Should I be worried about racism in the East of Germany?
April 5, 2011 9:53 AM   Subscribe

My 1 1/2 year old daughter and I will be spending some time in the former East Germany this summer. She is black, and I am white. How concerned should I be about racism? The three or four German people I've spoken to about racial attitudes in the former East have not been reassuring, so I am particularly interested in hearing from people of color who have lived in the region.

We will be living in Weimar, in university accommodation set up for visiting scholars. Weimar's population is overwhelmingly white.

My main concern is my daughter's nursery school. The plan is that she will go there every day from 9 to 5, and I am worried about the kind of experience she will have. I am going to talk to the director in the next week or so, and would appreciate any thoughts on how to conduct the conversation. Specifically, I need to broach the delicate topic of how staff and families handle racial diffierence and, potentially, racial "incidents."

I've asked a less focused version of this question before, but as I only got one response I thought I'd try again with a more direct approach.
posted by Morpeth to Travel & Transportation around Germany (13 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
I may have misread, but are you worried about what the other 1.5 year-olds will think of a mixed-race family? Or simply her being black? I wouldn't worry too much about very young children. At worst, they'll quickly get over her being slightly different looking because they are so young.

As for the adults, well, there are a few assholes no matter where you go, and this place will be no different.
posted by Threeway Handshake at 10:06 AM on April 5, 2011

I agree with Handshake, kids "adapt" very well to other kids looking different. Its the asshole adults that are usually the problem.
posted by ducktape at 10:10 AM on April 5, 2011

I am wondering if the more apt question is one of relative racism versus the state of things in Morpeth's current community. There are many places where such problems go way deeper than 'a couple of assholes'. If you are coming from one of them I could certainly see worrying about leaving you child in the care of others in a strange place.
posted by mce at 10:13 AM on April 5, 2011

The nursery school is for kids up to 4, I think. It's likely that my daughter will be the only black kid, and I am worried specifically about how she will be treated by other kids, by teachers, and by parents at pick up and drop off.

Handshake, when you say that this area will be no different, are you speaking from experience?

I ask because I have received a great deal of reassurance that things will be fine from people who haven't been to the Former East. What has me worried is that people who've spent time there have not been so reassuring. Up to the point of telling me, for example, that we should stay in the center of town and avoid the neighborhoods to the north, that we should not visit small towns in the countryside, that we should stay in tourist areas as much as possible. These seem like rather extreme precautions. My goal in asking this question is to gather enough information on the region so that I have a reasonably clear sense of what to expect.
posted by Morpeth at 10:17 AM on April 5, 2011 [3 favorites]

I totally disagree about the kids. Maybe at such a young age, but as they get older, they will copy how the adults around them behave. They will be very good at picking up those messages from their teachers and parents, and they will emulate them.

Is your daughter biracial, ie, her father is black and you are her biological mother? Or did you adopt her? Some people will react badly to the idea of mixed-race couples, and the results thereof, more than they would to just plain black people. I could see more potentially-unpleasant judgment about a mixed-race couple/child and more simple curiosity if she were 100% black (-looking).

I am biracial and I wondered the same thing when I was living and travelling in Central and Eastern Europe. But most people did not even think I was black (or American), and I was told it would be more of an issue for people to think I was Turkish (especially in Germany) or Middle Eastern/North African, or even Romani. The only unpleasantness I experienced, though, was staring. (I unfortunately have not travelled specifically in Eastern Germany.)

Having said that, I have dated several Germans, and been close friends with people from Eastern Germany, and I found that they had been raised in a culture of extreme political-correctness (in a good way). They do not tolerate intolerance (except when it comes to Muslims and Turks), or even the idea of "race" as a concept. We discussed this a lot, and my understanding from them is that Eastern Germany (and parts of Bavaria) is similar to the South in the US--you'd almost always be fine but sometimes you might get looks, and you might want to be aware of going into unfriendlier territory, eg, remote country villages off the tourist track or poor white neighborhoods in the city.

Sorry I can't give more of a first-person account.
posted by thebazilist at 10:31 AM on April 5, 2011

Thanks for your insights, thebazilist. My daughter is adopted, and of fairly dark complexion. As it will likely be the two of us for most of our stay it's possible she will be perceived as the product of a mixed race couple anyway.

As for nursery schools in the former East: this article from Der Spiegel scared me.
posted by Morpeth at 10:46 AM on April 5, 2011

To start out, I have not spent time in East Germany nor am I black.

But as far as broaching the topic with the nursery school director, I think you know you need to be very clear and direct but avoid finger-pointing. Instead of saying "I've heard everyone here is really racist," you could fib a little and say "We have had negative experiences in nursery schools in the past because my daughter was the only black child present, so..." Be firm and unapologetic. Then ask all the questions you want: "How is your staff trained to respond to questions from children about race or difference? How would you deal with an incident where racial insults were used?" etc. I feel like, as long as your manner is friendly, serious but not accusing, it could be perfectly acceptable as a "new person in town" to inquire "Are there many people of different races or from different countries in this town? How are they treated?" You may get sugarcoated answers, but at least you are showing that these things matter to you and you can judge their response. Who knows, maybe you'll find a really sympathetic director or staff member who will completely have your back on these issues.

