In My Own Words: What I’ve Learned From Racism in the US and Germany
Madu Cole, 27, shares how racism has shaped his life and how everyone can be an asset in this fight.
Madu Cole, 27, was born and raised in the US, in San Jose, California. His parents moved to the States from Sierra Leone and Nigeria in the 80s, and met at a theme park in San Jose.
After completing his bachelor’s degree he decided to move to Europe, and ended up in Berlin in 2015 to work and pursue his master’s in finance, which he completed in 2019. He now works for a German mobile bank, N26, and plays basketball in the first regional league.
“As a Black man growing up in the United States, I experienced discrimination and racism at various points throughout my whole life. That’s why I see myself as an advocate, an activist, and a voice standing up against racism from an early age,” he says. Cole has always tried to educate friends, family members, cousins, and his younger siblings. This, in his own words, is his story.
I think I was nine or 10 years old when I truly realised: I was different. I had to watch Roots in junior high school, a TV miniseries about an African slave sold in America. His name was Kunta Kinte. That was the first time I really learned about slavery, the first time I felt uncomfortable about being a minority in a public setting.
There were predominantly Asian and white people in my school — just a few Black people: me and my sisters, really. After watching the show, I would hear the occasional comment: “Hey, is this really how it’s like?” Or, at times I would be the subject of certain imprudent jokes such as: “Wow, you run like Kunta Kinte,” or lines straight from the series: “What’s your name, boy?” That was my first taste of racism in childhood.
Looking back, that behavior was absolutely wrong — it’s ignorant and definitely racist. But one of the challenges for me always was: How do I deal with this? How do I get back at this? Do I come back with anger? I have always been an individual with thick skin, but I must admit, it was tough to go through this and I brushed it off for a long time. I dealt with this kind of racism — but always kept it to myself. I never shared my feelings or dwelled on these instances for too long.
I was born and raised in San Jose, California, a quite diverse city, where many cultures are celebrated; a fair representation of the ideals of the so-called American Dream: opportune and welcoming. The harsh reality, however, is that in the US injustice, discrimination, and inequality has always been present. It has taken me some time and a move across the pond to grow wiser and more aware of these certain aspects.
Growing up a young Black male in the US, I was raised in a family dynamic not often aligned with the common stereotypes of an “average Black family.” I am the second of four children, my mother and father both working, and my siblings and I have all attended top universities in the country.
I would often hang around in areas where Black people “didn’t fit.” In some areas I frequented, people would look at me a certain way. I’ve also experienced times where a white person would move away or cross to the other side of the street from me on the sidewalk because they may have been “intimidated.”
I often try to assure people that I am “safe.” Maybe, that’s a weird thing to say, but I always feel I have to do things to make strangers feel “comfortable” about my presence. I smile at people, I try to look people in the eyes when speaking and listening, showing them that I’m an understanding person. But no matter what car you drive, or how smart you are, or how you behave; you are, somehow, never on the same level as your non-Black peers, colleagues. Furthermore, you are often forced to live up to a standard, rather than be one.
Racism exists in both the US and Germany (where I have been living for five years now). However, the racism I’ve experienced here is different. People ask me questions about the N-word or why Black people only sing rap songs. They would ask why America is the way it is; why Black people are looked down on. Or they would ask, why have Black people been protesting for so long?
Although there is some kind of naivety, there is also a willingness of the younger people here in Germany to learn and understand. Whereas, in the US, this notion is sort of a mixed bag, depending where you live. In many instances, it is easy to see that some people don’t want to learn, as they do not want or expect us to succeed.
In the US, racism is more blatant and “in your face.” It is also systematic and embedded into our laws and constitution as highlighted in a renowned documentary 13th . Everyone understands what is and what isn’t racism. Police brutality didn’t start a few weeks ago; these cases have been going on for centuries and Black people have been getting killed for ages.
Even in today’s society, where people use technology in an effort to share evidence — it doesn’t make a difference. This is why action is necessary, and it is time to speak up and force the change we want to see.
