Is Tyrone a black name
interview : When can I finally play a mayor?
Berlin - Tyron Ricketts, actor, producer and activist, is on a mission: The Berliner wants people of color to be presented differently in film and television. Neither clichéd negative nor too positive. But simply: completely normal. The 46-year-old produces content and lobby work with his agency Panthertainment.
We speak to him via Skype, it is still the phase of the pandemic when encounters seem inappropriate. The interview was arranged long before the violent death of George Floyd in Minneapolis first shook the United States and, above all, the world. But as it is, Ricketts ’theme of life, the way the white majority society deals with people of color, has suddenly moved onto the political agenda. “The topic is now on the table in Germany too,” he says.
His language is calm, almost deliberate, but the tone is clear and the message clear. In an interview, he explains why the average consumer represents a role of longing for People of Color and why fictional materials are important to undermine structural racism. When it comes to his own experiences as a youth in the hockey club, he thinks a little longer to bring back faded memories. It's not all good.
Mr Ricketts, after the death of George Floyd, the United States was in turmoil. Do you think anything will change this time?
I think there is actually a chance that something can change this time. The reason for this is that we live in the age of digitization, in which the voiceless suddenly have a voice. This shifts the balance of power as to who is allowed to communicate what and how. Many things can no longer be hushed up today, as was done in the past. When an injustice happens, it is communicated. And if it isn't discussed on television, then on social media channels.
Do you hope that the confrontation with racism in the USA will also lead to progress in dealing with racism in German society?
The fact that the whole world is networked means that the discourse that is currently taking place in the USA is also being continued here. We have our own history of racism, Germany is different from America, but the basic problem of the Eurocentric view is the same everywhere. Why does one discuss racism at Maischberger, for example, but has not invited anyone who is affected themselves? It's like five men discussing pregnancy on a talk show. But the topic is now on the table in Germany too, and it is up to all of us to ensure that it is not wiped away until something has seriously changed.
A magazine once called you a “one-man Soko against racism”. Is this description correct?
The somewhat lurid headline resulted from the fact that I was allowed to portray a commissioner in the crime series “Soko Leipzig” from the mid-2000s - as one of the first black actors. Although this is consistent, because I have been fighting for a long time and on a broad front against what is politically awkward.
Do you really feel like a lone fighter?
I was never the only fighter, but most of us fought alone. We weren't well connected, and at least I had the feeling that I was fighting against windmills because German society wasn't ready to get involved in this discussion.
What was missing then?
The German-speaking media landscape was still different, very homogeneous. People of Color had no say in the design, and there was no interest in changing that, especially no economic interest. Two things have changed now. First, Germany is experiencing a demographic change. Around 25 percent of Germans now have a history of migration, and these people want to find themselves in the fictional material. Second, globalization and digitization have promoted a new openness. Streaming providers like Netflix or Amazon show content that can be seen all over the world. If German media workers want to keep up, they too are forced to think about diversity. The world looks at people differently than the Germans do, less homogeneously, not Eurocentric. What changes as a result of these two developments: Suddenly the voices of the People of Color and people with a migration history become an economic factor.
And the economy is driving the rethinking?
Exactly, we now have some kind of market power. In addition, streaming formats are changing viewing habits. Series on Netflix & Co. have the great advantage that viewers can always start with the first episode. This is not guaranteed in linear television, which means that series must not be too complex there. The top priority was not to confuse the audience. Logical that the complexity of the story and the characters almost always fell by the wayside.
In what way do fictional content shape social consciousness?
Yuval Harari writes in his book “A Brief History of Mankind” from the moment when a person was able to lead more than 120 other people in a certain direction for the first time. It worked with a simple story: This tree is sacred and it wants us to stay in this valley.
A narrative to gather behind. And that creates an effect. There is a very interesting study that detects the so-called Scully effect. Named after Dana Scully, the female FBI agent and forensic scientist who solves mysterious cases in the series "The X-Files" alongside her colleague Fox Mulder. A survey of women who had gone into science or police service a few years after the broadcast showed that 60 percent of those questioned saw Agent Scully as a role model for this fictional character to have shaped the aspiration level of these women. This effect shows how a fictional narrative can shape biographies.
