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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!

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