Conversation between Isaiah Lopaz & Rachel Moore

  • <div>“I’m gay I can’t be racist.” color photograph by Isaiah Lopaz, 2016. Photographed by Richard Hancock. All rights reserved.</div>
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    “I’m gay I can’t be racist.” color photograph by Isaiah Lopaz, 2016. Photographed by Richard Hancock. All rights reserved.
  • <p>“I’m having a party can you bring African food.” color photograph by Isaiah Lopaz, 2016. Photographed by Richard Hancock. All rights reserved.</p>
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    “I’m having a party can you bring African food.” color photograph by Isaiah Lopaz, 2016. Photographed by Richard Hancock. All rights reserved.

  • <p>“Where do you really come from,” color photograph by Isaiah Lopaz, 2016. Photographed by Richard Hancock. All rights reserved.</p>
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    “Where do you really come from,” color photograph by Isaiah Lopaz, 2016. Photographed by Richard Hancock. All rights reserved.

How Do We Survive Spaces We Were Never Meant To Enter?

Rachael Moore: When I was young and still in the UK, I was with good friends we were playing a particular game, I don’t really recall which one, but what I do recall is that at a certain point in this game one friend said to me, “Oh, look at our hands” and I was like, yes, let’s look at our hands and then she asked me: “what is the difference between my hand and yours?” and I said: “Well, my hand is bigger than yours.” And she was like, “No, your hands have a different color to mine.” And in that moment, your world gets swiped away when you realize that you are the other, that you are no longer part of the group. They found a way to single you out as you are different.

Isaiah Lopaz: I don’t think I remember the first time I recognized that I am black, but I do remember that as a child in the US, I don’t really recall seeing a white person, like a white person in the flesh, until I was five or six. That’s when most people would sense it and that’s pretty easy. Maybe I started really thinking about this in art school because I was one of only a few people of color and I just noticed that I was treated differently, but I couldn’t put my finger on what it was. I just noticed there weren’t so many of us. I remember I had a really rough start in school.

Being black in Germany is a lot different than back in the United States. So when I moved here around eight years ago, I was really grateful to meet a lot of lovely people, friends of friends and neighbors. But the fear that I saw in the eyes of white people and the way they behave in my presence is something that is very different than in the United States. Here it’s like people stare at you. Where I come from you don’t stare at people unless you want to invite them.

Rachael Moore: Berlin gives the impression of being progressive, being very open, so the first time I came here I thought yes, Berlin is extremely present. But the first moment after I got off the airplane there were people staring intensively so I was wondering what was happening. Is it me? Is something on me? Why are they not telling me if something is wrong? I still don’t have the true reasons why they do stare so much, maybe it’s a cultural thing? Personally I think it’s very invasive. They’re asking you a thousand questions and you need to give them the answer right now. You need to give them the answer to why is it that you are here. They don’t understand. It’s a lot of confusion and denial. There are a lot of things happening between the eyes when they look at you intensively in that matter.

In that moment, what I am trying to do is not look like a crazy, I am trying to look like everything is okay. If you have questions, please ask me. You can ask me right now, I am open. I am also trying to make myself very small in these moments, which is something that I noticed since I’ve got to Berlin, in Belgium I don’t do this so much, depending on the situation. But here in Berlin I have to make myself small in order to make them feel comfortable. I am trying to make them feel comfortable with my presence here. I don’t know how you gonna do it but that’s the situation.

Making white people aware of the stance they are taking is very problematic but it also costs a lot of energy. So the fact that you are trying to make yourself small and at the same time communicating to them is in itself very wrong. I take my hat off to all of you for that.

It happens in details

In Belgium this is very different. There it happens in the details. When I am in Flanders which is in the Dutch speaking side of Belgium most people would come up to me and address me in French. Which is quite odd because they are thinking that I can’t speak Dutch. And then I answer in Dutch and they are like, “Wow your Dutch is so good, how does it come that you even speak Dutch?” and I answer, “Why is that you don’t speak Congolese?”

