“Internship at the German Bundestag administration. Seeking career advice from my supervisor after 3 months of unpaid work:
Me: ‘What else could I do in order to succeed?’
Him: ‘Change your name or add a German one.’
This tweet from Bidjan Nashat, a manager at an international charity, is one of thousands that have blanketed Twitter in the past two days as users recount personal experiences of racism in Germany. Many of their authors, like Mr. Nashat, are Germans who have foreign roots. Their tales range from seemingly harmless but annoyingly frequent microaggressions (“Alright, but where do you really come from?”) to egregious cases of blatant racism.
One person single-handedly started this discussion. Ali Can, a 25-year-old Turkish-German activist, on Tuesday posted a video in which he called for a #MeTwo hashtag for people to share their experiences of discrimination. Mr. Can (pronounced “Jan”) took inspiration from the #MeToo campaign against sexism that took over the internet last year. “I have more than one identity,” he said, hence #MeTwo.
It’s no coincidence that this campaign started now. “Özil no longer wants to play with the national team because he’s been subjected to racist abuse,” Mr. Can said in his video, referring to Mesut Özil’s departure from Germany’s national soccer squad on Sunday after months of questions about his loyalty to Germany.
By Thursday, the new hashtag was spreading like wildfire through the German-language Twittersphere.
And it’s not just Germans belonging to ethnic minorities who have been sharing stories. Cathryn Clüver Ashbrook, a white German-American executive at Harvard University's Kennedy School, recounted how a politician from Bavaria’s right-wing Christian Social Union told her he wanted to abolish double citizenship, “but not for you, you’re one of the right ones.”
“I want people to realize what everyday racism can do to immigrants,” Mr. Can told Handelsblatt Global in an email, adding that he hoped that people with foreign roots all over the world would share their own stories of prejudice — just like women with #MeToo — and start “the revolution of migration.” Born in Turkey, Mr. Can came to Germany as a baby and grew up near Münster in North Rhine-Westphalia. His experiences with discrimination are depressingly common, such as being turned away at the entrance of the local club or facing a suspiciously high number of rejections while apartment hunting.
“If we fail to listen now to 30,000 people on Twitter now, we’ll make big mistakes in our attempt at integrating millions of new migrants,” he said.
German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas weighed in, saying, "Anyone who thinks racism in Germany is no longer a problem should through all the #MeTwo tweets. It is impressive and painful how many people here raise their voices. Let us raise our voices with them against racism, anytime, anywhere."
But just like the backlash to the global outcry against sexual harassment, some people also share experiences at odds with the deluge of anecdotes. “As a Syrian in Germany I'm yet to encounter one racist german (sic) person,” wrote a user called Rasha. “I'm not saying racism doesn't exist because it does everywhere, I'm saying it's not as extreme as you paint it out to be.”
Others also shared stories involving prejudice among Muslim immigrants, but many of these Twitter users are easy to identify as having sympathies with the far-right, and some of their tales stretched the limits of credibility.
A hotline for 'concerned citizens'
It’s too early to predict what will come from Mr. Can’s campaign. Others before him have tried to start this discussion. In late 2016, Mohamed Amjahid, a Moroccan journalist living in Berlin published a book on everyday racism in Germany, but the hype quickly died down.
Mr. Can, too, has attempted to confront prejudice in Germany before. Two years ago, he founded a one-person hotline for “concerned citizens” — a euphemism in Germany for right-wingers who oppose liberal values, from immigration to feminism or LGBT rights. He set up a phone number which people can call to ask him any questions they have about immigration. And over those two years, he engaged with many fellow Germans who are afraid of immigrants. He doesn’t try to stamp out their discriminatory opinions, but he’s happy to help them confront their irrational fears through honest conversation.
And he said he finds it understandable that some people are against immigration. “I think it's all right that there are a lot of different opinions in Germany. In fact, it’s great,” he said.
But racism is another problem altogether. If anything, it’s a huge obstacle to integration, Mr. Can says. Although he also disapproved of Mr. Özil’s controversial picture with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, calling it “undiplomatic” and “naïve,” he believes the outrage it caused is out of proportion. The controversy will cause many Turkish-Germans to feel like second-class citizens and give them more reasons to stick to themselves rather than integrate into the broader society, he said. “I want more public figures to step up and say: ‘You are one of us, you are part of Germany.’”
Jean-Michel Hauteville is an editor with Handelsblatt Global. To reach the author: [email protected].