Sunday, 15 January 2012

Are Germans racist?

Only a couple of weeks ago, two killers of Stephen Lawrence have been given life sentences (with a minimum of 12 and 14 years) in a British court. The reaction of the UK media was mainly one of relief. After two failed prosecutions and a public inquiry which characterised the police as institutionally racist, these sentences have been welcomed by most observers as a sign that justice can be done. 
At the time the jury decided, I was in Berlin, Germany. Although Germany has fewer black people than the UK, there is a substantial minority of Turkish people living in the country. They have migrated to Germany during the 1950s and 1960s as Germany needed cheap labour to help in the Wirtschaftswunder. The legacy of socialist fraternity between the former East Germany and Vietnam and some African states also means that thousands of citizens from the Far East and Angola, Tanzania and Mocambique were stranded in Germany after re-unification. Some of them decided to stay. So, despite never having had an overseas empire, Germany has quite a few people of outside origin who have settled for generations now in the country. 
Yet, Germany still clings to a ‘genetic’ definition of German citizenship. Despite the cautious reforms under Otto Schily, it is still fiendishly difficult to become a German citizen, even if you have been born in Germany, went to German school, speak German as your first language and never been to any other place in the world other than what you consider your home town such as Berlin. (Incidentally it is also extremely difficult to adopt another citizenship if you are German but live somewhere else.)
On the other hand, German authorities have long upheld the claim that people with German ‘ancestry’ in Russia, Romania, Ukraine or anywhere else in the world, have German citizenship by right of birth. The implausible consequence of that is that somebody who was born and has lived in Germany all her life but has, say parents from Vietnam or Mocambique, is denied German citizenship, while somebody who has never been to Germany and lives in Ukraine is considered a German citizen. 
While some of this ostensible nonsense has come under criticism in Germany, overall it has fostered a climate where anybody who is not white and German ‘by blood’ is often considered a foreigner. Over decades this legal situation has cemented rather than mitigated the dividing lines between ‘us Germans’ and ‘them’. 
Last year, the former Social Democratic Finance Senator of Berlin, Thilo Sarrazin, has played into these anxieties of ‘being flooded by foreigners’. He argued that (statistically) pupils of Turkish origin have lower intelligence than German pupils and, since the Turkish community in Berlin has higher fertility rates, the ‘real Germans’ are in danger of being swept aside by those Turkish pupils and hence decrease Germany’s competitiveness in the world by dint of their lower intelligence. 
While he was justifiably sacked from his job over this racist nonsense, this is only the nasty tip of the iceberg. The fact is that many Germans struggle with the notion that somebody can be black or Asian and German at the same time. 
The most typical German racism anyone might experience in cosmopolitan towns such as Cologne or Berlin is patronising in nature. It is sustained by the articulation of a continuing dividing line between who is (or can be) German and who is not. This goes hand in hand with more vicious overt racist language which is deemed by many Germans acceptable or harmless. The word ‘negro’ or ‘coloured’ has until recently been widespread even in highbrow German media such as the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, referring to black people. 
When asked about whether or not they think that there are racist undertones in this type of language Germans tend to look bewildered and confused. The latest example of this confusion happened only last week at a respectable Berlin theatre where the director (allegedly) couldn’t find a black German actor to play a part in an American play. The theatre found a solution though. It hired a white actor who then painted his face black in the tradition of the minstrel shows in the US of the deep south during times of slavery. 
As the media storm broke out, the director said he was utterly perplexed by the debate. As far as he knew, ‘we have always painted the faces of white actors black for black roles’. Any questions? 

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