"At what point did I need to be integrated?"
Photo: Christian Schulz

BerlinThere are different ways to respond to racism and exclusion. Rebel. Grow bitter. Resign. Laugh away the agressions. Or pretend they never happened.

Thilo Cablitz has chosen a different path. He is 42 years old. And has been dealing with these issues since his birth. He never accepted them. He's still sensitive to racial slurs, behaviours and structures.

But he doesn’t seem angry. He seems thoughtful. And now he’s discovered a new desire within himself, a desire to talk about it. He wants skin colour and origins to become less important so that children – including his own two – as well as other young people have fewer negative experiences.

Cablitz is the top spokesman for the Berliner Polizei. And he’s Black – one of the very few Black police officers in Germany. The fact that he's talking about racism, his own  experiences with it, and is even trying to spark a debate about it, makes him different.

If they only knew I would give my life to protect them.

Thilo Cablitz

We meet on a particularly hot day in August at Platz der Luftbrücke at the headquarters of the Berlin police. The thick stone walls provide little protection from the heat outside. Only our small conference room is freezing cold – offset by the temperature of our conversation. We’re talking about something dominated by emotion.

The Berlin Black Lives Matter protest in early July was what changed Cablitz’ mind. George Floyd, a unemployed Black truck driver and security guard, died while pinned to the ground for minutes under the knee of Derek Chauvin, a white policeman.

Around the world, people took to the streets to protest racism. In Berlin, 15,000 filled Alexanderplatz. But in the end, at least in Germany, the message of the protesters was overshadowed by discussions in the media about corona regulations and a lack of social distancing. 

“The subject of racism was lost. That really annoyed me. I thought, that can’t just be it. Some things still have to be sorted and figured out. I just couldn't take it anymore,” Cablitz says. People can’t just keep thinking in terms of extremes. We can't keep categorising people as all Blacks, all Poles, all Jews, all ...

His list could go on but that wouldn’t change anything. And Cablitz wants change.

Harmless in uniform

Cablitz wrote a guest article for Der Spiegel. He described the stereotyping he’s encountered in his life: The sweet little “chocolate head” whose curls were tousled throughout elementary school; the adolescent troublemaker at whom neighbours cast suspicious glances; the suspected shoplifter confronted by department store security.

When he joined the police force, that was all turned on its head. When he put on the uniform, he might as well have become invisible.

As soon as Cablitz pinned on a badge and walked the streets with other policemen, he was no longer perceived as Black. He was rendered “harmless in uniform.” Everything he had experienced and suffered up until then seemed to be wiped away.

Sometimes, however, he mutated into a different kind of villain, which he found particularly bizarre: When checking IDs, arresting or cautioning people, they called him a Nazi. In their eyes, he was a spineless tool of a repressive, fascist apparatus. At least that's what they called him.

“Bizarre” is the term that Cablitz keeps using to describe these contradictory experiences. What's also bizarre is how people look at him nervously on the sidewalk when he’s not in uniform. When they cross the street because they’re afraid he'll assault them. At least, this is what he suspects.

They'd be much safer on his side of the street, he says. “If they only knew I would give my life to protect them. That is bizarre. And it affects me,” he says. And he keeps trying to understand such people and their motives.

Cablitz was born and raised in Berlin. His mother is a Berliner. His father comes from Sudan. He grew up in an African-Arab-German world, he says. In his childhood memories skin colour wasn't relevant.

But maybe he just didn't understand things very well as a child. His mother must have been worried. She had his name changed when he began school. Not just his first but also his last name. His new names were supposed to sound German.

His mother once told him about a time when she watched him in front of a mirror as a little boy. He was looking at himself and turning his face from side to side. “Everything is okay. Everything is fine, I said to embolden myself. She made it quite clear that this was my first experience with being excluded because of my appearance,” Cablitz says.

For a mother, the sight of her child looking suspiciously at himself in the mirror must have felt like a slap in the face.

Perhaps it was experiences like that that made Cablitz want to become a cop. Perhaps it was also the encounters with salesmen when he was a teenager. They would always rearrange shelves behind him to be sure he hadn’t taken anything.  He recalls “an employee who reacted to a complaint about the cleanliness of a pension by saying his family had a negro with them who could clean.”

Become a police officer after all that? At first glance, it doesn’t all seem to fit.

“I always wanted to join the Berlin police,” he says.

At first it didn't look like it was going to happen. He had missed too much school – because of an illness in the family, he says. He left school in 10th grade, took an apprenticeship as a technical draftsman.

He eventually finished his Abitur and chased his dream.

“I was an idealist. I wanted to protect and serve – improve the world a little,” he says. He’s convinced almost all policemen start their professional life with such ambitions. When pain and violence, accidents, suicides, homicides become the reality, the future changes for some, he says.

Racism is not just a white phenomenon, Cablitz learned from his father, who has dealt with the often racially fuelled conflicts and ethnic cleansing in the Sudanese region he comes from.

This country is different, though who hasn't stumbled onto the baseless cliche that Blacks sell drugs?

“Sure, prejudices offer evolutionary advantages. ‘Watch out! Here comes a lion!’ Let's run and then stop to look for the lion again and get eaten. But we’re beyond that. You can work on prejudices and reflect on them. ‘Black people deal drugs.’ You can also say that your experiences differ from that,” says Cablitz.

But what do you do with the old lady who won’t ride a tram because the ridership is so diverse? This is where Cablitz is glad he wears a uniform. The sight of him alone makes the woman think. Getting together, uniting people to change something, that's what he likes. Destroying prejudices. But it’s not just up to the police.

Being better than the others

Cablitz has probably tried harder in his life than he would have had he been white. As a cop, he felt like he had to do something special if he wanted to belong. He had to be better than the rest. He had to lock away his identity. There's the skin, there is the colour of the eyes. “I have to send a very clear signal so that the good guys also realise that I am one of them. It's not about pity,” he says.

But now he’s in a different place. He gets into arguments. He’s pleased when he sees people putting their world view out there.

Racism has been discussed in Germany for years. Countless studies have examined everyday racism. There’s a debate on racial profiling, even at the Berlin police. There are advanced training courses. The police have invited social scientists to evaluate them and have worked together with Amnesty International.

The list of initiatives fills up two-and-a-half A4 pages, he says. And still his colleagues sometimes makes statements that give him pause.

The government has now arrived at a place where it’s busily making laws and announcing representatives. Berlin, for example, has a new anti-discrimination law.

Cablitz thinks it’s good. That there is now an independent ombudsman's office for people, is great. And even though the police have always had to abide by the German constitution, there's now a new way for people who feel discriminated against to talk to the police.

The article he wrote this summer was the first time Cablitz talked publicly about racism. It’s become more normal now. It's led to positive experiences. A lot of people have commended his courage.

And then there was that one letter. The writer congratulated Cablitz and then remarked that he was a good example of how integration can work.

“I was speechless. Somehow the message didn’t get through. At what point did I have to be integrated?”

You could also say that there's still a lot of work left for him to do.