Open Letter to the Heimathafen Neukölln: We are not slanty eyes!

Hi Readers,

I’ve been involved in informing myself about a rather unfortunate racist incident at a cultural arts institution in Berlin, which prides itself on it’s ostensible ability to deal with intercultural themes and migration issues. The Asian-German community was disturbed by the lack of cultural sensitivity that the Heimathafen displayed in dealing with the many grievances made to the theatre and mobilized its members and allies, responding swiftly and dynamically. In order to reach an English speaking audience, I’ve translated a recently published open letter to the Heimathafen, calling out the institution’s management to take responsibility and to apologize publicly for their promotion of a hateful image. As I am not a professional translator, I apologize for any inconsistencies in the translation – I tried to maintain the spirit of the letter, rather than translating word for word. I’ve added a link to the German version, if you’d rather see the original!

– estherka

Update: Press on die Zeit 

Background Information

The Heimathafen, a cultural arts institution in Berlin-Neukölln opened this year a public art exhibition entitled, “I love NK”, in which numerous images of people wearing the organization’s t-shirt all over the world were shown to promote it’s international and cosmopolitan cultural message. The images selected for inclusion in the exhibition were not random, rather the Heimathafen Neukölln choose to display various photographs from submissions, including an offensive image of a white blond woman distorting her face into a “chinky eyes” grimace. Despite countless objections to the display, by visitors to the exhibition and the website, the organization reacted slowly and flippantly to the accusations, removing the image well over a week when the first concern was emailed to the institution on January 28th 2014. On February 4th 2014, the first open protest was published on a blog

We would like to share the open letter below that was written to the Heimathafen and welcome all people of color with and without Asian roots, and also Caucasian allies from around the world to support this open letter with the signing of your name.

Please email your name, profession, affiliated institution, city, and country to info[at]korientation.de with the subject line: Open Letter to the Heimathafen Neukölln: We are not slanty eyes!

The giving of your occupation and affiliated institution is optional, but desired to show the scope of diversity. A regular updated version with all supporters will be published soon at http://www.korientation.de

You may also write your grievances directly to the Executive Director, Stefanie Aehnelt aehnelt@heimathafen-neukoelln.de or by post to the address below. 

_______________________________________

Stefanie Aehnelt, Executive Director
Saalbau Neukölln Kultur & Veranstaltungs GmbH
Karl-Marx-Str. 141, 12043 Berlin Germany

February 6th 2014

Dear Stefanie Aehnelt,

We would like to address this open letter to you as the artistic director and the executive director of the Heimathafen Neukölln theater in Berlin (Germany). We are shocked to learn, that a highly offensive image was displayed in your exhibition “I love NK,” despite ongoing complaints and opposition for an extended period of time. In this photo, a blond white woman in a white Heimathafen-t-shirt with the phrase “I love NK” oddly stands in an apparent east-Asian park. The grinning woman pulls her fingers at the corners of her eyes, producing “chinky-eyes,” while perpetuating an old, disturbing and belittling racist icon. 

As well-read and cultural erudite people, it is beyond doubt, that this illustration encourages anti-Asian discrimination. This image maintains the authority and superiority of white people to mock the “Asian” appearance in black-face like manner, and in the process distorting Asian faces to a grimace. Not only does this encourage a cynical caricature of (east)Asian people as the cunning Other, but also reinforces the old colonial racist tradition of the myth of slanty-eyes as a typical east Asian attribute. Historically, public discourses in Germany strongly engaged in the fight against the “yellow peril” and vigorously sustained such biological concepts of the enemy. 

Against this historical background, it is even more alarming, that this racist misconduct was officially included as a current artistic contribution in Heimathafen Neukölln, publicly presented over an extended period of time. However, the important point is not the question if this act was intentionally racist, rather the certainty that this offensive gesture has a racist impact which is significant. On top of that, this derogatory contributed photo was planned in advance as a part of the exhibition, and it did not occur spontaneously or by chance. 

Heimathafen Neukölln considers itself a people’s theater, wanting to promote itself worldwide for the intercultural cohabitation in Berlin-Neukölln. By virtue of participating in activity that celebrates anti-Asian discrimination, Heimathafen perpetrates it’s very own mission statement, which is an egregious and regretful oversight. We have already received numerous reactions from many people from the Asian community in Neukölln and beyond; many feel deeply alienated and concerned, that a cultural institution itself would participate in unscrupulous anti-Asian propaganda, specifically in disseminating a racist image.

