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In A Changing Germany, Taboo Of Racism Is Broken

The murder of a local politician has put new attention on the kinds of verbal hate and periodic harassment that was largely repressed until recently.

'For several years statistics have seen increases in racist incidents,” the Federal Anti-Discrimination Agency reports
"For several years statistics have seen increases in racist incidents,” the Federal Anti-Discrimination Agency reports
Bernd Kastner

MUNICH — Halima Gutale met the elderly woman after an event. "Is it still possible to say n****r today?" the elderly woman asked. Gutale comes from Somalia and has been living in Germany for about two decades, in a small town in the state of Hesse. "No," Gutale respoded. "You can't do that anymore." But Gutale says she didn't resent the woman's question. "She didn't want to do anything wrong."

Hamado Dipama also has a story related to the "n-word." He recently heard it in Nuremberg, one evening in the street, and it did not come as a question. Dipama, who arrived from Burkina Faso in 2002 as a refugee, recounts how a young man got out of a car and swore at him for no reason. The man would have turned violent if his friends hadn't stopped him. Dipama called the police right away.

These two encounters are divided in time and space, yet they are part of a larger phenomenon. They give an idea of what people who look foreign to the majority experience. It starts with uncertainty, as with the old woman, and it crosses over into racism, insults, discrimination, even violence and murder.

The case of Walter Lübcke, a pro-migrant local politician who was shot dead on June 2, marks a precedent. A German politician was killed by an alleged right-wing extremist, who confessed to the murder, and as a result, politics will now deal more intensively with right-wing violence.

But for people who aren't prominent — who have long suffered from shifting attitues in Germany — none of this is new. "We note with concern a radicalization, especially of racist resentment, in large parts of society," the Federal Anti-Discrimination Agency recently reported. "For several years statistics have seen increases in racist incidents."

Indeed, under the heading "hate crime," the Federal Ministry of the Interior reported an increase of almost 20% in xenophobic and anti-Semitic offenses in 2018 compared to the previous year.

Subtle jabs

Gutale founded an association for the integration of African refugees and she knows of many offensive encounters. She recalls one day, for example, when she was waiting to pick up her daugther from school. It was her daugther's second day of Gymnasium, a high school that usually leads to university education. A male teacher came by and told Gutale that the Hauptschule was a few yards away, referring to a different type of high school that teaches the same subjects as the Gymnasium, but at a slower pace, and usually leads to part-time enrollment in a vocational school and apprenticeship training.

Germans tend to treat "visible immigrants' like people they have to protect, and to whom they need to explain the world.

The teacher's unsolicited piece of came as a blow: The man could not believe that the child of a dark-skinned woman could attend a Gymnasium. And then there are those, says Gutale, who praise her for her good German. A compliment? For her it is rather hurtful. Especially when she knows she just made some mistakes. Why is she praised anyways? "Positive racism," Gutale calls it.

Germans tend to treat "visible immigrants' like people they have to protect, and to whom they need to explain the world, Gutale explains. That's her perception at least. She wonders if "we," the local society, are really as liberal and cosmopolitan as "we think." She also says that as a Somali German, the message she often perceives is: "Be happy that we've taken you in. Where is the gratitude?"

As the hashtag #MeTwo spread in the net last year, following the #MeToo debate, countless people described their experience of everyday racism. You can read up on it, or you can listen to those who are affected. Alphonse Kabore is from Burkina Faso and recalls a particuar bus ride in Munich. "Go away, you n****r," one passenger told him. "Blacks ruined Germany," the man continued.

"That hurts," says Kabore, adding that he tries to ignore such attacks. "Otherwise you have problems every day."

Abdoul (he wants us to use just his first name) is from Sierra Leone. His story involves a former neighbor who swore at him from his balcony because Abdoul, as a refugee, had the gall to also live in an apartment with a balcony. The man also wrote up his concerns in a letter and addressed it to Abdoul. It became so bad that Abdoul had to move.

"Pervaded by racism"

Christin Jänicke works in the east German city of Potsdam for Opferperspektive, the oldest counseling center for victims of right-wing violence in Germany, founded in 1998. She says it annoys her, in the wake of the Lübcke murder, to hear politicians speak of a "new dimension" of right-wing violence.

A mosque in Berlin — Photo: Thomas Scherer

"We've been seeing right-wing violence for 30 years. The NSU murders lose their importance if you speak of a "new dimension"," she adds, referring to a series of killing carried out between 2000 and 2007 by the National Socialist Underground (NSU) neo-Nazi cell.

In eastern Germany and Berlin alone, at least five people per day were victims of right-wing, racist and anti-Semitic attacks in 2018, according to statistics from the umbrella organization of the counseling centers. For West Germany, there are no reliable figures — because there are too few counseling centers.

Jochen Kramer works for the counseling center Leuchtlinie in Stuttgart, in southern Germany. He says there's a widespread "ideology of inequality." To illustrate his point, he describes what he says is an everyday occurrence: A German man is at a train station in the evening. When two young, dark-skinned men arrive, the German man feels uncomfortable, looks around to see if there is anyone else to help if necessary. The man in the scenario is Kramer himself.

"Our society is pervaded by racism," he says.

To the list of victims of racism and violence one must add politicians and volunteers who are being attacked for their political involvement. Those at risk include journalists and scientists, homeless people, Sinti and Roma, homosexuals, refugees, migrants, Jews and Muslims — especially when they are "visible."

Language matters

Nina Mühe is German and Muslim. She converted in 2001, wears a headscarf and she works connecting organizations that fight against anti-Muslim racism. "The inhibition thresholds have been lowered," is her diagnosis. There have even been cases of Muslim children being attacked, and this affects the whole community, she says.

Be happy that we've taken you in. Where is the gratitude?

In Berlin, says Mühe, many Muslims think about those kinds of security issues, sadly, with regards to choosing where to live. "Is this an area where I can feel safe?" Kreuzberg is a good place because of its diversity. But there are also neighborhoods in which women wearing a headscarf might be threatened.

When Mühe talks of everyday life as a "visible Muslim," she soon refers to the breeding ground that politicians and the state prepare. Berlin, for example, still does not allow Muslim teachers to wear a headscarf in class. "I find that extremely discriminatory," says Mühe.

Indirectly, it affects all Muslims and gives an awful impression: It is okay to have something against headscarf wearers. Mühe also points to statements like those made by Federal Interior Minister Horst Seehofer, who said that Islam does not belong in Germany and that migration is the "mother of all problems." Poisonous words.

At the same time, it is noticeable that many Muslims do not pay much attention to discrimination. "It's something you almost think of as being normal," says Mühe. The job she and her colleagues set out for themsevles, therefore, is to remind people that "No, it's not normal." She also wants people to report every attack. Only if a racist incident is registered by police or a counseling center, does it turn into statistics. Without those numbers, politicians have no incentive to act.

Dipama, the refugee from Burkina Faso who was harrassed on the street in Nuremberg, did file a complaint. A few weeks later, the prosecutor stopped the proceedings. The accused denied using the offensive word in question. With no witnesses, it was a he-said, she-said situation. Such attitudes, says Dipama, are the reason many victims don't bother reporting an attack.

Dipama wants more involvement from the authorities. "They," says Dipama referring to the racists, "they dare to say a lot now, things they wouldn't have said five years ago." This disseminates fear, even among those migrants who are socially involved. Some do not dare walk in certain streets at night. "We need to recognize that this is a dramatic situation," he says.

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