Everyday Racism

We’re currently experiencing a rise in nationalist tendencies – I don’t know if it’s a worldwide phenomenon, but it surely applies to most, if not all, so-called western countries. One of the possible roots of this is the influx of refugees from countries most of us have only ever seen in the news. Depending on which news outlets serve as your major source of information, you’ll either perceive them as people in desperate need of our help, maybe even future pillars of our society, not to mention our pension scheme, or as a threat that will overwhelm your culture, stealing your jobs while simultaneously living on your benefits and raping your women.

Both perspectives offer their individual amount of resentment. As apalling as it is to confront people with instant hatred and suspicion, meeting them with the slightly condescending air of someone out to satisfy their charitable streak holds its own ugliness. Both means looking down on another human being.

Especially in countries like Germany, which took in very high numbers of asylum seekers over the past years, the situation is… interesting? People are unhappy. With more than a million applications to work their way through, the authorities were quickly out of their depth. Asylum seekers are not allowed to work, so of course they did nothing for a long time but idle around in refugee camps, living off donations and tax payer money and slowly going crazy. They didn’t get the psychotherapeutical help they would have needed, which led to knife attacks and other incidents ranking as terrorism. They couldn’t sign up for language courses because they lacked the necessary papers. And once they got those documents, they quickly found that even if they have an education, it probably won’t do them much good, because employers won’t recognize their degrees, so even those who should do qualified jobs are forced into shitty ones, willing to work for a pittance just to have any job at all. And now it’s their fault if our wages don’t rise. And that’s just on top of an overall fear of the strange.

I know I’m simplifying things. I desperately want them to be simple. Because they should be. Only they’re not. Looking down on someone doesn’t make matters better though, quite the opposite. We’re – and I hope it is unconsciously – grinding down people who just want to go on with their lives.

During the past months, kicked off by a row over football (that’s socker, Americans) player Mesut Özil, the hashtag #metwo took off on Twitter. People all over Germany shared their experiences with what was referred to as Alltagsrassismus, which translates to everyday racism, or worse, trivial racism, meaning those snippets of ignorance, condescension or downright hatred that will get thrown at you if you’re obviously from somewhere else, because either your accent or your skin color will proclaim you as not a native.

I spent hours trawling those tweets. One thing that initially struck me as odd was how many people complained about the simple question “Where are you from?” I get the same question. To me, it always means the other person is taking an interest. I love asking the question myself, and then go on to find out more about whichever country is the answer, the respective culture, language, music, whatever. That’s how I grew up, as a kid which participated in international Scout camps. The theme song of one of those even included the lyrics “Hey there, where’s your tent/say, where are you from/come and tell about your world/I’ll be happy to listen.” It actually hurt me to have that simple question marked as a racist comment.

Then I started thinking.

I’m an expat. I left my home country for love. I am a EU citizen with all the rights and liberties that entails. I have no intention of swapping my citizenship, and I know I can go home anytime I choose. My home country is not at war, it has a stable economy, people don’t starve there on a regular basis, there’s even a chance for a state-funded pension. The native language is the same as in my country of residence, even if my accent or choice of words gives me away occasionally, much as I try to express myself in Hochdeutsch (German equivalent of Queen’s English). I’m also very white. In other words: I’m one privileged bitch. I might roll my eyes if someone calls me a Schluchtenscheißer (person who takes a crap in a ravine, very subtle allusion to the fact that there are high mountains in Austria), but that’s just lame jokes with no real menace behind them. I’m not a victim of racism.

If someone asks me where I’m from, they perceive me as a person of equal status, as white and educated and European as themselves. They don’t look down on me. They don’t pity me. They listen to my answer. They don’t tell me how I’m not welcome here. They don’t tell me to go back home. That’s a big difference.

If you hear cheap racist or plain ignorant shots all the time, it grinds you down, until even the most simple question will sound like an accusation.

Ever since trawling through those tweets, I’ve tried to examine and, where necessary, correct my behavior. I’ve found what I guess is referred to as reverse racism in my actions, or, to quote from one black woman: “I wish white people would stop smiling at me for no reason.” I’m definitely guilty of that, and I’m sorry. I’ll try my best and continue to listen, and find less stupid ways of showing support.

Look here for a bit of related reading.


About angelikarust

My name is Angelika Rust. I was born in Vienna in 1977. These days, I live in Germany, with my husband, two children, a despotic couple of cats and a hyperactive dog. After having tried almost every possible job from pizza delivery girl to HR consultant, I now make a living knowing English. No, I haven’t yet figured out what I want to be when I grow up, whenever that may be. In the meantime, I write the occasional book.
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