Interview with Tupoka Ogette
Marlene Hahn | Chefdramaturgin | Friday 11.11.2022

Interview with Tupoka Ogette

What questions accompany you in your everyday life and your work?

What shapes us as human beings? What has racist socialisation done to us as individuals and to us as a society? How does this socialisation shape our encounters, our families, our partnerships? And what can we do to show racism in everyday life? What can institutions do?

These are some of the many questions that are on my mind.

When did you start turning to the topic professionally and why? Was there a key moment for you?

It was a chain of moments. But if I had to name two, one is that I realised at some point: My children are experiencing the same racism as I am. That drove me into a total feeling of powerlessness and rage. And the other thing is the realisation that learning to talk about racism in everyday life helps us. It helps us in our relationships. With my mother and grandparents, in my working life, with parents and children, it's really a benefit.

The chance that you are a racist is very small. But it is almost certain that you have been socialised to be racist. Just like all people in Germany and, in fact, in this world. Because we are all born into a world that has had racism in its structural bones for 500 years. In all areas of society - starting with children's books, in the education system, the health system, the legal system, etc. - racism has been a part of our lives. We cannot prevent this socialisation and it leads to us not learning to recognise racism in everyday life and reproducing much of it unconsciously. Why are you telling me about your Black friend Jeremy? I find that interesting. Often people use the existence of a Black friend as evidence that they can be less racist or not racist at all. But that is absurd on closer inspection. Because that would also mean that men who are friends or involved with women who have daughters or sisters are less sexist. But having a close relationship with a black person can make you aware of what black people experience. As you describe it in relation to your boyfriend at the time.

But almost certainly you are racially socialised.

Tupoka Ogette

How far away are we from a racism-free society in which such remarks would no longer have any meaning?

This massive change is not in sight for a long time yet. Not for my generation and not for those of my children. That is logical when we realise how long racism has existed and how deeply it is anchored in society. After all, we are still at a point in Germany where the existence of this racism is always up for discussion. Therefore, a racism-free society can only be the great vision on the horizon, but the road to it will take time. And it requires work on a society critical of racism. A society that confronts structural and everyday racism. A society that learns to recognise and name it. And that won't happen on its own, it needs everyone.

What advice do you have for me, our readers? How can each and every one of us contribute to building bridges?

The beauty is that we live in a time where there are so many resources on the subject. Because knowledge is definitely power. Understanding your own socialisation is an essential process. It is first and foremost about building a bridge to yourself. What has racist socialisation done to me? What have I learned to see and not to see? What patterns of thinking have I internalised? What prejudices? What privileges do I have? This takes courage, self-reflection and perseverance. It is great if you do this process together with other white people around you. Talk to them about their insights, their questions and also their emotions in this process. We have not learned to talk about racism. We have to practise it, like a muscle we want to exercise.

In your books ("exit RACISM", 2017 / "And now you", 2022) the theme of changing perspectives is important to you. Why?

It is often said that we should try to put ourselves in other people's shoes. Walk in their shoes. I think that is very difficult to do. What is much more important is that we learn to listen and, above all, believe what we hear. Even when we ourselves cannot comprehend the things we hear. Therefore, in the context of racism, it is important to listen to and believe the perspectives of Black people and people of colour who report their experiences of racism. This is where it often fails. Experiences of racism are explained away, relativised or ignored.

What do you say to people who say "Today I'm not allowed to say anything anymore" or "But N*** wasn't racist before, that's what I mean"? How do handle these situations??

One is allowed to say almost anything. People who claim that this is not the case actually mean that they do not want to be criticised for what they say. The N-word was just as racist in the past as it is today. But there was less opposition because society as a whole was more racist than today. Today, people have to expect that racist statements are named as such and that there are consequences for behaving in a racist way. So this is a very good development. Of course, it is uncomfortable for some people. Change always is. But it is a change towards a less racist world.

Every person has their own power and their own responsibility to help shape this society. I am happy when people find my work helpful for their own process. But the decision as to whether people want to be part of the problem or part of the solution in relation to racism is one that each person must make for themselves.

Of course, this is uncomfortable for some people. Change always is.

How powerful do you think language is?

Language creates reality. Language is power. Language is just as powerful as actions. It has consequences, can create realities, can hurt, destroy and kill. It can also strengthen, inspire and create justice.

At the same time, language is a tool that we can use to create spaces that are less racist. I would like to see more joy in this opportunity.

Do you like going to the theatre and if so, which theatre makers do you find particularly exciting?

Yes, very much. I had the privilege of going to the theatre a lot through my family. I even dreamt of becoming an actress myself for a while. Until a racist production I was supposed to be in ended that dream. I was also advised against it because there would be no roles for people like me.

In my function as a mediator for the critique of racism, I have since worked at many state theatres and smaller theatres in Germany and Switzerland. I find theatre houses such as the Schlachthaus Theatre in Bern or the Ballhaus Naunynstraße Berlin inspiring. There I have met people who are actively embarking on a path critical of racism, who take the opportunity to take up and courageously deal with socially critical issues within their own structures, but also in their productions.

Part of your work takes place in social media and in front of a large public. What potential do you see in digitality and social media for social bridge building?

It is great to reach a very large number of people in a very short time and with very few barriers. Social media manages to address issues that are not dealt with in classic mainstream channels like television. And social media has led to racism and other forms of discrimination becoming more visible to a large majority. For example, the murder of George Floyd. Of course, social media also has great dark sides. Therefore, it is often a double-edged sword for me.

Should we build bridges to racist positions at all?

I do not talk to racists. My humanity is not openly on the negotiating table.

If you could design a bridge, what would it look like?

Who is on one side and who is on the other? And what are we bridging in the first place? At worst, this idea of the bridge legitimises the racist misconception that there is an "us" and "them", a "normal" and an "other". We are all human beings in one country, in one world. We are all political beings, per existence. We all have a task to help shape this world. And one task, especially for white people, is to deconstruct internalised racism.

What is the role of cultural institutions? What do you wish for?

Cultural institutions have a great social responsibility and at the same time a great opportunity. They help shape society. They can draw utopias and dystopias. They can analyse society and imagine society. The cultural sector is also riddled with racism and sexism. White male perspectives have dominated for a long time. I am happy to see that there is more and more movement in the cultural field where diverse perspectives and histories take up space and space. But this movement also meets resistance. I would like to see the so often invoked freedom of the arts used to challenge long-established power structures and to produce content that is critical of racism and empowering.

Dear Tupoka Ogette, thank you very much for this conversation!

The interview was conducted by Marlene Hahn (Chief Dramaturg)

About Tupoka Ogette

Tupoka Ogette is a trainer and consultant for the critique of racism and anti-racism in German-speaking countries.Together with her team, she accompanies companies, organisations and associations with individual workshops, lectures and consultations on their racism-critical path. Tupoka Ogette and her team have been able to reach more than 10,000 people in recent years with around 1,000 events in over 300 institutions.