Sunday, October 18, 2009

Guenther Wallraff Returns—from WAY DOWN UNDER to BLACK on WHITE

Guenther Wallraff Returns—from WAY DOWN UNDER to BLACK on WHITE

By Kevin Stoda, Germany

About two decades and a half ago, journalist Guenther Wallraff went under-cover in his own Western German (BRD) society, i.e disguised as a Turkish guest worker: Levent (Ali) Sigirlioğlu. Ali looked for the many bottom-rung-societal-jobs in Germany which millions of foreigners had undertaken in the Post-WWII Western European miracle years to help empower the West German society to become one of the wealthiest lands in the world.

Wallraff as “Ali” was in Germany working without official papers and visa; therefore, Ali represented an important part of the Turkish-German society and many other foreigners in the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s, i.e. who were not being welcomed into the German fold despite contributing to its great success.

Disguised as Ali, Wallraff took on jobs as laborer in construction firms, on farms, janitorial service, and even as a day laborer in a nuclear power plant. [In the publication of his 2-year adventure as Turk in Germany, LOWEST OF THE LOW, Guenther Walraff later revealed that the Turkish workers at the power plant were not even provided the same amount of protective clothing at the nuclear power plant as were the German employees at the same plant.]

As well as showing how both difficult and easy it was in Germany to find work as a day laborer, Wallraff also demonstrated how difficult it was to find a place to live or rent in Germany, especially if one’s skin color was different than the majority of Germans.

In the subsequent Wallraff book, entitled LOWEST OF THE LOW (Ganz Unten), the author as “Ali” also shared of his visits to football matches and to restaurants around Germany. Even though, the Turkish Ali rooted for the German national team against his homeland throughout the match, Walraff “as Turk” was pelted with cigarette stubs and cries of “Sieg Heil” and “Turk, Go Home!” Finally, beer was even dumped on his hair by the German nationalist fans around him.

LOWEST OF THE LOW (Ganz Unten) was first brought out in book form in 1985 and then in a documentary format the next year. By 1988, parts of a new documentary work on this same 1983-1985 Turkish experiment by Wallraff had already been published in 30 languages.

Now, in 2009, Guenther Wallraff is back at it again—putting a mask over what his reality as typical Caucasian-German is in order to de-mask the society in which he lives and works. This next week, his new documentary film is being made public: Guenther Wallraff: BLACK ON WHITE[ Schwarz auf Weiss]”.

This new documentary film finds Wallraff dressed and masked most often as a Somali asylum seeker, who has apparently lived in Germany long enough to “speak German very well” and who actually holds a German pass.

Wallraff says he wanted to put on the mask of a black person in Germany for over three decades but he hadn’t trusted the skin painting and mask technology until recently. Therefore, only since 2007 has Wallraff been out and about as a black-German in both the former Eastern and Western Germanies, which now make up the Bundesrepublikdeutschlands (BRD).

From the experiences, Wallraff shared recently in DIE ZEIT, “My travels as a black-German are now over. In all these months, however, I have never felt comfortable in my black skin—that is, I felt my skin was the target for feelings or reflections of shame for the most part. It is hard to say which is more difficult—the open aggressiveness of skinheads and full-frontal racism or the behind-the-back racism of the average citizen, who practices being friendly to one’s face only to be lying all the time about that supposed respect that is spouting out of their mouths. In the end, I can put my black alter ego down and walk away, but the others in this country cannot.”

Naturally, just as Germany’s current reputation has made internationally clear, there are more skinheads and neo-nazi or fascist oriented lifestyles in those areas of Germany today—which before the Wall opened up in 1989 had belonged to the East German Communist government.

Therefore, unlike as “Ali” in West Germany of the 1980s, Wallraff, as black, was afraid even to enter the Cottbuss stadium as black-German in 2009. Wallraff simply stood outside the stadium before-, during-, and after the match as Cottbuss played another eastern German team, Dresden. Constantly, Wallraff attempted to engage in friendly conversations but was always received by hate and venomous words—simply because he was wearing a black man’s skin.

Later, Wallraff noted he was saved at least once by intervention by some policemen on a Dresden-fans-filled train. On the other hand, other policemen in Eastern Germany just ignored the illegal Hitler salutes of the neo-Nazi youth going and coming from the stadium—and the life-threatening words coming from their mouths in Cotbuss.

In contrast, when the black Wallraff was later threatened in a bar in Bavaria, two men stood up for him there fairly forcefully. Wallraff was pleased by this civil courage. [Wallraff notes in der ZEIT article, that it is not only racism that has led to citizens failing often to stand up to protect fellow citizens from abuse.]

In his own hometown of Cologne, Germany, Wallraff generally usually perceives a cosmopolitan atmosphere—i.e. in a city with2000 years acceptance of immigrants. However, just as Wallraff had experienced 25 years earlier discrimination as the Turk “Ali”, Wallraff found house- and flathunting in Cologne full of latent discrimination.

In summary, unlike in eastern Germany, the discrimination in western part of Germany was covered by a coating of Prussian business politeness or brusqueness—a brusqueness which in Germany should not be automatically read as racism.

However, after the black-German, Wallraff, left an apartment where such politically-correct conversation had taken place in traditional Prussian exactness, his own colleagues from his documentary team for the film came into look at renting the same flat.

When these Caucasian-German colleagues spoke to the landlady—only to hear many bad words about how horrible Wallraff as black Somolia-born man had made that poor German landlady feel, e.g. so uncomfortable. She almost whined, “That kind of black hair doesn’t belong here. Oooooah.”

The book, BLACK LIKE ME, is still on reading lists throughout the United States of America—even thought John Howard Griffin originally published his experiment as black man in America almost 5 decades ago. So, perhaps a few decades from now, Germans will still be reading and seeing Guenther Wallraff books and documentaries.

In short, just as late in the 1950s America, John Howard Griffin, traveled for weeks around the USA in a public Greyhound bus disguised as black man, Guenther Wallraff has been up to the same tricks in Germany for many decades as an undercover-journalist.

The exercise of not-just-stepping-into-the-other’s-shoes but jumping-into-the-other’s skin is important now and again for Germany and every other society to undertake and imagine.

I’m sure that the new film from Walraff: SCHWARZ AUF WEISS (Black on White) will bring new insights and discussions to a boil in Germany concerning immigration and integration in society. Hopefully, legislation and education will follow to support greater and better integration and immigration in Germany in the coming decade, too.



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