Opinion: Talk about race | Opinion | DW | 07.01.2016
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Opinion: Talk about race

The ethnic origin of the gropers and harassers in Cologne has the liberal media squirming. All the eyewitnesses say they were "Arabs or North Africans." Should that be mentioned? It must be, writes DW's Kersten Knipp.

Ever since Wikileaks, government authorities worldwide know that internal communications are a dicey matter. If you don't watch out, documents are out in the open for all to see in no time at all.

It seems that's what happened to a police report written up by a senior police officer on duty on New Year's Eve in Cologne. The report was meant for official use only, but it found its way, almost in its entirety, into today's edition of Bild Zeitung, the country's most widely read tabloid. Millions of Germans will have read the report by now.

They will be aware of what the police see as the perpetrators' defining characteristic: their ethnic origin. It's mentioned several times in the report. The report refers to "several thousand mainly male persons of immigrant background"; it says women and girls told the police about sexual harassment by "several male migrants/ migrant groups"; it says the "great number of migrants affected by the state police measures" was conspicuous. The report also describes individual scenes. People tore up their residence documents before the police officers' eyes, commenting "You can't do a thing, I'll get a new document tomorrow"; one person is quoted as saying: "I'm Syrian, you have to be friendly to me! Mrs. Merkel invited me."

The identity question

The report raises a criminal, journalistic and political problem - a problem that's also philosophical: What constitutes a person's identity? How do other people define a person's identity? For the above-mentioned police officer, it's clearly ethnic origin. Quite obviously, the police and the more than 120 female victims see origin as the key characteristic in a situation where not much more is known about the perpetrators.

DW's Kersten Knipp

DW's Kersten Knipp

From a journalistic and a political point of view, these scanty descriptions of identity are highly sensitive. The question is: What are the consequences?

Germany's Press Code is not entirely helpful: It stipulates that an alleged perpetrator's origins should only be mentioned if it has any bearing on the crime. Because telling people where someone comes from could easily "provoke prejudices against minorities."

Counterproductive silence

Okay. But the problem is that the embarrassing silence on the alleged perpetrators' backgrounds is counterproductive, just like the ubiquitous instructions not to generalize or imply that the acts of a certain group of migrants have anything to with the refugees and asylum-seekers as such.

Most people don't do that anyway. They are used to differentiating very clearly, and not only concerning migrants. But they grow impatient if they feel an attribute like ethnic origin is being kept from them, or played down.

They grow impatient because concealing one's origins counters European intellectual traditions and standards. Where are you from - that's an age-old question, and it's by no means only European. It's also not discriminatory, but deeply human. Human life is simply not imaginable without origins.

Origins and emancipation

This is the point at which the phenomenon becomes philosophically interesting: Is it possible to think of people independently of where they come from? Is a person conceivable outside the constraints of time and place? And if so, to what degree? To what extent are people able to uncouple themselves from their provenance?

The power of our origins to mold us is generally considered to be so strong that all attempts to escape its influence routinely inspire admiration. Emancipation, starting over, working on ourselves - there's a reason why these are much admired modern goals.

The specter of racism

But the extent to which this is the case among the perpetrators of the New Year's Eve attacks in Cologne is questionable. How do they perceive women, and how are women perceived in the Middle East? The answer is likely to be differentiated.

Most Germans will assess this differentiation in a rational manner. They are used to absorbing a wide range of information, and not just the messages that public relations practitioners think are good for them and the social climate. Most people find such selectiveness offensive. The specter of racism that these well-meaning people wish to banish will only be fueled by patronizing the public.

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