The Initiative Schwarze Menschen in Deutschland (Initiative of Black People in Germany or ISD Bund e.V.) marked the 30th anniversary of its founding early this year. The ISD is the first and the most important group formed by the African diaspora in this country since 1945 for the promotion of its interests. Although Blacks have not attained the level of social prominence and influence in German society that their compatriots have achieved in France or the United Kingdom but the situation is changing. Femi Awoniyi looks at Black life in today’s German society.
There was a survey titled “8 of the Worst Countries for Black People to Travel” in 2014. Germany was named in the controversial list that also included Spain, Italy, Russia, South Korea, Thailand, China and Greece. The survey was widely reported in the African media, reinforcing the image of an impregnable society for non-White people that seems to be widely held around the world about Germany.
No wonder one often gets asked how bad racism is in Germany whenever you travel around not only in Africa but also in the US and even the UK. The ubiquitous question was posed to this writer in an interview with Nigeria’s leading daily The Nation in 2014. I answered that the issue of racism in Germany was often exaggerated and not as bad as is perceived outside the country.
I recalled a friend who visited me in Heidelberg from Lagos in August 2013. A few days into his visit, he suddenly asked at breakfast one morning, why do people say Germans are racist? The people have been very friendly everywhere we have been. Like I explained to my friend, even though Germany is not a colour-blind society (which place is?), it is a normal European country where you find people from all over the world living peacefully with the native population.
I explained that the issue of racism was much more complex; nobody would most likely shout racist abuses at you in the street in most of Germany outside some parts of the former East Germany. Unfortunately, eastern Berlin has a high Neo-Nazi crime rate.
The way racism comes up about Black life in Germany outside the country could make one to think that Black people are a rarity in the country, which would be false, as about 800,000 people of Africa origin call Germany home, according to estimates. One could also be misled to thinking that Black presence in Germany is of recent origin. Again, one would be wrong. There has been Black presence in Germany since the 1720s, when Anton Wilhelm Amo (1703-1759), an African from what is now Ghana, studied at the University of Helmstedt. In fact, he was the first African known to have attended a European university. He went on to lecture and was appointed a professor in a German university.
Nevertheless, Black people still experience racism in daily life and in various ways in Germany. “They constantly remind Blacks and people of colour that they don’t belong to the ‘norm’,” said Anne Chebu, the author of “Anleitung zum Schwarz sein” (Introduction to being Black). Even though the book is a positive and empowering take on the Black identity in Germany, Chebu says, “From an early age I kept meeting young Blacks who had a very low self-esteem”. But a White German teacher, countered that “there are also a lot of young Black people who have a very strong self-esteem!!!” From her experience with school children of different backgrounds, she observed that “there are a lot of young White Germans who suffer weak self-esteem too”.
Racism is far more than being the object of hateful stares in the bus or racist door policies at nightclubs or racial profiling by the police; it could determine if you get that job that you crave and are qualified for or if you are allowed to rent an apartment that you can afford or even if the doctor will treat you the same way other patients are treated. Even though there is a General Equal Treatment Act which forbids discrimination, most victims of deliberate disadvantage are either unaware of the law or are too weak economically or even psychologically to pursue redress.
There is hardly any African who does not have their own stories about what they consider as racially-motivated discrimination in their daily lives but the community has not allowed it to define their lives.
The Black community is very diverse, ranging from African-descended Germans, whose roots may go back to the first African community more than 100 years ago, to Africans who arrived more recently to seek refuge or to join their spouses or study and have meanwhile settled down and raised children. Everyone’s experience will therefore be different.
It is open to debate whether racism against Black people is worse in Germany than in other European countries even though it is generally believed that Blacks have more opportunities in France and the UK, for example.
Without doubt Germany has become a much more open country compared to only twenty-five years ago. I remember the early 1990s when you could hardly see a Black person behind the counter at the train station. There was very little media that showed people of colour in German society. With the emergence of MTV and Viva, the popularity of American pop culture promoted increased Afro-German representation in the media and culture.
There has also been a marked increase in Black political participation. Today, two MPs of African origin sit in the Bundestag (Lower House of the Federal Parliament). The election of Karamba Diaby and Charles Huber in 2013 was a watershed in the history of Blacks in Germany. Meanwhile there are Councillors in towns in several parts of the country as well. And all these elected politicians were voted for by majority White German electorates. In fact, there is no spatial concentration of Black people anywhere in Germany that they could concertedly exercise their electoral power to decide the outcome of an election.
Despite the increased visibility of Blacks in the public space today, the community is still enmeshed in a struggle for group recognition and, as individuals, they still face many hurdles to self-actualisation. Many native Germans are unaware of, or refuse to accept, the concept of a German who is also Black which limits opportunities for people of African origin in various ways.
Most anti-discrimination initiatives by the state essentially are based on moral appeal to society instead of on implementable measures such as the American-type affirmative action to give more opportunities to members of minority groups. This is why the issues of racism and discrimination will continue to dominate the discussions about Black life in Germany for the foreseeable future. It’s encouraging though, as Tahir Della, leader of the ISD, puts it that “The Black perspective has become an inherent part of the debates on racism, German colonial history and critical discussions in almost all political spheres.”