Berlin - Do you belong? Why? Personally, deep down, I’m never sure if I do.
I’m a bit of a freak. I literally used to be a circus strong woman. I’m definitely human, that much I’m sure of. Maybe some of us would sometimes like to disown the human race, in all of our writhing and awkward convulsions as the world inexorably changes around us. But if you’re feeling uncomfortable with the state of the world right now, you’re probably human.
Humans have a fundamental need to belong. It’s how we survive. Without belonging to a group, even a family or friendship group, who will look after us? Who will stand up for us?
There’s a joke an Egyptian friend told me. He got it from his lovely Dad, who heard it from a school friend back in Egypt about 40 years ago. It goes something like this:
There’s a gang with guns facing an unarmed person.
The head of the gang says to the person: “Are you with us, or with them?”
The person says: “I’m with you, I’m with you!”
And the head of the gang shoots him and says: “We’re them.”
Society is having a crisis of belonging. When we’re scared, we so easily collapse into “us” and “them”. It’s a bit ironic, because now more than ever the whole of humanity has something in common. We’re all facing an unprecedented global crisis, not just the pandemic, but climate change and our ability to survive on the planet (or any other planet).
Now that Trump is on his way out, the reality dawns on us that even without the orange menace we are still in a global crisis. Trump supporters are still there. And it’s not just Trump supporters. Brexiteers, AfD supporters, people who are scared that when things change, which they most certainly will, they won’t belong anymore, they will be left out.
We can define a group not only by who belongs, but by who doesn’t. No trans women, no people of colour, gay people or migrants or poor people, or mentally ill people or people with disabilities… or more recently identifiable: Trump supporters, Brexiteers, AfD supporters. There is always some group of people about whom it’s easy to say “they” don’t belong. Now, even white middle-class straight men and women can be included in categories of “people we would like to ignore” for one reason or another, even if it is because that group is at – or near – the top of our current economic food chain. Nowadays, nobody is above being called “them”.
At the beginning of the corona crisis there were demonstrations near where I live, on Rosa-Luxemburg Platz, against the corona crisis. Nobody could work out what political or social commonalities the protesters shared, because there weren’t any obvious ones. They were from the political left and right and I-don’t-know-where-but-definitely-anti.
But I am almost certain there were mental health commonalities. I’m not saying: “They’re crazy”, not at all. What I mean is people who felt excluded, persecuted and vulnerable without belonging to an identifiable group. People who feel they should belong to mainstream society, but somehow don’t. So, of course, these people also form groups, with sometimes hilarious common beliefs, which I won’t make fun of, as tempting as it is, because it’s too easy and stupid. And it’s no joke that people with mental health issues of any kind get a shit deal under our system. Ask any one of Berlin’s roughly 10,000 homeless people.
I thought of getting myself a T-shirt saying ‘migrant’ just so you know.
What made me think more about belonging came a little later into the pandemic. Tens of thousands of people came all the way to Berlin from less influential areas of Germany to protest against the coronavirus and wearing masks. They came to tell the urban-dwelling, white middle class who make up Germany’s majority population that they too belong. People who want to be heard so much that they are willing to go to a population epicentre in the middle of a pandemic to do so. That also provides a sense of strength. Taking the risk together, or even denying that there is a risk, together. This is very human.
I personally have never felt like I belonged anywhere, except for the few years I spent as a circus performer. Now, as a middle-aged, ex-circus performer, I realise we all belong to a group: it’s the I-can’t-get-my-head-around-living-on-this-planet-sustainably-group that includes all humans. Nobody, and I mean nobody, is excluded from that group.
Here in Germany, I sometimes look like I belong to the majority white middle class. In fact, I look like a communist or Nazi propaganda poster, a sturdy, strapping, big-boned German woman. Especially if put my hair up in a crown of braids. But I don’t actually belong anywhere. I’m a non-European immigrant in Europe. I don’t even come from this hemisphere. I just don’t look like the migrants on the media cookie packet. I thought of getting myself a t-shirt saying ‘migrant’ just so you know.
I don’t even belong to a gender or sexuality group; I can pass for all of them. Yep. ALL of them. I can believably play a man, a trans woman, a trans man, a gay man, a lesbian woman, a straight woman. There’s pretty much no gender or sexuality group I can’t fit into, but don’t really feel like I belong to any of them.
I’ll explain a bit. When I was working out and muscularly supine with my mellifluous deep voice, I could, and still very easily can, look and behave like a man. Oh, come on, say people, you do not, you’re so beautiful. Lol. Hey Sweetcakes, that’s because I’m passing. I can pass for anything, I’m an actor. But when I was in my early twenties, I was just a clumsy gangly feminist gender blender. And, very often, people would mistake me for a trans woman. Even trans women would mistake me for a trans woman.
So I would have this weird experience of being harassed as a trans woman, even though reproductively, I’m a cis woman, for which I would also be persecuted, i.e. sexually harassed. In being able to behave like one of the blokes, I’m also privy to the kind of toxic masculinity white cis men practice among themselves to bully each other into belonging. I have had experiences of being, sometimes mistakenly included and excluded from every gender and sexuality group. Yep, I’ve been bullied by lesbians, chased through a party by a flock of gay men wanting to rip my clothes off, groped and harassed by rapacious cis men and I’ve been sent out of the ladies’ toilets by cis women.
When people say Nazis Raus, I ask: where the fuck do you think they should go?
And I’m an immigrant. If someone who dislikes or mistrusts migrants doesn’t think of me as a migrant because I’m not one of those suspicious dark and dangerous-looking migrants because I’m so…. integrated (read: white and middle-class looking), I have to tell the person, actually, I’m not with you, I’m with them, which means all migrants – and includes native Europeans who get mistaken for immigrants because they’re not white. On the other hand, if anyone wants to bully the “Germans”, oh, then I’m very German. I’m a Kartoffelauflauf. I can play a Bach cantata, reach consensus with a quorum and briefly air an apartment while turning the heating off.
And when people say “Nazis raus” I ask: where the fuck do you think they should go? While middle class racism is tolerated in a number of ways, not the least systemically, in this country people who clumsily speak out those same fears and assumptions are told they’re excluded. It’s way more comfortable than acknowledging that they are simply mirroring firmly held beliefs in mainstream society. I’m not saying we should tolerate racism, far from it (I’m with “them”, remember?), or Trump supporters or corona deniers. We should however know that excluding “them” is far too convenient and won’t make the problem, whatever it is, go away. In fact, it will probably make it worse. Just because I don’t agree with someone’s solutions to their perceived grievances, doesn’t mean I have to deny that they clearly have some problem.
So, if you don’t belong – and let’s face it, according to someone’s category all of us don’t belong for some reason or another – I’m with you. Being a part of a group also makes you responsible for that group. Being part of the global human group (or any smaller sub-groups beyond that) makes us all collectively responsible for what our big, horrible, ridiculous group does. So I’m with them. All of them. And everybody is invited.
On Friday, 13 November (12.00-13.30), Carrie Hampel will be moderating a panel discussion (in German) titled Solidarität ist unsere Praxis: Selbstorganisation und Solidarisierungsstrategien im Wedding – as part of the Soft Solidarity Assembly event organised by Galerie Wedding. You can find the livestream here.