Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Germany & Minorities

With Barack Obama's election in November, many Europeans are asking themselves if their own countries could ever have a minority in the same position. NPR is doing a series on this European self-reflection featuring countries like France, Italy, and Germany. You can read or listen to the story about German minorities here, which I would also like to add my insight from my own experience.

One person featured in the story, the son of a German mother and an African-American father, said, "White Germans do not perceive themselves as racist at all. The idea is there are no other races in Germany. Germany is a monoracial country so we can't be racist..." To a point, I have to agree with this comment. Germans really don't perceive themselves as racist and do not quite understand the concept of "cultural (in)sensitivity" the way Americans do. The events of World War II have created an attitude of atonement, accepting what happened, and trying to come to terms with it. Perhaps this is why Germans do not see what is racist; they see what happened in the past and that they are trying to learn from it. This is all with the best intentions in mind, but perhaps this is why Germans "do not perceive themselves as racist."

Another comment is from the son of a German woman and an exchange student from Cameroon, who was born in Leipzig when the East was under Communist rule. He speaks of "rassenschande" or shame of race, and how "having relations with nonwhites — and particularly with blacks — was taboo and considered shameful to a woman's entire family." The story also mentions how "since the fall of communism, an outbreak of racist violence in the former East Germany has made it an area that's too dangerous for minorities, so Eichler won't let his children take school trips there." Luckily, I have not encountered any such problems while I was in Dresden, Leipzig, Weimar, Potsdam, or Berlin, though I can understand the fear of being in the East.

In response to biracial relationships, I can personally say that I haven't had any problems or encountered raised eyebrows. This could be due to the fact that I am Asian-American, the keyword perhaps being "American" and living in the west. However, I have seen other biracial couples here in Düsseldorf, many of them German men with Japanese women. (There are a lot of Japanese here.) I wonder if the stereotype of Asians being hardworking and college-educated has to do with this more accepting attitude of these biracial relationships, or if it has to do with the fact that it's western Germany.

There is also a lack of exposure to other cultures and thus a cultural sensitivity is not learned at school. When I look at Christian's high school yearbook, there are two Korean students (siblings, nonetheless) and perhaps one or two students from Russia, whose names make it obvious that they are not German. I know that as a kid in a very white, mostly Russian-Jewish/Italian-Catholic school, I was taunted with comments like "ching chong ching!" and "Chinese, Japanese, look at these!" I also remember one student slinting his eyes at me in the fifth grade and I went to a teacher visibly upset, who promptly scolded him and told him why that was not acceptable. I'm not so sure this would happen in schools here; the minorities probably just stick together or are invisible. Not only that, most of the teachers are probably German and probably have never dealt with many minorities either, so they themselves don't get P.C.-ness.

I can't speak for the entire U.S. because I'm sure there are places that are not as diverse as my schools were, but I learned being P.C. at a very early age. I know I had to tell Christian once or twice why he upset me with his un-P.C. comments about Asians (mostly regarding the infantile comments about what Asian languages sound like), but the vast majority of Germans don't have someone telling them things like that. I have had to explain black face to Germans and why Americans think it inappropriate (yes, it has to do with our history, but honestly, people painting themselves a different color to represent someone of a different race to me is just an absurd idea, especially when it's done to caricature) and they just don't understand why. During Karneval, I have seen people dress up as "Africans," "Mexicans," and "Asians." I put these terms in quotations because they are stereotypes: the "Africans" will wear black-face and outfits that look like they were made out of some sort of animal skin or plant, "Mexicans" are normally a Mariachi band caricature, sometimes with skin painted brown, and "Asians" with vague Asian clothing and makeup to make them "slantier" eyes. It never ceases to appall me, but Germans see it as being all in good fun and don't really mean anything.

On a slightly different note, the German-Cameroonian mentioned the often asked, "Where are you from?" and the unspoken "When are you going back?" The question "Where are you from?" is also often asked of me in the U.S., and people aren't looking for my answer (New Jersey), rather they should be asking the more fitting, "What is your heritage?" or "Where is your family from?" My first question there would be does that mean people are racist in the U.S.? For me, I just think people need to learn how to phrase their question properly. Here in Germany, people often ask me "Where are you from?" as a "What is your heritage?" question as well and I have had people not believe me that I'm American. They think that I obviously must be from an Asian country. How can I be American? I am not your white nor black American, and those are the only two types of Americans that exist for these people. For these people, understanding that people can be American and not white or black is something they have never considered. Extending this idea to German minorities seems impossible if they can't accept American minorities, doesn't it?

In the end, the question is if Germany will ever be able to elect a minority to chancellor like how the U.S. elected Obama president. My answer: Not in the near future. Racism here is sometimes subtle and sometimes not, but regardless, I really don't see a Turk becoming chancellor in the near-future. There is still even a divide between West Germans and East Germans (Angela Merkel being the first East German elected chancellor). When they can't figure out Germans from Germans, how are they supposed to figure out minorities too?

1 comment:

Julie said...

I know you get upset when people asked "Where are you from?". It does not bother me as much. I am used to people asking "Where are you from?" meaning "Where were you born?". People always thinks that I am either Korean or Japanese; they never say "Chinese". I am also used to being the minority; I lived in Arkansas for six years. I remembered not being included in neither the "White" nor the "Black" students activities. I was always the outsider. People tend to stick to their own kind; it doesn't matter what race they are.