An estimated 500,000 black people live in Germany, but for some parts of society, being black means you can’t be German. Here, Jana Pareigis, the country's first female black anchor on public TV, describes the racism she has experienced there.
BERLIN — Turn on the TV in Germany in 2018 and it would be difficult to find a black anchor hosting prime time news. Despite a large and prominent community, black Germans are hugely underrepresented – and misrepresented – in the country’s mainstream media.
But there is one journalist who is bucking this trend. For the past four years, Jana Pareigis has been the face of morning news on the ZDF TV network, making her the first black female to present a morning news show on German public TV.
But the journey hasn’t always been easy for the Hamburg-born reporter. With a mixed European and Zimbabwean background, the 36-year-old has faced years of racism in a society that has found it difficult to accept her as German.
It’s an experience shared by many black Germans, she says, with racist slurs, no-go areas and inappropriate staring in restaurants an everyday reality.
“I have faced a whole variety of experiences," Pareigis tells TRT World. "But the question I hear the most is ‘where are you from?’ – implying that this is not my country. This reflects the ongoing discourse of what Germans are supposed to look like and what it supposedly means to be German.”
Over the past few years, the dominant discourse in Germany has shifted to the right, with parties like the Alternative für Deutschland (AFD) entering the mainstream. Peddling an anti-immigrant, anti-EU agenda, AFD now make up the largest opposition group in the country following Angela Merkel’s coalition deal last month. Its members, however, are often accused of racism – most recently politician Jens Maier was accused of racially insulting Noah Becker, the son of tennis star Boris, prompting Noah to press charges earlier this year.
This discourse is reflected in wider society. Last year a UN fact-finding mission described racism in Germany as "systematic" and revealed how black men don't go to certain areas for fear of being attacked. That came off the back of a 2016 report by the Education Ministry which highlighted the "stronger inequalities" between white children and children with an immigrant background in higher education.
For Pareigis, issues around her race started much before high school. As she recalls,“One of the first memories I have is of my best childhood friend and both of us being excited about wearing the same jumpsuit in kindergarten. She was a bit taller than me, with blonde hair and blue eyes and we thought no one could tell us apart. But everyone around us was like ‘hmm, yeah right’.”
Growing up, Pareigis was also exposed to book characters, songs and games with names like Ten Little Negroes and Who is Afraid of the Black Person.
“The connotations of both of these were just so bad and promoted the idea that you were meant to be scared of black people," Pareigis says. "As a child I would read a book series about a girl called Pippi Longstocking, whose father was the king of the "negroes". I loved the book but the part of the father made me feel very bad because I thought this is how blacks are portrayed - as inferior?”
Pareigis was eight years old when the Berlin Wall came down in 1989. For many across the nation it was a time for reconciliation, hope and unity.
But for minority communities, the years that followed represented a period of fear and exclusion and during the early 1990s, there was a spike in xenophobic attacks against different ethnic groups. One of the worst attacks was in 1993, when four right-wing extremists set fire to a Turkish family home in Solingen, a city just north of Cologne. The fire caused the deaths of three girls and two women, while another 14 people were injured.
Pareigis remembers watching news reports of the numerous attacks and felt so scared that she would say to her mother that they should leave the country. “Even though the fall of the wall was a peaceful revolution that united the country, there were a number of people now focusing on German identity," she says. "For some, people of colour didn’t fit in. What scared me weren't just the racist attacks that followed, but the images of people watching and clapping the attackers. After the fall of the wall, things weren't going well for some people economically so they blamed migrants.”
Records show that black people have been living in Germany for around 400 years, and there are many stories of Afro-Deutsch figures and their contribution to German society. In the late 18th century, Ghanaian-born Anton Wilhelm Amo made history when he became the first African professor of philosophy at a European university. Others include Martin Dibobe, a Berlin-based train driver from Cameroon who organised a petition calling for equal rights and pay for Africans in 1919, and the poet and activist May Ayim, one of the most prominent voices in the Afro-Deutsch movement up until her death in 1996. She has since had a street named after her in Berlin.
