This is hard to talk about, but I expected Berlin to be more progressive and less racist.
Before I came here, I was told things have come a long way since World War II. And they probably have, but I expected more. I find daily subtle insensitivity towards East Berliners, West Berliners, Eastern Europeans, Spanish, Mexicans, Blacks and Chinese** people. This kind of thing is hard to pick up if you’re on a short holiday or mostly interacting with expats.
In discussions with friends, when I hear culturally insensitive language I try to pause the conversation to discuss. In many of these experiences I find people laugh it off or suggest it’s not a serious problem. This is most concerning issue for me. And it’s true that Americans are hyper-sensitive about these (and many) kinds of things, so there’s room to meet in the middle.
We too from the United States too have a dark history of genocide, slavery, and ongoing racism against newcomers. However, as a nation of immigrants we are getting better at accepting different perspectives and sensitivity around language, especially people in cities. The difference is that in North American cities, when someone acknowledges there’s insensitive language in the room the offender usually acknowledges, apologizes and works not to make the mistake again. Whereas here, I find the issue is often ignored, diminished, or dismissed completely.
Ghosting from a party is only hurtful to ghosts
In Berlin it’s fairly rude when I don’t greet and bid farewell to every individual in the group. Apologies for everyone I didn’t greet with a hug upon arrival and for all the times I left without discussion. I’m really working on it, but it takes time to change behavior.
What I’ve learned so far is that around the world, sometimes people leave parties without saying goodbye and it’s understood to be rude. But when you quietly slip away from a party, what is that called?
I’ve had what feels like hundreds of conversations about this topic. Except for ghosting, some person from one group is implying something derogatory and untrue about another group. But nearly every time I suggest this is hurtful language for Irish, Polish, English, Swedish, or Chinese people I usually don’t see the “am I bring racist?” light turn on. This is really difficult for me as a non-white minority in a place with a recent history of genocide against people who are different.
Traveling in Europe
The ghosting story is to only illustrate the subtleties of the greater issue. It’s not true about all people in Germany and not even most of my friends. But it’s true about enough people I’ve talked to that I need to say something. My friends and colleagues still recommend I be careful about which neighborhoods I visit in Berlin and to consider traveling to Eastern Europe with someone white. I’m sure many of you will tell me I would be fine on my own, and I’m sure I would. But we’re still living in a world where it’s something I have to consider, and thankfully friends here are helping me understand.
I lived this experience for living nearly a decade of my life. I lived thirty minutes Martinsville, Indiana: a major hub for Ku Klux Klan white supremacy terrorist group. You just learn where to stop, when to keep driving, and how to tell if someone is not comfortable with who you are. It’s not ok, but it’s the precautions you take in small-town America.
I didn’t expect to have these kinds of feelings and conversations in a rich, diverse, contemporary, supposedly open-minded city like Berlin. I thought a continent with so many countries, borders, thriving cities, and rich education would help further open my mind, not the opposite.
I’m disappointed in my Berlin experiences so far. I have a diversity of friends and colleagues with different backgrounds, perspectives, and experiences, so let’s consider this a halfway point, not a synthesis of my understanding. I want to keep this conversation going and hope my opinion about racism in Berlin changes over time.
*I struggle to write the term American Indian as the people living there first were neither American, nor Indian, and I identify with being both. But several source say this is the right term to use.
** I think Chinese might be a catch all term for anyone from East or South East Asia.