I’ve been pulled over myself for speeding and other things. Nowadays, these simple situations come with increased pressure. You really don’t know what to do, or what to expect: “Where do I put my hands? On the dashboard? Outside the window? My phone is black — what happens if they think it’s a gun?” There are so many things that go through your head. “What if I had been in the wrong place at the wrong time?” Maybe I wouldn’t be here today.
I don’t know all the different corners in Europe, so I cannot fully elaborate on all the dimensions of racism here. But I experienced this one scenario here in Berlin where I was stopped by the police. I was walking with a friend of Arabic background, we were heading to a concert, with beers in our hands.
I saw a police van from the corner of my eye and could feel that the van was stopping. I heard the voice of a man, saying “Entschuldigung” [excuse me]. I didn’t want to look back at all so we decided to just continue walking to avoid any trouble.
When we heard his voice again, repeating “Entschuldigung” I whispered to my friend “I think they’re here for us, bro.” So we finally turned around. We both ended up speaking German to the police officer which threw him off.
When he asked us for our IDs I showed him my ID which states that I am from California, while my friend showed his UK passport. We just got stopped for no apparent reason. Doing nothing wrong, on a busy street. There was really no reason to come after us. And the lingering question until this day is: Why did they stop us?
It’s sad that this is the first thing that comes to my mind — but what else could have been the reason? And who knows what could have happened on a different day?
I am completely aware that I don’t always fit what people expect of me. People might see an athlete and perceive that I am not as intelligent. They might expect me not to be smart with money — not knowing I work at a bank and have a master's degree in finance. Or they may see me wear my hat backwards, with my chain on and perceive me as a “wannabe rapper” — unaware that someday, I want to start my own business. I am proud of who I am. But at times the internal conflict of how to carry myself considering how people perceive me as a Black person, often raises a twinge of uncertainty.
As Black people, we are stronger and more powerful than what others shape us to be. We don’t have to prove that, but we definitely show that every day. We should always be proud of our culture. Although, we come into our lives challenged with various societal disadvantages, we still find ways to be the most heralded artists in music, the most praised and gifted athletes, and the founders of some of the most successful businesses — there is an energy that we carry with us into everything that we seek to accomplish.
As a Black person, as an African, I am proud of what my people have done and continue to achieve. We know what it takes, especially in this system that society has set against us. We always push forward. I try to inspire my brothers and sisters, my own family, my friends; fighting as a part of the various units worldwide trying to change the narrative. That’s the only way forward. The goal is to continue finding avenues to destroy walls and build bridges.
Until now, it’s been difficult for me to understand how people can question or challenge the existence of racism, racial profiling, and injustice amid everything that is currently happening. Hate is something that is taught. And I believe that rather than spreading hatred, people need to educate others about equality and inclusion. That’s something that needs to start in the home; eventually spreading to the larger community.
When we shout, “Black Lives Matter!” It is not in an effort to say that other lives do not matter. Instead, we are pleading that we should not be forgotten in the course of all lives that should be recognized. Black lives have been ignored, undervalued, and overlooked, for far too long. Now we are marching, teaching, and preaching that from this day forward, we want to be appreciated and treated with the respect any human that walks this Earth deserves.
For people who are well-informed, those who understand how society works, how human rights works, how justice works, how peace works, it should be clear that the world needs to open their eyes and acknowledge what we have endured for centuries.
Now is the time to march, donate, and stand with Black people; be there for your colleagues, family, and friends. Beyond that, continue educating yourself and your peers.
We have to pass on this plethora of knowledge from generation to generation and we need to be hungry for more knowledge — the information is out there: statistics, speakers, speeches, marches, Black history textbooks, there are Black history documentaries, there are so many different avenues that help you understand what we are going through.
Do the research. Ask questions about it. Don’t be afraid to dig even deeper. You can be an asset to this fight.
“In My Own Words” is a content series that promotes and amplifies the voices of activists leading the fight against extreme poverty and its root causes — both in their own communities and around the world. We want to give people the opportunity to tell their own stories, unfiltered and in their own words, because everyone needs to be heard to achieve a world that’s equal and fair for all.