I’m talking to my white girlfriend from Saxony (actually everyone’s white in Saxony, basically) and her PoC Berliner boyfriend. We say PoC when we speak German now, by the way. We kind of have to, because there isn’t really anything else we can say in German and still make it sound like we think the person we’re talking about is actually German.
“I’m going back to Britain next week,” I say. “It’ll be my first time since Brexit.”
“Oh, God.” She says.
“You literally have no idea what it feels like,” I say, mournfully. “It’s just awful. To suddenly realize your country is actually a bit racist? Like your actual country? Like the country you come from? To suddenly realize it’s full of hate and full of people who are full of hate? To, like, suddenly realize how racist your country actually is? I’m absolutely dreading it.”
“Come on, Jacinta!” She yells at me. “Come on!”
“What?” I say.
“I think I know what that feels like,” she says, sulkily. “I come from Saxony. I know what it’s like to be ashamed of where you come from because it’s, like, totally Nazi.”
So Saxony is this federal state in the former East Germany where a lot of people – not all people – #notallSaxons – but quite a lot of them – are basically either total Nazis, pretty much Nazis, or almost Nazis. 0.1% of people living in Dresden are Muslims, but that doesn’t stop the Dresdeners going out demonstrating against islamification every Monday night. Pegida, they call themselves – Patriotic Europeans against the Islamification of the West. What I find a bit depressing when I watch the news is how sexy some of those white boys on the Pegida demos look. When you watch EDL demos you rarely see someone you’d even consider going on a date with, but when you watch a Pegida demo on the news, you’ll generally fancy about 50% of the participants. It’s a bit depressing, to be honest.
“Yeah,” I say.
“My auntie votes AfD!” She says. “My cousin’s joined Pegida! He’s actually joined up! He’s stopped volunteering at the fire brigade just so he can do his Pegida stuff. And there’s no talking to them. I ruined last Christmas trying to get through to them.”
I bite my lip cautiously. How do I say what I am about to say politely? Nicely? I think I can’t.
“Yeah, but you’re not surprised, are you? You’re not shocked.” More polite lip-biting. “Saxony’s always been a little bit Nazi. But people in Britain….we kind of….for a while, we kind of thought our country wasn’t actually that racist.”
Her boyfriend speaks up now.
“Yeah,” he says. “Until recently, I literally thought the UK was one of the least racist countries in Europe.”
“Yeah,” I say. “Yeah, I did too. Until June the 23rd, I thought the UK was probably one of the least racist countries in Europe.”
“But how could things change so quickly?” My friend asks. “Where did the hate come from? It was so sudden.”
I remember when I arrived in Berlin. I was 20 years old. I came from Ilford, which some people think is in east London and some people think is in Essex. I’m not going to pretend I wasn’t used to racist language. I was used to racist language. I’d grown up on it. Hearing the word p*ki banded about as an insult was kind of normal, growing up – that’s not to say it wasn’t upsetting. It was always upsetting, I always got upset. But it was something I was kind of used to. People used racist language and sometimes, as a child, I didn’t even know it was racist – p*ki shop, for example, or chinkie. Or Jew-Bag. I was a teenager when I realized that the Jew in Jew-Bag was a racist insult – I’d spelt it Joobag in my head. People talk about casual racism, and the racism I grew up with was certainly that – gentle, relaxed, nonchalant. Indifferent, throwaway remarks. P*kiland scratched onto the ticket machine where my grandma lived in Harold Wood. There wasn’t much spitting, there wasn’t much real violence. Not towards me, anyway. Not much at all.
Still, I’d been surprised when I arrived in Berlin, to meet middle-class, left-wing people – people who drank red wine and sat in their kitchens at night, talking about politics – and hear the way they talked about “The Turks.” I was surprised. Paranoid fantasies about gangs of Turks roaming the streets of Neukölln at night combined with really quite unfair expectations about bilingualism. One woman I met criticized the German-Turkish community for not sending their kids to kindergarten so that when they started school, aged six, they had to learn German from scratch – and then literally the next sentence she complained about a nursery school in Kreuzberg with only one German-speaking kid in the class. I was surprised. I thought people who lent each other Susan Sontag books and went to the theatre didn’t talk like this. Oh yeah, and theatre. Literally no white Germans thought blacking up was racist until, like, 2015. People black up here all the time – for Karneval but also at the opera, at the theatre. On national TV. It’s just kind of like a German hobby, basically.
