It's Hard to be a German

Pity the poor Germans. They try their best not to be racist and discriminatory, and in most ways they succeed, but just before they can say of themselves, "We as a nation embrace racial equality," wham! They hit a brick wall: Their language. The German language is just not built for ethnic equality.

Over the past few years, Germans have made several torturous attempts to revamp their language to not discriminate against so-called "foreigners". While Americans think of "foreigners" as people from another country, Germans formerly applied (and sometimes still do) that word to people who hold German citizenship, were born and raised in Germany, speak German as their mother tongue and are German in all other ways, including their mentality – except that their skins are not white (like Alfons Stöberlein in the photo above, black German and patriotic Bavarian, whom I met on my Middle Ages trip the Nibelungenreise).

Germans, aware that there's something wrong with that, have invented a number of terms designed to be less exclusionary, but in fact these terms only confirm that non-white Germans are not considered Germans. The politically correct terms are "ausländische Mitburger" (foreign co-citizens) and "Burger mit Migrationshintergrund" (Citizens with immigrant background). The problem lies with the language.

Of course, those words might be slightly less discriminatory if white Germans then referred to themselves on an equal basis as "inländische Mitburger" (non-foreign co-citizens) or "Burger ohne Migrationshintergrund" (Citizens without immigrant background), but of course they refer to themselves simply as "Germans", which implies (accurately) that they really believe only whites can be truly German and all others are really outsiders.

And it's true: "non-white Germans" are always outsiders, Even though they enjoy all the legal rights and duties of an ethnic German. I recently got an e-mail from a self-labelled "Afrodeutscher" or Afro-German, who complained (when I asked him about it):

"Would you for example ask a black American where he "originally" comes from? You can’t imagine how incredibly pushy people can return to that question again and again, really rubbing it in. And everyone knows what they mean. I come from a town in Germany, but making it clear that I "come from somewhere else" means that I can't be German. The impertinence of that question, which is in itself a judgment, is that is automatically accepts the discrimination." We Americans define "American" as "a person with an American passport." It doesn't matter if this person is black or white or whatever: It's all about the passport (and the taxes and being willing to send your kids to wars in foreign countries). "American" refers to a nationality, not to an ethnic group. My nationality is American, my ethnicity is Swedish/Danish.

"German" refers to both an ethnic group and a nationality, but mostly to ethnicity. This drives the Germans nuts. If an outsider like me becomes a "German" national, that doesn’t make him an ethnic German, so referring to him as "German" is utterly confusing and just plain sounds wrong to most Germans.

That is inherently racist, of course, but try as they might, Germans can't find a non-racist alternative term. There is no term for "white Germans" because a "real German" is always considered white. Under law, non-whites are equal to whites, but in the language they are not.

There are a number of terms you could start applying to mainstream Germans – "ethnic Germans" or "white Germans," for example, but to Germans, that is like saying "feline cat" or "female woman".

Writers tend to talk a lot about how there is only truth and beauty in language and how language is our greatest good, but this is a good example of how language (which is, after all, just another man-made product and thus just as imperfect as we are) can be a hindrance rather than a help.


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