Poor, sexy… racist? Tackling casual racism in the Berlin startup scene

Kein Zutritt
Kein Zutritt

Writer Steven Blum investigates the claims of casual racism lurking beneath the multikulti exterior of Berlin and asks if there’s anything that the city’s startup culture – home to many new international workers – can do to tackle this uncomfortable issue…

Kein Zutritt

Berlin’s startup scene has plenty going for it: relatively cheap overhead, low cost of living and talent from around the world. But in some workplaces, as in the city, diversity isn’t always celebrated. Being relatively new to immigration, Germany isn’t always the most hospitable place for foreigners. Neo-Nazi thugs are one thing, but some say the real hurdle standing in the way of Berlin’s maturation is a casual racism that’s much more widespread than many Germans would like to admit.

Kim*, an Asian-American with a graduate degree from NYU, worked at a startup in Mitte and experienced some incidents in her workplace that left her feeling singled-out or mischaracterised because of her race. There was the time her boss spotted her interviewing a Korean candidate for a position at the company and – with his back to the candidate – made a stereotypical Asian bowing gesture. Then there was the time Kim wore a short skirt to work and a colleague remarked on her “pretty little Asian legs”. He was reprimanded by another woman on staff, but the company didn’t have an HR manager to whom Kim could confide.

Cultural incongruity or racial insensitivity?

According to Laura*, an HR manager at a large tech firm, some people who move to Berlin from elsewhere are taken aback by how much their ethnicity seems to enter into social interactions in Germany. “The seriousness ranges from well-intentioned curiosity about otherness, which is by far the most common, to jeering and, in rarer cases, implied or explicit threats of violence on the street or on public transportation. In a few cases, people have reported fear for their wellbeing,” she said.

“I usually ask internationals whether they are experiencing any anti-foreign sentiment in Berlin,” she said. “I am surprised by how often people respond that they have experienced something that made them feel unwelcome, which they attribute to being foreign or from a specific racial profile.”

mr wongThe issue of cultural insensitivity in the German startup world made international news just a few years ago. Mister Wong, a social bookmarking site, was sold by its parent company Construktiv last year after drawing the ire of the Asian community for its offensive logo featuring a balding Asian man with slit eyes.

The founder responded to the charges of racism by saying, “These kinds of clashes seem inevitable when companies launch globally: what’s culturally acceptable in one place is a hanging offence elsewhere.” In essence: slit eyes aren’t offensive to Germans, so why should they be offensive to anyone else?

But stereotypes have a way of bubbling up into everyday interactions in dramatically negative ways. A year ago, Kim was biking in Friedrichshain and a German man yelled in fake Chinese at her. “Ching Chong Ching Chong!” he said. “I’m from California!” Kim responded in her perfect English. “I don’t even speak that language.” Before she could finish responding, another German man walked down the street and yelled “Nee how!”

It’s not as if seeing an Asian person is a novelty for most Berliners. Almost four per cent of Berlin’s population is of Asian descent and Asian immigration to Germany has been occurring since the 1960s. Germany’s Minister for Economics and Technology, Philipp Rösler, is Vietnamese and much ado has been made of how proud he is of his German-Asian identity.

Rösler may feel comfortable living in Germany, yet there still exists a negative perception of “foreigners”. According to a survey by the Institute for Interdisciplinary Research on Conflict and Violence at the University of Bielefeld, 47.1 percent of Germans agree that “there are too many foreigners in Germany”. Just a little less than 30 per cent believe that foreigners should be sent home if jobs become scarce while 39 per cent think Germany is “dangerously over-run with foreigners”.

“International party tourists” – hipster scourge or shot of diversity?

Yuppies fuck off!

In Berlin, some argue that racism underlies much of the conversation about gentrification. International “party tourists” are blamed for everything from the increasing rent to noisy streets and neighbourhood change. “The demonising of ‘international party tourists’ (which includes longer-term foreigners who remain for months or years) is a treacherous manoeuvre that creates an enemy who can be blamed for all problems,” Joel Alas wrote in Der Tagesspiegel.