I guess, what I am trying to clumsily say, is that I thought Germany was a more racist country than Britain. Basically. I thought that when I arrived. Not just because of the problems in east Germany or east Berlin – parts of east Germany and east Berlin have been No-Go Areas for non-white people for as long as I’ve lived here – but because I thought the people who should’ve known better, basically didn’t. When I arrived in Germany, I basically thought that if there was a big Racism-O-Meter, then, well, Germany would beat Britain. Hands down.
Well, I don’t think that anymore. I no longer think Germany is more racist than Britain. To be honest, I actually think Germany has got a bit better. That seems a callous thing to say while refugee shelters are still suffering arson attacks on a regular basis, but the truth is, I do think that German society, as a whole, is less racist than it was 16 years ago. Whilst Britain, or, if we’re being honest, England, is getting a lot worse. England is the Saxony of Europe now.
And the question German people keep asking me is: Where does this sudden hate come from? How could this happen? How could it happen so quickly? How could a country which has always been able to pride itself as being a tolerant nation suddenly be revealed to be such a cesspit of racism? Hasn’t Britain always embraced multiculturalism? And now it’s a nation full of hate and division? You’d have to be a liar or a fool – or a racist troll – to claim Britain’s a nation of tolerant, open-minded people now. And it’s not just the attacks in the streets I’m thinking of. As bad as the attacks in the streets, is the indifference – or quiet support – which has greeted Theresa May’s nationalist rhetoric.
We’re surprised by what has happened – but we probably shouldn’t be. The truth is, the racism was always there – we just didn’t look hard. We looked away. P*kiland etched onto the ticket machine – and you look away quickly. I looked away quickly. I didn’t want to look at it, I didn’t want to read the whole message. I didn’t want to read the “Go home” bit. But the racists are speaking up now. They’re saying “Go home!” louder than ever. They don’t want us to look away anymore. They want us to see their hatred.
And hasn’t there been hatred at the heart of British society for a long time now? It might be true that we were, for a while, the most politically correct country in Europe – but political correctness has nothing to do with love, does it? It’s just politeness. So the British were politely eating samosas, but it was just a superficial acceptance. Perhaps the word tolerant isn’t so bad after all – the British tolerated other cultures, just like you tolerate your husband’s smoking. You grin and bear it. But underneath the polite, controlled way British people tolerated migrants, this was always a society based on hatred and distrust, paranoia and fear. Hatred of the weak, distrust of those weaker than you. Anybody who needed, and it doesn’t matter for how short a period of time, state benefits, was automatically turned into a figure of hate and actual disgust. In the 1980’s, it was single mums, later on, it was refugees. After I left for Germany, it was the disabled. Paranoid fantasies about disabled people hoarding buckets of cash under their beds, claiming disability benefits while they worked illegally as taxi-drivers, lollipop ladies, helicopter pilots, stuntmen. Contempt for your fellow man – but especially if your fellow man needs help – is something that has sold always sold tabloids. Politicians encouraging you to resent your neighbours if they don’t wake up before seven. Adverts encouraging you to dob your neighbours in if you think they’re working and claiming. Economic need as a sign of moral decay.
And now, the figures we’re being encouraged to hate are migrants – but not refugees, this time, but European migrants. The Polish, mainly, though I wouldn’t like to be Spanish or German or Italian or Greek and living in the UK right now, either. These people are teachers and nurses and doctors and plumbers. The hate that has been unleashed has been surprising. Dog shit smeared across a German granny’s door. That surprised me. That’s the word I’ve been using when I talk about it to Germans. I am surprised. Ich bin überrascht.
The truth is, we shouldn’t be surprised. We should be angry. We should be fighting. We should be fighting for love. There’s no room for surprise anymore. Or indifference. There’s no room for nonchalance. We need to fight. And it sounds tacky, but we need to fight to replace the hate with love. But we do need to fight. Because at the moment, the hate is winning.
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Jacinta Nandi is a writer and journalist who lives in Neukölln with her twelve-year-old son. She’s written three books in German and has had articles and stories published in Jungle World, Neues Deutschland, Missy and taz. She blogs in English for the taz as Riotmama.