Dear readers, we have to talk. This time it’s not about me though, I’d like to talk about our society. About a society I am increasingly worried about.
Mesut Özil’s resignation from the German national football team, purportedly due to racism, has sparked a debate which in my opinion was long overdue. Mesut Özil, a German citizen, born in Gelsenkirchen, found himself confronted with racism. I think we don’t need to establish that comments like “Turkish pig” and “goat-fucker” (the latter term was actually hurled at Özil by an SPD politician) are plain racist. In other words, whoever claims that Özil is just too thin-skinned has clearly not looked into the matter deeply enough. Bild, the big German boulevard newspaper, has joined the ranks of agitators against the athlete. First the paper attempted to undermine his “German-ness” with the headline “He goes on a pilgrimage to Mecca and loves a Miss Turkey!”, and eventually expatriated him altogether after the World Cup. This quote from a Bild article serves as a case in point: “…good that you took off the jersey with the German eagle, we no longer go together.” Both (SPD politician) Holzhauer and (Bild chef) Reichelt faced substantial criticism of their comments, but that did not really change much. The sad truth remains: Germany is racist.. As soon as Özil was stripped from his protective coat of being a successful athlete, even he, a highly awarded national player who won the World Cup with Germany, who was born and raised here and has paid millions of Euros in taxes is ostracized and suddenly fair game. Please don’t misunderstand me: personally, I also think it was a mistake that Özil posed for a picture with Erdogan and never distanced himself from Turkish politics. After all, the athlete is a role model for scores of youngsters, and for that reason alone clear words would have been called for in my opinion. But no mistake justifies discrimination on racist grounds. NONE. Racism, in all its many more or less obvious forms, is part of our social reality – to the point that even one of our country’s most successful athletes is not exempt from it.
“…so why don’t people accept that I’m German?” Mesut Özil
It is shocking how racism still – or once again – forms part of the daily reality of many people. It has become the norm again. “It’s just the way it is.” Many accept the subliminal mobbing, the little stabs at work, or even laugh along at inappropriate jokes. We all have a desire to belong, after all, to fit in, not to stick out. It wasn’t so bad, was it? Well, and then suddenly Özil quit the team. The focus fell on a grand stage when the racism festering in the German national team, the nation’s pride and also its sore spot, became visible. WE were world champions, after all. But Özil’s quitting the team caused more than a public outcry – it started a veritable protest movement. People everywhere started sharing their own experiences with racism using the hashtag #metwo. And all of us should really, really listen. Racism is indeed a virus that has infected our society – and it is spreading. Let us look at the facts: Die Zeit (a renowned, traditionally liberal weekly newspaper) is openly asking the question whether it would be better to let refugee boats sink in the mediterranean. The openly racist AfD party holds at 12% (a current poll showed as much as 16% for the party – i.e. the support is still growing). Horst Seehofer celebrates 69 deportations on his 69th birthday, and, well, Mesut Özil faces open racism. Is anyone really going to tell me racism is not a big problem in Germany today? The simple truth is that it is – and if you read through some tweets with the hashtag #metwo there cannot be much doubt. The stories I read affect me. What’s worst for me is to realise at how young an age many people are confronted with racism in their lives. For many children it starts in school, where they often find themselves helpless targets of racist comments. I would go as far as accusing some teachers of emotional abuse. How incompetent some of the supposed educators in charge can be is beyond me. It is bad enough that children are often so brutal among each other – but how must it feel as a kid when the teacher chips in as well? How are you going to build trust in society when you’re excluded from the earliest developmental stages onwards? The following tweets are just a few examples of a widely shared experience:
“My German teacher made fun of my for my incorrect usage of German articles and my pronunciation of the letter “r”. I am fluent in 5 languages, and he has not managed to pronounce my four letter name correctly one single time.” @seratonin “When we were talking about job applications in school, and I told my teacher that I want to study, he told me ‘you’ll be long married by the time'” @navasgeht “Here in Germany we use our real names and not pseudonyms! Maybe you didn’t know that.” “That’s my real name.” – I was talking to the dean of a uni in Leipzig. @WhoIsYade
“Child in the daycare facility tells my daughter tells her she knows why my daughter has such brown skin. Her father had explained to her that particularly stupid babies are marked out by stewing them in a barrel of coals for a while.” @SoSumbu I am preparing the seminar room. Student: “Are you almost done with cleaning? We’re about to start a class here.” @SelvetaB “My brother was the best pupil in class, straight A’s. He gets a B on a test, compares his score with that of another pupil and discovers that he received a worse mark than the other pupil despite having a higher score. The teacher then tells him: ‘If I give you an A, what am I supposed to give the German pupils?” @Livenitup_DE
“My father works as capitain on a cargo ship. Court ruling in the eighties to deport us from Germany states the following reason: ‘the home of a sailor is the sea’ 8no kidding, I still have the document.” @HasnainKazim “When neo-nazis threaten your mother and the state prosecutor tells her: ‘well, maybe your son should not be so outspoken in public.'” @ShahakShapira “The emergency physician who refused to treat a family member before having them show him their passport despite acute respiratory distress syndrome.” @julyarabinowich
