People with a background

Imagine the following scene, taking place in Germany: a person walks up to the hotel reception desk. The member of staff looks up and immediately switches to English: “Are you here to check out?” To which the guest responds, in German, “I speak German too.” And then they add, “In fact, I am German.”

This is the scene I observed during a recent stay at a hotel here in Southern Germany.

The hotel guest had, for lack of a better word, an ‘Asian’ face. And clearly the assumption by the member of staff was that they were most likely from somewhere other than Germany.

It’s not like we’ve not been told that this is happening in this country. In her book Undeutsch, German author Fatima El-Tayeb noted that the concept of ‘being German’ was ‘white-Christian’. In other words, if you’re not perceived as white and Christian, you are likely to be thought of as ‘not German’.

And not just that. Even if the hotel guest was eventually accepted as German – after having asserted they were – they still would not have been simply labelled as such. They would have been ‘a person with a migrant background’ [1] or, a Deutsch-Asiate, i.e. ‘German-Asian’ [2].

I cannot tell you why that is so. Especially since there is no similar and established phrase for everyone else, i.e. the majority whose families’ roots do not reach elsewhere, at least not in recent memory.

The unhappy suspicion is that unlike ‘people with a migrant background’, the majority is considered just that: German. We don’t require a label. We have one [3].

As if this weren’t troubling enough, the term ‘person with a migrant background’ doesn’t actually tell you anything much about the person in question – it merely tells you that they or one of their parents were born without a German passport. I have recently been told by one such parent that their child is now labelled as having a migrant background even though they do not speak that parent’s mother tongue nor do they have any close relations to their parent’s country of origin.

So what useful information does that term actually give us about that person? How are we using this information to improve the life of the person to whom we’ve just forcefully attached the label? For there is no escaping this classification on a German bureaucratic form. You must not lie about where your parent for example was born, no matter how little that means to your identity and experience.

I believe that every time we speak of ‘people with a migrant background’ or ‘German-X’-people, we reaffirm that they remain outside of the group of ‘real’ Germans. We reaffirm this not just to ourselves – the ‘in’-group of Germanness – but also to those on the outside. At best, we’re creating a hierarchy of Germans, with those majority-Germans on top and everyone else below [4]. However, as we’ve been told through #metwo or by Mesut Özil on his departure from the German National Football Team in 2018, when push comes to shove, those ‘less-than-real’-Germans are just as likely to have their Germanness denied altogether when they do something that the majority disapproves of.

The troubling part is that to this day, so many in Germany refuse to really acknowledge these issues. We have a tendency to point our finger elsewhere; I was told only this week that ‘Racism in the United States is so much worse than in Germany’. I am neither sure that this is true – compared to the US there is a lamentably small number of proper research on racism, especially structural racism in Germany – nor do I believe that this should be our standard.

We are Germans. Our history in the 20th century has given us a special responsibility. Our achievements in tackling that history in the second part of the 20th century has proven that we are capable of being radically honest with ourselves. That is something that Germans can actually be proud of. Now let’s not give that away by shying away from taking a close look at the dynamics we’re creating in our society today.

I am specifically looking to cultural and educational institutions to lead the way if need be. It should never happen, as I experienced not too long ago, that a representative from a cultural organisation implies that those who belong to a city’s community are white. There should be more awareness than that. We should challenge such latent views, not state them ourselves. That’s painful, I know, especially when we realise that for years perhaps our thinking has been flawed, to put it mildly. But we have no choice if we are truly serious about promoting a just and inclusive society. We must be the change.

Someone ‘with a migrant background’ recently laughed when we discussed this term. They said, ‘Person with a background, what does that even mean?’



[1] The official definition of ‘person with a migrant background’ is someone born without a German passport, or someone with at least one parent to which this applies.

[2] I do find it curious that the emphasis in this construction is not on ‘German’, as in ‘Asian-American’, but instead on ‘Asian’. It suggests that the more defining aspect is that person’s ‘Asian-ness’ and precisely not their being German.

[3] There have been a few attempts which haven’t stuck: Biodeutsche (organic Germans), Herkunftsdeutsche (Germans of origin). I actually don’t like either of those terms because they’re just one step away from ‘German-Germans’. Yes, that feels as wrong as it sounds, not the least because of Germany’s history. And they still create a hierarchy: we’re the organic and original ones. Seriously?

[4] There is a hierarchy that the majority assign to German-X-people as well. The whiter and more Christian you are, the higher up on the ladder you are placed, and the less discrimination you experience. See this study for the job market as an example: Wissenschaftszentrum Berlin für Sozialforschung 2018, Ethnische Hierarchien in der Bewerberauswahl.

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