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Black in Berlin: The ‘Bad Foreigner’ Notion

Berlin’s foreign population is growing faster than the mind and hearts of some locals.

Almost 30% of those who call Berlin home are of foreign origin. Although many native Berliners appreciate the cosmopolitan transformation of their city, some believe all of this change is a problem. Xenophobia and intolerance have spread far beyond extreme hate groups and into the mainstream, so much so that I keep hearing the damned term “bad foreigner” in casual conversation.

A “bad foreigner” is someone who is a liability, a burden on the social tax system but frankly it’s anyone darker than a pair of khakis. The primary difference between the United States and most of Europe when it comes to immigration is Europe’s unwillingness to integrate foreigners. Germans, in my opinion, would prefer if immigrants assimilated, abandoning their previous culture, language and rituals and “upgrade” to the lifestyle of a good German.

Still, Berlin really is one of the coolest European cities. I moved to Germany’s stomping grounds directly after working in London for three years. My work contract in Britain had expired and I was due to repatriate back to Washington, D.C. I knew I wasn’t ready to return to the land of two weeks paid vacation and made an effort to stay in Europe. Then I landed a job in Berlin, a city with the highest unemployment rate in Germany. In my two-year stint here, it’s hard to pinpoint what contributes to my new home’s coolness factor. Perhaps it’s because the city is in transition; recovering, rebuilding and evolving just 20 years after the fall of the Berlin Wall. As I walk down the streets, the atmosphere is bursting with creativity and I am not the only one who has noticed. Berlin’s allure draws artist, performers, designers and musicians alike. Aside from a vibrant cultural scene and nightlife, the Berlin appeal has much to do with the small price tag associated with living. It’s affordability appeals not only to starving artists but flagrant cheap-a-nistas like me. Berlin’s popularity among tourists is also spreading; it is the third most visited city in Europe, attracting 8 million visitors annually.

As a Black woman in Berlin, many people often tie me in with the “bad foreigners” and make assumptions about my economic status, career or cultural background. You don’t know how many times someone starts a conversation in French because it is assumed that I am an African immigrant. When I speak English, I receive “compliments” on how well I speak it. I reply, “I would hope so, it’s my native language”, with a fair amount of snark.

I am often the object of fascination by many Berliners. Some Germans are certain that I am some sort of actress or performer. My own physician believed I was an opera singer and was floored when he found out that I held a position in technical management. He informed me that “we” typically do not hire Blacks for such jobs. I’ve come to expect a certain amount of staring and occasional finger pointing because I am “different,” but some people take things too far. One woman had the audacity to rub my skin in an effort to prove to her child that my black didn’t come off. It took every particle in my body to not scratch her eyes out simply because her young impressionable child was watching me like a hawk. Sometimes, living abroad really does make me feel like an animal in the petting zoo.

When I share some of my daily interactions with friends back home in America, most have no idea why I choose to stay. One thing about me, my happiness is not defined by what strangers assume about me. I can’t control how people will react to me, I can only control my reaction and what impact I will allow them to have on my experience here. I have given up the battle of checking folks at every offense because I simply do not have the energy or the time. Life is too short. The second reason I love Berlin is my quality of life is amazing. I enjoy my job, my colleagues and I have built a life here that I am quite fond of. The location of Berlin is perfect for my globetrotting habit and, as I mentioned before, the city is just cool! Overall I am impressed with Berlin’s lifestyle but there is still room for improvement on the side of tolerance. Germany has yet to develop its image of foreigners; we are not all guest workers and asylum seekers. We are also men and women who are assets to their economy, who hope to make Germany our home and have no plans of leaving. The face of Germany is changing whether the natives accept it or not.

– Nicole

Get to know our newest international Parlourista Nicole a little better over at NicoleisTheNewBlack!

Last 5 posts by Parlour

  • This is a tricky, tricky subject. Living as a person of African descent aka dark skin, in a European country = you are an African before you open your mouth to prove otherwise (the general perception).

    You wrote:

    ‘The primary difference between the United States and most of Europe when
    it comes to immigration is Europe’s unwillingness to integrate
    foreigners. Germans, in my opinion, would prefer if immigrants
    assimilated, abandoning their previous culture, language and rituals and
    “upgrade” to the lifestyle of a good German.’