The debate over foreigners ignores the real reason for rising rents: the mass sell-off of publicly owned apartments combined with a deregulation of rent prices. Together with Thilo Sarrazin, mayor Klaus Wowerweit sold 110,000 apartments that had been government property between 2002 and 2007 and eliminated a support program for 28,000 state-subsidised apartments.

A movement called “Hipster Antifa” opposes the anti-foreigner sentiment. “The anti-foreigner thing started as a bit of a joke but now it is much more serious,” a representative told the Guardian. “This is critical, it is sneaking into mainstream thinking – it’s almost being perceived as normal to dislike tourists.” Hipster Antifa believes that policies are to blame for gentrification, not foreigners. “Ultimately, who is a Berlin citizen? Everyone is if they want to be here – you have a right to be where you want to be.”

How to tackle racism in the workplace

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Berliners I have met have prized and derided diversity, sometimes in the same breath. I had a coworker who loved traveling and learning new languages but once went on a long anti-immigrant tirade after downing a few drinks. “If they [the immigrant] commit a crime, send ‘em home along with their entire family,” he said to me. I’ve met others who tried to convince me that Spaniards were the best in bed, all Jews want to talk about is the Holocaust and that Greeks are, actually, quite lazy.

At first, I tried to brush these incidents off because some – though certainly not all – of the things I heard seemed benign and silly, and I didn’t want to be labeled the PC Police. But after a while, the casually racist remarks I heard over and over again made me afraid to open up to new people, for fear of conforming to the idea they might have about people from my own nationality and cultural background.

Given that new hires arrive with their own stereotypes and prejudices, how can companies create a more inclusive and welcoming environment? It’s easy to tell people to stand up for themselves, but doing so is not possible in every situation. That’s why it’s so important to provide services for conflict resolution, intercultural communication and other forms of support.

“Understandably, startups are lean on HR but when you reach a certain size, it becomes essential if you want to protect the health of your company culture,” said Laura. “I think having staff devoted to the topic of employee wellbeing says a lot about the kind of company you run.”

Creating an inclusive environment

Creating a non-exclusionary company culture is also possible. Events in which people from many different backgrounds feel comfortable participating can go a long way towards creating a more inclusive environment. There shouldn’t be a dominant culture in the office. A nurturing, open environment is key.

A new breed of startups that are international from inception is also helping to change attitudes – Lucie Meyer-Landrut from GetYourGuide.com explained its company policy: “We have 20 different nationalities among our 50 employees in our Berlin office. This diversity is a strong asset for the company, since it helps us to promote innovation and to spread new ideas.

“We organise monthly lunches in which everyone is invited to share food from his home country. We also have weekly meetings during which everyone is encouraged to share either interesting work-related or personal topics.”

Finally, coworkers should be sensitive and allow individuals to decide whether or not they want to discuss their own cultural background. This should be an obvious impulse for most people, but it’s often not. “It’s worth reminding employees that their perceptions of someone else’s culture isn’t as important as that person’s own experience,” said Laura. In other words, don’t unload every rumour you’ve heard about someone’s home culture just for your own fun – you may unintentionally cross over into hurtful territory.

Taking all of this into account, so long as people are curious about other cultures and not intentionally cruel, there’s a huge opportunity for learning and growth in the workplace. “Berlin is a diverse place that’s very open-minded, but it’s harmful to claim there’s no racism here anymore,” Laura said.

If we acknowledge collectively that racism exists and look into it openly with a willingness to evolve, we have a chance at creating a more productive and much, much happier work environment.

* = Names have been changed to protect the privacy of individuals.

Are you a foreigner in Germany who’s experienced casual racism? Speak out! Tweet your experience with the hashtag #racismde. We’ll publish them here over the coming days…

Image credits:

Back – flickr user sodaniechea
Kein zutritt – © lassedesignen – Fotolia.com
Yuppies fuck off – © elxeneize – Fotolia.com