Does that only work with particularly strong personalities who act as role models?
I think it works in a more subtle way, especially when a story naturally shows the different ways of life and coexistence. The fictional material does not have to deal with these topics obviously, the imprinting often happens in the subconscious.
How does such an unconscious imprint work?
Take "The Walking Dead", at first sight a series about zombies. If you take a closer look at episodes, all possible forms of state and government are declined in history, from democracy to monarchy to socialism. The series gives the viewer the opportunity to use the fictitious game image to check or develop their own settings. Not as a political education television, but through a zombie series.
How do these insights shape your work?
With my Berlin production company Panthertainment, I want to develop awareness of why it is important that a black actor also portrays a German lawyer or doctor. Personally, I like to play a drug dealer from time to time, that's okay. Only the balance should be adjusted to the reality. That usually doesn't happen. Marginalized groups continue to be shown mainly in stigmatized roles. Whereby slowly but surely something is happening.
What are you up to?
I travel a lot in German television editorial offices, go to KiKa and SWR, visit production companies like Degeto, which is responsible for a large number of television films for ARD, and sit with Netflix and other streaming providers. I feel there that the penny is falling. That the will is there and that people try to take another point of view accordingly. But: Everything is progressing very slowly, which has to do with the fact that the workforce lacks a distinct experience of diversity. Then it becomes difficult, because when those responsible for storytelling result in a homogeneous bio-German group, they reach their limits if they are to tell the story of a person of color. How I reach my limits when I'm supposed to tell about a 50 year old blonde German woman. I don't know enough about that either.
So it is important to set up the teams heterogeneously.
Yes, at the most varied of points in the creation process, from the script to the editing and casting to the production itself, i.e. in the creative trades or the direction.
In German literature there are more and more books by authors with a migration background who are at the top of the lists of critics and bestsellers. Since films are increasingly resorting to novels: Can we look forward to a new diversity in film and television?
That can be, although it is much more complex to produce a film than to publish a novel. First of all, it's a lot more expensive. As a result, those responsible for the selection of substances and during production minimize supposed risks by switching off variables that cannot be assessed. This also includes the complexity of the characters.
Some time ago the last episode of “Lindenstrasse” was shown, a series with social significance because it showed new realities early on, for example the first kiss between two homosexuals. Is there a series or film moment in Germany that was similarly groundbreaking for you?
(thinking) The one big moment when I thought, yes, now we have arrived, I didn't remember it. Smaller aha moments, for example, in the so-called migration comedies, where a distinction was still made between “we” and “her”. There is nothing wrong with exaggerating this perspective, making fun of it. But now is the time for something new.
What could that be?
We have to rethink what the narrative about Germany should look like. We need stories that tell of this country as the open society that we already find in fact. As mentioned, a quarter of all Germans have a migration background. And yet these people are not considered Germans, but continue to be marginalized as “Germans with a migration background” - which is very adventurous with a share of 25 percent. I see series such as “4 Blocks” or “Dogs Of Berlin” playing in Berlin as ambivalent: Sure, Berlin is shown as a heterogeneous city. However, people with a history of migration are often shown stereotypically in these materials.
Is it different in other European countries?
Yes. There is, of course, racism in France and Great Britain too. But a black French is a French. A black Briton a Briton. At the integration summit in March 2020, Angela Merkel asked herself when it will be so far in this country that you will no longer ask a black German: Where are you from? I thought it was good that our Chancellor was surprised. Ten years ago I asked myself when I would finally be able to play a mayor in this country. Now the Chancellor is also wondering how you can tell that this debate has reached Germany. At last!
They argue that this new narrative must also be part of history lessons in schools. Why?
