A few days ago I watched Sarafina with my friend. She is black, I am not. I am also from Germany and have had my people’s Nazi history on my conscience ever since I heard and naively retold at our dinner table my first” Jewish joke”. At the age of eight I did not understand why this joke was so condemnable but the ringing in my ears from the clap that swiftly followed is to this day connected in my mind to indistinct feelings of guilt and shame like disturbing background-music to an otherwise harmless movie scene.
We never spoke about the Nazis at home, about the concentration camps, the violence, the killings. As the child of a refugee mother from “The East” and a father, whose father had been a POW in Russia for most of his childhood, I was once removed from perpetrator guilt.
The fact that my grandfather was a Holocaust denialist and still had “Mein Kampf” on his bookshelf when I was old enough to read was at best an uncomfortable family joke, but not ever a topic for discussion. Later, when I asked questions, the standard answer “Opa couldn’t hurt a fly” was reassurance enough for me to step away from the cesspit of collective guilt. Much later still, travelling the world to the familiar sound ringing in my ears whenever my German-ness came up, I often lied that I was French to avoid looks or questions or real or imagined judgments.
I am used to feeling ashamed and guilty for something that my people did to other people.
But when I watched Sarafina, I discovered a new dimension of guilt and shame, an airless space bordering on terror.
Maybe because of this suppressed guilt-thing, I have never been able to watch historical movies about Nazis or other oppressors; I sat my way through “Schindlers List” behind a pillow with the sound turned down. In my history books I had seen the pictures of survivors with hollow eyes like death masks, the mass graves, and the mundane look of a murderer in uniform. I thought I didn’t have to witness the detailed mechanics of violence in order to understand its impact.
But with my friend next to me, looking away was no longer an option. The horror sliced into me swiftly and unexpectedly. I found myself gagging and gasping for air while my insides knotted into tight strands of terror.
Meanwhile she was casually scrolling on her phone with the calmness of somebody who has seen it all before and has no more outrage or despair to spill. I felt weak and pathetic in comparison.
So I sat through the entire movie with my breath held, barely managing to keep my white tears at bay. At least that’s how I thought of them. Unable to drain, they settled in my body instead.
Days after, my dis-ease became the burning in my throat and the throbbing behind my eyes. I felt weighed down with unspeakable grief. I couldn’t eat and was constantly on the verge of tears.
But still I didn’t speak to my friend.
I tried to distract myself with social media.
Where I read about a black journalist being racially abused in Amsterdam; about a black boy being shot in the back by an American police officer; about school girls being humiliated and shamed for how their hair grows out of their heads not far from where I live.
I felt nothing but despair. Which turned into fear.
I traced my fear all the way through my body, until I sat with it in the pit of my stomach and recognised the terror of a mother watching helplessly as her children get humiliated, abused and murdered.
I realised then, that my fears were no longer confined to my whiteness. They had surpassed the mob of school children bearing torches and stones and anger and grief in Sarafina; they had grown beyond the righteous hatred towards my white skin or the shame of “this white woman looking the other way could have been me”.
My fears were no longer just white fears. They had melted into the fears of a black mother for her child.
By becoming a mother to black children, vital parts of me were no longer white.
But on the outside I still was and would remain forever so, an emotional imposter to those who didn’t know me. I had managed to position myself once again as the other: an outcast to whiteness and an outsider to blackness. In my mind the solidarity of black mothers became the one thing that could save me and which I could never attain.
Until my friend woke me up to the fact that I already had it (pun intended).
I had it in her, as she sat with me through Sarafina not knowing what if anything at all was happening to me, because I felt I had no right to share my feelings with her. I realised how I had aptly outmanoeuvred myself with my white guilt , retreating onto familiar territory of the outsider instead of taking the leap into the unknown where my grief and terror loomed big, trusting that she herself could make the decision if and when to be there with me.
Instead I had opted for my safe space. By intellectualising and repackaging my terror into something more palatable and politically correct along the lines of: I recognise my white tears have no business in your space and heroically manage to hold them back to prove my worthiness of your friendship.
Until she swiftly unveiled my cringingly stereotypical picture of “the black mother bond” and the fact that I already had all around me what I thought I still needed to earn by hiding my human tears.
After all these years of being in each other most intimate thoughts, after becoming mothers and fighting wars for our children together, I still managed to allow our skin tones to separate us into some weird idea of what we need to represent to each other.
This, I hear her say, is a fucked up hot mess.
But – I reply with a grin on my face – one fucked up hot mess that we are in together.
And so the journey continues.....