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OPINION: When will Germany deal with its casual racism problem?

OPINION: When will Germany deal with its casual racism problem?
People at a Black Lives Matter protest in Berlin in July 2020. Photo: DPA
Whether it's in the supermarket, gym or office, microaggressions against marginalised people are happening every day in Germany, writes Barbara Woolsey. Will this change anytime soon?

I keep thinking about a recent conversation with a Black friend who, after living in Germany for over a decade, has decided to leave for good. The uniquely laidback lifestyle and vibrant cultural scene in Berlin are a couple of the things he’ll miss. But one thing he won’t? “All the casual racism. For sure.”

Being a foreigner of colour myself, I know what he’s talking about. Microaggressions. Like the good beer and bureaucracy, they are also a local fixture.

Microaggressions are everyday expressions of discrimination that make marginalised folks feel othered and uncomfortable.

They can be offhand and fleeting, intentional or not. Frustratingly, sometimes microaggressions come so out of left field you don’t even register them in the moment. Like the Five Point Palm Exploding Heart Technique from Kill Bill, you’re already a few steps away before thinking: “Wait a second – what did they just say?”

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A couple of years ago, the #MeTwo campaign on Twitter, started by a German-Turkish activist inspired by #MeToo, brought commonplace instances of ethnic and racial discrimination in Germany to light.

Glib comments like being asked, “Where are you really from?” (The answer? Frankfurt) to remarks with far-reaching consequences, like teachers discriminating against students from ethnic minorities.

The tweet below shows the German Green party Cem Özdemir, who is of Turkish origin, discussing racism in schools.

Of my experiences, the one that first comes to mind is the many times that men here have referred to my Asian looks as “exotic” (often coupled with a creepy smile). As if I’m a flamingo or something.

READ ALSO: My experiences of everday racism in Germany

'I'm having a lot of difficult conversations'

Germany is a lodestar of liberal and progressive values. Yes, this is the same place where, in recent years, thousands nationwide have marched in demonstrations against populism and far-right sentiment.

That allowed over a million refugees during the refugee crisis to enter the country, and cheered them on with signs reading, “Welcome to Germany”. According to the Allensbach Institute, over half of Germany’s population aged 16 and over offered assistance to newcomers during those first few months.

Yet, whether in the supermarket checkout line or at the fitness studio, I still see and hear microaggressions happening all the time. A culture exists in Germany where microaggressions have room to thrive.

Germans are fiercely protective of order and status quo. Uniformity and unwavering adherence to the rules ensures that past mistakes do not repeat.

When someone’s in the wrong, they will surely and swiftly be corrected, often loud and publicly. This reality allows for microaggressions to surface as Freudian slips. Their prevalence speaks to a larger systemic problem of discrimination beneath a society that wants to be known as accepting and tolerant.

A Black activist, for example, recently told me that local activist circles speak about Germany as being at least 20 years behind in how topics like race and discrimination are talked about compared to the United States.

 An Asian-American friend, a recent transplant to Berlin, confirms this. “I feel the need to emphasize my American-ness in everyday situations to turn the focus away from the fact that I'm not white,” she says. “I’m having a lot of difficult conversations that I thought I was done having, like, 15 years ago.”

Although Germans are known for being straight-shooters in both the private and professional spheres, difficult topics like racism and sexism are still fumbled and shied away from.

There is fear associated with being viewed as unfair. A core belief in egalitarianism can often be misconstrued. An example: the Germans on social media who accidentally used the hashtag #AllLivesMatter to support Black Lives Matter, garnering comments like, “Er, I think you mean…”

READ ALSO: 'Black lives need to matter in Germany': New project to uncover everyday racism

How can Germany deal with this?

An obvious solution in advancing the conversation is more diverse representation in the leadership of German corporations and government. Case in point: Germany’s Cabinet Committee Responsible for Combating Right-Wing Extremism and Racism which does not have a person of colour.

This has garnered considerable discussion on Twitter, including from white male wonks who are keen to point out that cabinet committees can only be formed by certain top government members, making the choice limited.

It also led to memes like this one on Instagram.

Another solution would be for more German schools, universities, and companies to collect anonymized data on race, religion, sexual orientation, and so on. Many don’t. This would create more transparency in tackling discrimination, and its symptoms like microaggressions.

Berlin’s State Office for Equal Treatment and Against Discrimination (LADS) is making a progressive step. Earlier this year, Berlin became the first German state to pass an anti-discrimination law forbidding public authorities to show bias based on factors like skin colour and gender. With the new antidiscrimination app, AnDi, LADS says it hopes to “play a scientific role in investigating discrimination” and disseminating information about it.

READ ALSO: 'I'm an American and I was racially profiled in Berlin 23 times'

Let’s see the way forward. Let’s see if “microaggression” finds its way into dialogue in Germany, perhaps even the Duden dictionary (maybe the term will already be antiquated – its already being rejected by anti-racism activists, like the author of “How to be Antiracist” Ibram X. Kendi, for reducing the severity of racist abuse).