History is, as the name suggests, storytelling. The schools and non-fiction books convey that Columbus discovered America. So it is pretended that there were no people there before. Let us take seriously our claim that all people are the same, had Columbus not discovered America, but raided it with predators. But that's not how we tell this story. We also talk far too seldom about the slave era, and when Germany's evils in the 19th and 20th centuries are talked about, then hardly about the colonial times, about the genocide in German South West Africa. Conveying history often still functions as a “we and you” narrative - the white European person being the subject and “the others” the object. What we need, however, is a shared narrative that does not exclude or object to any group.
As the narrator of fictional stories, do you look jealously at sport because it makes it easier to create various heroic stories there?
Not jealous, no. I notice that the positive effects of sport are short-lived.
How do you see that?
In 2006 there was genuine enthusiasm in Germany about a national team that was more diverse than the teams in previous years. I was hoping that the atmosphere around the World Cup in my own country could serve as a model for how we Germans can deal with our national feeling in the future. I don't mean a traditional, historical national feeling, but a kind of new national feeling, as the joy that we live in a great country in which a lot works - including the idea of an open society. But has that changed anything in the long term? I do not think so. Because if that were the case, then the outcry in Germany should have been greater than Gauland of the AfD said he believed that many Germans would not want Mr. Boateng as a neighbor. The fact that someone who has made such a clear racist statement sits in the German Bundestag shows that sport alone cannot turn things around. There is also Jérôme Boateng, the great footballer. And Jérôme Boateng, the allegedly unwanted neighbor. But the time is over when this division was somehow okay. As people of color and Germans with a history of migration, we want to be presented as a matter of course. As a normal part of German society.
The average consumer as a figure of longing.
I can leave it like this.
Many so-called bio-Germans long to break out of normality.
There are longings that are opposed to each other: we want to be part of the whole, but stand out as individuals. We want to feel safe and always discover something new at the same time. These are four poles between which we always feel drawn back and forth. What I can say from my experience: It feels bad when on the one hand there is an imbalance that I cannot resolve on my own.
You worked for Harry Belafonte in the United States for five years, developing media strategies against everyday racism for his team. What impressed you about him?
Harry Belafonte has been fighting against racism since the 1960s. He uses show business and his influence as a star to change society in a positive way. He marched with Martin Luther King, drove to the southern states with Sydney Portier to politically mobilize black voters, raised large sums of money to change things. To see that at 93 years of age he is not bitter, but still has a great glow, was inspiring for me.
America had a black president in Obama. How do you rate the impact of his two terms in office?
What Obama managed to break through the glass ceiling. If anyone had asked me before 2009 if a Person of Color would ever become President of the United States, I would have said, I'll bet my little finger that this won't happen. That Obama succeeded has achieved a lot, also with a view to how he filled this office, how he celebrated black culture at this highest level of power. When a rapper like Jay-Z appears with the president, it sends out a signal.
Although in many political areas he did not make a policy that specifically helped the blacks.
True, although there is already such affirmative action in the USA, i.e. the approach of giving preference to groups that have long suffered from marginalization and inequality. With the aim of reducing the distance.
Would such an approach also make sense for Germany?
I do not think so. First, affirmative action counteracts the longing to be treated normally. Second, there is far more trouble in American society than in Germany, starting with the health system or privatized prisons, where the aim is to earn money with prisoners - and these are often black people. Harry Belafonte has no reason to compare this practice to slavery. I think we can do it in Germany without affirmative action. But that doesn't mean there isn't enough to do.
Can sport at least help with this work?
Sport remains important to show examples of how it can be done. It is true that he cannot possibly change society on his own. But there is still a little room for improvement. Sport sets a good example in the fight against racism. So far, however, he has refused to address this problem seriously, even beyond gestures and TV spots. Take the Özil story, there was no clear statement from the DFB for the player.But there was also no clear stance on this issue. Rather, it was questioned whether it could really be that he had experienced racism. As if experiences of racism in Germany were a mirage. What I also missed was the political stance of other successful athletes - including those who also have a migration background, mind you. I don't want to blame anyone for that, you probably acted correctly in terms of your career.
