It was less than two weeks since I moved to Berlin, when I sat by a lake in Brandenburg for the first time. It was warm, the sky blue, everything was great, actually – but I couldn’t enjoy the trip. The journey was to blame.
There were four of us in the car, me black, the rest white. The further we left Berlin behind, the more I noticed the election posters: very often NPD, very, very often AfD. My neighbor asked if something was wrong with me. I replied: “Have you ever looked out the window?”
That’s the way it is in the country, he replied. An answer that bothered me. I knew the country. Actually very good.
But not like this.
I grew up in a community in Baden-Württemberg, near Karlsruhe. Almost 5,000 people live there, significantly fewer in most of the surrounding villages. My childhood was marked by village festivals, obligatory sidewalk greetings and football games in the Baden province. Instead of “is” they said “isch”, the train to the city came once an hour. I was the only black person almost everywhere.
Ever since I moved to urban areas, first to Berlin, then to Hamburg and Cologne, I have heard city dwellers talking about the problem of rural racism. And I, the black country boy, think to myself: yes and no.
Racism in the country doesn’t scare me
Of course there are differences. As a person with a visible migration background, you are unique in rural areas. I experienced this mostly through friendly, but nevertheless problematic positive racisms: I was the only one whose athletic and musical talent was commented on with sentences like: “No wonder with your genes”. The only one whose hairstyle was addressed by teachers and touched by fellow men without being asked. Often I felt exoticized, made for another. But rarely refused.
These racisms are still unpleasant, but they don’t scare me.
I was scared when I booked a rural hotel near Aue in the Ore Mountains almost two years ago. I arrived late in the evening with a group of young men standing at the entrance; drinking, partly shaved, partly tattooed. For about 20 minutes I didn’t dare to get out of my car, hoping the men would leave. Finally I gave up, took my suitcase and walked through the middle of the group. The talk stopped immediately, and the men stared at me in silence. One of them stood demonstratively, his arms crossed so that I had to curve around him. After a few seconds I reached the entrance. I locked my room twice that evening.
Who are the country tips written for?
I know few feelings that are more oppressive than the fear of not being sure about your own skin color or origin. Not having to worry about choosing a hotel, holiday destination or place of residence is a privilege. Or like the black author Kemi Fatoba for “Time online“writes:” Of course it would be nice to just be able to drive away and switch off – but if discrimination is feared at the holiday destination, there is no relaxation factor. “
Especially in the corona crisis, many seem to be discovering their home. Instead of Mallorca, Greece or Morocco, this summer the motto is: off to the countryside, out into the country. The media deliver rural insider tips, rave about idyllic spots. And some people with a visible migration background ask themselves: Who are these tips written for?
In her article “City, Country, Fear”, Fatoba describes the legitimate fears and worries of black people when it comes to traveling and staying in the country. She also talks about right-wing election posters the way I saw them. From unpleasant looks. About those really-nothing-happens-moments that still leave scars. It is noticeable that the text tells the strong urban-rural divide only from the region in which I also noticed it myself: around Berlin. In the East.
Is racism out there? A convenient explanation
According to the “Middle” study of the University of Leipzig, Saxony-Anhalt, Bavaria, Thuringia, Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania and Brandenburg are the federal states with the highest approval ratings for xenophobic and racist attitudes. Not only are most of these countries in the east. They all also belong to the regions with the least population density.
In 2019, the authors of the study mentioned the thesis of provincialism in this regard: They assume that rural regions tend to be more xenophobic because the people there are less cosmopolitan and multicultural.
This explanation is obvious – and yet resistance arises in me when it is taken up by city dwellers. In Germany there is practically no research on anti-black discrimination, and studies on institutional racism in general are hardly established.
If city dwellers locate racism primarily in rural areas – or also popular: in an educationally remote area – that seems to me above all convenient. It creates a pleasant distance, relieves pressure, implicitly speaks freely. Racism is out there. I’m here.
However, everyday urban racism doesn’t really seem smaller to me. Rather different: Here, the hair, skin and Africa curiosity of many fellow human beings may already be adequately satisfied and the sheer mass may provide pleasant anonymity. For this I am spoken to by other Germans in English, asked about weed or checked by the police. Urban spaces did not protect me from overtly racist incidents either: In Karlsruhe I was seriously insulted and thrown food at me. In Berlin, an opponent showed me the Hitler salute on the soccer field. In Cologne an elderly man explained to me that the seats in the tram were reserved for “Germans”.
These experiences are not intended to be representative. Perhaps, however, they add to the concerns of the verbal Berlin community, which apparently thinks primarily of their experiences in the Mecklenburg Lake District or in Saxon Switzerland on their excursions into the countryside.
Has my image of the country always been transfigured?
For me, after 18 mostly beautiful years at quarry ponds, at shooting festivals or football games in 1000-soul beetles: I would advise my black people to go hiking in the Black Forest – or not – as well as a city trip to Cologne. My only black childhood friend, my three older siblings or my father feel the same way.
We, too, reflect black life in rural Germany. We lived there. Vacation there. And contribute – without ever being a basis for a decision – to normalize being black in the German provinces.
In 2017, after the AfD won 14 percent of the votes in my home community – twice as many as in Cologne, where I live – I counted encounters on the street: one, two, three, four, five, six, seven. Again a fellow citizen who supports or actively tolerates racist politics.
Has my home changed, I ask myself. Or worse: Has my image of the country always been transfigured? Washed out by fond memories?
I do not think so. I dont know. What I know is that questions of racism are too complex and my own experiences too ambivalent to be able to do with them what some white people seem to find easy: to cluster them sharply according to population density, level of education or a few percent in the federal election.
In Pforzheim, the closest major city, the AfD came to 16.3 percent.