and worn on the body.
Pitts’ political, social and aesthetic disorientations and his reflexive grappling with the various emotions that are generated through this encounter relate to Anthias’ notion of translocational positionality which focuses on how feelings of inequality or difference (and their resultant disorientations) are not purely individual phenomenon, but tied to wider webs of social processes and power. Here, the space of the counterpublic is key, as this stance “recognizes the importance of the context, the situated nature of claims and attributions and their production in complex and shifting locales and the contradictory processes in play” (Anthias, 2002: 107). Here inequalities and differences are not individualized characteristics, but a set of processes that can result in multiple contradictory and simultaneously held positions that one can move between. This multiplicity and simultaneity is inherent in Pitt’s aforementioned notion of Afropean that attempts to hold together incongruent positions without resolution. We can also see this contradiction as Pitts struggles to make this scene and his position within it legible. He grapples with the unfamiliar feeling of being suddenly uptight and conservative, as he navigates the gap between aesthetic appearances and the political positions they infer. Meanwhile, his emotive reactions to this counterpublic space shifts as he considers his blackness, their whiteness, power, politics, different national contexts and the tactics employed. This conjunction of anti-fascist action with anti-racism seen through Antifa is borne out of historical struggles against both the Nazis and then the oppressive state structures of the German Democratic Republic, creating a visual and political constellation that could prove difficult for newcomers to Germany to immediately render legible.
The visual and sensory elements he encounters initially confound Pitts, as he interprets these markers through his own prior experiences, positioning and shifting subjectivity. This highlights intersectionality’s value in analyzing how counterpublics work in and through affective urban space. Mirza (2015: 4) describes how intersectionality “…enables us to knit together a complex array of unstable ‘mobile’ subjectivities which by imposition, choice or desire are written on and lived within the black female body…it is only by attention to situated localised accounts of ‘marginalised lives’ that we can reveal the ways of being and becoming a gendered, sexed, raced and classed subject of material discourse”. While Mirza writes here specifically in reference to the black female experience, we can extrapolate this perspective to Pitt’s embodied experience of the Antifa protest in Berlin. His situated, localized account of this experience allows us to understand how he is positioned through categories like gender, sex, race or class and how the flux of being repositioned spatially in Berlin and encountering new milieu like Antifa in Friedrichschain disorientates these previous positions.
Haritaworn’s insightful writing about counterpublic spaces in Berlin converges with and develops some of Pitts’ feelings of regarding power, positionality and disorientation in urban space. They explore how (some) queer subjects can become worthy of protection through the vilification of other figures, including the ‘homophobic Muslim’ as folk devil. Haritaworn points out how queers of color working against racism and gentrification in Berlin often lack “real-life spaces” where they can “materialize into an outwardly visible community” (2015: 2). While Haritaworn writes from the kitchen tables of Berlin’s queer of color community most specifically, the concerns of the Berlin interlocuters that they speak with connect with Pitt’s bewilderment. Recounting an interview with a queer person of color who was supporting the Kotti Camp, a group fighting against rent increases and displacement in a Kreuzberg housing complex, the interviewee describes how this POC-organized Kotti Camp contrasted with the wider anti-gentrification scene due to the direct relevance it had to volunteers’ lives. The night shifts were staffed by local residents whose “whole history” built over 50 years on the site was at risk via rent increases. This interlocuter described how “the basic idea is not ‘Yay, we’re doing something fun and occupying this house, or it’s my political duty’ or what white middle-class kids are thinking when they move into occupied houses without water or electricity” (68-9). Here we can again see the tension between the different stakes of those protesting and what they have to lose.
For Pitts fighting racism as a black man was a marathon of endurance where he had to act strategically within public spaces in order to preserve not only his corporeal, but his mental integrity, to get through the everyday. He highlights how there was no option for him to ‘opt out’ by taking out piercings, hiding tattoos, and assimilating into a white, respectable middle-class lifestyle if and when being an Antifa protestor lost its appeal. Similarly, this Kotti Camp supporter points out the differing levels of exigency and risk faced by poor or racialized populations and the white middle-classes, even when they have similar political goals. Here, the word ‘fun’ is once again employed. While occupying spaces may be a source of adventure and excitement as well as a political cause for the more privileged, for others it is the stuff of everyday life and survival within a space.
What does Pitts’ experience in Berlin or Haritaworn’s analysis tell us about space and counterpublics? Firstly, it shows that counterpublics are spatially experienced and constituted. Gathering and occupying city-space makes a public visible and brings about solidarity within the group. But secondly, what Pitts’ contribution teaches us is that the visibility and solidarity of counterpublics require us to understand that these groups and events demand intersectional awareness. These feelings bring questions regarding the politics of participation in counterpublics to the fore. How can tenuous alliances be made across groups who suffer more or less from racialization and hold very different economic resources? What bodies can or should stand up for other bodies, how, and when does this become problematic? How could some acts of taking space and becoming visible work to render other bodies invisible or even pathological? The bodies in these spaces are doing the events differently and the events are doing things differently to bodies. Yet there can be value in moving from a ‘non-defensive position’, as one white Antifa protestor describes to Pitts as he explains how he will protect him from the police or Nazis. Still, how we negotiate these positions requires reflexive thought from white and middle-class allies that takes us back to Carby’s seminal text decrying ‘white woman listen’. Despite dating from over forty years ago, its focal point reverberates into our present, as challenging the status quo of politics is both a highly spatial and intersectional affair.
Dr Christy Kulz is a research fellow at the TU Berlin. Her research interests center around intersectional formations of inequality in relation to race, gender, migration, and nationalism, as well as neoliberalism and education. She was previously a Leverhulme Trust Fellow at the University of Cambridge and is the author of Factories for Learning (2017) and co-editor of Inside the English education lab (2022).
Martin Fuller is a sociologist and affiliated researcher at the SFB 1265.
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Beaman J. (2015) Boundaries of Frenchness: cultural citizenship and France’s middle-class North African second-generation. Identities: Global Studies in Culture and Power. 22(1): 36-52
Carby, H. (1982) White woman listen! Black feminism and the boundaries of sisterhood. In Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies, eds, The Empire Strikes Back: Race and racism in 70s Britain, pp. 212-35. London: Hutchinson.
El-Tayeb F. (2011) European Others. Queering Ethnicity in Postnational Europe. University of Minnesota Press.
Diawara, M. (1998) Homeboy cosmopolitan. October 83: 51–70.
Mirza, H. (2015) “Harvesting our collective intelligence”: Black British feminism in post-race times. Women’s Studies International Forum, 51, p. 1-9.
Pitts, J. (2019) Afropean: Notes from Black Europe. Allen Lane.
Haritaworn, J. (2015) Queer Lovers and Hateful Others. London: Pluto Press.
Hund, W. (2017) Wie die Deutschen weiß wurden: Kleine (Heimat)Geschichte des Rassismus. Springer Verlag.
Skeggs, B. (2004) Class, Self, Culture. London: Routledge.