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Being Black in Bochum

The sense of being Black in a white majority country is often associated with the concern that an anti-black, racist experience might occur. These are the experiences of the author, a Ghanaian student at the Ruhr University Bochum, Germany.

Records show that Black people have been living in Germany for around 400 years. Many of these records contain stories and incidents of racism in all its forms: subtle, systematic, overt and utmost violent.

Before I left Cape Coast in Ghana to live and study in a “white man’s land”, I had thoroughly researched the specific culture I would encounter. As I was delving into German culture, I soon came across some of these stories. They increased my anxiety. Actually, the very label “Black” was strange to me, as there are ethnic, but no racial identity markers where I come from.

I am now in Germany for eight months.  My new “home” is Bochum, a tranquil town in the west of Germany. The majority of Bochum's population are German nationals, but the city also hosts a significant number of international students from different parts of the world, making it somewhat cosmopolitan.

Ruhr University Bochum has 43,000 students from 130 countries. The university is a melting pot of cultures and backgrounds, which is invaluable as there is an infinite wealth of knowledge and wisdom transfer. This diversity also made for a softer landing in Germany, as I didn’t feel so much like a foreigner.

The language barrier

The fact that I don’t speak a word of German added to my initial anxiety. Living in Bochum has helped here too – the international nature of the city makes it possible to communicate in English. The downside is that you have to learn German to fully integrate into the country, especially as many people in smaller towns or villages do not speak English. Since German is a complex and challenging language, I feel like I lack practice because I speak English all the time in Bochum.

The negative consequences of insufficient German language skills are particularly obvious in administrative offices. Representatives of various offices turned away from me or ignored me when I tried to deal with my affairs in English, even though most of them could apparently speak English themselves. I had to bring someone to translate for me to access the services I needed. It’s hard to say if my being Black made things worse.

What I have noticed is that there are more Black people working in lower positions here, and I rarely see them in jobs where they can interact directly with people. I believe that this is largely due to a language problem and partly to institutional requirements. I don’t necessarily think this is structural racism.

Empty seats

A big culture shock when you come from Africa, where everyone is cooperative and open, is the reserved and at the same time straightforward manner of Germans. Sometimes this nature is misunderstood as impolite, sometimes their behaviour is really just plain rude. But it is difficult to judge whether being Black intensifies their brusqueness. I am still trying to familiarise myself with this.

In Germany, everyone has equal access to transport, which I really appreciate. However, I have often experienced some sort of subtle racism on buses and trains, where white people would rather stand than take the empty seat next to me. I doubt that this is because they still take social distancing so seriously. It has also happened that a seat became available next to a white person who gave me a disapproving scowl when I took that space.

All in all, however, my initial anxiety did not yet prove to be fully justified. However, I’ll still be in Bochum for 10 more months.

Prince Thompson is studying development management at the Ruhr University in Bochum. He has been an intern at D+C/E+Z. His Master’s programme belongs to the Working Group of Postgraduate Programmes Related to Developing Countries (AGEP).