Berlin, Germany – Karin Hermes had just finished tutoring her 15-year-old Turkish German student when they started talking about racism.
Hermes, who is Filipino German, and the student shared experiences of the everyday racism they had been facing, discussing how bad the situation was in Berlin.
They were interrupted. A trainee teacher nearby said that if they didn’t like it in Germany, they could go somewhere else.
“I was angry. I mean, that’s a person in a position of authority saying that to a student,” Hermes, 31, told Al Jazeera. “He yelled at us, as if telling us we don’t belong here and that we should go elsewhere. How does that attitude affect students?”
Hermes, a PhD candidate in American Studies, says experiences like this are common for German people of colour.
She and her friend, 24-year-old student Farhiya Hassan, told Al Jazeera their personal boundaries are regularly crossed, with comments about their skin tone, knowledge of the German language and questions about where they are “really from” in social settings, workplaces or as they go about their day.
The concept of a German nation is closely linked to whiteness. This is where we still are.
Elisabeth Kaneza, human rights activist
It’s a situation that Art Jannik Starkarat can relate to.
Born and raised in the western state of Bonn, the 29-year-old moved to Berlin seven years ago and has been surprised at how much more racism he has experienced in the German capital.
Starkarat, whose parents are Indonesian, changed his name last year and says racism was one of the main reasons behind his decision.
Starkarat, a musician with a doctorate in Chemistry, told Al Jazeera: “When I had my old name I was always asked, ‘Where did you really come from? Where are your parents from?’ If you experience this once or twice you don’t notice, but if it happens regularly it really hurts.
“These questions showed me that I didn’t belong to this society, that this is not where I should be and this is not where I deserve to live. That feeling came just with questions around my name. And these questions don’t come from authorities, they come up in everyday life.”
|Art Jannik Starkarat said he changed his name to avoid being interrogated about his origins [Courtesy: Art Jannik Starkarat]|
In recent months, a string of events has forced Germany to address racism.
At the end of August, xenophobic protests exploded in Chemnitz, a city in the eastern state of Saxony, after the fatal stabbing of a German man, allegedly by two refugees from Syria and Iraq.
Thousands of protesters took part, many of them from far-right groups. Some did Nazi salutes and waved banners calling for “criminal foreigners to get out”. Migrants and journalists were injured amid the chaos.
In July, a verdict was handed down in what has been described as one of the most important trials in the country’s post-war history.
Beate Zschape, the 43-year-old sole survivor of the neo-Nazi National Socialist Underground (NSU) group, was sentenced to life in jail for her role in the racially motivated murders of 10 people – nine of whom were non-white – between 2000 and 2007.
The case exposed the failure of the state, media and intelligence services to properly investigate the murders, and several parliamentary inquiries have since followed.
|Demonstrators in Chemnitz hold photos of people they claim were killed by migrants after several nationalist groups called for marches protesting the killing of a German man, allegedly by refugees [Jens Meyer/AP]|
His resignation led to a social media campaign, #MeTwo, a play on the #MeToo hashtag for survivors of sexual assault. Thousands of people of colour in Germany tweeted their stories of everyday racism.
Students told of their teachers asking them when their parents would be marrying them off. Some recounted being singled out by police for identification documents on a train full of white people. Many shared racist slurs they endured on a daily basis.
“Germans have a way of understanding themselves and their nation,” Elisabeth Kaneza, a human rights activist, tells Al Jazeera.
“Although it is already a very diverse nation, its own history and legacy with other cultures and nations outside of Europe is not well taught and is not in the historical memory. So what we find is the imbalance of racist behaviour towards different origins.
“If you are from western or northern Europe, you rarely get these questions of where you are from. The concept of a German nation is closely linked to whiteness. This is where we still are.”
I hope that what’s happened in the last few months leads to more of an understanding among white Germans that some of us non-white citizens have entirely different daily experiences with racism.
Karin Hermes, tutor
Germany doesn’t record data on ethnicity and race.
Early last year, a UN fact-finding team released a damning report on institutional racism and discrimination towards the approximately 800,000 people of African descent living in Germany.
The team, which conducted interviews in a number of cities including Berlin, Dresden, Hamburg and Cologne, revealed that there are many areas that black people won’t travel to for fear of being attacked, and sharply criticised the school system and police force, as well as state and federal authorities, for denying that the issue exists.
The refugee situation has added to xenophobic sentiment. There were more than 2,000 attacks – roughly six a day – on refugee centres in 2017.
German authorities say social cohesion is an important issue.
Federal Interior Minister Horst Seehofer told Al Jazeera: “The Ministry of the Interior, Building and Community runs and supports a large number of projects in order to improve the coexistence of all people living in Germany. One example is our sponsored national competition, ‘Living Together Hand in Hand – Designing Communities’, in which 21 winners received prize money of up to €25,000 ($29,000) that serves to support projects and concepts that promote integration and coexistence.
“We see the #MeTwo debate as a socio-political contribution that pursues the same goal.”
I don’t think that many people have really understood the Nazi history. It’s just a feeling of guilt and a very narrow understanding of how it came to the Holocaust and what it means to get there.
Emine Aslan, anti-racism activist
Critics say that if Germany really wants to address racism, however, society needs to dissect its roots.
“I link it to collective memory,” says Emine Aslan, an anti-racist activist from Frankfurt. “Racism and structural discrimination is closely linked to the Nazi regime and anti-semitism. People think that we have dealt with that, so racism no longer exists.
“But I don’t think that many people have really understood the Nazi history. It’s just a feeling of guilt and a very narrow understanding of how it came to the Holocaust and what it means to get there. The other thing is that Germany has only recently started speaking about its own colonial history. There is still no collective memory around German colonialism and how this affects us now.”
Kaneza, the human rights activist, said it is important to speak up.
“Whenever you raise the issue of racism, it’s perceived as an accusation to the general white population, which is not true,” she says. “By being silent about it, we are covering it up and it’s a complicity. This is still not very well understood.”
Those who have experienced racism hope events over the past few months will lead to something more positive.
“The NSU and Chemnitz, for example, have brought out the explicit racism and showed the difference in treatment towards non-white Germans and migrants,” says Hermes, the Filipino German tutor.
“I hope that what’s happened in the last few months leads to more of an understanding among white Germans that some of us non-white citizens have entirely different daily experiences with racism and safety, and that denying this won’t make the racism go away.”