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Emilia Roig: Germany didn’t overcome racism in 1945

Emilia Roig on the Center for Intersectional Justice and her love-hate relationship to Berlin

Photo: Olga Blackbird

Born and raised in France, author and activist Emilia Roig’s background is Jewish-Algerian on her father’s side, while her mother is from Martinique. Roig has lived in Berlin for over 16 years and recently published Why We Matter: Das Ende der Unterdrückung (Why We Matter: The End of Oppression). She came to Berlin with low expectations and formed a love-hate relationship with the city: “I complain about Berlin a lot – the unfriendliness, the racism, the lack of spontaneity, the fact that I constantly find myself in a sea of whiteness, although this is slowly changing, and the grey weather most of the year. But I love the freedom Berlin provides. It helps me become who I really am.”

As a biracial kid, Roig has felt like an outsider since she was a child. Roig explains how her identity as a person of colour is intertwined with her family’s history of migration – and deeply marked by French colonialism and imperialism. Her ancestors were enslaved people of Africa. Living with such histories, and a strong sense of entrenched injustice, motivated Roig to create the Center for Intersectional Justice. “Intersectionality is central to my identity because it combines several layers of structural disadvantages – being a woman, being Black, being queer, and of privilege, being cis, having a PhD, a French passport and being non-disabled.”

I love the freedom Berlin provides. It helps me become who I really am.

Roig founded the CIJ because she “no longer wanted to make compromises and be complacent in a system that upholds social, racial and gender hierarchies.” She works against what she calls “the persistent belief that Germany overcame racism after 1945” and her book is based on the premise that Germany has a problem. “At the CIJ, we discuss how we can dismantle oppression, not whether oppression exists,” she says.

Although tackling complex topics in a language far from her mother tongue was challenging, Roig chose to learn German based on her emotional ties to the language. Her child speaks German as a first language, and Roig feels that her part Ashkenazi-Jewish background has been underscored by a sense of real rootedness. A Franco-German Kita provided childcare – and created a huge upgrade in Roig’s sense of belonging, as the Black and francophone community was better represented there than anywhere else. But it’s a microcosm, and Roig misses this kind of diversity in the wider German context. She’s learnt to adapt: “Berlin is changing and I try to embrace that. If, at some point, the city doesn’t give me what I need, I might decide to move on.” Until such time, Roig will continue to hope and fight for a world without oppression – in the city she never thought she’d fall for.