Mesut Ozil and #MeTwo

When are you German enough?

Michel Abdollahi, Idil Baydar and Y'Akoto have all experienced racism and xenophobia – despite calling Germany their home. The artists hope that the #MeTwo debate will change hearts and minds when it comes to identity. By Yalda Zarbakhch

Mesut Ozil may not have realised that his resignation from the German national soccer team would start an avalanche of dismay on social media. He quit the team saying, "When I win I'm German. When I lose I'm an immigrant." His decision was a reaction to the outpouring of criticism directed against him after Germany lost in the early stages of the World Cup.

However, the ire directed at the soccer player with Turkish parents had started building up several months earlier when he took a picture with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

Many Turks welcomed what seemed to them to be a tacit vote of confidence in Turkey's leader, while many Germans were dismayed at seeing Ozil's alleged support of Erdogan, whose leadership has been widely criticised as autocratic.

Ozil himself said that he felt he was being held up to double standards as a national public persona and so quit the German team in anger. Since his walk-out, thousands of people with foreign heritage have taken to social media under the hashtag #MeTwo, using it to share their own stories of being scrutinised under unfair standards and explain how they've experienced discrimination for simply having a different background.

Mesut Ozil and President of Turkey Recep Tayyip Erdogan (photo: picture-alliance/dpa)
Reading between the lines: German national footballer Mesut Ozil faced a storm of criticism following this photo opportunity with President Erdogan of Turkey in May. The media-seasoned athlete apparently failed to realise the impact this would have in the run-up to the Turkish general election. In Germany, however, it became a hot-button issue of national loyalty – "an identity problem suggesting a lack of integration," as Christian Lindner, head of the FDP, put it – sparking a nationwide debate about racism and discrimination

Racism in the arts

We invited three creative minds to disclose their personal experiences with racism and how their identities have often resulted in experiences of being ostracised.

Journalist and performance artist Michel Abdollahi has become used to saying "Iran" when people ask him where he's from. He says it makes things easier – mainly for the person asking that question.

Comedienne Idil Baydar has a different view. She doesn't consider herself to have migrant background because she herself never migrated – her parents did. On stage, she says that her way to Germany was rather short: all the way from the uterus to the outside world.

Singer Y'Akoto believes that terms such as identity and home are outdated in a globalised and digitalised world and wants society to find new ways of thinking about them.

What all three artists have in common is the fact that they've had to think about these things, having experienced racism and xenophobia throughout their lives. They reveal what they hope the #MeTwo debate on social media will achieve and how they define their own identities.

Michel Abdollahi, performance artist with Iranian roots (photo: Asja Caspari)
Michel Abdollahi: "Home is where my bed is. And that happens to be Hamburg"

Michel Abdollahi is a journalist and prize-winning performance artist who focuses on performance poetry. He was born in Tehran in 1981 and moved to Germany when he was five years old. In 2000, he got actively involved in poetry slams in Germany and beyond. Later he co-founded "Kampf der Künste" (translation: "battle of the arts"), which has become Europe's largest platform specialising in performance poetry. Abdollahi thinks of himself as Iranian-German but above all, identifies with his home town, Hamburg.

"Home is where my bed is. Always. And that happens to be Hamburg. However, I also have a bed in Iran, where I sleep whenever I'm there. But Germany is where I most feel at home.

Iran is where I came from. It is part of my culture, part of my heart. It's also a place I know well and where I also enjoy being, but since I'm not always there, I'm not involved with that society. But it's still part of my identity. Identities can change, adapt, mould. Identities are diverse by definition. There is no single ONE identity.

There's racism in Germany. We all know that. All of us who are regarded as 'migrants' know that there is an underlying casual racism, in addition to that ugly kind of heavy racism that is easier to call out. I experience racism every day. Just take a look at my Facebook and Twitter profiles and see for yourself.

At last people are talking about this. People are sharing their experiences openly. Still, there are those who will say, 'You're just making all this up.' That's hard to swallow, I find. The way that things are going I can't imagine that there is a day on the horizon somewhere where all people in Germany will embrace me as one of their own. But you know what, that doesn't hurt me. What hurts is when people tell me to go back to my own country. That's something I can't accept."

Idyl Baydar, a comedian and actress was born in Lower Saxony. Her parents came from Turkey (photo: Cengiz Karahan)
Idil Baydar aka Jilet Ayse: "I don't want to find myself in a situation where others get to decide how German I am"

Idil Baydar was born in Celle, a town in Lower Saxony, in 1975. She is an actress and comedian. Her parents moved to Germany from Turkey. She became famous on YouTube for her alter-ego "Jilet Ayse" – and 18-year-old Turkish girl living in the multicultural Berlin neighbourhood of Kreuzberg. The character is based on students she interacted with while working as a social worker at a Berlin school. In her skits, Baydar like to confront her audience squarely with the kinds of prejudice that people with a foreign background are often subjected to in Germany.

"What I notice a lot is the fact that our politicians seem to have no interest whatsoever in combatting casual racism. There are maybe a couple of token projects against racism, but no real change, no real initiative to define and criminalise racism. No one is interested in that. If I go to the police and tell them that I've been discriminated against and have had to suffer racist slurs, no one even takes notice.

Germany is where I live and can live. But I don't know how long that will still be the case. It depends entirely on the direction that things take. I do think about my alternatives in case right-wing ideologies, such as those espoused by the Alternative for Germany (AfD) party, should become the new status quo.

I don't want to find myself in a situation where others get to decide how German I am. Why should someone other than myself get to have the privilege of interpreting my identity? This has nothing to do with civil emancipation. Nothing."

Y'Akoto was born in Hamburg and grew up between Germany and Ghana (photo: Kame Entertainment)
Y'akoto: "The world is becomingly increasingly interwoven. This is a fact — an unstoppable one no less"

Jennifer Yaa Akoto Kieck, also known as Y'Akoto, was born in Hamburg in 1988 to a Ghanaian father and a German mother. She grew up in Ghana until she was 11 years old and the family moved back to Hamburg when she turned 12. Y'Akoto started writing songs and became a singer. She has published three records to date, featuring songs that often address social issues such as racism and the refugee crisis. Today, she splits her time between Hamburg and Paris.

"What is that even supposed to mean – German versus non-German? I find this kind of view so antiquated and outdated in a globalised world. I believe in cross and trans-identities. However, there's almost this compulsion in Germany to avow yourself to one culture or one passport only. I find this more than irritating, as it keeps society from progressing further. Also, it is highly offensive to people who feel at home with two identities and express this outwardly.

When I started school in Germany as a 12-year-old, I felt bullied by all the German kids around me. Understandably, I didn't seek to build any friendships with them. Instead, I sought out children who were like me and tried to make something good out of that situation. So when I was 15, I set out and started my first band with those people. What else was I supposed to do? Bend over backwards to try to belong somewhere that won't accept me the way I am? I think that's a mistake that many bi-cultural people make: They run themselves into the ground trying to fit into this German system.

I think it's a good thing that this hashtag #MeTwo is mobilising this debate on social media. But what's far more important is the next step: fighting racism systematically and using research to do so. We have to address casual racism in schools and teach children how to recognise it. We have to start with training intercultural competencies in preschool. The world is becomingly increasingly interwoven. This is a fact – an unstoppable one no less."

Yalda Zarbakhch

© Deutsche Welle 2018

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