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Among whites: Biodeutsche and their privileges

INTERVIEW! Is the discourse about privilege and race dangerously behind here in Germany compared to the US? Journalist Mohamed Amjahid thinks so and is ready to change that with his new book "Unter Weißen".

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Photo by Götz Schleser

Mohamed Amjahid, a staff writer at ZEITmagazin since January 2016, spent the first seven years of his life in Germany. For the rest of his youth, he lived in his parents’ native Morocco before returning here for university. In his book Unter Weißen (Among Whites; Hanser Berlin, 2017) Amjahid describes his experiences with racism in Germany, from hate speech to the subtle paternalistic racism of refugee helpers, and calls on white Germans or “Biodeutsche” to show more awareness of their own privilege – especially when it comes to discussing issues like refugees, immigration and integration. If anything, Unter Weißen is an eye-opening report on the state of German society.

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At one point in your book you mention sitting in a Kreuzberg bar and talking to a young woman from New York who said it didn’t make any difference for her where she was from – because she was an expat. Why did you put that in your book?

In Paris you would call her a “Bobo”, in New York it’s the typical self-aware young New Yorkers that know, for example, what privileges they enjoy. I put this in the book because I sometimes find it really refreshing to be sitting across from someone to whom you don’t have to explain concepts like discrimination and privilege.

So, like many of our readers, she may be a foreigner, but she’s privileged, right?

Of course. In Berlin, this New Yorker doesn’t stick out as a foreigner when she’s walking through the city. When she goes into a bank and tries to open an account speaking English, she’s not talked to in a stupid way, or told she should learn German, which happened to the Syrian with whom I spent two weeks when he wanted to open a bank account. Of course, one of them had to flee here and isn’t here by choice, while the other one came here to chill for six months, which is totally fine. But both of them find themselves in a similar situation in Berlin and one of them is basically welcomed and the other one gets a lecture about not speaking German. I just think it’s sad that one person is seen as a foreigner due to his origins and skin colour even though we’re in an open, multi-cultural city like Berlin while the other person is seen as an enrichment for the city because she comes from New York. Don’t get me wrong, I want everyone to feel welcome in Berlin, and that everyone is treated equally.

This kind of debate has been going on for much longer in the US.

In terms of this kind of discourse, they’re at least 20-30 years ahead of Germany. I was in the US recently and it was like a kind of wellness programme for me. I visited friends in New York and Washington. The discussions there are at a totally different level. Even the worst Republicans use terms like “people of colour” while in Germany people are perplexed about why something like privilege would play a role. I think that, while the US has a very violent history of discrimination which is still prevalent today, a discourse developed out of this, where people like Teju Cole and all of the post-colonialist theorists have a place in society. In Germany, even in a city like Berlin, it’s always about creating a consensus and integrating into something that’s already there – and that’s the ‘German’. In the integration debate, it’s always about the foreigners assimilating into something existing and perfect. And then a ‘West’ is constructed, whereby the Americans ‘belong to us’, and the Brits as well, which is why they’re not really foreigners, they’re expats, they’re ‘us’.

Is the US – which has some of the worst institutionalised racism in the world – really the model you want to be following?

At least you can speak in the US more freely about these horrible incidents, about racist structures and white privilege. In Germany many people ask the question: Can we talk about white people? Is that a thing? The US is far from being a role model, but it is the most developed white-majority country on earth when it comes to “Let’s talk about racism.” And they’ve got Beyoncé!

Why did you choose Among Whites as the title of your book?

In the English-speaking context it’s normal to say ‘white people’. It’s okay. They even talk about ‘white people’ on Fox News. It takes on a different political meaning, but they use the word. In the German discourse, white people are very seldom identified by their skin colour when talking about their privileges. A lot of people got in touch after the book came out. Many with positive comments. But a lot were disappointed or at least seemed to be irritated by words like ‘whites’ or biodeutsch. “How can that be? Isn’t that racist? Aren’t we all equal?” This is a utopia which doesn’t reflect reality. We need to make visible the people who are invisible in the debate, namely Germans with a “migration background”. If you watch the talk shows, debates in the media, in political parties, in public administration, it’s always about the others, the foreigners, the Turks, the Arabs, the Africans, the ‘Nafris’ (North Africans), the Muslims, the Jews, the homosexuals, the transgender people, handicapped people… and the people who don’t appear are the majority.