Let’s see how widely the AnDi app will be used and whether it goes beyond a performative role. After all, speaking up about discrimination and microaggressions can be difficult emotional labour for marginalized folks.

Knowing change doesn’t happen in silence, I recently drummed up the courage to email a local business. An employee’s discriminatory comments during a one-on-one appointment made me feel scared and uncomfortable, and I didn’t want someone else to feel that way either.

Of course, there’s been no reply.


Member comments

  1. Well Michael, nobody knows what the ultimate result of Brexit will be. What we do know is the EU had a fair crack of the whip, 25 years or so, to impress the citizens of the UK, and failed. You know, people go on about how the result of the Brexit vote was narrow but, let’s be honest, when you have anywhere near 50% of the vote against you, you have failed. As I have said all along doing business in the UK is good, what we don’t need is a great lumbering, power mad monster like the EU.

  2. Hi Britfire, I am pleased that over half the population of Britain now ‘have Control’ I did not get a vote on the matter but do not feel any more in control than before. I do see that many car producers are not producing their latest models in the UK, Finance houses and banks relocating out of the city and trade to the EU is being lost, but then it is those that are taking control not their (British) employees.

  3. Keep on believing that Brexit was about racism, Michael, it makes it so much easier than confronting the mess the EU half-wits have made of Europe. Let me say it clearly, Brexit is not about racism. It’s about having control over who you let into your country, it’s about freedom from the EU’s awful bureaucracy and the freedom to act in your countries best interest without overbearing oversight from Brussels. I’m interested to know what you think of the nearly 50% of Germans (at leat in one poll) who don’t agree with Merkel’s mass influx of refugees. They can’t all be AfD, because that’s only “a small fringe party”, so why is it Germany has so many “racists”, Michael? Because, by your own reasoning, if Brexit was all about racism then pretty soon we can expect Germany to be leaving the EU…

  4. Britain voted Brexit because Racism has a proper foothold there. The equivalent in Germany would be the AfD who are a small fringe party. Does anyone really want people looking for things that might possibly be considered an insult to those of other races. It was even proposed that the Moor in Christmas cribs should be banned. I suspect only extreme racists would throw out the black king?

  5. I don’t question that racism exists – did you not read the part about racist attitudes I’d experienced in Thailand? But I forget, racism is only something that happens to coloured folk, right? More importantly, it didn’t stop me from working, paying my taxes, learning the language, obeying the law, respecting local customs and in all respects being a useful member of society, in other words, the exact opposite of too many of the immigrants/refugees to Europe. The people who oppose excessive immigration are those who have seen first hand the effect it has had on there communities and let me assure you the numbers will continue to increase both in Germany and across Europe. So, I’m comfortable with the idea of racism in Germany, it’s called protecting your way of life, are you comfortable discussing the causes of racism? I’ll name a few – drugs, unclean habits, gangs, crime, terrorism and welfare state drain. Now, over to you, what are the positives?

  6. The comments here from “Britfire” and “-” are obviously white people uncomfortable with acknowledging that racism even exists in Germany. Here they are gaslighting a person of colour for her perspective. You are exactly the problem.

    The people in Germany who oppose(d) the welcoming of refugees is a perfect example of how rampant racism is in this country.

  7. The comments here from “Britfire” and “-” are obviously white people uncomfortable with acknowledging that racism even exists in Germany. Here they are gaslighting a person of colour for her perspective. You are exactly the problem.

    The people in Germany who oppose(d) the welcoming of refugees is a perfect example of how rampant racism is in this country.

  8. Not sure what is the problem with the article in the previous comments. I agree that as a person of colour I can encounter this quite often to the point thaht i started to feel as an expected behaviourin the society

  9. The writer obviously didn’t bother consulting the recent poll results concerning Merkel’s ill considered “We can do this!” refugee response, or if she did, choose to ignore them as they didn’t fit her happy-happy views on mass immigration. This article seems to have disappeared from the Local.de front page to be replaced by this one…Anyway, the figures were pretty clear – 33% were and still are opposed to admitting refugees but more telling is the 13% who were in favour of Merkel’s policy but no longer are. I lived in Thailand for over 5 years and was subject to racism there as a westerner but I accepted it as human nature – I did not for one moment consider it to be a fault with Thai society as a whole that required changes in the law or immigration policy. I spoke with a German friend at the time in London when Merkel made her decision and warned him that it would not end well – seems like many in Germany agree with me but as per usual are being ignored by the mainstream media or, at best, dismissed as “far-right” when in reality they are quite happy with the society they have built over thousands of years that they do not want to see destroyed in a few decades. Simple answer is this, the welcome mat has been worn-out and rolled up.

  10. What a lazily executed, mess of an article. If you took any of this seriously you wouldn’t have put out such poorly supported slop. Cute meme though.

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