I have heard now more times than I can count, during conversations highlighting how special Berlin is, that our beloved city is “not Germany.” This is similar to those people (myself included) who claim New York is “not the United States,” or London is “not Britain.” This statement, as I read it, is meant to highlight the diversity and open-mindedness of large, metropolitan areas. These areas stand in stark contrast to what is perceived as backwards, homogenous, and close-minded village or rural communities. But by claiming that city x is not country y, we are implying that these homogenous and perhaps socially conservative spaces are somehow more representative of the country at large.*
Why do we keep saying this? I have certainly said it of New York, mostly in defense of anti-American sentiments. In an attempt to save my own face I emphasize all the ways New York City is “not America.” But why should all the things I love about New York not be representative of the US as a whole? The same goes for Germany, my adoptive country: why should Berlin – which we have all agreed is special – not offer a particular vision of Germany? Perhaps it is these spaces with their multi-culturalism, multi-lingualism, and malleable identities that should really be the face of the country. What they show us is that the “nation” as represented by village culture – which most urban inhabitants realize is old-school – is not desirable. It is not a sustainable model for the future.
One of the most exciting things about Berlin – besides clubbing – is the fact that it is home to people with a number of cultural and ethnic backgrounds. The most predominant minority group, if we are going with that appellation, is the Turkish community. At the present moment, numerous debates and discussions are being fueled (as they have been FOREVER in Germany. Remember Jews?) about what constitutes a “German.” Many individuals with Turkish roots (or those with what the Germans like to call Migrationshintergrund – Migration background – which implies that all non-whities come from somewhere else) are not welcome into the German fold. I know the more radical-minded could and will argue that even the suggestion of national identity is dangerous and unnecessary and that we need to think beyond these borders, but the reality is that we live in a world where people are keen to be part of a group. National identity provides one such opportunity for belonging. The problem lies more with traditional requirements for membership.
What needs to change, however, is this perception that members of a particular country are supposed to look the same, share the same historical memory, have pictures of ancestors wearing one particular funny costume. We don’t all need to be related to cohabitate a country. I think cities like Berlin, which offer a version of Germany that includes migration histories, people with genetic variation, diverse family histories, and different tea-time customs are much richer places with more solutions for long-term global-scale cohabitation. To maintain that the village, where certain families have lived for centuries and where most if not all the faces are white, is somehow representative of the “authentic” country is to uphold the rather racist notion that in this country we are all meant to look like that (white).
Rather than claim that Berlin is not Germany because it is cool, multikulti, and in touch with so many towns and cities across the globe, I would rather consider it a more appropriate representation. This thought came to me when I was thinking about these German villages strewn about the land where many inhabitants have never seen a non-white face before. (Or so they claim) And somehow these people, who’ve supposedly never seen or talked to someone whose family came from Turkey, or Vietnam, or Syria, or what have you, are supposed to be the most German of Germans is an absurd idea. An American who has never met a Jew or Latin@ is not somehow “more American” because they’ve remained in their bubble of forged traditions. Most places are not homogenous. And by half-joking that these rural places populated with white families (as though white people have even remained in one place forever!) are more “pure” is not only a dangerous but also an incredibly silly way of thinking.
* I would like to emphasize that my use of urban v. rural in this context is limited to my understanding of NW-European and North American places. Other distinctions and demands are required for countries that have, for example, found themselves victims of colonial rule. I am focusing here on the “global north.”