Isn’t the term biodeutsch, which implies racial purity, a little dodgy, though?

I can understand that. The word doesn’t originate from me, but I used it in the book to describe the Germans who didn’t have a migration background. I find the phrase “migration background” really horrible. I don’t know who came up with that one. Language reflects the reality in a society and I think it is important to have a discussion with those who are affected. For example, we can talk about use of the word biodeutsch if the majority say they don’t want it. Make a suggestion and we can negotiate about it.

I was discussing swear words with a colleague: insults for whites and non-whites. All the swear words for Germans we could think of are kind of cute (“krauts”) but slurs directed at people like me have to do with the stereotype that I smell bad, that I’m hyper-sexualised, that I’m illiterate. The fact that there’s not really a term for the majority reflects their privilege and I tried to change that.

In your book you write about comedian Jan Böhmerman’s poem about Turkish president Recep Erdogan in which he called him a “goatfucker” – an old slur used for people from the Middle East. For you, this is a clear case of a racial insult. But what about freedom of expression?

I find it a bit sad that German satire often ends up in this discourse of racist insults. Satire is allowed to do everything, but I’m allowed to criticise the satire. It’s painful to watch Trevor Noah or John Oliver and see there is a different way to address issues with satire. They’re 20 years ahead in the US. Everyone should be able to laugh, but there has to be a fundamental respect. When I first heard about the Böhmermann poem I couldn’t believe it because my father was once called that, which really affected him then. I got so many comments on Twitter and Facebook where people wanted to defend the freedom of expression by saying “goatfucker” as often as possible or else sent me pictures of an Arab who was having sex with a goat. I have kind of a ‘fan base’. They sent it to annoy me.

How do you respond to that kind of thing?

Sometimes I just ignore it. Sometimes with an ironic joke. For years we were performing “Hate Poetry” performances with colleagues. Right now it’s on hold because our dear colleague Deniz Yücel is sitting in prison in Turkey. And that’s why it’s so sad that after this Böhmermann poem, we talked about Böhmermann instead of having a constructive debate about conditions in Turkey.

Political correctness is something that was developed in the US, and for me it’s nothing more than respect. It’s not about forbidding people from saying what they want to say. It’s about seeing the individual and not something like a goatfucker.

What role do you think racism and white privilege play in discussions about the refugee crisis?

Since 2015 I have spoken to a lot of Syrians, Iraqis and Afghans who are partially glad to be here, partially depressed being here because they don’t want to be here, because they get treated badly at the bank, in the U-Bahn, in German courses, because they imagined life would be very different here and didn’t know that you can’t do anything for weeks and months because of the bureaucracy. And then they wonder why people always talk down to them, for example: “Let me explain democracy to you, let me explain what human rights are.” How can you lecture someone who risked his life in a dictatorial regime about democracy and the rule of law? From the TV talk shows to the streets of Neukölln to the government quarter where decisions are made about people’s lives – the discussion is not taking place at eye level, as if there were subjects and objects. I thought it would be fair to focus these supposed subjects, these Biodeutsche. It begins at the Munich train station, where a woman wanted to give me a bar of soap because she couldn’t fathom that I might not be a refugee. These people don’t have bad intentions but have an idea in their head that these people all come from the bush and that you have to make them happy with some soap. Or when, at Lageso in Berlin, a white German more or less forces kids to eat gummy bears.

Isn’t it a bit unfair? Every German kid is given gummy bears; wasn’t the man just treating those kids as he would his? Was’t German civil society rather a positive example of showing empathy towards refugees? In comparison, the US and England – which you seem to look up to – have done nothing but try to keep their borders as tightly closed as possible.

