Living in Berlin

Turks but not Berliners?

‘You aren’t a Berliner’ (advertising for a clothing brand)

I’m writing today because of a flabbergasting interview with a linguistic researcher from the Berlin Technical University that appeared in the Berliner Zeitung. Diana Marossek’s work on youth language in 30 local schools examines how ‘Berliners’ are imitating the ‘Turks’ and their German ‘Ethnolekt’ [are not some of these Turks also Berliners?], dropping articles and prepositions: ‘Ish geh kino’ or ‘Kommst du McFit?’ (‘I go cinema’ or ‘Come you gym?’).

Language tends to simplify over time, but this transformation in schools is not considered part of the forever-evolving history of language, as part of linguistic diversity (god knows most Germans spoke often reductionist dialect until well into the 20th century), but as a deterioration of ‘true’ German (Berlin dialect, however, does not come under such fierce attack). The researcher even admits that kids in their final years of school know the difference between dialect and high German. But get this: ‘Berliner’ children are motivated to use these Arabic and Turkish constructions to imitate––to quote the researcher––‘the identity of dangerous, strong and independent migrant children… who have a cool style, perhaps carry a weapon, and can rap’ [sic!!!].


Where did all those years of post-colonial/urban-anthropology/ identity politics go? Oh, that’s right: they happened in America, or maybe Britain, but not here. The interview continues with the assertion that the migrant children lack respect for their teachers (although it is admitted that ‘even some German students in the class’ have this problem), and concludes that someone who speaks with an ‘immigrant German’ could never be mayor, or find a proper job, and that emails written by such people are ‘full of errors’.

Actually, I quite agree with these last assertions about the seriousness of exclusion. They will never succeed in a poisoned environment that has such a narrow approach to difference and presents universalized, usually unquestioned, standards for belonging. Obviously the rules of the New World, of New York––where you can become a New Yorker overnight, despite how well you speak English (ok, let’s not romanticise, many of these New Yorkers who belong still face racial profiling)––do not apply here where the ‘Berliner’ children are separated out from the ethnically different ‘migrant’ children, most of whom were born here, often to parents who were also born here. No wonder these kids have such a hard time at school if they are faced with attitudes like these from the get go.

When I read stereotypes in the mainstream press–-often incredibly racist presumptions about the inferiority of certain ways of communicating, acting and learning–– often coming from academia to boot––I can’t help but think Germany has a long way to go. There is a remarkable lack of self-criticism and reflection about categories––it comes from a position that is unable to make an abstraction of its presumed ‘own culture’.

You might counter: things are different in Europe. But think twice. According to Bloomberg, Germany is the second largest immigration destination in the world. It has actually been a land of immigrants for sometime (should I go back as far as the Huguenots and the Jews?). De facto. They are here. In my neighbourhood, and in others in central Berlin, they constitute 40%. So, Germany has a major problem on its hands in the future, especially with regard to its close to 5 million Muslim population, if it can’t begin to think a little more pluralistically.

I remember my first summer in Berlin, in 1999. Mitte was still unpolished and full of vacant lots and I had an old battleaxe of a German teacher at the Goethe Institute. We had our requisite class on ‘Ausländer in Deutschland’ (‘Foreigners in Germany’), and I remember the little article we read in our A2 course reader that explained the life of a family who were ‘Turks living in Germany’. I was surprised because there was no indication that the family were born anywhere but Berlin.

‘Why does the book call them “Turkish” when it’s not said they are not German citizens?” I asked.

The small fierce teacher stared at me archly, and replied categorically, ‘Because they are not German. They are of migration background’.

Ah, that awful term again: ‘migration background’! Applied to people born here, from parents born here, provided they come from Turkey or Lebanon or some such place, but somehow not applied to second-generation expat Europeans. Or even to new Berliners like myself: ‘I don’t like renting flats to Ausländer’, said an Estate Agent to me once when visiting an apartment near Kottbusser Tor. I replied: ‘But I am an Ausländer’. ‘No’, he replied, ‘You are from Canada’—that is, the ‘right kind’ of foreigner. (Statistically this category doesn’t mesh with people’s attitudes, because I am no doubt included in the statistics of people with a ‘migrant background’ but almost never treated like one).

Back to the teacher at the Goethe Institute: I tried to explain to the teacher the difference between civil and ethnic notions of belonging, to say that naturalized citizens might not like being relegated as ‘foreign’. But I struggled with the terminology, I was easy to trounce with my then-substandard German. The teacher imposed the question of belonging in Germany like a grammar rule, ‘In Germany, there are Germans, and there are migrants to Germany’. The definition was cultural and as indisputable as a correct adjective ending, and wielded with the authority of a schoolmistress. A grammarian’s approach to integration.

But let’s not stop with German classes––often foreigners’ first important point of contact with German life. It’s really not hard to find maddening depictions in literature destined for those very children we discussed earlier,  in German schools, that reinforce stereotypes of ‘Ausländer’. ‘Foreigners’ are often depicted as people struggling to fit into the workforce, to learn ‘proper’ German, traditional people who wear veils or work in the vegetable trade.

Just take a look at one schoolbook from Bavaria, used in Gymnasium, which describes a ‘German Turk’ who has lived in Germany for 29 years. After three decades, her efforts at ‘becoming German’ are implicitly tied to a cultural value, which she is assumed culturally to lack: the ability to work hard in an office. Or try a schoolbook from Niedersachsen which talks about conditions in Turkey, and the jobs people do there: which are limited to working (as ‘händler’) in the fields or the bazaars.

The major problem with all these discussions is the perpetuation of a two-group––us and them––mentality, and the reduction of social problems into migration and acculturation problems. Because, listen, I have news for you. These kids are already integrated into German society. So are their parents. They live, work, and they grow up here. Many are born here, and they have German passports. It’s just that they live differently from most ‘ethnic Germans’ who don’t stop to ask themselves critically what ‘German’ culture is (when they do, they usually come up with clichés). You are not dealing with migrants when they have not migrated from everywhere.

If you want to talk about education standards, language acquisition, and access to the job market, then you are talking about social policy. You are talking about obstacles that affect your white urban poor just as much as kids whose grandparents grew up in Anatolia. What terms like ‘Turks’ and ‘migration background’ do is create a category of exclusion that prevents those who do succeed despite the racist system, and its stereotypes, from ever escaping a subaltern position.

Please talk in terms of socio-economics, even––god help me––class, but don’t talk about small kids as ‘Berliners’ because they are white, and other small kids as ‘migrants’ because they are not. They both belong to this city.

Joseph Pearson

Joseph Pearson (1975) is writer and historian based in Berlin. Born in Canada, he was educated at Cambridge University, UK, where he received his doctorate in history in 2001. Since 2008, he has written The Needle, which has become one of Berlin's most popular blogs. His portrait of the German capital, Berlin, for Reaktion Press was published in 2017. His second book, My Grandfather's Knife, was published by HarperCollins and the History Press in 2022. He is also the essayist and blogger of the Schaubühne Theatre, one of Berlin's best known state-funded institutions. His writing has appeared widely in the press, literary and academic journals, and has been translated into Italian, German, French, and Arabic. Having taught at Columbia University in New York City, he lectures in Berlin at New York University Berlin (since 2012) and the Barenboim-Said Academy.

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