Nana Addison noticed early on in life that her afro hair texture was something white people used to discriminate against her.
“People wanted our hair to be straight, or silky or more neat or whatever, not so ‘rough-looking’ or not so ‘Jamaican.’ All kinds of negative associations rooted in racial bias,” she tells DW.
It’s a common experience for black people and people of color that their hair plays a significant role in the racism and discrimination they experience in Western societies such as Germany.
When she attended a natural hair workshop in Frankfurt in 2015, run by the US celebrity hairstylist Felicia Leatherwood, it had a huge impact on her. Building businesses that would provide inclusive hair and beauty products and services for black people and people of color became a major goal.
In 2019 she organized the first “CURL Con” convention, an afro lifestyle, hair and beauty convention, as well as CURL Agency, a Berlin-based brand communication agency.
Addison is also building an app called Styleindi, due to launch later this year. It uses an AI filter to match customers with trained beauty professionals and products tailored to their specific hair and skin needs.
She moved with her parents and sister from Kumasi, Ghana, to the suburb of Essen-Horst in western Germany when she was three in the early 1990s. From the beginning of her time in Germany until the present day, she has felt the sting of racism and discrimination.
Nana Addison grew up in the Essen suburb of Horst, having moved from Ghana to Germany at the age of 3
She recalls how her mother was disparagingly treated in bureaucratic offices because of her foreign accent and dark skin and how she herself was racially abused by a teacher in school. Things became more challenging when her parents separated and her mother raised her and her sisters as a single parent.
Addison believes that discrimination and biases, both racial and class-based, made her journey through formal education and in business disproportionately more difficult than for nonblack people.
In the second of a series profiling black entrepreneurs in Berlin, she spoke to DW about her experiences and the long road she believes Germany has yet to travel when it comes to dealing with its problems of structural racism.
DW: What kind of racism did you experience growing up in Germany?
Nana Addison: At school I realized quite soon that the German school system would probably fail me because I noticed that teachers put more weight to my mishaps than to the same mishaps of students who weren’t black. As a child it is really hard to wrap your mind around it, let alone explain it to your parents when you notice how everyone can be silly in the classroom but you are always the one that’s being called out by the teacher.
This is where I started to notice that I am at a disadvantage but I can’t do anything about it, which was really frustrating for me. Another experience that really shaped my view of the world was how my mom was treated in official offices. So she has an accent, her German wasn’t that good in the beginning and they treated her like she was a second-class human being. Given that I came to Germany at such a young age, I spoke the language fluently, accent free, therefore my mom would take me to those offices to assist her in translating.
It really turns my stomach thinking about the fact that I am now paying taxes, knowing damn well that these places are mistreating and failing black woman that might be similar situations like my mom was back then.
White Germans generally do not understand that having an accent means someone is speaking a new language with the rules of their native language. That’s all it is. It doesn’t mean that they don’t understand it or that they are dumb or uneducated. So my mom having an accent reinforced stereotypes and biases in the minds of white people. For example that she is uneducated or dumb, therefore instead of simply speaking to her normally, they would speak very slow and loudly as if she was stupid.
The combined experience of racism and classism from early on is what really shaped my vision and ambition about how I wanted to move and operate as an adult in Germany. That’s the reason why I was interested in entrepreneurship early on, to be very frank. Constantly finding myself unprotected, helpless and powerless made me ponder about the interconnection of racism, freedom, oppression, power and money a lot.
I had a Latin teacher who called me the “N word” in class, and told me I would not make it to anything, that I would be a cleaner lady just like my mother. The reason why I’m sharing this out of the plethora of racist experiences in school is because, that affected my academia, the constant name calling lead me to skip school — a lot. My grades dropped and I had to repeat the class and later on change schools all together. It affected my self-confidence and motivation to do well in school, you know. And that is the story of a lot of minorities in the German school system.
How important for black people in Germany is it that they see people who look like them in certain positions in society?
You can’t be what you can’t see. You need someone to project, someone who looks like you. It can also create a safe space and lift the hesitation from speaking up. Imagine that whenever you describe an negative thing done to you, you are being told that this incident did not happen or at least not as bad as you are experiencing it. I later learned that this is called gaslighting.
Gaslighting is a big part of the racist experience, so to speak. You are being told over and over “Oh come on, they didn’t mean it that way” or “you are being too sensitive” or “so, what did you do for this to happen.” You learn not to talk to white people about this stuff anymore — at least I didn’t. Therefore it goes unrecorded and Germany believes it has “overcome racism.” It’s quite amusing if it wasn’t affecting real people’s lives in such a major way. But it it does, so we must talk about it.
Germany has mistaken ‘assimilation’ for ‘integration’. Instead of embracing your whole self including your culture or whatever you can add to the table that adds value to this society — which would be integration — you are overtly and covertly asked to strip yourself of who you are become the closest to whatever white German people define as “bio German” — which is assimilation.
Have you experienced racism as an entrepreneur?
I find it very important to clarify that the experiences I am sharing are neither unique nor new. Racism is a system, a structure, therefore it has threads in every part (of) society. I really started to understand that in the beginning stages of CURL CON to any and every hair and beauty brand in Germany to become sponsors as well as Styleindi to angel and venture capital companies. Everyone kindly declined or ignored me all together. By the time I was pitching CURL I had worked internationally as a freelance PMO (project manager) and brand consultant in a plethora of industries and was pretty active in the Berlin startup scene.
One of her major projects is CURL Con, an annual convention and trade event bringing together specialists and firms from the afro hair, lifestyle and beauty industry
I have revised or written pitches and/or business plans for nonblack acquaintances and 90% of the time they got their funding. I’ve seen hundreds of decks. At some point with CURL my friends called “pitch queen” (a sales strategist company for online entrepreneurs), because I pitched, got rejected, worked on the deck, pitch again and got rejected again, over and over. Until I realized it had nothing to do with my pitch deck nor my cash-flow sheet nor my profit and loss projections. I stopped trying and bootstrapped CURL in March 2019 with €300 ($337) and in the end of 2019 managed to scale it to €50,000 in revenue. That’s quite a scale for a business idea that has “no market” or “no real customer demand” or is “too niche” as I was told constantly.
I am hopeful yet skeptical. Nothing that I have said prior is in anyway “new breaking news.” The discussion around racism has been going on for over 20 years or longer. However with the Internet has come a new form of spreading and democratizing information as well as outstanding ways of joining forces, organizing globally to challenge the status quo and speak truth to power.
Seeing 185,000 people protest in 34 Germany cities and especially millennials and GenZ in Germany not accepting the “wait your turn” and “it takes time” statements any longer but really charging the authorities and leadership to take action and show results on all levels of society, rather sooner than later gets me excited. It feels like a new era and I hope it is not just a trend.
My desire from a entrepreneur’s perspective is that this will lead to venture capital and angel firms to take a second and third look at my pitch deck for Styleindi and future ideas as well as for these entire startup ecosystem to implements systems of intentional effort to support and invest in black founders in Germany.
An interview with Nana Addison was conducted by DW by telephone on June 10. Nana Addison provided additional comments and clarifications by email.