Mithu Sanyal on Identity Struggles and Trust
Cultural studies scholar, journalist and author Dr. Mithu Sanyal is one of Germany’s most prolific voices on feminism, identity and postcolonial theory. In her interview with the Thomas Mann House Dr. Sanyal discusses racism and public trust in Germany, the role of the media and the state and what can be done to move forward.
Thomas Mann House: A few years ago you mentioned in an article for the Guardian the ubiquity of the word “Ausländer” (foreigner) in Germany and asked: “How long do we have to live in Germany before we stop being foreigners?” Where does this racism and mistrust come from that upholds these categories even for second or third generation Germans?
Mithu Sanyal: There is a specific situation in Germany, for example because we used to have a law that you could only become German if your father was German. This changed in the 1970s, and my mother was actually among the women who fought to reform this. So, honestly, my first memory is getting a German passport when I was three years old, because my mother was so incredibly relieved. And in the 2000s, laws were changed again so that people who live and work here can apply to become German. Many people protested, saying “they are not real, they are just passport-Germans.” — How ridiculous! They are not fictional Germans, they are real!
The other big issue in Germany is that we think Germany has always been a white country, which is not the case. Thinking that is actually the result of Fascism because so many people fled or were killed in Nazi-Germany and during the Second World War. That plays a big part in why our government has only now accepted the fact that we are a migration country. We produce a past that has never existed. If we really want to look back, let’s take a look at the turn of the millennium, the year 1000. The German Empress, Theophanu was a Byzantine princess and, basically, my skin tone: a person of color. Likewise, Thomas Mann’s mother was from Brazil. So Thomas Mann is mixed race. He knew that and his brother wrote about it, but we somehow erased this dimension from our view of Thomas Mann. And he has in some ways become the quintessential German author.
So yes, Germany’s situation is special. And yet, whenever we do any anti-racist work, we tend to import a lot of the theory from the United States, which themselves have a very specific situation.
TMH: Is it a positive that we look to places where discourse might be more progressed in some ways? What can we learn from that? Or in how far do we need to find our own responses within the German context you just described?
MS: I think it’s brilliant that we look to other countries. And the U.S. has developed a lot of research and theory, while it has never really been central to Germany’s political agenda. Even the word we use to talk about race is the English word, because “Rasse” (race) in German denotes a biological concept and does not carry the same meaning. These words did not develop and progress in the same way in Germany, because the Nazis were so keen on using them.
So we produced a new German image that was unlike its past — not fully voluntarily, of course; we were forced to do it. But still, we looked at our past very critically. And growing up in a Germany that did that was special. But with all this talk about “Weltmeister im Erinnern” (world champions at remembering) it has only been recent that Germany is realizing that our memory has to include the German colonial past, has to include how we treated Sinti and Roma. We are finally able to give back cultural artifacts we stole from all over the world. Before it was legally impossible, even if we wanted to. These are all massive steps forward. But when you listen to the media, you think it got worse. Negative news is usually the only kind that’s regarded as news.
But to come back to your question, a lot of people have worked on these themes of racism and inclusion and have done a lot of research and activism in Germany. And I find it sad that that seems to be forgotten, that the anti-racist movement now knows more about what goes on in the U.S. than about the people who have fought for this here.
TMH: You touched on the role of the media and our current news culture. In what ways does this proliferate certain stories and ideas more than others and shapes social perceptions and public trust?
MS: There was a study done in Germany around media stories: people who are Muslims are most commonly mentioned in the media in connection with a crime. Only very rarely, in contrast, were they mentioned as individual people doing nice things. In Germany, if there was a crime, the media were not supposed to report about the nationality or the assumed race. That changed after the assaults on New Year’s Eve in Cologne in 2015, when media were massively accused of being biased because they omitted the perpetrators’ backgrounds. Since then, the probability that a crime is reported in the media and the perpetrator to be either a refugee or a Muslim increased drastically. For example, in 2016 a refugee had raped and murdered a woman in Freiburg, and at roughly the same time, a white German had raped his neighbor and murdered her. And I was reading a lot about the case in Freiburg but rarely was the other case mentioned at all.
