Statement by Jessica Lauren Elizabeth Taylor
Jessica Lauren Elizabeth Taylor is a theater practitioner, social justice advocate and community organizer. Taylor’s work manifests through performance, text, dialogue, dance and community building for Black People and People of Color. Her work centers on themes of ritual, visibility and identity mythology. She is chiefly concerned with ways to dismantle oppressive institutions and the creation of racial equity in art and theater. She strives to address race politics as a performer, maker and artist. Taylor’s current artistic practice revolves around various states of the interpretive body and how best to mis-manage these expectations. Her advocacy and organizing work stems from contemporary critical race theory. Taylor runs and hosts the monthly discursive salon on race politics and race relations ‘Black in Berlin’ and wrote this statement in response to the handling of her recent interview in Exberliner’s November 2017 issue on identity politics.
Consent is a Function of Power
In light of Exberliner magazine’s November 2017 issue, I have published a statement in response to the lack of consent that the reporters and editors had in publishing my image and words. In an effort to hold journalistic practices to a higher ethical standard, my statement seeks to expose the problematic operations of many media outlets and highlight the damage caused by non-consensual content.
Consent is a function of power. It is also an economic power. In my work as an artist and community organizer, my focus is on racial equity. I work to move the needle inches forward in representation and funding within the arts sector. Oftentimes the work that I do, specifically the Black in Berlin salon, is free and accessible to the community it serves. I am only able to do this free labor through various commissioned work and a modicum of exposure economy which serves to promote the work and incite donations. With the Black in Berlin salon, the exposure I earn through press and word of mouth are returned in physical gains through offers of space, time and shared resources. It’s a tricky game to navigate, deciding which publications deserve my story and the story of my community. And one that is easily taken advantage of as the stories of the Black Berlin community are not widely published and discussed.
Earlier this year the United Nation’s Working Group of Experts on People of African Descent embarked on a fact-finding mission throughout Germany to determine the scale of racism, prejudice and hate crimes in the country. The team of experts stated that it is “very concerned” about the situation of people of African descent in Germany. They reported that they are afflicted by institutional racism, racial profiling, day to day confrontation and one expert noted that People of African descent are on the lowest rung of German society. They drive people of African descent into poverty, forcing them into depression. The team went on to state that institutional racism and racist stereotyping by the criminal justice system has led to a failure to effectively investigate and prosecute perpetrators of racist violence, racial profiling and hate crimes against people of African descent. The issue is not merely personal, but systemic. Over a hundred years after the mass deaths of the Herero and Nama people in Namibia under German colonial rule, Germany and Namibia have started discussions about a joint declaration of the massacres. Berlin has refused reparations causing the two tribes to file a civil action suit. The city of Berlin didn’t bother to appoint a lawyer or show up for the initial court proceedings earlier this year.
In a society in which violence is readily perpetrated against a group of people and worse ignored and erased, the issue of consent can seem like a non-sequitur. But as history has repeatedly shown us, the most effective way to de-stabilize, undermine and break down a group of people is to take away their voice. I agreed to an interview with Exberliner magazine under one condition: that I would be able to approve the final edit, which is standard under German press law. I was extremely hesitant to give my story to the Exberliner as I have seen them mismanage stories by people of color in the past. I ultimately decided that speaking my truth was more valuable than continuing the deafening silence that is imposed on Black communities. I confirmed my condition to approve the text in both writing and in person with the reporter. But power supersedes consent. When it came time to publish, I got a frantic call from another reporter, telling me that they were going to press “right away” and urging me to approve my quotes verbally over the phone. This seemed highly unprofessional and I felt bullied to review my quotes because of their urgent time pressure. I declined, mentioning my condition for a third time and requested an email of my quotes be sent to me.
When I received the quotes I was completely shocked at the total fabrication of half of them and the misinterpretation of the other half. Example: A quote they sent to me: There was a lot of intentional and unintentional everyday racism, like when my East German boyfriend’s family expected me to love chicken because they read about it in a book. When I protested that this was a total fabrication, the reporter wrote back What I don’t have in my interview, and which is a terrible mistake by me, I cannot understate that enough, is that I have you quoted for saying that they expected you to love chicken. You said certain food, not chicken, and I can’t believe that’s what I heard it as. It was not my intention in any kind of way to act prejudicial which it of course seems like.
The mis-handling and total violation of my words was enough to inspire my mistrust. After starting to correct them, I replied instead with a request to remove my quotes, image and likeness completely from the issue as they had grossly mishandled my story and the delicate issues of the Black Berlin community. The reporter responded, asking me to reconsider. I replied with a firm No for the second time and then got an email from both the reporter and the editor-in-chief, telling me the issue had already gone to print. In a classic abuser/victim scenario, the editor-in-chief replied that I didn’t have a right to “change my mind.” And in perhaps the most offensive and ironic gaslighting I’ve ever experienced, she wrote that the article was a good one and urged me not to “be prejudiced against it.”
Power supercedes consent. No means No means No. I provided Exberliner with a specific, critical and nuanced analysis of situations and issues affecting the Black Berlin community. And they spat out a generalized, lazy and inept mess that perpetuates the very stereotypes I railed against. In a vain attempt to offer a glimpse into a fragile and mis-represented community, Exberliner ended up significantly contributing to the anguish and stress that my community seeks refuge from. And they will profit greatly from it. That is the economy of consent. Even in their statement, they encourage dissenters to buy a copy and decide for themselves if they have caused harm. Exberliner is denying any responsibility for their actions, naturally, and furthermore are putting the blame on the two black women who have expressed dissent. This is another classic abuser/victim, colonizer/colonized scenario. Aside from the legal implications, I ask the Exberliner: what is their journalistic code of ethics? They have certainly violated the standard principles of truthfulness, accuracy, objectivity, impartiality, fairness and just last week, public accountability.
Toni Morrison says The function, the very serious function of racism is distraction. It keeps you from doing your work. It keeps you explaining, over and over again, your reason for being. Somebody says you have no language and you spend twenty years proving that you do. As we’ve seen with the recent #notsurprised and #metoo movements, making abuse of power stories visible means shining light on the unheard voices of marginalized communities. But it also forces these very communities to re-perform the exhausting labor of the trauma. When the Exberliner published words and my image without my consent, they contributed to the stress and anguish of a body that is already in the direct line of abuse.
Written by: Jessica Lauren Elizabeth Taylor
Image by: Coco