    I can admit that I have never been to Europe, although I have lived abroad when I was younger, in Africa. So naturally you will be more knowledgeable on this particular situation.

    Yet I will offer up is my understanding of the history of the United States. The people of the United States, black and white, are most likely no different from everyday Germans when it comes to acceptance of immigrants. The only reason I could understand where German’s are coming from is that, bottom line, that is truly THEIR land. Their language, culture, history and ethnicity is tied to that one region. The United States on the other hand? Um, not so much.

    I’ve always told people that I can deal with European racism (though to be fair, I’ve never encountered it) to United States racism. Because frankly, the racism here is unsupported by any solid factor. This is the ultimate land of immigrants thanks to Christopher Columbus, Native American genocide, and African slavery.

    But in Europe, if a person says “this is OUR land” well, you can’t really argue with them there. Does not make it right. I just think there is no helpful comparison to the United States on this particular issue.

    Further, I can understand WHY Germans, and any other rightfully entitled citizen of a historical nation, country and ethnic group would feel that sense of threat when a significant influx of a different ethnic group arrives in their homeland, via asylum, refugees, war, economic hardship, etc. The circumstances of the migrants are unfavorable, and create an extremely dynamic living environment. What should be asked of all sides in the transition is cooperation, sensitivity and understanding. Making communities that resemble what we personally know in other parts of the world is commendable, yet we should not forget where we are when we embark on that. After all, what makes Germany German is all things…well, German. The language. The cuisine. The cultural traits and etc.

    If anything, language and culture, but especially language, is the signifier of a people connected through something they share and have deep roots with. To cancel that out, or think it a merely interchangeable element, is dangerous. On the other hand, retaining ones culture through language is most vital and should be shared and received with understanding and patience. This is why we have ‘homelands’, so that even though we may live in another region of the world and speak a foreign language, we can return to a place that our ancestors are familiar with, to remind ourselves of who we are. I think Europeans are just trying to hold onto the ‘homeland’ factor, because after all, there is only one true homeland.

  • First of all, thank you SOOOO much for the great comment. I am so excited you took the time to comment on my piece. So here is my initial reaction.

    There will be always be Germans in Germany, sure you can preserve your culture and your language but if the goal is to keep German as German as possible, then let me know that before I get here, or actually do not let me in at all.
    Germany NEEDS the foreigner to maintain their social tax system, something else that makes Germany, Germany.
    (due to Germany having the lowest birth rates in Europe) They need ME to pay into the tax system and then breed little brown future tax payers to support the German way of life and social benefits. So if I were them, I would sharpen up in making the foreigner experience a bit more comfy. Sure “migrants” will stay, but the people boosting their economy will not. I am not asking to be welcomed with elephants, I just want a person to speak more than German at the friggin foreigner’s office. I mean hello, people foreign to Germany do not speak German 🙂

    The kicker is, even WHEN you adopt a German life, speak the language fluently, adopt their food, and cultural habits. Germans still treat non ethic Germans as less than, ask the Turkish people that have been here for generations.  Even when you pay your taxes and contribute and not mooch you are still treated as a burden by some and they expect you to leave sooner rather than later.

    I am all about adopting the culture I have a drindl in my closet, but I cant get down with the cuisine of breadcrumbs and salt. Thank you for comment, I understand their desire to preserve their homeland but like I said Germany and Europe are changing. The cooperation you speak of only comes from intergration not assimilation.

    You have no idea how excited I am about your comment. I may address better on my own blog.

  • You are hilarrrrrious…cuisine of breadcrumbs and salt, teehee.
     
    I hope me and you can definitely connect…I just read over a few posts of your blog and I’m completely interested in your life. #Nota stalker. 🙂

    My email is on my blog btw.

  • Vicious Delicious

    Interesting, blondes building a wall to keep out “others”.  I notice a “china man” also on the other side of the wall.  Didn’t Germans have a problem with this sort of thing before?  Are they really trying to separate themselves from Hitler?  p.s. I was born in Germany.

