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Naomi Conrad, Hamburg
October 9, 2012

Many migrants in Germany complain of pervasive discrimination. Black and Middle-Eastern men are more likely to be denied entry to clubs, a recent test indicated. But is it necessarily a black and white issue?

Hamburg's Reeperbahn.
Image: picture-alliance/dpa

The bouncer has just ten seconds - five seconds on a busy night, when the queues are long and people impatiently push towards the door.

He - or maybe she - has five seconds to peer at the face in front of him, to scan the outfit and the attitude, and judge just how drunk the would-be-clubber is. Five seconds to make the decision: Who to let in and who to deny entry.

"Each club has its own door policy, as they call it," Tim Becker explains. Clubs have thousands of different rules, the spokesperson for Hamburg's Association of Clubs and Bars adds. Sometimes clubs have strict rules on outfits: no jeans and trainers, only suits.

Others deny entry to anyone who's had one drink too many. "Bouncers need to get the mix right: you don't want people coming to a club, just because there's free beer. You want people who fit in and appreciate the music!" Becker says.

Doorman working at Sir Eino restaurant in Helsinki, Finland, 15.09.2006.
Who's coming in? Bouncers have just a few seconds to determine who to allow entryImage: picture-alliance/dpa

'No quota for black people'

Becker runs an Irish pub, tucked away up an alley off the heaving Reeperbahn, Hamburg's red light district and clubbing scene. Tourists, hen parties and locals mill around the hyper-trendy nightclubs, crowded bars and seedy sex shops in the area.

Some of these clubs don't let Joel Zombou in. Sometimes, he says, the bouncers single him out in the queue and discreetly tell him not to bother even trying. Zombou is black.

Becker is adamant that clubs don't discriminate on the basis of skin color. "No, there is definitely no quota for black people - or yellow, or green or whatever else!" A quota, Becker adds, just isn't feasible: there's too little time for bouncers to keep track of peoples' skin color.

Humiliating experience

Zombou disagrees. He's been picked out of queues repeatedly or denied entry at the door, while his white friends are let in. "It's humiliating, being picked out in front of a group of people," he told DW. "So you ask yourself: what have I done? And you come to the conclusion that being German means you have to be tall, blond and have blue eyes."

Zombou, who is in his late 20s, is sitting in his sunny office in a run-down neighborhood of Hamburg. He moved to Germany from Cameroon some eight years ago to study social work. He now counsels recently arrived immigrants.

Every day, he listens to their complaints: doors slammed in their faces when landlords realize they are foreigners, gyms refusing to give them membership, derogatory remarks made by officials.

Discrimination is an integral part of his job, but it also creeps into his own life.

Compliment or criticism?

Sometimes, it hits him in the face, he says. Say those days, when he goes for a walk with his daughter, happily chatting away in French. "Sometimes people stare at me and when they realize I can speak German, they're really surprised."

Joel Zombou in Hamburg.
Joel Zombou says he feels humiliated when he is picked out by bouncersImage: DW/Naomi Conrad

When Zombou is complimented on his fluent German, he never really knows how to take the comment. Is it meant as a compliment or are they making fun of him? He shrugs.

That is why he took part in an experiment organized by Basis and Woge, an organization that studies discrimination in Hamburg.

One night, two groups of men - three black, three white - went clubbing. The black group was denied entry at seven out of eight clubs. The second time, the same two groups, plus three Turkish-looking men, went to five clubs.

The Turkish and black men were singled out at all five of them.

Pervasive discrimination

Birte Weiß from Basis and Woge, who organized the experiment, says she wasn't entirely surprised by the results: "Well, of course we're aware of the discrimination migrants face here in Hamburg."

But she was shocked at how clear-cut the results were. She stresses that the findings aren't unique to Hamburg: "Discrimination is pervasive all over Germany: migrants face discrimination in their professional lives, when they're looking for flats, when they're dealing with government agencies - and also in their free time, particularly in clubs and gyms."

After the experiment, everyone went for a beer. Not Zombou. He took the tram home, feeling the anger and frustration boil up inside. He couldn't sleep for days, he says.

Zombou never expected Germany to be easy, or welcoming. Some 17 years ago, his brother, who had been studying in Eastern Germany, was picked off the street by a gang of Neonazis and almost beaten to death.

But Zombou had always thought things had improved.

Now he is considering leaving Germany, maybe even moving to Canada or France. Foreigners can try as hard as they want, he says, find a job, pay taxes, start a family, make money, but it's never enough.

"Some people say: why do you need to go out? They think it's such a minor issue." Not for Zombou though. It's about far more than just clubbing, it's about acceptance and integration. "It hurt. It hurts. Because I just can't understand why!"

Stereotypes and stigmatization

Seven young Africans from Burkina Faso, Zambia and South Africa are sitting at a rickety, outdoor table on the Reeperbahn. They're drinking beer and wine and trying to understand why.

Dorothy, from South Africa, is doing a Masters degree in Human Rights and Conflict Management. "In Africa, it's a cultural thing for girls to play hard to get and men are supposed to chase you," she explains. This may cause problems in Germany, she explains, resulting in single African men being perceived as aggressive.

The girl might complain to the bouncers and ask him not to let any more African men into the club, Dorothy adds. It's not racism, she says, as black couples are more likely to get into clubs than single men.

Issa, a journalist from Burkina Faso explains that in the past, single, undocumented male immigrants tended to chat up German women in clubs, hoping to marry and get a visa - hence their bad reputation.

Dorothy disagrees. "I hate these kinds of stereotypes! We're generalizing in a very dangerous way and we're labeling all black Africans in the same box!" She has many friends, she says, who are perfectly legal, who just want to go out and have fun, but are stigmatized for the wrong reasons.

The group makes a move. The five men saunter up to a fancy club with fake gold lions guarding the red-carpet entrance, and join the queue.

A map of the Reeperbahn area in Hamburg

Without explanation

A few minutes later, they're back. While Issa was allowed into the club, his friend wasn't. Issa explains: "The bouncer said he couldn't get in, because of his clothes," he adds, pointing to his friend. He's wearing a bulky, oversized raincoat. Dorothy glances at the door and shrugs.

At another club, Dorothy and Issa are allowed in - the others are denied entry. "When I questioned him, the bouncer said: I don't need to give you any explanations," Issa says. He's starting to get angry.

At a third club they're turned down by the bouncer, who points to a ticket booth down the road. Is it racism? Issa nods. Dorothy shrugs. In South Africa, black and white people hardly mix, they go out to different clubs, she says. You can almost physically feel the hatred in peoples' stares, she adds.

But here? Again, she shrugs. The group disappears into a club run by one of Issa's friends. The bouncers wave them past, smiling, then turn to scan the next in line.

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