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people crossing the street in Berlin
For many people in Germany, it's hard to just blend into the crowdImage: DW/Heiner Kiesel

Different but the same

November 16, 2011

Whether they're Germans citizens who've grown up in Germany, or naturalized immigrants with German passports - having a different name or skin color can mean that discrimination is a daily reality.


Until just before he finished university, Christian Keller had no idea what it was like to blend into a crowd. He found that out in the Philippines, doing research for his master's thesis in business administration. While riding on a typical Philippine minibus known as a Jeepney, Keller noticed something new: No one was taking any notice of him.

"It was really touching to feel like I wasn't attracting attention," he remembers. The feeling, he says, was mixed with sadness at realizing what a burden he had borne during his first 30 years as a German living in Germany.

Christian Keller gives the impression that he doesn't let people's hurtful behavior get him down. Mostly the 42-year-old Berliner laughs it off. For instance how, during a trip to southern Germany, a woman standing a few feet from Keller and his daughter asked her husband if the dark-skinned Keller could really be the strawberry-blonde girl's father.

People are funny, Keller says. Small-town skinheads yelling slurs at him in the German state of Saxony were less funny. "Of course, I won't be going back there with my wife and kids," he says.

Nuran Yigit
Yigit's Berlin organization counsels victims of discriminationImage: DW

It's not that Keller sees himself in physical danger; the former American-football player and martial artist has quite an intimidating stature. But he says that his "radar" is always on, "especially when I'm out with my family." It takes a lot of energy, and that's what really bothers him.

Equal treatment

According to Germany's Basic Law, a person is a German citizen either by birth or by naturalization. As all citizens are equal under the law, appearance and ethnic heritage should play no role. There are success stories of ethnic minorities in Germany; it's even possible for a non-ethnic German to become the country's vice chancellor - as proven by Philipp Rösler, who was born in Vietnam but raised in Germany by his adoptive parents. Then there's Aygül Özkan, a Hamburg native with Turkish roots who became family minister in the state of Lower Saxony.

These people are highly respected because they've made it - despite the barriers placed in their way.

The right name, the right look

It helps a lot when the person's name is "right" - when it's a German name, that is.

Christian Keller has never faced serious racism on the phone when he has made calls while apartment- or job-hunting. In that sense, he's been fortunate.

"If you have a foreign name, it often happens that your application lands at the bottom of the pile and you never get invited to an interview," says Nuran Yigit of the Anti-Discrimination Network Berlin (ADNB). Her statement is backed up by a study conducted by the Bonn Institute for Workers' Future (IZA). The IZA found that names make a difference when it comes to internship applications. Sending off applications that listed similar qualifications, they found that applicants with German names had a 14-percent higher chance of receiving positive acknowledgment than those with Turkish names.

"There's this tacit promise made by German society that you'll belong if you make an effort, if you do everything right and perform well in your studies," Yigit says. "But that's a lie."

Yigit's colleague Serdar Yazar has tested dance clubs in the German capital, with similar findings: "We sent a group of Mediterranean-looking young men, and the doormen said the club was full," Yazar says. "When our central-European-looking control group got to the door, they had no problem."

hands signing a cover letter for a job application
One study found internship applicants with German names had better chances than those with Turkish namesImage: Bilderbox

"Discrimination with a smile" is what Yazar and Yigit call it when people are turned away in a friendly manner with invented excuses, just because they aren't ethnically German. Suddenly, the advertised apartment is "already taken;" the restaurant is hosting a "private party;" the hotel is "all booked up."

Those who are discriminated against can take their complaints to a counseling center like ADNB, who can help them get compensation from their discriminators. That has been the case since the General Equal Treatment Act (AGG) was passed in 2006 - but word has spread slowly.

Not a compliment

There's another kind of - well-intended - discrimination that faces Germans of foreign origins at every turn.

It's the often-heard: "But you speak such good German!"

For someone like Michel Favre, who grew up in Germany with parents from the French-Caribbean island of Martinique, the line is more of an insult than a compliment.

And it's not the only one.

"I can't stand hearing how great 'we blacks' can move," says the athletic Favre. "Someone told me that recently. All I did was squeeze between two shelves at our warehouse."

Author: Heiner Kiesel / dl
Editor: Nancy Isenson

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