Why are Americans so obsessed with ethnicity?

Guest comment: Germany is not an anti-racism model for the USA

In recent weeks, Germany has often been praised on social media as a role model for dealing with the atrocities of the past. This perception isn't new, but it has gained ground since statues of Southern generals from the U.S. Civil War, colonial masters, and others were overthrown.

Since the student unrest of the 1960s broke the burdened silence about the Nazi era, numerous Holocaust memorials have been erected and former concentration camps have been converted into educational institutions. These were undeniably the right decisions. Today, however, we are collectively grappling with the question of how we should shape the future together. Germany is currently proving that reparation for the sins of the past will have little effect if the structures that made these atrocities possible are not dissolved.

No discussion of German colonial history

As an exchange student in Germany about 20 years ago, I lived with a German-Turkish family who helped me to discard my image of Germany as a country without cultural diversity. Years later I moved to Berlin for a year, which turned into eight. Last fall, I returned to the United States after completing my doctorate. The topic of my doctoral thesis was the national identity of Germany in relation to racialization and racism.

Ursula Moffitt is a racism researcher

During my doctorate, I taught teacher training students at the University of Potsdam with a focus on historical and contemporary injustices. Most of the students had never dealt with German colonial history before. Few were willing to fill this knowledge gap. "We are constantly being told how terrible we Germans were during World War II. Why should we deal with other dark chapters in German history?" Was a frequently asked question.

White Germans blame Americans

Dealing with racism became an integral part of my curriculum, although my white German colleagues accused me of overreacting and misinterpreting things. White Germans like to accuse Americans of being obsessed with the race discussion. ("Race" is not to be equated with "race", since the term has a different connotation in English and its usage is not already racist.) In Germany I learned that the very fact that race is hushed up, racist dividing lines in society maintains. I consciously speak of "white Germans". It is true that the term race was deleted from linguistic usage after the Holocaust. But the resulting color blindness has created the space for a systemic racism that is difficult to name, recognize and condemn.

For centuries, ethnicity has determined politics and the concept of being German. In 1999 a law was passed that made citizenship not dependent on ancestry. This was the first time that the diversity of society was recognized. It was not until 2014 that dual citizenship was introduced for children of non-EU citizens. Until now, they had to choose between German and their parents' citizenship.

As part of my doctorate, I interviewed young German-Turks. Most of them had already had to make that decision. They resented having to prove their loyalty to the country where they were born and raised. Everyone said they felt German, but for most of them a German passport would not change the fact that many white Germans would forever see them as foreigners.

Until the early 2000s it was normal to speak of Germans and foreigners. The latter meant those who were perceived as non-Germans. I was shocked when these terms appeared in a 2014 study by the University of Potsdam on everyday school life. This is about clarity, I was told. Children would differentiate between Germans and foreigners. My criticism that this was racist was answered with a teaching about my own foreignness.

Germanness vs. whiteness

The term "migration background" was introduced for the 2004 census in order to capture the diversity of society without naming the race. The term migration background has been omnipresent ever since. Without considering where someone was born, the short form "Migrant" is used almost exclusively to denote People of Color, including Germans of Color. It is noticeable that the German affiliation of these people is often left out.

In the USA the concept of race is a social construct that has very concrete material effects. In German, the term race is still burdened by the Nazi and colonial ideology, as a pseudo-scientific, biological concept. Politicians from Bündnis 90 / Die Grünen said of their demand to remove the word race from the German constitution: "There are no races, there are only people." Even if this is well-intentioned, this form of color blindness plays down racism. It maintains structural and institutional racism in society instead of fighting it. A new cultural and political confrontation is needed - not only with the Holocaust, but with the direct equation of the understanding of being German and being white.

The decision of who has access to citizenship, who is marginalized as a "migrant" and who is controlled by the police is still shaped today by ideas of racist descent, which not only defined National Socialism, but which were shaped by society long before that. Praising Germany for coming to terms with history makes the racism that has persisted to this day invisible. No monuments were erected to the Nazi past. But neither has this past been placed in the historical context of the time before and after. We can learn from this mistake.

Ursula Moffitt holds a PhD in psychology from the University of Potsdam. She conducts research at Northwestern University in Illinois, USA, on the development of identity in a cultural context.