BERLIN — As the NFL anthem debate rumbles along in the United States, Europe now has its own flash point over racial inequality and discrimination touched off by sports.
The sports might be different — soccer instead of football — and the activists are predominantly second- and third-generation immigrants, but their concerns are similar to those of their U.S. counterparts: They feel the rules are not fairly applied.
Those long-running tensions were stoked this month when Turkish-German sports star Mesut Özil resigned from the German national soccer team after controversy erupted over his posing with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan for a photo — and questions being raised over his performance amid the country’s early defeat in this years World Cup. “I am German when we win, but I am an immigrant when we lose,” Özil wrote in his resignation letter after critics began to also question the soccer star’s performance at the World Cup.
Although debates over immigration have gained new momentum amid Germany’s decision to admit refugees in recent years, its origins go back decades. In the 1960s, Germany began to invite Turkish citizens as temporary guest workers to make up for a severe labor shortage amid postwar rebuilding. For many guest workers, their temporary status eventually became a permanent one. But for decades, authorities stuck to policies that were never designed to integrate hundreds of thousands of newcomers, nor grant them citizenship.
“Citizenship for a very long time was connected to the idea of blood and biological ancestry, not to where you were born and where you participate politically,” said Sebastian Jobs, a historian at the Free University of Berlin. That only changed in the late 1990s, when new citizenship laws allowed some immigrants to obtain German citizenship. Many were able to obtain dual citizenship and vote in two countries. During Turkey's presidential election in 2014, about 140,000 Turks cast their votes in Berlin alone.
Conservative German politicians have criticized what they brand “parallel societies.” But many children of Turkish immigrants in Germany also have begun to challenge the assumptions that they must leave behind the traditions of their forebears to be fully German — echoing complaints of other immigrants in France or Britain.
It now has a hashtag, #MeTwo, inspired by the #MeToo anti-sexual harassment movement. About 200,000 tweets — most of them containing anecdotal evidence of everyday racism — have so far been shared on German social media.
“I was born in Germany and had to take an oral exam at the university Essen,” one user recalled, using the hashtag. “My German professor asks at the beginning ‘How are you? How do you like Germany? And when will you back home to your country?’ My answer was, ‘I was born here 25 years ago and this is my home.’”
Others cautioned that the problem wasn’t restricted to children of Turkish immigrants. “My german teacher was guessing the future professions of pupils in the class (10th grade) ‘Well . . . veronika. you are going to be a Russian porn actress . . . ’ No one was laughing. ‘Joke,’” wrote one user.
To many with immigrant origins, the social media outpouring is more evidence that Germany needs a new approach to national identity.
“We need to redefine what it means to be German,” Ali Can, the journalist who launched the hashtag, told the Associated Press in an interview.
“It’s the first time that everyday racism is really being talked about,” said Wolfgang Kaschuba, director of Berlin’s Institute for empirical integration and migration research.
That’s at least in part due to a limited view of what counts as racism in the first place, said the historian Sebastian Jobs. “The image of a racism that is hostile and a conscious act of physical assault or intentional discrimination probably goes back to the Shoa experience as well,” he said, referring to the World War II era holocaust. “This was open, exclusionary, violent, genocidal, and the worst case of racism in Germany.”
In contrast, the type of racism that’s unconscious but still systematic or structural, has been far less talked about publicly, said Jobs. Discrimination in hiring practices, schooling, and policing are just a few examples of the racism that have long pervaded German society.
This narrow view of racism is at least in part a result of Germany’s particularly dark history. For decades after the war, words like “race” and “patriotism” were considered taboo because of their association with the Nazis, but the result was the topic of less overt racism in society was not really broached. Also, in contrast to Britain, Germany also didn’t consider itself a great colonizer, nor did it have an equivalent to the overtly racist Jim Crow laws, which gave rise to much earlier discussions about segregation and white privilege in the United States.
“This is something that’s still missing from the German debate,” said Jobs. “People who are voicing racism are being portrayed as cry babies. But what’s missing is others asking about what it’s like, and also reflecting on their own privilege.” Just take your own first name, said Jobs. “If it’s Klaus, you’re much more likely to get hired than Mohammed.”
Efforts to call out racism and redefine what it means to be German still face an uphill battle. On Monday, the conservative tabloid Bild cautioned “leftists” from excluding white men from the debate, arguing that it’s likely to “force them into the arms” of far-right populists, in an opinion piece titled “What do you actually have against ‘white men.’”
Germany's Interior Minister Horst Seehofer recently echoed the statement “Islam does not belong in Germany,” previously only made by the far right party Alternative for Germany, or AfD. Other politicians and commentators have called on Germans like Özil to renounce their citizenship, or questioned their loyalty to Germany.
“What has been implied by some top officials in recent debates is that if you have two identities you really don’t have any. That and other remarks have already reversed some of the progress that had been made in terms of integrating newcomers,” said Kaschuba.
That’s also a result of the negative ways that immigrants and their children are being talked about and portrayed. “Relating to two worlds is hardly ever perceived to be a strength in an individual,” said sociologist Aleksandra Lewicki. “This #MeTwo is about Two, it’s about being two things,” said Lewicki, who also participated in the campaign. “It’s not just the second #MeToo, it’s also about having different affiliations, different senses of cultural belonging,” she said.
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