  • As someone who has spent some time in Europe, here is my take on this – many Europeans would do well to look at American history and the Civil Rights movement in the 60s.  Because European countries were closed for so long, the EU and the rights of immigrants to come to many of these countries, even Europeans in other European countries, has opened the door to ethnic issues that the US has dealt with gradually over the last 40 years.  This is completely new to many and for years Germans were used to dealing mainly with Germans.  With an open Europe, this isn’t the case any more so many of the things you say go back to my first point – there is a lot Europeans could learn from America’s struggles (and vice versa for America with other issues.

  • As someone who has spent some time in Europe, here is my take on this – many Europeans would do well to look at American history and the Civil Rights movement in the 60s.  Because European countries were closed for so long, the EU and the rights of immigrants to come to many of these countries, even Europeans in other European countries, has opened the door to ethnic issues that the US has dealt with gradually over the last 40 years.  This is completely new to many and for years Germans were used to dealing mainly with Germans.  With an open Europe, this isn’t the case any more so many of the things you say go back to my first point – there is a lot Europeans could learn from America’s struggles (and vice versa for America with other issues.

  • As someone who has spent some time in Europe, here is my take on this – many Europeans would do well to look at American history and the Civil Rights movement in the 60s.  Because European countries were closed for so long, the EU and the rights of immigrants to come to many of these countries, even Europeans in other European countries, has opened the door to ethnic issues that the US has dealt with gradually over the last 40 years.  This is completely new to many and for years Germans were used to dealing mainly with Germans.  With an open Europe, this isn’t the case any more so many of the things you say go back to my first point – there is a lot Europeans could learn from America’s struggles (and vice versa for America with other issues.

  • Anonymous

    I have always been very curious about Germany….Berlin in particular. I am a woman of color/Latina/Creole and I am from Chicago. I would really like to hear another perspective, as well as some more thoughts from Nicole.

  • Anonymous

    I have always been very curious about Germany….Berlin in particular. I am a woman of color/Latina/Creole and I am from Chicago. I would really like to hear another perspective, as well as some more thoughts from Nicole.

  • LadyCPA

    Great article! I am heading to Berlin in 2 weeks.  I am an international auditor, so my job takes me all over the globe.  I am always anxious to know how I will be perceived where I am set to travel before I arrive, as a Black American woman. Thus far in my travels (France, Belgium, Spain, Costa Rica, Mexico), I have had all around positive experiences.  I am light skinned with naturally curly hair, so often times I am perceived as being mixed. Not sure how that lends itself to how others react to me, but from what I can tell, Europeans have been very receptive of me. Again, I appreicate the article and look forward to having an enjoyable weekend in Berlin!

  • old school

    In 1974  a German woman rubbed my  face to see if the  color would come off. She also ran her hands thru my afro. My how things have not changed much!!!!

  • sally

    It is sad that great cities like Berlin have this issues. I was hoping to find something better as I am looking into staying at least temporarily in Germany.

    But US is no immigration heaven either. Yes, it has lots of immigrants and their cultures are allowed to flourish. But there is a more subtle problem in the US as well, where people look at other immigrant cultures inferior. And this happens even in educated circles.

    As an African international student in the US, I can tell you I have received the same questions and “compliments” you described. I think this talk describes these situations well.

    http://www.ted.com/talks/chimamanda_adichie_the_danger_of_a_single_story.html
    I hope your stay in Berlin gets more enjoyable with time.

  • Al Misri

    I arrived here by searching statistics on Foreigners in Berlin and I started reading your post and it’s very interesting.
    I was born in Switzerland and I still live in but both my parents are from Egypt. I think it’s quite the same look that natives have o you and me whether you’re immigrants or native with other ethncity. However I will always feel I’m an immigrant if native swiss still look at me like I’m an immigrant, even if I have the swiss nationality. And I’m not helped by the growing islamophobia in the world…

    With all respect I have, you said …”people foreign to Germany do not speak German :)”. Unfortunately, many people from english speaking countries know only english. Aren’t you (american, british, australian…) interested in learning other languages. I think it’s too simple for fluent english speakers to relax on their language, knowing that it is learned everywhere.