It is a small story about a white German who forces a kid (who has a terrible bellyache, by the way) to eat Gummibärchen. At the end, the Syrian father says to his son: “Take the Gummibärchen so the German man is happy.” And that is too often the case: Helping without listening to the people, leading to more frustration and misunderstandings. I would really appreciate if all privileged people would reflect on this complex more often before trying to help. For example, asking simple questions: Why are some people starving on this earth? Why are some people fleeing from war in their own countries? What does this have to do with the history of colonialism and with current global politics and economy?

But aren’t you actually joining the AfD’s “new right” discourse in discrediting people who want to help, no matter how awkwardly? They call them Gutmenschen

From the AfD, we always get very simple answers to very complex questions. And if you look at the platform of the AfD or other populists such as Marine Le Pen or Donald Trump, you realise they aren’t real platforms because they don’t do anything about a lot of pressing issues. And whenever it gets really simplistic, whenever all problems are attributed to a certain minority, thinking people should be cautious. I don’t want to say that all AfD voters are stupid. They’re just blinded by the racism that’s in all of us, so privileged that they can afford to actively exclude people. So yes, so I far prefer the Gutmenschen to those AfD functionaries.

Isn’t it reasonable to say that we might need an upper limit to the number of refugees we can take in? Does racism always have to play a role in this discussion? Is it even possible to have a rational discussion about this subject?

I am a big fan of this culture of open discussion, even when it get confrontational. But there are some red lines for me, especially when it comes to fundamental basic rights. I don’t engage with people who tell me to “Go home!” Or when I hear, “We don’t have enough money, they’re taking away our money!” I respond, “What do you mean, we don’t have enough money? We’re one of the richest countries in the world.” Or people say, “They’re taking away our jobs, and they’re totally lazy and get welfare.” Or “They have so much sex. And they have no sex at all.” People get really emotional. I don’t think you should suppress your emotions, but you should process your emotions.

Is this racism, or a selfish reflex from people who’re scared about their future and don’t want to ‘share’ their privileges?

Does racism play a role in these discussions? I think it does. But it’s not just racism, it’s often sexism, transphobia, anti-Semitism, discrimination against people with disabilities or Sinti and Roma. This is how our societies have been structured for centuries. It’s utopian to think we can get rid of that completely, but we can try to get more people to talk about it.

But there aren’t so many people who think that way in Berlin, are there?

Of course there are plenty. The AfD is now in the Berlin state parliament. Beatrix von Storch is the chairwoman of the Berlin AfD. You have the NPD in Marzahn and Rudow. In the Bundestag you have very conservative politicians. Maybe not so much among our friends. But it’s too easy to say that the Nazis, the bad ones, they’re in Dresden and Saxony. That gets said a lot in Berlin. Expats say that often. You hear in so many of the cool places in Berlin, sitting in your quiet corner in a Friedrichshain or Kreuzberg bar.

In your book you talk about the peculiar racism you encounter at Berlin parties.

At parties you hear some really strange things coming from the mouths of left-wing liberal people. They don’t want to come across as bad, but then suddenly a comment will come up from somebody I’ve never met before like, “Mohamed, have you brought your bomb with you?” Something like this happens about once a week. My first day working at a left-wing newspaper, someone said, “Welcome, Ahmadinejad!” In a progressive environment, a lot of people think they can get away with more. They say they don’t mean it that way. They want to be smart and funny, but they reflect the racist structures of our society. I recently wrote a text for ZEIT about racism in certain left-wing groups and people were so disappointed: “How could that be? We’re the best, we don’t have sexism and racism! Now you’ve joined the Nazis! Go back to the Mufti of Palestine!” The racists and sexists are always the others, or elsewhere. I think people should reflect upon themselves: where do I live, where am I? Are some sort of exclusionary mechanisms at work?

So what can we do?

“Check your fucking privilege.” That concept comes from the US, it’s mainstream there, but in Germany it’s new. It’s about whether, for example, you can just pack your suitcase and travel somewhere. Whether, as a citizen, you can depend on the social welfare system. Whether you live in a place where imperialistic exploitation decides over your life, whether, from a post-colonial viewpoint, you live in a region that isn’t at war. These are all things I wish every one of us would question.

Germans, for example, can travel to something like 176 countries without a problem.

