January 25, 2008

Xenophobia or not that is the question

I wrote earlier about how Roland Koch, the governor of the western state of Hesse in Germany stirred an uproar with his anti-immigrant rhetorics possibly as an election strategy.

The Spiegel Online International recently did a soul searching on "Germany's homegrown intolerance". Spiegel Online editor David Crossland, who was born in Bonn to English parents argued, "rather than rail against 'criminal young foreigners,' the country ought to be doing more to welcome its minorities".

He cited the racial discriminations he faced for speaking in English in U-Bahn (underground) although being a white person and opines:
Maybe it's the Germans' romantic yearning for purity and cleanliness, for a "Heile Welt," a "Perfect World," that renders them prone to a collective xenophobia. This nation of dog lovers goes for pure breeds.
So instead of telling its immigrants not to slaughter sheep in their kitchens, Germany would be well advised to be nicer to its immigrants. Like it or not, they're here to stay.
It sparked a lot of reactions. In the same article the Spiegel Online International announced that they are collecting the experiences of foreigners living in Germany -- both good and bad. And here a pandora's box was opened. More and more readers talk of Germany's invisible Xenophobia and it ain't pretty.

Spiegel's first batch of readers opinions revealed horrid portrayals of silent xenophobia and some questions which the Germans probably have never thought of this way. We also look at some examples of foreigners living without such discriminations and how Germans view it.

"I was exposed to a subtle yet stubborn kind of racism on a daily basis. This mostly takes the form of social exclusion -- I always felt that I am not and will never be allowed to become a normal member of society, despite holding a promising academic record and decent linguistic skills." - A Chinese scholar from Munich.

"I have a German name, I have a German passport, but I look Asian, and therefore am a foreigner." - Veronica

"One more issue that I feel is a barrier to any kind of integration is the fact that almost no Germans that I knew had friends of a different culture or skin color -- the exception being North Americans, North Europeans and Australians, etc. Even so-called liberal, 'tolerant' people simply did not have foreigners in their circles of acquaintance. Friendships and relationships are essential to any type of integration, and as long as the Germans keep immigrants at arm's length, the immigrants will never feel like they belong." Yvonne Jacoby from Ireland

"I have come across some of the finest individuals in Germany, and the opposite too. It's extremely hard for a foreigner to find out whether a German likes him/her or not. I hope most of the foreigners would agree if I say life for a foreigner is like that of Satan in heaven -- you have been admitted into the country but not actually into the society." - Madhu Balan from India

"I do have German friends and a German wife and a lot of Germans are kind and nice people. But I never feel like I belong to this place because of my skin color. And even the nicest Germans will often ask, when I say I am American: "But what are you really?" - Mike Silva from USA

"In some parts of Germany I would not like to have dark skin -- sad, don't you think?" - An ex-British soldier.

"If my friend, who is white, crosses a street when the light is red, she is in a hurry. And if I do the same, someone is waiting to say "schwarze Schlampe" ("black slut") or something similar." - An Indian Student in Berlin

On the other hand some foreigners said that Germans were helpful to them and the extent of racism and xenophobia in Germany is often exaggerated. Some opined that Germany is not perfect and there are more hate crimes reported in many countries whereas only few Germany.

A German man with a Polish wife shared the treatment his wife and a South African friend faced and opined:

"The only chance I see for success is the integration of our society into a European society as a whole where immigration, cross-border movements and 'foreignness' are considered to be assets for a functioning society."

An Indian scholar defends Germans and suggests:

"They just expect that people should at least speak and understand their language and culture. Germany needs to do more to have the best brains from around the world. This is where the future lies."

Read the Spiegel Online article for details.

In the second batch of reader opinions in Spiegel a discovery comes from a German who is living outside of Germany for five years:

"The kind of discrimination that immigrants in Germany face is already deeply rooted in the system and accepted as the norm to such an extent that most people will not notice it. This discrimination may not be apparent to someone who is living in Germany and surrounded by it every day, yet not affected by it.

