Racism in Berlin

23 November 2014

Earlier this weekend, I came across this reddit post, entitled ‘Being a black woman in Berlin’. It’s a sad endictment on society here in Berlin that someone is experiencing such awful treatment from those in the city; sadly, though, I’m not surprised, judging from my own experiences. I’m also finding both the original post and the following comments to be revealing about German society in general.

In the original post, an African-American woman describes her experiences of moving to Berlin, and facing constant harassment and racism here in Berlin, specifically while living in Moabit. While obviously I can’t comment on the experience of black women in Berlin, I can from my own perspective as a British-Asian woman living here, and there were a few key things that she wrote that I can strongly sympathise with.

Like, for example:

I no longer become an American when I come to Berlin. I am simply an African. When people look at me they do not see American girl, but they see an African woman.

Replace ‘American’ with British, ‘African’ with ‘Asian’, and you’ve got exactly how I feel on a regular basis; though, I must admit, not always.

Ditto, the emphasised part of this section (replace ‘black’ with ‘brown’)

In ways I feel like Berlin is so open minded because I see a lot of lesbian and gay couples kissing openly, but in ways I feel like Berlin is quite racist because I have been told to go back to my country, and **not a day goes by without people saying something to remind me that I am black.**

There are a few things within the original post that I wanted to pick apart: firstly, that the expectation that a society, once ‘open-minded’ is open-minded for everyone. I can’t count the number of times that I have heard (white) friends describing Berlin as open-minded, and liberal; but this is something that people of colour will never say. Yes, in many parts of the city people can wear what they want, kiss who they want, do largely what they want; but this isn’t by any means a reflection on the levels of racism in the city.

Some of the comments also made me think:

But racism is a huge blind spot in Germany and Europe overall. Yes of course not everyone is a racist but it's much more prevalent here than in Canada or the United States or the UK. The lack of widespread immigration and the cultural homogeneity in Germany and Europe creates an environment where outsiders are rare and something to be marveled at.

And later, on the same topic:

There is a massive ignorance in Germany of all things not white, leading to blatant racism. Germany is much, much more segregated as a society, it's just less notable due to the lower level of minority groups.

and

The problem is that they're just plain old ignorant about race. And they don't care about it. It doesn't concern them because of their homogenized societies.

I have a big problem with these kinds of arguments; that the people saying racist things and behaving in a racist way honestly don’t know better. It’s similar to what I say when (white) people try and compare the situation of a person of colour walking around in Berlin to a white person going to a tiny, poor, village in, say, Burkina Faso, where they would undoubtedly be stared at a lot.

“I would get stared at too, if I were in a country where people of my race were in the minority,”, they might say.

However, there is one very key difference in these two environments: in Berlin, we are confronted with images of other races every single day, through advertisements, television, newspapers. Not to mention that many (the majority?) of us have access to the internet, which opens up countless new worlds to us. Not to mention that there are people of different races walking around this place all the time. I would estimate that every single person living in Berlin has seen a person of colour before in person, not to mention hundreds or thousands of time via various forms of media.

In a poor village in, say, Burkina Faso, people may genuinely have never seen a white person before, and may never have come into contact with the vast expanse of knowledge opened up to us through access to internet, or to mass media. If a white person happens to visit, they may well stare, because they may well have no frame of reference, and have never seen any kind of racial diversity before, in person.

There is no reason for a black person - or any person of colour - to be stared at in Berlin as though she is a “unicorn”. As such, there are no excuses to be given for such behaviour, though it might well be a sorry sign of the level of diversity within German media.

This goes also for people expressing shock or surprise that immigration might have happened, ie. shock at the fact that I, or any other person of colour, might find themselves in a country other than the one of their ethnic origins. Again, this German surprise is a phenomena that I struggle to get my head around: Berlin is full of people of other races, other immigrants, and it has been for decades (though not as long as, for example, the UK). The area I live in is full of Turkish and Arabic shops and cafes, for example.

Immigration has been happening here for a long time, and yet somehow, people who have grown up with immigration all around them frequently express surprise to me that I could be anything but some kind of Asian, and often outrightly contradict my answer that I’m British. I genuinely don’t understand this. Is it really possible to live in a city with second- or third- generation immigrants around, with people of multiple nationalities here, and yet still not understand that immigration exists?

A side note: probably because of the crowd in which I tend to spend my time with, this mostly happens to me from people who have university degrees, who have travelled, who are extremely internet literate, and who would consider themselves left-leaning, and undoubtedly ‘liberal’ and open-minded themselves. This baffles me.

I guess, concretely, the answer is yes, it is very possible and all too real that people like this might have a huge blind spot with regards to immigration, otherwise we wouldn’t be talking about this.

This, I agree wholeheartedly with:

they [Germans] have been told so many times not to be racist that they now believe themselves not to be. It's really odd because I have seen more tacit and understated racism here than I ever saw anywhere else. There is far less outright racism, but I feel it has just submerged. People often try to justify it to me.

I’ve never once had someone actually admit that they said something racist; they’ll excuse it, justify it, try anything to talk it away - but even when faced with the very concrete question of “did you treat me differently because of my skin colour” - nothing, by way of admission.

There are lots more things within the post, and the comments, that have made me think: to end, though, just one last quote:

I don’t know why I keep running into these experiences but I know I do not want to live a life where I am exoticized daily.

This made me remember that when I first came to Berlin, this ‘daily exoticisation’ was one of the reasons I decided I wouldn’t, or couldn’t, bring myself to stay here for very long. For better or for worse though, after three years, I think I’ve become somewhat indifferent to it.


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