We request the management of the Heimathafen Neukölln, to take full responsibility and   promptly apologize publicly. Furthermore we demand, that wholeheartedly and without reservation, to explain this artistic blunder. We request your response to the following questions: 

  1. How did this exhibition come about? Who curated it? According to what criteria was image theme selection carried out for the exhibition?
  2. What reasons moved the artistic management or curators to present this image as a putative positive cultural contribution in the exhibition?
  3. What intentions and goals were connected with this decision to choose this image?
  4. How can the message of “I love NK” positively be transported in such a image? You write in your answer to a protest letter, “We interact with all cultures with respect and humor”. We ask ourselves, in the meantime, to what extent does the now removed image interact with “all cultures with respect and humor.” Such a seemingly cynical answer gives the impression that the Heimathafen stance is that its  people’s theater can make offensive and bigoted images for the sake of art. We have a different conception of democracy, cultural respect, and institutional responsibility vis-á-vis the freedom of discrimination in the immigrant society.
  5. Since when did you have the knowledge that this racist image was perceived as offensive? We know that at the very latest, on the 29th of January 2014 [editorial note: the first now known opposition letter is dated 28th of January] the first written opposition was turned into the Heimathafen Neukölln. Why did it take until the 4th of February to take seriously these grievances and take the offensive image down?
  6. Did the exhibition planners or the artistic management of the Heimathafen recognize that the presented image was bigoted?
  7. Was it reflected on, how Asian people domestically and internationally, would feel about this picture? Was the disrespectful effect not foreseeable, respectively expected or does no such consideration play a role in your project and public work? You explicated in your written responses to an objection that you do not need to take any consideration of “superficial political correctness”. How is this declaration in this concrete case to be understood?
  8. Do you see a conflict between what you define as a form of artistic freedom and anti-racist principles of cultural institutions, like for example the appreciation of anti-discrimination and intercultural acceptance? Was is not recognizable for the artistic management to question themselves carefully, that a stereotypical image does not serve as a positive contribution for the intention?
  9. The Heimathafen Neukölln responded to previous grievances of exhibition visitors and concerned individuals by emphasizing it’s cultural expertise and the long term experience in dealing with migration themes. How is this competency consistent with an uncritical display of this image with the repeating of nonchalant reactions?
  10. Did artistic quality control break down in this case?
  11. How will the Heimat Neukölln safeguard in the future, that it’s cultural work will not transport racist discourses and messages of exclusion any more in the general public?
  12. What does the Heimathafen plan to do to assure the Asian community that we can feel safe and treated welcome in it’s space, after such a bigoted episode?
  13. We request that you should arrange an open event to discuss these problems and initiate the allocation of funds for the realization of such an event. Representatives of the Asian-German community must be justifiably involved, with not only the conception and organization, but also given a platform to let our voices be heard.
  14. Because a consolidated knowledge about Asian-Germans, our sense of self and perception as well as our diasporic practices appear to be lacking in the Heimathafen,  we would like to refer you to the following publications: the brand new dossier “Asian Germany – Asiatische Diaspora in Deutschland” in the migration portal of the Heinrich Böll Foundation (http://heimatkunde.boell.de). Furthermore, in April 2013 this theme was appeared in a special edition of the culture and society magazine “freitext.” In addition, the book “Asiatische Deutsche. Vietnamesische Diaspora and Beyond” (2012) was published. If you are interested, we would be pleased to recommend additional literature for further cultural education.

 

We thank you for your attention and request urgently a statement to our questions and inquiries. We would be pleased to receive a prompt reply. Because this problem is a public concern and it occurred in the general public, we reserve the right in publishing openly all the responses to this letter.

korientation, Korea-Verband, Migrationsrat Berlin-Brandenburg, Initiative
Schwarze Menschen in Deutschland, VIEW e.V., Danger Bananas

Contact

Dr. Kien Nghi Ha, korientation e.V, info[at]korientation.de
Nataly Jung-Hwa Han, Korea Verband e.V., mail[at]koreaverband.de
Noa Ha, Migrationsrat Berlin-Brandenburg e.V., noa.ha[at]mrbb.de