In my town there are a lot of immigrant children of my age, from Turkey, Russia, Italy and many other countries. Yet how many of them went to a "Gymnasium" (university-track high school -- Ed.) like I did? The sad answer is not a single one. My entire high school class consisted of German, white, middle-class kids who were, like me, oblivious to the diversity of people living around them.

It happens all around us -- it is just a matter of opening your eyes to it.

Here are some examples confirming it:

"I discovered, while procuring my residency papers, a higher benchmark was set for my documents than those of my white American friends who were kind enough to compare their experience with mine." - A Haitian American

"My wife, in spite of being a European citizen, was given a permit as if she was an Indian wife and she was not allowed to work any more. When we inquired to the Ausländerbehörde (foreigners' office) about her getting a Freizügigkeitsbescheinigung ('freedom of movement' permit, issued to EU citizens living in Germany) we were told that she had lost all rights as an EU citizen by marrying a third-country national and she would now be considered as an alien's wife, not as an EU citizen." - An Indian scholar married to a Lithuanian girl (working in Germany).

"When I first got pregnant, I couldn't believe the look on one of the nurses' face when she looked at my insurance card and saw that we were not Germans. She immediately started hinting to my face that we were here making a great living and stealing their jobs away, while they were struggling with recession." -Andreaa Sepi from Romania

And some reality the Germans perhaps do not consider:

"Even the most cosmopolitan of my German friends could not conceive that I might plan to stay in the country after graduation. For them, it was unthinkable that a foreigner would come to study in Germany and legally stay on to work. (After graduation I moved to the United States and use my German education to make money from an American company. Too bad for the German tax-payer.)" - A Brazilian

"Germans probably travel more than any other nationalities, and yet in their own country they act as if they've never seen people of color.

My suggestion to Germans who really want to see integration work, is simple: Talk to a foreigner! Wherever you are, on the bus, walking down the street, don't hesitate to talk to a foreigner. Make us feel welcome, just a little nod and a short hello would suffice.
" - name withheld

"Immigration has always been part of Germany's history, in one way or another -- be it the Huguenots in the 17th century or Russian Jews after the pogroms in Russia in the 19th century -- only that a lot of Germans aren't aware of it. I blame the politicians and the media in Germany for doing so little to promote immigration and integration, to show how society can benefit from immigration -- where are, for instance, the Turkish TV presenters?" - Martin Sauter, a German

While we also see some counterpoints:

"Germans have the right to model their own country and culture. The same is true for Saudi Arabia with its non-tolerance of Christians, and India with its discriminatory caste system or Japan with its homogeneous ethnicity." - An American

"There is always one option for those who do not like it: Go home. No one is keeping them here or in any country where they do not feel wanted." - Paul Sanders

"Maybe Germany, including the SPIEGEL, should realize that Germany is not a special country but average, and that the phenomena you discuss here are not specifically German but human. It's called in-group-preference and out-group-avoidance. I'm afraid we're not going to get totally rid of that anywhere in the world." - A German living in Canada.

"The emphasis (in the debate on "foreign" criminals (more...)) should not be on the word "foreign"; rather, it should be on the word "criminal." If the criminal element -- regardless of age -- chooses not to respect the laws of their country of adoption, then they should be deported, pure and simple. The tax payer should not support this ilk." - Vera Gottlieb.

My view to this debate is that any criminal foreign or local should be tried under law. So why the fuss about deporting foreigners? What do you do with the local criminals? I think Ms. Vera do not know the asylum laws in Germany which grants political asylums to people from other countries. Some of those granted are fugitives from the rule of law of their own countries. Perhaps the issue of human rights come into question then. What an oxymoron!

I like to end this roundup with an American's words:

"Here in the States, the history of prejudice is different, the effects just as constant, but the origin similar: fear of that which is different. This fear breeds hatred and violence, sometimes planned and carried out over time, at other times opportunistic and random. Passively and actively, it is then passed to the next generation.

Xenophobia, racism, and extreme nationalism or regionalism, are all so ugly because the potential for these exists in all our hearts.


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