I am German when we win, but an immigrant when we lose

Once foreign media moved onto the next story after Mezut Ozil called out racism in Germany, what happened to the conversation about dual heritage, racism and immigration there?

Mesut Ozil in the colors of his club team, Arsenal. Image Credit: Kieran Clarke via Flickr cc.

The mainstream media narrative following Germany’s woeful performance in the recent Fifa World Cup in Russia goes something like this: Mesut Özil’s failure to explain himself following a controversial photo-op with Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan was not only a source of distraction, but also destroyed team spirit, and undermined his own performance. There’s no debate the photo-op demonstrated a lack of judgment on Özil’s part given Erdogan’s open embrace of authoritarianism, but reading through some of the commentary in tabloids such as Bild, the German version of English red-top, one could have easily forgotten that Germany’s 22 other players, and the team’s coaching staff could have also had something to do with Germany’s early-exit.

Continued media provocation, and perpetual backstabbing by the German Football Association, eventually led Özil to resign from the national team. In a resignation letter posted on his Instagram page, Özil focused his attention on certain media pundits, and in particular on the head of the German Football Association Reinhard Grindel, who publicly criticized him. Özil suggested Grindel’s behavior was not out of character by pointing to a 2004 Bundestag speech, when Grindel was still a conservative MP, and called multiculturalism a “myth” and a “life-long lie” and said there are too many “Islamized” spaces in “our cities.” Added Özil: “I am German when we win, but I am an immigrant when we lose.”

More than just a rebuke of Grindel and Germany’s football establishment and media, Özil‘s letter is rightly viewed as a more profound critique of Germany’s failure to treat all of its citizens equally. It is also reflective of a wider debate over national identity in Europe. A few weeks earlier, the Belgian striker, Romelu Lukaku, made a similar comment about being an immigrant when he loses and Belgian when he scores and wins.

Instead of taking Özil’s resignation as an opportunity for self-reflection, a substantial proportion of both the German media and football establishment doubled down on its bigotry. Unsurprisingly, Bild failed to engage with Özil’s actual criticism and dismissed him as whiny and unpatriotic. Meanwhile, German football stalwarts such as Uli Hoeneß, who was recently reinstated as Bayern Munich’s president after serving a prison sentence for tax evasion, claimed that Özil’s resignation is welcomed, since in Hoeneß’ words “[Özil] hasn’t won a fucking tackle since the 2014 World Cup.” Somehow, despite this, Özil still managed to win the German national team player of the year award in 2015 and 2016.

More importantly, the debate surrounding Özil’s retirement sparked the German version of #MeTwo on social media; the name played on #MeToo, the American movement against sexual harassment of women. The German #MeTwo signifies the struggle of dealing with dual heritage and racism as an immigrant. Ali Can, a German anti-racism activist born in Turkey, who initiated the hashtag, was inspired by Özil’s letter, and said the conversation is “long overdue.”

In less than 48 hours more than 3,500 posts detailed the frequent instances of “everyday racism.” These ranged from the well-intended but deeply-troubling “Oh, how come you speak such good German. I would not have expected that”, to the never-ending “Can I touch your hair?” chorus, to more overt bigotry, othering and racist violence. My personal contribution to #MeTwo, one of many, detailed a teenage experience, in which the parents of a rival basketball team in the city of Niederkassel decided to erupt in monkey screams every time I touched the ball.

Of course, many trolls and conservative pundits quickly dismissed #MeTwo as indulging in hyperbolic victimization. Meanwhile, others responded with the hashtag #GermanDream  (as you can tell German social media movements lack a bit of creativity) to point to positive experiences and “successful cases of integration.”

Both responses are, however, inadequate and misguided.

As Mohamed Amjahid, one of the most prolific writers on racism in Germany, points out: #MeTwo is not a debate, but an opportunity to listen, because for once, Germans of color are the subjects and authors of their own experiences with racism and bigotry. Part of the German Left has criticized #MeTwo on the grounds that it is really an elite movement, which prioritizes narrow identity politics over more fundamental “material” questions. Such critiques, which sometimes appear to simply relitigate a crude reduction of the 2016 Democratic Party primaries in the German context, ignore the intersection and frequent interaction of identity and class in Germany, and ultimately play into a much publicized but deeply flawed “identity politics or class politics” dichotomy. Interestingly, the new left “national” movement, initiated by a faction of the leftist Die Linke movement under Sahra Wagenknecht, defines itself as “the materialist left,” not the “moral left” to attract white working class German votes. This group is highly critical of migration and plays precisely into this dichotomy.

All of this is happening at a crucial juncture in German politics. The Alternative für Deutschland (AFD) has evidently shifted the entire political spectrum and content of political debates to the right, normalizing xenophobia, islamophobia and racism in the process. Recently, the center-right CDU’s Bavarian sister party CSU almost dealt a fatal blow to the current ruling coalition over its stance on migration and refugees. Some of its senior figures, such as Markus Söder, Alexander Dobrindt and Horst Seehofer have engaged in anti-migrant bigotry that would  make the likes of Boris Johnson in the UK and Viktor Orban in Hungary blush. Some examples include Söder referring to asylum seekers as “asylum tourists,” Dobrindt claiming that an “anti-deportation-industry” is threatening the rule of law, and Seehofer celebrating the fact that on his 69th birthday, 69 “rejected” asylum seekers were deported to Afghanistan. This rightward shift is increasingly at odds with demographic dynamics and realities, which have already made Germany a de facto multi-cultural society. According to recently released figures by DESTATIS, Germany’s national statistics agency, 19.3 million, or 23.6% of the country’s 82 million inhabitants have a foreign heritage (a 4.4% increase compared to the previous year). These dynamics, and the experiences of other countries make one thing very clear: Germany’s future as nation in the 21st century will to a large extent be determined by its ability to reconcile itself with the reality of multiculturalism.

Similarly, to proponents of “color-blindness” in France, and to a certain extent in Belgium, there are some who fear that debates about racism and identity in Germany risk opening a Pandora’s box of polarization, challenging the German perception of citizenship and nationhood and denting Germany’s international standing. Of course debates surrounding identity and race require difficult conversations about issues such as islamophobia, imperial history and the politics of memory, access to public services, and the lack of inclusion of Germans of color in positions of economic and political power.

According to a survey by the Brost Foundation, there has been a significant increase in Islamophobia over the past two years with marked numbers of respondents stating that “Islam is not part of Germany.” In terms of representation, according to a government questionnaire, only 6.7% of public administration employees have an immigrant background. Karamba Diaby (SPD), the first German MP of African descent, was briefly denied service in the parliament cafeteria, and is frequently racially profiled by police and security. Following a series of racial slurs directed at him on social media, Diaby responded: “To all racists, I AM NOT YOUR NEGRO!”

As #MeTwo powerfully demonstrated, racism is an every-day issue for many Germans of color and German society risks ignoring this issue at its own peril.

Further Reading

Exile, Return, Home?

Many will read Sisonke Msimang’s new memoir for its musings on exile and home, but it is also a political telling of the complicated South African transition.