When, on 1 December 1955, African-American Rosa Parks steadfastly refused to give up her seat for a white person, little could she have anticipated the far-reaching consequences of this quietly powerful act. Not only did it lead to the abolition of the segregation law in the US, but it also inspired a so-called social experiment on a modern-day bus in Essen, deep in the heartland of Germany’s industrial Ruhr-area.
Filmed by secret cameras, a bus conductor in official day-glow vest was heard loudly telling some passengers to move to the back of the bus, as apparently the seats they were sitting in were ‘reserved for Germans only’, pointing at some stickers that seemed to confirm what he was saying. The people he singled out were variously black, or wearing headscarves, or displaying some other supposedly ‘foreign’ characteristics. What the other passengers didn’t know: the conductor and the ‘non-Germans’ were all played by actors, set up and filmed by local TV channel WDR.
I read about this with growing trepidation. Oh no. What if no one protested? I hardly dared to read on. But then, relief. It never took longer than 30 seconds for some uninitiated passenger to speak out on behalf of the apparent ‘foreigners’. Phew for that, good on ya, German bus passengers. Racism case closed. Sleep easy in your beds.
But that’s not all there is to it. Still left with an uncomfortable feeling? You should be. Pretty much everything about this ‘experiment’ is flawed. Let’s start with the signs. “This sign is unequivocal”, writes notorious German tabloid BILD. Only it isn’t. It reads “Diese Plätze sind für Inhaber eines gültigen deutschen Personalausweises reserviert“ – these seats are reserved holders of a German identity card. What kind of definition of nationality, or indeed identity, is this? Many Germans, including myself, don’t hold such a card. It’s not compulsory, in fact, for German expats it’s only been possible to apply for one for the last couple of years. There’s another sign. “Ausländer und Asylbewerber benutzen bitte nur die hinteren Sitzreihen!”, complete with exclamation mark and passive-aggressive ‘bitte’. Foreigners and asylum seekers to sit only in the back rows please! Foreigners AND asylum seekers? Can you be a non-foreign asylum seeker? Why the distinction?
This is why. They don’t mean foreigners. They don’t mean Germans who happen to not possess an identity card, or Brits, or any other Western European. They mean the ‘wrong sort of foreigner’, the visually identifiable sort who wears a headscarf or other religious dress, or has black skin. One recurring statement about the gunman who killed 38 tourists on a beach in Sousse on Friday, was that “he didn’t even normally wear Islamic dress”. If you can’t identify a terrorist by their clothes, what can you identify them by? And that’s exactly the crux of the matter. Passengers who spoke out on the Essen bus meant well, but the real challenge of the experiment’s concept would have been to point out that you can’t make judgments about people based on some sort of vague, visual notion of foreignness, of otherness. There are plenty of black Germans and Muslim Germans, there’d be something seriously wrong with society if there weren’t. It’s not ‘us’ standing up for ‘them’, but rather ‘there is no us and them’.
It feels to me as if Germany is going through a painful birth-like process of transitioning into the postmodern, multi-cultural and multi-identity times that we live in, some dragging their feet and hanging onto the old ways by their fingernails, some taking the initiative, jumping and pushing the inert masses towards the future, with much kicking and screaming by all parties along the way. It’s an inevitable and necessary journey. Pegida (the loathsome ‘patriotic Europeans against Islamisation of the West’) and its kind, protests against a new home for asylum seekers in Freital, Saxony – these movements are real, at best embarrassing, at worst fear-inducing on many levels. It’s one thing to stand up to a mild-mannered middle-aged bus conductor; it’s another to confront a horde of slogan-bellowing Neo-Nazis on the warpath. Reassuringly, this happens too. Kudos. It’s outside those refugee camps and buildings that we need the oft-quoted ‘Zivilcourage’, not on a bus in some bogus reality-TV experiment. Germany, it’s hard to keep calm, but you must carry on. The world is watching the places where it matters.
Click here for a local German newspaper report which includes a 2.5 minutes video of the TV show (scroll right down to the bottom of the page).
The full version will be broadcast as part of the new TV programme ‘Quarks und Du’ on 25 August 2015, 9pm GMT+1 (8pm UK time). WDR TV can be viewed online, live and via catchup, here.