Isaiah Lopaz: In reflecting the thoughts of a black woman I am reminded why terms like tolerance, multiculturalism, colorblindness and diversity fail. They ignore our perspective and since they’re a white perspective, where do these words fall flat for you?

Rachael Moore: For me the issue with these terms is because they are terms. Diversity is defined by brothers, but inclusivity is defined by white people. Because we are “diverse.” I am living diversity but the diversity they are looking for is one that keeps them comfortable. It’s a bit like the level of black- and whiteness. This level of blackness or this shade of black is okay but anything darker, no we don’t want that. So when I am talking about inclusivity or diversity I always ask myself who is saying this and which definition do you have of inclusivity and diversity? That’s extremely problematic.

We have seen it at the EU parliament, there are 752 mps and eleven of them are of color. Eleven. Even though we are a substantial part of this society and this European identity they want to put forward. Where is our place in this European identity? With the UK leaving, half of that is going to go. So, it’s only going to be five. And of those there is one Italian who is black, the rest is of color.

And yet the European Parliament, the European Commission, the European institutions, they push this idea of inclusivity, gender diversity and diversity but when you look at the cabinets there are no people of color to be found. So how can they represent you? What is this definition of diversity we are talking about? I have yet to find it in institutions, yet to find it in the services you are giving to your citizens. I have yet to find the definition of the speaker for tolerance and inclusivity when we are not being included in the main conversation. We don’t have a seat at the table. That’s why I am saying, if you gonna go next year, please think about what you gonna vote for because it’s extremely important especially when it comes to the European level. Because all these right-wing people, they are there on the European level and they influence our legislation. They are there and stopping us from getting to a place where we can actually discuss important issues, push important issues, and find solutions.

Isaiah Lopaz: I know that you are definitely not allowed to believe in yourself as a person of color, but I believe in myself and I think that my family definitely helps me to be who I am now. That helps me navigate these white spaces. As an artist, I worked a lot with gay white men and it’s a lot of denial and anger that I have received when giving them feedback. Sometimes I just go for fried chicken, french fries and a bottle of vodka this is how I repair from all the damage. I think it’s this arrogant and ignorant style that whiteness gives to white men. Cis gay white men: some of them I have spoken with said “I am gay so I can’t be racist.”

Rachael Moore: I don’t want to exist to fear, to explain, to school, to educate. Why is it that we are moving away from this idea or concept of slavery but yet we are consistently in that place of servitude? Why do we consistently have to explain in this state of age when we all have – in this western world – access to resources. We have access to books, to people who have written substantially and successfully about white fragility, white innocence, white denial and so on. But yet you come to me in this moment, asking what racism is. Why? You think I have more access to something that you don’t? No, I don’t. You can do the same thing we have been doing: we have been talking, we have been open, we have been consistently saying that you need to dismantle the system you have built. Because let’s not forget that racism is a system that was invented for and by white people in order to for them feel comfortable in it.

Isaiah Lopaz: What can we do about racism in general? I am like, you didn’t know that it existed in the beginning, you didn’t know what it meant, you wanted to prove it and now I have to come over with a solution?
Maybe they won’t hire black people but I actually think that they will. And they will try to make it look that I was difficult. Do I see a change? I don’t know to be honest. I am prepared for more. I am more like, why would a change happen?

Rachael Moore: If I raise my voice then people get scared, people feel endangered, they feel like she is pushing back and this is not what we hired her to do. This was not her job, nor is it her place or her place to say anything. You are supposed to be on our side. Why are you not on our side? Why are you not talking about our ancestors? So, this goes back and forth and I am trying to be accountable for their actions but they are not taking it. The organization of course is in full denial: Oh, no we are no racists, you are hired yourself and that’s the proof to the fact that we are no racists. But then they will actually find a way, an institutional excuse, to say you are not the best fit. And they will find another person to replace you with. Which is what happened in my last job. I was the only person of color, the rest was white and very Flemish, also very conservative.

This conversation was part of the program of events during the exhibition of the Berlin Art Prize 2018.