FLIPPING RECENTLY through photos I collected during a two-year stay in Germany, I paused over snapshots from Carnaval in Cologne: Costumed revelers wearing blackface and war paint swing their grass-skirted hips as if looping hula hoops -- their best approximation, I presume, of frenzied Africans on the warpath. As they passed me, a black American, one member of the group said to me, "We're dressed this way because we like black people."
It was then that it became clear to me that the racism I would confront in Germany was of a wholly different variety from that which I had experienced in my own country.
That Germany has gained a sizable population of expatriates since the end of the war, some of whom might find the caricaturizations offensive, seemed no reason to the revelers to break with such established traditions as donning a bamboo hat to play a shuffling Chinaman.
The country marks another stage of political union this weekend with the first all-German election, but the unity of east and west may mean further disunity between German and non-German. In fact, the combination of a sometimes simpleminded view of foreigners and the growing resentment that has accompanied the decline in the standard of living since unification augurs ill for the acceptance of Germany's many foreigners.
I think back to the incident at Carnaval and others I experienced and witnessed and I worry about an upsurge in xenophobia and racism in a nation still tarnished by the memory of 6 million murders less than half a century ago. Few would suggest that such reservations would have provided a basis for opposing unification. Still, many Americans, Europeans and even West Germans I talked to in those heady days when the Berlin Wall was breached, admitted to a certain uneasiness upon hearing East German chants of Deutschland einige Vaterland ("One German Fatherland"). Their worst fears are that along with a revived nationalism, antisemitic and anti-foreign tendencies will once again well to the surface. These concerns are echoed by astute observers of German society, who say intensified racist tendencies are as unavoidable a by-product of unification as inflation and unemployment.
By far, the most frequent racist behavior I heard about during the time I lived in Germany were directed against non-white or non-Christian Mitbuerger -- the euphemistic term applied to foreigners, connoting that while they live among the Germans, they're not considered of them.
For Germans, the test of progress in the two generations since the end of World War II is not only how well they succeed in accommodating the 40,000 Jews who remain there (compared to a population of 600,000 before the war), but how they accommodate the growing numbers of immigrants and refugees from Africa, Asia and southern and eastern Europe.
I confess that much of what I heard and lived, although largely anecdotal in nature, does not give me reason to be optimistic. Some examples: Towards the end of my stay, reactionary elements in the small town of Langen, near Frankfurt, proclaimed that it would become the "first foreigner-free city in Germany" by the end of the decade and promptly began to terrorize the town's non-white residents. News accounts generally reported increases in attacks on foreign workers in both Germanys in the months preceding unification. (Though the neo-fascistic Republican party appears to have lost steam, its influence cannot be discounted.) To counter a declining population, German women were offered financial incentives to bear more children and East Europeans of German ancestry were invited to resettle in Germany. Meanwhile incentives were offered to Turks, the largest ethnic minority, to return to their homeland. When a mixed-race woman of African and German origins had the audacity to compete for the title of Miss Germany in a beauty contest, the tabloid headline read: "Should this coffee-brown woman be allowed to become Miss Germany?"
Even white foreigners are sometimes targeted. East Germans already blame the Poles and other East European immigrants for their dashed hopes and pent-up frustrations regarding life in the West. These recent immigrants, they charge, occupy good jobs and scarce apartments.
For me, a foreigner not subjected to the vicissitudes of the job and housing markets, it was the everyday, on-the-street encounters in Germany that were most jarring. Many a winter day brought a query from a stranger about whether I, presumably with the tropics in my veins, felt the cold more acutely than they.
Even a simple visit to the ice cream parlor became a dilemma. Should I order my favorite flavor, chocolate, and run the risk of yet another joke -- "So, that's the secret!" of how my skin got its color.
Sensitivity to allegations of racism runs deep. After the incident at Carnaval, an acquaintance accusing me of projecting a peculiarly American pathology onto his country, ended the friendship in a huff. Real racism, it seemed to him, involved someone getting battered because of skin color.
Recent attacks on Africans and Asians living in what was East Germany suggest that, even by that exacting standard, racism in Germany has arrived.
Stephanie Griffith is a Washington Post reporter.