Dienstag, 23. Oktober 2012

Barriers to Inclusion, Diversity and Integration in Germany:

Part 1: the Unforgiving German Language
Us Germans seem to be very proud that our language is such a difficult, unforgiving, and exclusive one; a fact we like to emphasize. The exclusivity of our language gives the “native speakers” a heads up, some sense of superiority toward someone who is not a native German speaker. We often take the liberty to correct non-native speakers while they are speaking; putting ourselves in an undeserved and inappropriate position of superiority, discouraging the other person from learning the language, and speaking freely. Taking the liberty to correct someone is patronizing and considered extremely rude in many cultures.

The correcting and cultural and linguistic exclusivity make it extremely difficult to learn the German language, let alone feel comfortable speaking it. It can be very alienating to have one's speech constantly corrected. It most likely will result in a decrease in interest in learning the language altogether.
It is easier, for example, to learn American English as most people in the USA, make an attempt to understand what the other person is saying instead of concentrating on the mistakes and taking the liberty to fix them. An expectation of speaking “perfect English” is rather rare. Who speaks a language perfectly in the first place?

Many of us do not speak or write very well in our own language. Our mistakes, however, are judged by different standards than the mistakes of non-native speakers. Language mistakes made by us are “just” language mistakes whereas, mistakes made by minorities are a confirmation of stereotypes, their inability to assimilate, to learn, and integrate into our society.  
Learning German is made even more difficult by our “requirement” of speaking German without an accent. In spite of the fact that most of us have “accents“ or speak a dialect ourselves, a foreign accent is not desirable; making the language even more exclusive. An accent in reality does not have anything to do with how well someone manages a language. Accents should be encouraged as they are a reflection of someone’s identity, not the inability to speak or write in a language. The desire for minorities to speak German accent-free reflects our desire for assimilation versus encouraging and celebrating diversity.

German is a difficult language, among other, due to a severe grammatical complexity, some lack of logic, and a lack of diverse vocabulary. Many words are driven from a word with the same root, making the language extremely confusing to non-native speakers. Here is an example: the word ziehen (to pull) is ascribed to various words: ausziehen (take off or move out), einziehen (i.e. move in), durchziehen (i.e. pull through), entziehen (i.e. deprive) and the list goes on. The articles (der, die, das) do not follow much logic either. A girl (das Mädchen) is, for example, "neutral" whereas a table is "male" (der Tisch). The capitalizations of “nouns” add to the difficulty of the language. There are of course many capitalizations (or not) that do not follow a simple logic but rather make up the exceptions to the rule. An effort to simplify the language back in the late 90ies has failed. Although, many changes were introduced, a simplification was not the result.
Instead of making it difficult to learn the language, we should appreciate and encourage learning and concentrate on listening and understanding what others are saying, instead of making them feel bad about their “mistakes."

It may help to remember that nobody speaks “perfect German” in the first place.  

Samstag, 6. Oktober 2012

Unconscious Biases and Hidden Messages in „Where are you from?“

Many of us may be contributing to the cycle of unconscious biases, prejudice, racism, inferiorization and discrimination by answering the question “Where are you from?” without further examining this question. Dr. Zuleyka Zavallos, argues that “’where are you from’ is best understood through the concept of everyday racism” and that “[e]veryday racism makes visible the ways in which racist ideas are socially reproduced in taken-for-granted ways through familiar everyday situations.” (http://zuleykazevallos.blogspot.com.au/2012/01/where-are-wogs-from-exploring_18.html).

Before responding, one should first find out what the other person is exactly inquiring about and why. An answer should not be provided simply to satisfy the expectation of the person who is asking or because responding in a certain way is the norm.

It is common knowledge that inquiring “where someone is from” is practiced globally. The question is asked by people of the dominant culture as well as by minorities. However, it’s meaning changes, depending on who is asking who, and where. In Turkey for example, the question can have various meanings and the reasons for asking will most likely be different than in Germany. Same applies to the USA. In spite of the differences, there are also astonishing parallels how  many minorities perceive this question. An example from the USA: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IRc_7Xk-4is. Since I am currently living in Germany, I will discuss this problem from my current perspective.
Let’s look at the first barrier to interpreting this question. What does “Where are you from?" mean and how does one define “where she is from”? Are we from where we consider ourselves to be from or does the society define where we are from? Would it be inaccurate to identify the place where one was born, raised and lived her entire life to be the place where “one is from”? Apparently yes. That would be inaccurate.

People of Turkish descent living in Germany, for example, no matter if they were born in Germany or not, are not considered “from Germany.” An exception would be, if one “looks German.” In that case, a person with a Turkish descent could pass for someone “from Germany.”

If the place where some of us were born or consider ourselves to be from does not equal “where we are from,” “where are we from” then?

The barrier to a logical conversation in this case is this: “Where are you from?” in most cases in fact, is a socially accepted way of inquiring about a stranger’s ethnic origin or race. For example, when people of Turkish descent in Germany are asked “Where are you from?” the inquirer usually wants to know what the other person’s ethnicity is, not where she is from. Most people in Germany know this. Therefore, the expectation is, that the person who is asked, provides the information on her ethnicity. If she provides the information on “where she is from” instead, the other party usually will continue the questioning, until she receives the information satisfying her perceptions of the other person. Rarely does anyone question this awkward and highly personal interaction between strangers. Why should a stranger care about the ethnicity of another stranger and why would someone answer this highly personal inquiry from a stranger in the first place? Dr. Zuleyka Zavallos writes that according to her studies, “[m]ost women saw the question ‘where are you from?’ as simultaneously frustrating and compelling” (http://zuleykazevallos.blogspot.com.au/2012/01/where-are-wogs-from-exploring_18.html). However, one answers the question even that she feels uncomfortable. She does not stand up for herself and reject answering the question because answering the question is considered a given in spite of its racial connotation. The vicious cycle of racism strengthens with each such interaction of inquiry and response.

Asking a stranger “where she is from” serves in Germany as a means to distinguish the “legitimate residents” of the country from the outsiders who “came from some place.” The question is an excellent example of everyday subtle racism; one that is deeply engrained in the society as an accepted form of interaction, and supported bilaterally. Due to its ambiguity, this type of racism is extremely difficult to detect and address. At the same time, “Where are you from?” offers one of the most significant opportunities to break the vicious cycle of racism and inferiorization of others. The target is offered an opportunity over and over to provide an unexpected answer and to challenge this culturally ingrained and socially accepted form of racism.

Are we going to take the opportunity and challenge the status-quo or do what is expected of us—provide highly personal information to satisfy strangers’ need to categorize us and safely put us in the box, designated for us by others?