Because attitude leads to problems?
Apparently that is the case in sport, as the example of American football player Colin Kaepernick in the United States shows: His kneeling down during the anthem as a protest against inequality was viewed by many as exemplary in terms of socio-political considerations, including far beyond sport. He hasn't got a job as a quarterback since then.
Now several Bundesliga professionals have reacted after the killing of George Floyd, for example Marcus Thuram from Borussia Mönchengladbach went on his knees after his goal, Jadon Sancho from Borussia Dortmund showed a jersey with the sentence “Justice for George Floyd”. How do you rate these actions and the feedback on them?
I think it is urgently necessary that athletes also use their great influence to change society in a positive way. The fight against injustice is more important than internal rules. In the meantime, a spokesman for the National Football League (NFL) has said that his criticism of the political statements of football players in the NFL was wrong. That is a clear position against Trump and racism.
Have you actually gained experience in a sports club yourself?
Today surfing is my passion, as a child I played field hockey for a club. I can't remember seeing another black boy at games or tournaments back then.
How did you perceive that?
Well, that's just how it was. And not just on the hockey field. I was born in 1973. When I consciously started watching television, there was Carl Lewis in the Olympics and Roberto Blanco in the entertainment series. Then nothing came for a long time, neither on television, at school or in the sports club. The first black in the national team? Gerald Asamoah, that was back in the early 2000s. There were no role models for me in Germany. There were clear rejections for this. The father of a friend from the hockey club, who often drove us to the games, said things like: “The coal sack won't get in my car!” At that time I was ten or eleven and I noticed very clearly that I was a thorn in some people Eye am. And why? Because my skin is black. It couldn't be anything else, after all, we went to the same school, spoke the same language, did the same sport.
Where did you stop?
Because I couldn't find any role models in Germany, I looked to America, where I discovered rap music. That impressed me, because black people there created something very powerful.
Have the racist slogans been discussed in the team?
No. That was never an issue.
And in your family?
My parents were already living separately at the time, and my mother - born Austrian - had no good antennae for this topic. At that time she went through life very color-blind. Which, when you have a black child experiencing racism, doesn't necessarily help. Just because she doesn't see colors doesn't mean the rest of the world sees it that way, too. I sometimes felt left alone, especially since there were no friends with whom I could have shared my experiences.
What strategy do you develop as a child to deal with this situation?
You always begin to look at the world from two perspectives, your own and the white one. In this way, one tries to adapt beyond measure or to confirm the clichés in order to achieve a positive effect. So you develop a wide variety of survival strategies, none of which have much to do with who you actually are. Then when rap music came along, I was totally gripped by that culture. Suddenly there was a field in which I optically fully fitted, which had its own language and which gave me a voice.
Was rap music a motor for integration for you?
Well, yes. Because it gave me the opportunity to identify with something - and it motivated me to look for like-minded people in Germany as well. Which I then found in the 90s, although that didn't necessarily have to be People of Color.
Could a sports club have taken on this integration service?
In theory, yes. But for that he would have to face the political debates much more intensely.
When does integration fail?
When one side or the other claims that they know exactly how it's going.
And when does it succeed?
When everyone involved listens to each other. Because integration and racism are not issues that whites or people of color could solve for themselves.
Tyron Ricketts ...
- ... was born in 1973 in Weiz in Styria, the son of an Austrian and a Jamaican. When he was six, he moved to Aachen with his mother.
- ... began his career as an actor, presenter and hip-hop musician in the mid-1990s. In 2012 he went to the USA for two years, where he worked for Harry Belafonte. Tyron Ricketts has lived in Berlin since 2017, where he runs his production company Panthertainment. Most recently he was in the Netflix series “Dogs of Berlin” and the crime series “Tödliche Secrets”.
- ... was interviewed by us as part of a cross-sport discussion format started last year by the federal program “Integration through Sport” (DOSB). The focus: questions about migration, integration and identity. More at: www.integration-durch-sport.de
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