And it’s not just about those numbers, it’s also about whether, when someone travels somewhere, they’re welcome or not. I’m listed in the statistics as a problematic immigrant. There are people in the government who say we have to stop so many Mohameds from coming, even though I, for example, work for a big newspaper. But if everyone looking like me or having my name was a terrorist, we’d have a huge problem! What does a terrorist look like, actually? Why aren’t we afraid of someone who looks like Beate Zschäpe [member of the NSU neo-Nazi terror group]? Or recently, in Brandenburg, two policemen were run over by a young German man. But no attention is drawn to the ethnicity of the perpetrators of these crimes. I discuss this in the book. When foreigners commit a crime, the crimes and motive doesn’t play a role, but the skin colour of the criminal does. In Berlin clubs there is plenty of sexual aggression – what difference does it make whether it’s a German or an immigrant? People have in their heads that a crime by a Mohamed is worse, I can’t understand that. It’s very dangerous.

But Islamist violence is also a fact, and ISIS or ISIS-inspired terrorism is one of the biggest challenges in our post-war societies, something our governments need to fight against one way or another… isn’t it?

Yes, Islamist violence is a big problem. We need to find solutions to prevent radicalisation inside and outside of Germany. I think it’s partially related to racism that young people are tempted to adopt radical ideologies. But the answer can’t be that all Mohameds want to blow us up. Society wouldn’t function. There was a thought experiment to find out what would happen if all of the non-whites didn”t exist in Germany. The result showed we wouldn’t have Berghain, we wouldn’t have a lot of university professors, we wouldn’t have the opportunity to eat all the great things you can eat in Berlin. The diversity of this city lives from the fact that we have to tolerate things that aren’t liked by everyone. If you can’t tolerate two men kissing each other in Berlin, then you’re in the wrong place. If you think there are too many Mohameds, you’re in the wrong place.

Speaking of two men kissing, some would argue that with immigration we are importing problematic values from other countries: burqas, homophobia, anti-Semitism…

I am all for discussing problems openly and as rationally as possible. But you reach a point in the discussion where that’s no longer constructive. For example, when the CDU politician Jens Spahn demands that all Arabs at his gym shower naked because he finds it spießig when a “macho Arab“ showers in his underwear. From a feminist point of view, that’s the same mechanism that forces women to cover themselves. The basic principle should be, the bodies of others is none of my business. My body, my rights. If I want to put on headscarf, I can do it. If I want to go around naked, I can do it.

Another example is imported anti-Semitism. These are often people who come to Germany at age 15. They were often taught to see Jews as enemies, sometimes in their school curriculum in their home countries. In Syria, for example. Syria is officially at war with Israel. When a Biodeutscher comes to me and complains about imported anti-Semitism, I say two things: “My grandpa wasn’t a Nazi. Watch yourself. Second, a lot of Syrians that have come here and inform themselves about German history for the first time are totally shocked by what human beings are capable of.” I was in a museum with one. She cried.

Should all refugees from the Middle East be taken to the Jewish Museum or Holocaust Memorial? Or re-educated in some other way?

I think in Germany we should be very careful with that. “Re-education” is a good term speaking about the “Entnazifizierung” (de-Nazification) of a big part of German society, not when you have the situation that many of the refugees who arrive could give you a lesson what it means to stand up for human rights and democracy in a totalitarian regime. Let’s talk, but on the same level and with respect for each other.

But meanwhile, isn’t there a real problem with homophobia within some Muslim immigrant communities? If so, how do we deal with it?

I know this is annoying for so many people, but homophobia is not a migrant, nor an Arab or a Muslim issue. As a gay or lesbian couple you can’t hold hands in many soccer stadiums in Germany, because there is homophobia among many people there. I know: Not all soccer fans are homophobes! And here we go: Not all migrants are homophobes. It’s too easy to blame a minority for a problem that is very big in our society. We really need to talk about racism, anti-Semitism, homo- and transphobia, sexism and so on without trying to whitewash (in all senses) the majority. The best place to do this is Neukölln. In some bars there you have the best Arab drag shows in town, the best food and a good atmosphere to talk about how all of us together can make our society better.