You could also see if it might be appropriate to drop by once your daughter has been there a week and see how everyone interacts, etc. Or just show up early and linger when dropping off/picking her up to meet the other parents, or take advantage of opportunities to maybe volunteer as an aid on special days, like if there is a holiday party or carnival, so as not to be seen as the crazy foreigner who wants to spy on the daycare.

Lastly, to ease your fears, once you're there if you find the nursery just completely unacceptable maybe within the academic community you could find other options: non-working spouses who would be willing to care for your child along with their own during the day, etc.
posted by dahliachewswell at 11:17 AM on April 5, 2011

I've met a good number of black people from Germany (some have been International students at my University, two friends growing up, people I've met in my travels) so I don't think it would be unusual for a child who happens to be black to go to a German school. Excepting more rural areas of Germany (I don't know much about their demographics), I can't imagine your child being treated differently or like a spectacle. It might be an interest for children (and parents) why you are white and your child is black but I bet that curiosity is innate to human nature.
posted by loquat at 11:34 AM on April 5, 2011

I have also heard some less than positive things from people who are visiting but not local to village X in the former East. Race only seems to aggravates the zenophobia. They will assume the father is black.

I'm going to suggest this kindergarten: Waldorf Kindergarten Weimar. I don't know the first thing about it but I do know that Waldorf kindergartens (and they are nowhere near as dogmatic as those in the US) are very often run/populated by people with an interest in the well being of their children and their society - this helps to foster a community that is engaged with its members and is not condusive to crazy racism. At the same time, if you got a Kiga recommendation from the Uni where you will be studying/working, their recommendation is also likely pretty sound.

Also, if you don't know it already, you could ask your question in this forum Toytown Germany. Best of luck. Some pretty cool guys came from Weimar.
posted by From Bklyn at 11:41 AM on April 5, 2011

The fact that it's a university town does bode well. Can you get in touch with other scholars/students who are not white, to talk about their experiences?

As a way of getting in touch with locals, is pretty good. There are community forums for most cities and towns, but even if there isn't a whole bulletin board, you could possibly find a couple of couchsurfers in Weimar to speak with and ask questions of. People who participate in couchsurfing tend to be open-minded, nice, and interesting.

Even if you find a nursery school with staff who seem to be very supportive, you may still need to be in the position of educator to them, in terms of addressing diversity and tolerance. Some research on your part before hand could make a big difference.

Good luck, I hope it will be a wonderful experience for all!
posted by Salamandrous at 12:24 PM on April 5, 2011

I can't answer your question, but I have some ideas on how to get answers for it. I'm also white with (adopted) black kids, and I lived overseas for a while in a country where white people thought everything was fine and black people knew it wasn't. So I totally get your concern. My kids definitely did not thrive in this country even though they were supposedly too young to understand racism (to which I say: hogwash).

Anyway, I would dig around for blogs of Americans who live or have lived in Weimar. Even if they aren't people of color, they may be able to refer you to come people who are. For example, are there US military people in the region? Certainly many American soldiers and their families are black and multiracial.

You might also try to find out if the university has any sub-Saharan African faculty (probably unlikely?) or students, and try to connect with those folks. I know being African isn't the same as being a black American, but the experience of being a dark-skinned person in a predominantly white area with lots of racism can be the same no matter your country of origin.

Good luck! I hope this turns out to be a great experience for both of you.
posted by bluedaisy at 12:54 PM on April 5, 2011 [1 favorite]

I don't know if I'm too late with my answer, but here goes anyway:

I'm from West Germany and have been to Weimar some years ago while I was visiting a friend who lives in a small village thereabouts. She told me that Apolda (which is close by) is somewhat of a NeoNazi stronghold. So I'd be careful thereabouts, and I agree with the last paragraph of thebazilist's answer. I have some Eastern German friends and while the topic of race hasn't come up with them, I do think that this applies (in most cases; I'm not speaking for NeoNazis here). I think you'll find people of the same mindset at the university.

As to the Spiegel article, this is clearly something to be concerned about. Taking in account the NeoNazi's main beliefs (a crude summary: a) they're set against *immigrants* (often from Africa/other LDCs) coming to Germany to reap the benefits and b) they want an all-white Germany), it may help if you emphasize that you're *American*. Especially lesser educated German people think that the US are cool (blame the media for that *g*) and you may gain points with that.

I'd also recommend the approach as outlined by dahliachewswell. What kind is the nursery? Is it affiliated with the university? In that case I think you shouldn't have to worry overmuch. Otherwise, well, I'd certainly drop by and watch the interactions, and if you feel something's off (I don't know how well you speak German), I'd opt for a 'Tagesmutter' (day mother), someone who'll look after kids in her private home. You could ask around and find someone that is vouched for and will be OK with your daughter.

I also think it's best if you ask colleagues there to be honest about which areas to avoid when you're with your daughter. They know the lay of the land, after all. It might help that Weimar is an university town, but I wouldn't be so sure of the surrounding villages/towns. But I wouldn't say that you should never go there, just that you should go there with friends/colleagues to show you around and also act - if necessary - as a sort of 'buffer'. Just my two cents.
posted by sparrowspike at 10:01 PM on April 18, 2011

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