Mesut Özil’s departure from the national football team continues to shake up the German political scene. Özil had quit the team after a row over a picture taken with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. In an open letter to German media, sponsors, and the football association, Özil cited racism and disrespect as the main reasons for his decision to step down.

Outpouring of personal stories

The football player’s comments manifestly struck a chord with many in Germany who trace their ancestry to regions other than central and western Europe. Özil had asserted that he was only recognised as ‘properly’ German as long as he remained successful on the pitch as well as a docile model ‘immigrant’ beyond. Many found an echo of their own experiences in Özil’s claim that Germanness was always conditional and could never finally be secured.

Activist Ali Can sought to galvanise the outpouring of personal stories that built upon Özil’s statements. Can, a university student in his mid-twenties, had made a name for himself in 2016 by founding the “Hotline for concerned citizens” (Hotline für besorgte Bürger) – a phone line offering Germans worried about the arrival of migrants and refugees a possibility to talk about their fears.1) https://www.dw.com/en/afd-callers-welcome-ali-can-offers-a-hotline-for-concerned-citizens/a-40162799

The term ‘concerned citizen’ (besorgter Bürger) is a euphemistic label for people harbouring xenophobic views. Whilst they are drawn to the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD) party, many politicians have stressed the need to recognise and take seriously these citizens’ concerns – rendering them an important demographic in terms of the mainstreaming of anti-immigration positions.

#MeTwo hashtag

Now, Ali Can seized on the media attention surrounding Mesut Özil and his departure from the national team. Under the hashtag #MeTwo, Can invited Germans of diverse backgrounds to share their personal experiences with everyday racism.

Thousands of users have responded to the hashtag, sending it to the top of Germany’s Twitter trends. Can himself has been overwhelmed with the scale of the response: “I would never have thought that so many would speak up”, he asserts. “It clearly shows that this debate has been overdue for a long time; yet a public stimulus was necessary.”

Can chose the #MeTwo hashtag as a play on words reminiscent of the #MeToo movement that had sought to draw attention to sexism in Hollywood and beyond. Moreover, “the number ‘two’ [is] a symbol. You can be German and still feel connected to another country – because you were born there, because you speak the language, because your parents are from there.”2) https://www.tagesschau.de/inland/me-two-101.html

Experiences of exclusion, discrimination and racism

The examples of discrimination and racism circulating under the #MeTwo hashtag are as diverse as the individuals sharing their experiences. One twitter user recounted how her mother had always gotten up early to cook food for her to take to school. “I never had the heart to tell her how much I was bullied for not having any ‘German’ food with me but only something Vietnamese.”

Others spoke of racial profiling by police or private security, or of being stared at or insulted in the street because of their looks. Muslim and PoC experiences figured particularly prominently among these stories.

One Twitter user drew attention to the more insidious effects of racism in shaping her everyday choices: Surveying the tweets that surfaced under the #MeTwo hashtag, she pointed out that “in principle we would also have to count all the situations that did NOT happen because I prudently avoided them, places I consciously do not visit, etc.”

Denying the reality of discrimination

Quickly, however, the hashtag also became the vehicle for all those who denied the reality of racism in Germany. The deputy editor of Bild, the country’s largest tabloid, penned an article titled: “We must not let ourselves be talked into believing that we are racist.”3) https://www.bild.de/politik/inland/rassismus/lassen-wir-uns-nicht-einreden-dass-wir-rassistisch-sind-56462676.bild.html

Those who took to Twitter to denounce racism were disparaged as liars and ingrates who made up alleged experiences of discrimination; or at least inflated these experiences so as to detract from their own failure to integrate and assimilate to ‘German’ society. They only had themselves to blame if they faced rejection – that was the gist of many of these comments.

A moment of empowerment?

In her Spiegel column, journalist Ferda Ataman – leader of the ‘New German Media Makers’ organisation that seeks to foster diversity in the German media landscape – nevertheless found reason to rejoice.

According to Ataman, the willingness of thousands to speak up against racism showed their willingness to participate politically, to voice their demands and to claim their rights – thereby contributing to the shaping of Germany’s future. The generation of their parents would never have dared to speak in this way, Ataman points out: they did not have the voice and the political wherewithal to do so.

“The great thing about the current debate on integration is that it shows that we are already further than we think. For it is precisely not about language problems and honour killings, like thirty or forty years ago when only white Germans could determine what we fight about publicly. Now it’s also about the tough questions of integration: Who determines who belongs? Who is allowed to say what’s right and what’s wrong? This is the stuff that countries of immigration are made of.”4) http://www.spiegel.de/kultur/gesellschaft/mesut-oezil-und-rassismus-integrierte-mitbuerger-machen-stress-a-1220156.html

A rapper weighs in

Eko Fresh, one of Germany’s most well-known rappers, presented a similar take on the situation in the wake of the Özil scandal. In the song “But” (“Aber“), he lyrically presents a confrontation between a far-right AfD supporter and a fierce Turkish nationalist.

The former starts his verse with the words “I’m not a Nazi but…” – before cycling through a list of common stereotypes about immigrants and their descendants. The latter announces “I love Germany but…”, describing how experiences of disrespect and racialised rejection drove him into the waiting arms of President Erdoğan who allowed him to develop his own fantasies of superiority.

Eko Fresh’s own persona jumps in in the third verse. He berates both sides for their inability to go beyond stereotypical images of the respective other. While he avows that he “thought that this fight had been settled back in the eighties”, he nevertheless closes with an optimistic statement: “Living together in one country is hard but you’ll figure it out in the end.”

Using the R-word

Whether Ataman’s and Eko Fresh’s optimistic reading will bear out remains to be seen, of course. Just like Eko Fresh had been convinced that the question of whether people of Turkish descent could ‘belong’ to Germany had already been settled in the 1980s, Ataman recently noted the resurgence of anti-Turkish racial slurs  that she had thought belonged to a bygone era.5)http://www.spiegel.de/kultur/gesellschaft/wie-ich-deutschtuerkin-wurde-kolumne-von-ferda-ataman-a-1201639.html

Nevertheless, Ataman is surely right to point out that the #MeTwo debate is an important development in Germany. As reflected in the Bild headline, awareness of the notion of ‘race’ – including institutional and structural aspects of ‘racism’ – is exceedingly low. The language of ‘race’ (Rasse) itself is still associated with Nazism, meaning that there is a widespread sense that, as long as you are not a (neo-)Nazi, you cannot be a racist. This has made it extremely difficult for activists to voice anti-racist claims in public discourse.

In this respect, the increased salience of the issue of ‘racism’ in the wake of Mesut Özil’s departure and of the #MeTwo campaign may indeed revitalise public debates and provide a counterpoint to the growing discursive hegemony of the far right.

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