But not only schools, also the state and the judiciary system seem to fail many Germans instead of protecting them. Reading these comments (there are so many) I was overtaken by shame and anger. What really gets to me is the comment sections under those tweets. People share there experiences, but instead of simply listening, others feel personally offended, insult the posters and deny that there is any racism involved. Instead of offering support or at least an ounce of understanding, they add more humiliation and degradation to the pile. You really start asking yourself: What the hell is wrong with people? I’d like to say at this point that I think it’s generally wrong to dispute someone’s personal perception of being marginalized. People in Germany that are not affected by racism have no right to define for others what is and what is not racism. Those unaffected are observers. And nope, “Almans” or “potatoes” is not an example for reverse racism here. Those not affected are privileged to be able to say that aspects like their skin-color play no part in how they are perceived. For those targeted by racism, skin-color, religion and other superficial characteristics play an absolutely crucial part in how they are perceived in every-day life. They are rejected more often when applying for flats, are invited less often to job interviews, and are under much more general and constant pressure to justify themselves. A lot of discrimination happens subliminally, remains unquestioned between the lines. There also seems to be widespread differentiation among Germans with immigration backgrounds: Asians are better Germans than Africans or Turks. And as far as Swedes and Americans are concerned, well those are not real immigrants after all. Even someone like me, who was not even born in Germany and grew up bi-lingually, but looks European and has a European name, has no problems. Meanwhile Merve, a third-generation German, born and raised in this country, faces discrimination on a daily basis. It begs the question: What makes a German German? The skin-tone? The ancestry? The mentality? The place of birth? The nationality? The language? Where does German-ness begin, and where does it end? Divisions and arbitrary demarcation lines wherever we look. There is only one solution: we need to erase these lines. It is not enough to wait and hope for the best. In order to break these invisible boundaries we have to step out of our roles as passive observers and become active. Just like our democracy should not be taken for granted, we also need to fight for a tolerant society. It requires courage, energy and spine, and challenges all of us to keep our eyes wide open, to not look away. The first step is to be reflective of ones own behaviors and patterns. The second is to stand up for someone else, to be active instead of passive. We should all openly ask ourselves where and when we may have acted out some form of racism ourselves. Many people feel hurt and ostracized even when they are asked where they are from “originally”. If someone answers your question with “I’m from Hamburg”, accept it at face value. In a similar vein, not everyone will be open to talk about their experience of feeling excluded. We all need to develop our sensitivity, to look closely at our own behavior as well as that of our friends and families. This can be difficult, and certainly requires courage, but it is a step in the right direction. One of the central issues in this debate is that few people consider themselves racist – but many are without even being fully aware of it. Many do not consider their off-hand remarks to be racist, or withdraw to defending their own “opinions” (which, often enough are emotions rather than arguments). To reflect for yourself whether such a pattern may apply to yourself, try asking yourself the following: how would I act and what would I say if skin-color, religion and name would not make any difference, if Murat sounded as German to me as Mark, if I’d register the differences in skin tone like I register the differences in eye color (no one is less German because their irises are brown), if I accepted Islam as a religion just as I accept Christianity? If I wipe out these dividing lines in my head – what am I left with? You’re suddenly confronting a human being. Not a label or a category. I read some highly interesting thoughts HERE, and if you made it to this point in this text I recommend you take the time to check out the following article: Now, after all that criticism, I also would like to acknowledge how long a way we have already come, how much more tolerant our generation is than the one before us was. It also helps to be aware how many of us are fighting for equal human rights. We are legion. While it often may not seem so in all the bullshit, a sense of courage, altruism and standing up for the other is found in many places and at many points in time. If we manage to bundle these energies, if we manage to work together towards a common goal, I see hope – for us Germans, Europeans, and for us as members of a global society. Or, to say it with German band Die Ärzte:
“It’s not your fault that the world is as it is. But it’s your fault if it stays that way.”
A postscript: All my friends advised me against publishing this post. For understandable reasons. The main argument runs along the lines that I should not write about racism as someone who is not affected. They are right in that respect. But does it really help a society if its members always keep quiet for fear of rubbing someone up the wrong way? I am aware that some readers may disagree with me on the points outlined above, others may reject my perspective altogether. Maybe some readers will agree with many of my friends and believe I have no right to criticize an aspect of society I perceive only as observer. But I do believe, from the bottom of my heart, that this is a crucial issue, and feel a responsibility to express my opinion about it on this platform.