First signers

Dongha Choe (Fotograf, Korea-Verband, Berlin)
Sera Choi (korientation, Berlin)
Tahir Della (Vorstandsmitglied Initiative Schwarze Menschen in Deutschland, Berlin)
Mai Ngo Thi Dong (Studienrefendarin, Vorstand VIEW, Berlin)
Meral El (Kultur- und Sozialwissenschaftlerin, Vorstand Migrationsrat Berlin-Brandenburg)
Dr. Kien Nghi Ha (Kulturwissenschaftler, Vorstand korientation, Berlin)
Noa Ha (Stadtforscherin, Vorstand Migrationsrat Berlin-Brandenburg, Berlin)
Nataly Jung-Hwa Han (Koreanistin, Vorstandsvorsitzende Korea-Verband, Berlin)
Thu Thuy Hänelt-Do (Dipl. Kauffrau, VIEW, Berlin)
Hieu Hoang (Autor, Performer, cobratheater.cobra, Berlin)
Kiyomi Ikegana
Jee-Un Kim (Rechtsanwältin, Vorsitzende korientation, Tübingen)
Mai-Phuong Kollath (Dipl.-Pädagogin, Vorsitzende VIEW, Berlin)
Daniel Sanghoon Lee (Unternehmensberater, Vorstand Korea-Verband, Dortmund)
Prof. You Jae Lee (Historiker, Vorstand korientation, Tübingen)
Angelika Nguyen (Filmwissenschaftlerin und Autorin, Berlin)
Mai-Thy Phan Nguyen (Ärztin, Vorstand VIEW, Berlin)
Toan Nguyen (Bildungsreferent, Mitglied Bildungswerkstatt Migration & Gesellschaft, Berlin)
Dr. Prasad Reddy (Gesch.ftsführer des Zentrums für soziale Inklusion Migration und
Teilhabe, Bonn)
Rebecca Sumy Roth (Journalistin, Vorstand korientation, München)
Kimiko Suda (Sinologin, Vorstand korientation; Co-Leiterin Asian Film Festival Berlin)
Thi Yenhan Truong (Bloggerin, Danger Bananas, München)
Ko Watari (Rechtsanwältin, Hamburg)
Nuran Yigit (Dipl.-Pädagogin, Sprecherin Migrationsrat Berlin-Brandenburg, Berlin)
Dr. Rita Zobel (Japanologin, Korea-Verband, Berlin)

Further supporters  Last update: 14.02.2014

Organizations and Institutions

Biplab Basu (Co-founder der Kampagne für Opfer rassistischen Polizeigewalt – KOP, Berlin)
AFROTAK TV cyberNomad – The Black German Databank Social Media Network Bündnis gegen Rassismus (Berlin)
Lucía Muriel (Vorsitzende Fachkreis Migration, Entwicklung und Partizipation, Berlin)
Sunju Choi (Filmwissenschaftlerin, korientation und Co-Leiterin Asian Film Festival Berlin)
ROOTS & ROUTES Cologne e.V. , Köln
Bühnenwatch Bündnis kritischer Kulturpraktiker_innen
Bildungswerkstatt Migration & Gesellschaft
Plataforma der MigrantInnen, Berlin
Rat für Migration

Individuals

Suki Osman (Musikerin, Berlin)
Dan Thy Nguyen (Performer und Schauspieler, Hamburg)
Eleonora Roldán Mendívil (Politikwissenschaftlerin/Freie Bildungstrainerin, Berlin)
Thuy Le (Projektmanagerin, Berlin)
Laylah Naïmi (nachtigall productions, Berlin)
Smaran Dayal (Studentischer Mitarbeiter, Humboldt Universität, Berlin-Neukölln)
Dihia Wegmann (Dipl. Sozialarbeiterin, Oran, Algerien)
Oliver Frey (Ingenieur, München – vormals NK)
Nese Tüfekciler (Freie Journalistin und Lyrikerin)
Didem Yüksel (Erziehungswissenschaftlerin und Germanistin, Vorstand Migrationsrat Berlin-Brandenburg)
Susan Truong (Studentin, Freiburg i.Br)
Jana Asmus (Kulturwissenschaftlerin, Berlin)
Hilkje Kempka (Studentin der Kulturwissenschaften und Kulturschaffende, Hildesheim)
Annette Kübler (Bildungsreferentin, Anti-Bias-Netz, Berlin)
Melina Morr de Perez (Studentin der Kulturarbeit, Berlin)
Regine Glass (Studentin/Texterin, Berlin)
Olenka Bordo (Sozialwissenschaftlerin, Externe Evaluatorin zum Berliner Bildungsprogramm)
Cristina Martín Asensio (Volljuristin, Sprecherin des Migrationsrats Berlin-Brandenburg e.V.)
Dr. Thamar Klein (Ethnologin, Köln)
Daphne Owers (Berlin)
Erica Haas (Universitätsdozentin, Jena)
Lena Mahler (Soziologin, Berlin)
Rosanna Lovell (Musikerin/Musikpädagogin, Berlin – Neukölln)
Olivia Oyama (Tontechnikerin, Berlin)
kate hers rhee (bildende Künstlerin, Berlin)
Lynn Femme (Schauspielerin, Berlin)
Ünal Zeran (Rechtsanwalt, Hamburg)
Werner Schiffauer, Professor für Vergleichende Kultur- und Sozialanthropologie, Europa Universität Viadrina Frankfurt/Oder