How Racist is Germany?
I am frequently told by the people around me, that I am far too sensitive when it comes to racism. When British expat friends refer to ‘Packys’ or the ‘Packy Shop’ and I tell them it’s racist, they reply “Come on, it’s just what we call them, it’s not really racist”. When I bring up the perpetual string of racist Fasching costumes that annually appear in German shops, I am told that “I don’t understand, because I’m not German”. When I object to people using the word “Neger” I am told it is just a traditional word and that no offence is meant. At one point I began to wonder if these people were right, I was overly sensitive. That was until I saw a white man attempt to fondle the hair of a black woman on the ubahn.
What I saw on the ubahn that night shocked and confused me. What had possessed someone to think it was OK to invade someone else’s space in such an overt manner? It was not until I read an article by blogger and journalist Bim Adewunmi that a realised this was not an isolated incident, but in fact something that black people and apparently black women suffer regularly while living in Germany. Her experience of men (the article recounts two incidents) reaching into her personal space and then having the audacity to make remarks such as “Kunta” and “Fufu” as they did it, disgusted me as it should everyone else.
Up until I read Adewunmi’s article, I did not have the language to describe what I had seen, but the term she uses “Micro-aggression” perfectly encapsulates the state of Germany when it comes to race. Once I had become aware of the language of microaggressions, I began to see them more often; the blacked-up children on Epiphany (6th January), the man in a class I was teaching who pulled his eyes into a slant in order to depict a Chinese colleague, the local travel agent advertising American package holidays with two Lawn Jockeys in the window.
I come from a culture of see something, say something, which has and will continue to cause problems. I don’t spend my life policing people’s conversations, but I do have the reputation among my friends of being a bleeding-heart snowflake because I am happy to point out when certain language crosses the line. I spent an hour writing this article, attempting to justify my liberalism in a whirlwind of virtue signalling, but who am I kidding? I’m white, essentially middle class and male. I occupy the social status high ground where those things are considered beneficial. I have experienced very little discrimination in comparison to others, but that doesn’t make me incapable of seeing when it happens.
My position, as I feel many people in Germany would agree, is that racism is a cancer one that cannot be tolerated at any level. Sometimes it is easy to spot, such as when AfD politicians tweet racist comments or describe black German footballers as unsuitable neighbours. In those instances, people cry foul. When the PEGIDA marched through my city, they were met by triple their number in counter protesters, declaring “Nazis Out” and “Nazis off our streets”. However, there is the everyday racism that pervades German society, not just in the East or from the hollow moralising of right wing politics.
Saraya Gomis, a volunteer anti-discrimination commissioner for education in Berlin, points out that even in the supposed forward-thinking German capital, racism is still bubbling under the surface, whether intentional or not. She too has been the victim of free-handed hair fondlers, is often asked where she comes from and is spoken to in English, even when she speaks to people in unaccented German. She receives hate mail that perpetuates hundred-year-old stereotypes linking her race to oversexualisation and a lack of intelligence. More importantly, she points out that racism targets all minorities and that the result of constantly pointing out the racial differences will only lead to minorities stepping away from society and segregating groups.
When I openly discuss these topics with German friends, I am frequently and aggressively rebuffed with a myriad of reasons why I am wrong. One excuse I hear peddled out, is that Germany never had African colonies as they did in the UK. This bemuses me no end, on the one hand factually because Germany certainly did have African territories up until the end of World War I and on the other hand the belief that the UK is a racial utopia because they had a colonial empire. I can firmly declare that latter statement is full of shit.
I feel that the major problem Germany has is that over time the concept of racism and the holocaust have become so intertwined that they now mean the same thing. To call a German racist is to somehow tar them with a brush that includes mass genocide. It is easy to see, therefore, why Germans would feel so angry about being called a racist. That’s not an excuse by any stretch, but it does add clarity as to why, so many react with such venom when labelled with racism.
Where does this all leave us? Well, it entirely depends on you dear reader. I intend to keep calling a racist spade a racist spade. Germany, in the era of the global right wing shift, must decide how it treats its minority and ethnic Germans at all levels. Fighting overt racism is key, but so is spotting the covert micro-aggressions and calling them out for what they are.