Just before my one-week anniversary of arriving in the city, I was invited to dinner at the home of a couple of Berliners, something I understand is a big deal for Germans. So I went along with a bunch of yellow roses – which I remember reading mean "friendship" but also, confusingly, "jealousy" – as a token of my gratitude. Dinner was lovely: everyone spoke English for about 70% of the time, and asked questions that they didn't have to, just to make me feel welcome. I left after 11pm, full of stomach and light of foot, and headed home to Neukölln on theU-Bahn.
Heading for the exit at my stop, I felt a tug on my hair from behind. My first thought was: "Oh my God – is this how I die? Alone in a foreign city?" Then I turned around and there was a stranger with his hand in my hair. He met my gaze and said loudly, "Kunta!" and "fufu". Then he laughed, and with his other hand, poked his friend in the ribs and pointed at me, so he could laugh too. They laughed together and called me those names all the way up the escalator and out on to the street, and then carried on their way.
I thought about something that comedian Dave Chappelle performed back in 2000, in which he says some encounters leave you feeling like you're watching a scene from a movie. That night in the station felt like an out-of-body experience, like something I had once watched in a public information film on racism from the 80s. Chappelle asks the audience: "Have you ever had something happen that was so racist that you didn't even get mad? You were just like, 'Goddamn, that was racist!' I mean, it was so blatant you were just like 'Wow!'." I didn't feel mad, though. I just felt really tired all of a sudden, like I might cry under the U-Bahn sign, right there on Hermannplatz.
In the absence of direct confirmation from the strangers, I believe "Kunta" was a reference to Kunta Kinte, the real-life slave and protagonist of Alex Haley's Roots, made into a miniseries in 1977. "Fufu" is the name of a staple starchy food eaten across the African continent. As welcomes to a new city go, it needed a bit of work.
Only a few days before, I had mentioned to my new housemate how Berliners seemed oddly at home with staring. They stared at me at the airport, at the train station, on the tube and on the bus, and as I selected bread rolls at the supermarket. One small child in a school group almost walked into a wall as he stared at me – his hand-holding buddy pulled him away just in time. The staring never really feels malicious, just curious and rude. Everyone had said Berlin was really hipsterish, really international and multicultural. It is all of those things, but I think what everyone who said this neglected to mention in their reports is that its internationalism is starkly monochrome – there are lots of Europeans and Americans here and they are almost always white. Perhaps tellingly, all the people who told me about the city's international feel were white – they didn't have to think about being foreign in addition to being in possession of a brown body. In Berlin, where they have had a very large and visible Turkish population for a long time, I am a different type of foreigner – the type that speaks English and Yoruba and has an afro. There are no official figures on the number of black people in Germany, a country of 80 million, but a 2009 report by the European Commission Against Racism and Intolerance estimated it at between 200,000 and 300,000. In east London, I live life largely unseen. In Berlin I am overwhelmed by my outsider status – I have taken to smiling at black strangers in the street. Very kindly, they smile back.
Of course, I'm only a visitor, one who will be gone by Christmas. But the Afrodeutsche people I have made contact with here have been enlightening. In a bar in Schöneberg I met the women of Adefra, a 25-year-old organisation of Afro-German women. Germany, they told me, is a strange place when it comes to race: the spectre of the second world war looms large and so everyone is keen to be seen as fair and unprejudiced. But they reported to me similar tales of everyday microaggressions, from colleagues and lecturers and neighbours. In Neukölln, I attended a reading given by Theodor Michael, a black survivor of a Nazi death camp. Afterwards, an audience member asked with a straight face if Michael felt "more African or German". His reply was prefaced by a deep sigh. I sighed as well.
In Alexanderplatz, almost a month to the day, another stranger plunged his hand into my afro and laughed. That night as I braided my hair out of reach of strangers' hands, I double-checked the dates of my flight home. I can't wait to be anonymous again.