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'People of Deutschland': Everyday racism in Germany

Philipp Jedicke
February 7, 2023

Bullied, insulted, subtly shamed — people with a visible migration background report about their experiences with racism in Germany in a new book.

A woman, Martina Rink, smiles, standing next to man in suit, Simon Usifo.
Co-publishers Martina Rink and Simon UsifoImage: Sammy Hart/Eden Verlag

When Patricia Yen Lyn Freimuth moved to a new apartment in Munich with her husband, she was asked if she was the new cleaning lady. In her essay in the book "People of Deutschland," the public relations expert with German and Chinese roots reports on the racist "background noise" that she and her sister keep experiencing as people of Asian descent in Germany.

Germany sees itself as a liberal country, and is perceived in 2023 as much more cosmopolitan than before the turn of the millennium. Since the 2006 World Cup, it has often been said that "Germany has become more colorful." Given the rise in diversity in the media and in politics, observers might get the impression that racism is waning in the country.

However, there is no reason to relax, according to the government's first annual report on racism, which was recently presented by Germany's integration and anti-racism commissioner, Reem Alabali-Radovan. 

According to the report, which focuses on the perspectives of the people actually affected, everyday racism in Germany manifests itself not only in physical acts of violence and verbal attacks. People who clearly have a migrant background also experience discrimination at school, in sports clubs, when looking for housing, at work or by the police.

Painful experiences

Released during Black History Month, "People of Deutschland" is a book that focuses on the personal experiences of people with a visible migration background.

The cover of the book 'People of Deutschland'
The cover of the book 'People of Deutschland'Image: Eden Books

Among them are celebrities like the author and activist Düzen Tekkal, the TV presenter Mola Adebisi and Hans Sarpei, a former professional soccer player.

Regular people, too, share their experiences of everyday racism — which can often be more harmful than ideology-driven racism, argues the editor, Martina Rink. "Everyday racism comes with the paradox that it can come from anyone and everyone, even people who genuinely like you and don't notice when they hurt you," she said.

Both Rink, who has Persian roots and grew up in the UK and Germany, and co-editor and creative manager Simon Usifo, son of a Nigerian father and a French mother, contributed essays to "People of Deutschland."

The 45 personal stories are complemented with photos by Berlin-based photographer Sammy Hart, who is known for his sensitive portraits.

Unconscious bias and physical violence

The book has stories on latent racism — microaggression, which can be "unconscious bias, prejudices and stereotypes," Usifo told DW. "It ranges all the way to the other end of the spectrum, that is psychological and physical violence. Actually, everything is represented in the book."

The aim of the book, he said, is not to take militant action against racist people, but to educate readers about the fact that everyone has prejudices because "we are socialized that way," and that you can also recognize racist patterns and actively change them.

"Basically, it's like a muscle you have to exercise," said Usifo. "If you approach people and develop sensitivity because of these stories, then you can work on it."

'For a Black man, you sure look good'

Mola Adebisi, a German TV presenter and singer, describes in his entry how "at the height of his success" in the late 1990s, a detective came to see him one day in his office and told him that the record cover of a neo-Nazi band showed him alongside singers Farin Urlaub and Campino as a hanged man, and that he was insulted in one of their songs. 

Mola Adebisi
Mola Adebisi, portrayed by Sammy Hart for the book 'People of Deutschland'Image: Eden Verlag

"Up to that point, I had had no experience with racism or xenophobia," Adebisi wrote in the book, adding that he had seemingly lived his life naively and with a lot of luck. "But then everything changed. Now I was accompanied by bodyguards at every gig; when I was on the road it was no longer about partying and being in a good mood, but level 3 police security. Now, I only entered my studio via the loading dock."

He wrote that he started listening very carefully to every word, even if something was said without a thought. "I registered latent nationalism everywhere. On planes, I was always addressed in English. Supposed compliments were poisoned and saturated with racism: 'For a Black man, you sure look good.' If that's what being German feels like, I thought, it's damn hard to feel German."

'I know what racism feels like'

In 2020, Serpil Temiz Unvar's son, Ferhat, was killed in a racially-motivated attack in the German town of Hanau. In school, he faced racist verbal violence from teachers, and had to repeat a class although he had just one really poor grade. He understood early on that it was a structural problem and later tried to create awareness surrounding it. He was 22 years old when he was killed.

Woman with red T-shirt and long hair, Serpil Temiz Unvar.
Serpil Temiz Unvar is now an anti-racism activistImage: Sammy Hart

"Why was someone like the assassin allowed to have a gun in the first place?" asked his mother in the book. "There were so many clues that were not followed up. In my eyes, the assassin was allowed to legally practice killing our children for years thanks to his gun license."

"The attack in Hanau was not only directed at my son, but at all migrants," said Serpil Temiz Unvar. "I learned that we have to fight for ourselves, so I decided to speak up. On November 14, 2020 — on what would have been his birthday — I founded the Ferhat Unvar Education Initiative."

"I know what racism feels like and what it means, especially for single women," added Unvar. "I know their fears. The school fights against them, even if they can't defend themselves."

In the name of the Ferhat Unvar initiative, Serpil Temiz Unvar confronts the authorities, not only in Hanau but all over Germany. "I want to show how deeply rooted racism is in schools and offices," she wrote, adding that she has experienced it herself, and her friends have similar stories to tell.

Three people wearing face masks standing among a cemetery with flowers.
Memorial ceremony for the victims of the 2020 mass shooting in HanauImage: Thomas Lohnes/Getty Images

Harmful impact of everyday racism underestimated by majority

"Ideological racism a la Ku Klux Klan" is not the biggest problem in our society, said Usifo. "The basic problem is that we have a majority society that partly doesn't experience racism itself and therefore completely underestimates how violent and how hurtful everyday life can be."

That is where "People of Deutschland" comes in. With the mix of people from different backgrounds and celebrities from the music, sports, art and fashion sector, he and Martina Rink hope to reach a wide range of people instead of "just arguing into this bubble that's already convinced itself."

Rink and Usifo plan to donate the proceeds from the book to Düzen Tekkal's German Dream independent education initiative, which works toward making sure that "democracy, tolerance and pluralism are carried into the future."

Racism is a problem for society as a whole, they said, and it needs to be faced by all people in Germany. "In everyday life, we are all simply not immune, even if not driven by a negative intention, to unconsciously and reflexively think, act and communicate in a racist way," Rink wrote in the press booklet for "People of Deutschland."

"It's not enough to not perceive ourselves as racist. We all need to actively confront racism," added Usifo.

How people of color experience living in Germany

This article was originally written in German. The interview with Simon Usifo was conducted by Yann Durand.