Over the past few years, Germany has witnessed a huge spike in immigration. As the country becomes more diversified, conversations surrounding racism and discrimination are being pushed to the forefront. For 36-year-old African-American Isaiah Lopaz, the negative experiences he’s encountered while Black in Berlin serves as the inspiration behind a collection of t-shirts.
Lopaz, a writer and artist, has lived in Germany for nearly a decade. Since he arrived in the country, he has continually dealt with Black stereotypes. When he first came to Germany he wore dreadlocks and was often approached by individuals who believed he was a drug dealer.
“At some point I just cut my hair. I cut it for lots of reasons, but I also knew that if I cut my hair I bet this is going to go away. The truth is that it didn’t go away completely, but the frequency of people coming up to me and asking me for drugs, it lessened,” Lopaz told The New York Times. “Yes, I was dealing with people asking me for drugs, but there were lots of other more invasive forms of racism. At least once a day I will make eye contact with a white man or white woman, and they will grab their belongings as they notice me.”
He was also questioned about his heritage and sexuality. Lopaz, whose family has roots in the rural South, said that many people expected him to be from Africa.
“It was very strange for me to be asked over and over, “Where are you really from?” They want me to say that I am from Africa. There are several reasons that I cannot really give them this story. One reason is that I am not from Africa,” he said. “But also, there is a lot of pain that comes with this. It is painful because we were never meant to know where we were from. Of course I have ancestors from Africa, but I think this question denies the impact and the culture that we as black Americans have created.”
Lopaz, a Black gay man, shared that a lot of people in Berlin’s LGBT community believed he couldn’t be gay because he was African-American: “I think that what keeps other gay people from recognizing my sexuality is the fact that I am black. I find that very strange; it’s something that only happens in Germany. There isn’t space for my blackness.”
Lopaz has decided to spin his struggles into something more powerful. He is combating racism through t-shirts that feature all of the derogatory comments made towards him. Some of the shirts bear statements like “You’re with us? I thought you were a dealer,” “I’m having a party. Can you bring African food?” and “You have no culture because you come from slaves.” He had a friend of his capture photos of him wearing the t-shirts around Berlin.
Lopaz hopes the photos will serve as conversation pieces. “There is this idea that black people are not to be trusted, that black people are criminals, thieves, deviant. We don’t have these ideas about white people. We as black people don’t have objectivity. We are judged based on stereotypes,” he said.
He also created a platform, titled Him Noir, where he writes about race relations, politics, and culture in a digital space. Pieces that include African American Anxiety, Things You Can Tell Just by Looking at Him, and Do I Look Like I Sell Drugs? delve deeper into the encounters that inspired the statements on his shirts.