The daily experiences of Black people living in Germany smash the country’s image as an inclusive society.
Sully Sanon arrived in Germany from Haiti as a 25-year-old to study theology at a seminary in the state of Saxon Anhalt.
Saxon Anhalt has a population of just over 2 million people and is a stronghold of the far-right Alternative For Deutschland political party. But Sully didn't know any of this.
“As a foreigner, you arrive in a country without any prejudices, but then you start learning about the country and its people, some things are acceptable and some are a bit shocking,” says Sully.
After having spent eight years in Germany, Sully now speaks more philosophically than recounting every experience.
“They are being nice, from their perspective, but they don't even know that they are actually being racist.
“In recent years, there have been efforts towards diversity in the workplace or in the media, which offers a very diverse view of society, but that's fairly misleading —because when it comes to diversity and equal opportunity, Germany still has a very long way to go.”
Germany hasn’t historically collected data on ethnic identities, races and religious beliefs of its citizens or residents since the end of the Second World War, to avoid potential othering of different groups which had once led to the persecution of millions under the Nazi regime.
But this step to delink itself of its difficult past has left a major void where bureaucrats and politicians have only estimates when it comes to making legislations that might or might not affect a certain minority group.
Afrozensus, or a census of people of African descent conducted by a collective of non-governmental organisations, shows alarming levels of racism and discrimination in German society, marked by a steep spike over the last five years.
According to estimates, nearly a million people of African descent from 144 countries live in Germany, of which the majority are Germans, followed by those from North America, African countries and the Caribbean.
The majority of respondents to the survey agreed that the rise of far-right political parties, the influx of migrants from the Middle East and a right-wing slant on stories related to migrants in German media had contributed to the rise in racism in the country since 2015.
According to government figures, Germany saw over 23,000 far-right extremist attacks in 2020, a nearly 20 percent increase from 2019.
Sully recounts several occasions when flippant or careless remarks about cultural differences between Africans and Germans have been directed at him. But what really irks him is the inability to distinguish between a person from Africa and someone from Haiti.
“I am from Haiti, it’s the world's first free Black country, we are a very proud nation of people, we grew up listening to stories about how our forefathers fought the white man for their freedom,” Sully adds.
Now 33, Sully lives in Berlin with his Italian-German wife and three children. He is now a pastor in a church.
“I remember there was a charitable event at the church, we were handing out food parcels and clothing for those in need, and this man came and he accepted our help, but bluntly told me that he didn’t like Black people. It’s not like he was poor or uneducated, he was well-travelled, well-educated but said he just doesn't like Black people. He said it’s just a feeling that he has, at times,” Sully says. Life in Germany has surely tested Sully’s pastoral patience.
According to the survey, “anti-Black racism in Germany is a cross-sectoral problem”. The survey looks at 14 aspects of life, and in all of them, respondents affirmatively reported racism and discrimination.
Respondents surveyed further revealed that “over 90 percent had their hair being grabbed without being asked. This is an example of 'exoticisation' of Black people. Overall, almost 80 percent of the respondents said they received sexualised comments on dating apps about their appearance or their ‘origin’. Criminalisation is also a shared experience, with over 56 percent saying they are asked if they sell drugs and over 60 percent also reported being stopped and searched by the police for no reason”.
Two-thirds of the respondents to the survey also confirmed that they had received lower grades than other classmates for the same performance at school or university due to racism.
Diplab Basu of Reach Out, an NGO helping victims of racism and discrimination, says that of all racial minority groups, Black people are hit the hardest.
“At school, students and teachers both victimise Black students, they are often marginalised, often punished for trivial issues. Housing is another major issue, we get lots of complaints, almost all of my clients will tell you that they are discriminated against when it comes to housing,” says Basu.
According to the survey, over 65 percent of the respondents said that they felt they had been discriminated against when looking for a house or an apartment.
“We've given up now, it’s been three years,” recounts Sully, as he narrates the difficulties of finding an apartment in Berlin as a Black person.
Sully and his wife feel the pressure of a growing family in a small apartment. In Germany, apartments or flats are a deeply precious commodity, the covered area is often the subject of small talk at parties.
And particularly in Berlin, where a steep housing crisis has seen many move away from cities and into smaller towns.
“We've knocked on so many doors, almost literally, we have the money, we have the jobs, no criminal background but still we can’t rent a new house or a flat,” he adds. He has no qualms in putting the blame squarely on widespread discrimination “Because we have foreign names.”
“People have told us on the phone, yes, we'll give you the apartment but, in one case, they ghosted us when they heard our names,” says Sully.
“It’s so medieval to discriminate on the basis of colour,” says Basu,” it doesn't paint the picture of a sophisticated society where many people hold these prejudices. Whenever we get these complaints about housing, we reach out to the relevant parties to argue. Some of those we reach out to are these big housing societies, partly owned by the government. But even they discriminate.”
Meanwhile, in Berlin, the Sully household has given up the search for a new apartment. Sully's wife is training for a job that is likely to take the family on a global jaunt. Sully is also very eager. This could be their golden ticket out of Germany and, perhaps, finally into a bigger house, somewhere else.