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It's time we stop asking ‘where are you from?' in Germany

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People obtaining German citizenship in Brandenburg (r) and flags in Stuttgart (l). Photos: DPA
10:03 CET+01:00
When a study published on Tuesday revealed that foreigners in Germany with a visible migration background experience discrimination far more often than foreigners who appear "typically German," it resonated with The Local's Shelley Pascual.

In the study, carried out by the Council of German Foundations on Integration and Migration (SVR), responses from over 5,000 immigrants and people with a migrant background across Germany were collected.

Of those who described their appearance as "typically German," around 17 percent stated they felt disadvantaged because of their roots. By contrast, 48 percent of participants with a visible immigration background (e.g. those who have dark skin or wear a headscarf) reported having experienced discrimination.

According to these respondents, discrimination can come in many forms: violence, unfairness with regard to the search for jobs and housing, offensive statements as well as statements that may not necessarily be considered negative by the person saying it - including the often-asked question, "where are you actually from?”

As a foreigner myself in Germany, a Canadian whose parents are from the Philippines, I can relate to the respondents in the study.

Since I moved to Deutschland in 2012, I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve been asked where I’m from. One thing’s for sure though: now when it happens, I never cease to be annoyed.

It's not because I'm sick of being asked this question per se, but rather, the chances are high I'll have to deal with yet another outrageous response.

On the lower end of the scale of reactions I’ve got after answering, “I’m from Canada,” people have given me surprised looks. But when one man a few years ago said to me, “You don’t look Canadian,” I was so shocked that no words came out of my mouth. 

Having grown up in Toronto, the most diverse city in the world where over 140 languages and dialects are spoken and nearly half the population consists of visible minorities, the majority of my adult life I’d taken being surrounded by multiculturalism for granted.

I was raised in a society in which, on the whole, people can be considered Canadian regardless of their skin colour or religious attire. But Germany has a very different history of immigration compared to my Heimatland. This may account for why, in 2018, many people in Germany still seem to have a certain image in mind of what a foreigner looks like and what a German looks like.

I’m not the only person who thinks this. 

Jana Pareigis. Photo: DPA

Afro-German TV presenter Jana Pareigis has been asked where she's from since she was a child. "When I was young, I wanted to be white," she told Deutsche Welle.

Being asked 'where are you from?' is an exasperating experience for black musician Nura from the band SXTN. The rapper told Bayrischer Rundfunk that when she tells people she’s from Berlin, they often press further by asking, “but where are you really from?”

SEE ALSO: 'Berlin isn't as cosmopolitan as is often claimed'

The experiences of these German women of colour have similarities with that of a white man and friend of mine named Adam Bankowski. 

Adam has complained to me that, despite having grown up in Germany, colleagues at the international company he works for in Lower Saxony always refer to him as "the Polish guy." He says he'll never be considered German because of his Polish roots and last name.

Even Chancellor Angela Merkel has pointed out the issue. During the general election last September at a discussion between party leaders, Merkel asked Alternative for Germany (AfD) chairman Jörg Meuthen how he knew whether someone was German just by looking at them.

Meuthen had initially tried to claim that the AfD's understanding of being German included migrants from a range of backgrounds. But minutes later the facade revealed itself when he complained about visiting inner cities and barely seeing any Germans.

It's statements like these that highlight how asking 'where are you from?' reinforces assumptions of what a German looks like and what a newcomer looks like.

I can't even begin to fathom how irritating (and possibly offensive) it must be for someone who identifies as deutsch to be asked this question.

As for non-Germans like me - well, considering I've lived here nearly five years and am still asked this question, I've come to believe no matter how long I end up staying, I'll probably always be considered a foreigner (just like Adam, who isn't even a foreigner). 

Germany may never compare to countries like Canada where people from a broad range of backgrounds are regarded as Canadians, but it sure can try - particularly if it is to successfully integrate the over one million newcomers it's taken in since 2015.

It starts with rethinking how 'where are you from?' can be alternatively asked as well as whether or not it should be asked at all.

With DPA

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