But this is a side to German history that’s not taught in schools, and Pareigis says that the education system as a whole is where part of the problem lies.
Many studies reveal that racial discrimination is still prevalent in the school system, she says. "For example, teachers expect less from the school performance of pupils who have a migration background. Children and youths who are scared that they will be discriminated have less time and strength to study. Percentage wise more children with a migration background leave school without graduating (without a school certificate) than children without a migration background."
In 2017, Pareigis produced a documentary on the topic for German news site Deutsche Welle. In the film "Being Black and German" Pareigis travels across the country to interview black people about their experiences, including one of the oldest from the community, Theodor Wonja Michael, who had been part of a human zoo. The documentary highlighted the many similarities in people’s struggles, and the everyday racism that black Germans deal with, examples of which are many.
Pareigis says, "When I go to an expensive restaurant and I’m the only black person, sometimes people look at how I’m behaving. Things have changed over the last few years, but in the past I’ve been aware that if I do something wrong people might say it’s because I’m black."
Pareigis recalls the time when she was a teenager and travelling on the bus with a friend of hers. "We were laughing loudly and a guy called me a negro and told me to go back to Africa because I was laughing loudly. He didn’t say that to my white friend, so I knew I was judged differently,” she says.
Beyond the education system, Pareigis describes the narrow portrayal of black people in mainstream media that still rings true today. Black people are either of only two stereotypes – athletes or singers.
“In the beginning it happened that people didn’t think I was the journalist interviewing them because I was a black woman,” she recalls. “Another time someone assumed I was with the catering company and would be bringing the coffee.”
A lot of research has gone into exploring where the roots of racism in Germany lie, and in recent years, historians have been tracing it back to the country’s violent, yet relatively unknown, colonial period. Prior to German unification in the late 19th century, the country’s Prussian ancestors were profiting off the slave trade alongside other European nations. Between unification and the end of World War I, Germany was one of the most powerful rulers in Africa, occupying parts of modern-day Namibia, Cameroon and Tanzania, among others. The idea of white racial superiority informed German colonial leaders, and thousands of Africans were murdered, raped or starved to death during the country’s short-lived, but brutal colonial campaign.
It was also during this period that German anthropologists and scientists like Eugen Fischer carried out medical examinations on African skulls to provide evidence seeking to back the idea of racial purity.
Black people living in Germany, meanwhile, have historically been treated as inferior citizens and up until the 1930s, the country had hundreds of ‘human zoos’ where African people were put on display for ‘ethnological expeditions’ and the viewing entertainment of German people.
Many historians and academics now argue that the ideas that developed around white superiority during the colonial period would go onto inspire and lay the foundations of the racism that sat at the core of Hitler's policies.
As Pareigis explains, “In Germany, the common view is that racism started with national socialism. But it goes back to colonialism and slavery. This is a big issue and a blind spot in German history. After the second world war, in the constitution it became forbidden to discriminate someone based on their race, language, religion and so on, which was good. But it took a couple of years until it was talked about what happened in Nazi Germany. And until now Germany's colonial history isn't much talked about.”
Activists, however, say things are changing – albeit slowly – amidst a big movement pushing the topic onto the mainstream agenda. Over the past few years, a number of campaigns, including the renaming of Berlin streets honouring colonial leaders and one calling for the return of artefacts and human remains stolen from former German colonies – have been initiated. The topic of racism and its colonial roots is now entering German society in a way that’s not been seen before.
Pareigis, meanwhile, says she is keen to use her role as a journalist to tell the untold stories of black German empowerment.
Pareigis, who will host an afternoon show on ZDF from this month, added, “Racism is a structural problem, an institutionalised problem and I want Afro-German children growing up to know they don’t need to be pushed into certain jobs or to think they are ugly or inferior because they are black.”