Saraya Gomis is the daughter of a German mother and a Senegalese father. At the baker, strangers ask her “where I come from”. At a conference, participants persistently speak English with her even though she answers in accent-free German. In the subway, a stranger starts touching her long braids without asking permission.
“I just grabbed that person's hair too. Strangely enough, she's completely freaked out,” she says.
The debate about everyday racism in Germany was revived earlier this month when the painter Noah Becker was racially insulted on social media. A commentary on the Twitter account of Alternative for Germany MP Jens Maier described Becker as a “little half negro”. The tweet referred to an interview in which the son of tennis legend Boris Becker and Barbara Becker said that Berlin was a “white city” compared to Paris and London. He himself had been attacked because of his skin colour, he said.
“Noah Becker expressed what many black people in Germany unfortunately have to put up with every day. They are insulted, they are disadvantaged in their job search, they struggle to find a place to live,” says Christine Lüders, head of the federal anti-discrimination office.
Many black Germans have the feeling that they are not treated like full citizens of the country, Lüders concludes. “We must counteract this impression, including by openly addressing discrimination and clearly putting racists in their place.”
Saraya Gomis is an anti-discrimination commissioner for the Berlin Education Department and volunteers against racism. When she goes to the opera with young Arabs, Turks and black people in the bourgeois Berlin-Charlottenburg district, she experiences “little moments of silence”.
“The silence, those glances – you have to endure them,” she says.
When pupils, parents, and in rare cases teachers, who feel discriminated against on the grounds of their sexual orientation, disability or ethnicity, come to see her, she can relate to them. She has experienced enough discrimination herself in Berlin.
Gomis laughs a lot, even when she talks about embarrassing social situations. In connection with her work against racism she often receives hate mail. The basic tenor of these mails is a feared “genocide against the Germans”. The writers often accuse black people of being “oversexualized and less intelligent”.
Berlin, Gomis says, is by no means as cosmopolitan as is often claimed. People with a migrant background often experience being rejected by restaurants, she states. “You'll realize half the places aren't for me. I'll just have the shisha bar.”
The complaints received by the Federal Anti-Discrimination Office also show that ethnic minorities in Germany need to develop a thick skin.
In one case reported to them, a 19-year-old was travelling by bus from Berlin to Leipzig. She reported that the bus driver greeted her with the words “I'm not going to South Africa”. In the end the bus company sent an apology and a free travel voucher.
Flippant comments hurt in the short term. But other cases have a bigger impact on people's lives. In one instance a dark-skinned woman was rejected for an apprenticeship at an insurance company. The woman contacted the anti-discrimination office after the insurance company had justified its refusal on the grounds that customers would be afraid of her.
Not every racist action is as clear. Often the person's ethnicity is not openly discussed. Nevertheless, people with African parents often experience that they receive more rejections in their search for accommodation than others, and are often rejected by bouncers or approached by strangers looking for drugs.
Sometime the misunderstandings happen when Germans are too eager to help.
The journalist Mohamed Amjahid, son of former “guest workers” from Morocco, describes in a book how he desperately tried to report on the new “German welcome culture” at Munich central station in summer 2015, as refugees were arriving in the country.
Instead of answering his questions, an “elderly woman in a dirndl” wanted to force a bar of soap on him. “Soaap is goood “, she repeated persistently – despite the fact that he introduced himself to her as a journalist from Berlin.