So people who read the news naturally assume, that Muslims rape. They assume, of course, refugees are dangerous. And when in 2015 one million or one and a half million refugees came to Germany, the media called it a crisis. Now we have two million Ukrainians coming and nobody is talking about a crisis. That’s a good thing, of course; I don’t want the media to make the same mistakes again, but it is interesting how certain people are framed as dangerous, while the media say for others, these are so much closer to our culture, they are Christians, and so on. In a way, that is what I wanted to explore in my book, that there is all this negative stuff, but it is also a lack of being able to create another narrative.
We know that you can show people every statistic in the world and they might still stick to alternative facts. Because when the reason to their reaction is fear, facts don’t change that. And at the moment we are in a situation where people reduce one another to positions, no matter from which side you look at it. While in reality of course we all are complex. This reducing people to an identity is a problem. Actions, even crimes don’t equate to your identity. We need to introduce complexity to the way we think about others. I also think we need a different way of talking to each other in order to build trust in society. Trust isn’t something that is there per se, but has a lot to do with the way we communicate. An example are talk shows in Germany. I have been uninvited because I am too uncontroversial. They say: “You’re friendly, you want to understand the other side. We want someone who can really make someone else angry. Otherwise it’s not good TV, it’s just boring.” Yes, well, I am sorry.
TMH: It seems that more often than not, people of color, refugees, and other marginalized groups in Germany remain a subject only in the sense of being a topic, not in the sense of subjecthood, of having positive agency or being a part of society.
As this program is about “restoring public trust” now might be a good time to ask who those publics are. Who do we actually mean, when we talk about having public trust? Because if we just ask how we can reduce racism towards these marginalized groups, are we not once again othering them or excluding them from the publics we construct?
MS: When I talk about racism, I mainly talk about structures. I mainly talk about things like racist knowledge and the way it affects society. And first of all, just because you are affected by racism, doesn’t mean you don’t reproduce it. So I am not that interested in discourse around evil people who commit racism. That makes an institution like the police, for example, incredibly interesting, because it is an institution that is incredibly volatile for being racist, because they mainly encounter people as criminals. And the people they encounter as criminals are to a very high percentage either poor people or people of color, or both, not because those are inherently criminal but as an effect of racism, of society, and so on. But that reaffirms those views. And we can also look at who wants to become a police officer, which is a certain type of person who needs a lot of security. So there is a whole structure that needs to be understood before we can change it.
That’s not the same as othering, because if you are a police person of color you will have those same encounters, because the structures are the way they are. So you are bound to go in a similar direction. And nobody can reflect all the time so we all grow up with racist knowledge. There was a great story where they asked kids in primary school to name the capitals of German states. Some of them knew them, but most of them didn’t. And then they asked them what kind of prejudice they could hold against Blacks, against Jews, against Muslims, and so on. And they knew all of them. So the racist knowledge, even though it is not taught at school is transmitted, while the knowledge that is taught at school is not. And it didn’t mean that they believed it, but they have the knowledge already. And that they acquire a lot of this knowledge.
TMH: Can we think of all people in Germany to be of the same sphere of public to which trust can be restored? Or has trust in a way never been distributed equally? In which case, what is it that is to be restored if it was perhaps never granted to some in the first place.
MS: That’s an interesting question. If I look at people from my father’s generation for example, their relationship to Germany might have been different. When he came to Germany in the early 1960s, he didn’t expect much. So his trust was never really violated, he genuinely was grateful that he was allowed to be here and work for a lower salary than his colleagues. And so my father wouldn’t say that he lost trust at all.
The second generation, myself, expects a lot more from Germany. We got a promise of fairness and equality. I also remember these racist attacks after the “Wende” (the fall of the Berlin Wall) and how we were talking about them. And how Kohl, our chancellor said, “I’m not going there. I’m not doing condolence tourism.” That was a big moment of feeling like we don’t belong. Like we are not important, we are not the people of this country. It was a Turkish family in Solingen that had been killed. But everyone felt like it was one of us, no matter what background or nationality.
Another big erosion of trust were the NSU (national-socialist underground — a far-right terrorist group in Germany) murders between 2000 and 2007 and the way the police handled them and criminalized the victims and the whole community. The victims were dehumanized, calling the incidents “Döner-Morde” (doner murders), — those were human beings that were killed! And they might still go on doing that if the NSU had not been found out as the killers. It would be a massive step towards trust, if the public was granted access to the files. But they are still under lock and key.
TMH: In your answer you connected public trust and public expectations. Do you think public trust is going down whenever public expectations are rising or aren’t met? Does it make a difference to talk about meeting public expectations rather than restoring public trust?
MS: Looking at expectations and public trust you could say that society has become a lot less secure, in the sense of job security. But looking at how much people are earning, we are still quite a rich country. So quite a lot of expectations are met and a lot of people should be very secure. I mainly do research on racism. People are more afraid of foreigners when there are no foreigners around them. What I am saying is that so much comes back to how things are being perceived or presented to us. I definitely think that at the moment we are playing social groups against each other to a large extent. Women have been played against migrants by saying that they are coming here and will commit rape. At the beginning it was only the far right but now it is the mainstream media. They are using fear to mobilize; either fear of losing your income, fear of losing security, fear of any kind of violation.
And speaking about meeting expectations, one thing marginalized groups need is material support: securing a living standard. That helps a lot. But I don’t know whether that would build trust. My father for example is by no means afraid to starve. And yet, I noticed that in the last couple of years he has become more afraid; of war, of foreigners… He is in his late eighties and does not leave the house too much anymore, so he gets his information via the media. Studies suggest that watching or reading the news is worse than smoking. I certainly feel that I have to dose my exposure to news and social media, even though it is part of my work.
TMH: You mentioned the importance of more transparency and reforms within the media landscape. What concrete steps or political solutions should be taken to build and restore public trust?
MS: One way to build trust would be a clear approach to how to report, for example, when reporting about crimes, especially about murders. Dr. Park Dietz, a psychologist who works a lot with the police, advises journalists to keep reports local, to not try to offer 24-hour coverage, to only report for the people it concerns and not for the rest. To not portray the perpetrator as an antihero because then other people will copy their behavior. But the opposite happens at the moment. It seems like a celebration of all that. That is why I do think we should talk about media guidelines.
During the pandemic, fear stories were offered on repeat, but we could have also needed reports to balance that. What we can hope for, for example. Or when we talk about identity politics we always talk about differences, which there are. But obviously, there is a lot more we all have in common than what is different.
Personally, I have been thinking a lot about love politics, about the role of love and politics. It is something that the left has kind of ruled: They can talk about sex and break taboos all day. But what I mean goes back to Martin Luther King and Ghandi. Love was central to their way of making politics but also to the idea that if we win the political fight, we need to be able to talk about forgiveness and resolution. And we are missing that at the moment. Instead we only think of perpetrators who need to be punished. As a result, nobody will admit that they did something wrong, out of fear to be exorcised from society. And it makes us unable to see how people can come back into society. How they can learn from what they did. Our justice system at the moment is heavily built on the Christian idea of suffering to become a better person — that is a belief, not a system of justice. We need a sense that if you do something wrong you can learn from your mistakes, which would be incredibly helpful in social media, for example.
And I would love for us as a society to speak about utopias, for which you also need love. For the past few years, I have written a lot against things. And it is really hard to write for things. What do you want? Where do you want to go? What kind of wealth do you want to live in?
TMH: You speak about love and utopias. I am reminded of Octavia Butler’s work. For your next novel, then, can we expect a science fiction?
MS: That would be lovely. But no. In fact, it is the other way around. It will be a time travel, back in time to the year 1908 and the “India House” in London!
Mithu Sanyal is a cultural scientist, journalist and author who writes about sex, gender, post-colonialism, power and racism. Since 1996 Sanyal has written features and radio plays for the German broadcaster WDR, and publishes essays and articles in publications such as The Guardian and various German magazines. In her debut novel Identitti (2021), Sanyal addresses identity politics in a story that involves a student and her Postcolonial Studies teacher, who is not the person of color she pretends to be. Her book “Rape. From Lucretia to #MeToo” is published at Verso Books (2019).