There is a growing obsession in Austria and Germany with ethnic backgrounds. They use a term that is supposed to encompass everyone who has a different ethnic background: ‘Migrationshintergrund’, or loosely translated, ‘migration (in the) background’. But this term only refers to whether or not there has been a geographical relocation within the biography of an individual (i.e. migration). It does not state, however, from where the journey started.
Not long ago, I went on a journey myself. Two weeks ago, I boarded a plane to Detroit, and after arriving in Ohio, my final destination, I spent a few days filling out one form after another. In order to be able to work and get paid in the US, one has to have a social security number. And in order to get a social security number, I had to fill out several forms. Many of them asked me to tick a box next to adjectives which describe my ethnic background: African American, Latino, Asian, Caucasian, Mixed, Other. When I asked the friendly clerk at the US Social Security Administration why this information was asked of me, I was told that they collected this mainly for statistical reasons. Then she shrugged her shoulders, laughed and handed me a piece of paper that confirmed that I had applied for a social security number. While I was stuffing the confirmation into my rucksack – struggling because of the weird size of the paper (it did not really fit into an A4 size folder) – the police officer at the entrance started talking to me in German. He said that he enjoyed his time in Germany so much that he is happy whenever he hears people speaking German. I asked why he was in Germany and where. He replied that he was a soldier at a military base in Bremen. I said that I heard that Bremen was nice. He nodded vehemently. Then we said goodbye.
I found his reaction to me remarkable – he didn’t ask me where I was ‘really from’. My reaction to him, on the other hand, I find worrying. As soon as he started talking to me, I noticed that I got tense. My shoulders and my back stiffened, and I took a step back from where he was sitting, as if I expected a (verbal) attack. I expected him, I admit, to inquire about my ‘heritage’. Everyone else does.
Why does this question bother me? Why do I find it offensive? One of my cousins spent most of his adult life in Los Angeles, but he grew up in South Korea and loves talking about Seoul. When people ask him about his home town, he could go on forever. And it was better not to interrupt him, as he would take any interruption personally. My mother still loves talking about Korea (the North and the South, her Korea is not divided), although by now she has lived in Austria longer than in South Korea.
As a student I got very angry when I was asked about my supposed home country. And you could bet your life on it, people would start a conversation with me about Korea and would end the conversation with either a statement or a question about the same topic. Back then, this behaviour seemed odd to me. I couldn’t understand why people insisted on talking to me about a country I knew so little about. My parents had never insisted on turning me or my brother into good Koreans. On the contrary, for them it was important that we learned „from the West’. And here I was, suddenly an expert on the place I left when I was two years old.
Today, I am more understanding. I have come to terms with the fact that most of the people only see the Korean in (or rather on) me when they look at me. They don’t even see my face. A friend’s friend once apologized and said that he just can’t distinguish Asians (he meant East Asians, obviously). He is almost eighty years old, well-travelled though, and I admit, I was offended by his confession. Just a few weeks ago, I watched a short video about Prosopagnosia (face blindness). A man who suffers from this disorder said that he has trouble recognizing people he talked to just a second ago. ‘You have to imagine it to be like this’, he said. ‘To be face blind is as if you are in Asia and you can’t distinguish the faces. They all look the same to you’. The video was from 2016. The interviewee was 50 years old, at most. The film was made in Switzerland.
‘They all look the same’ is code for: ‘I only see your ethnicity. I don’t see anything else. I do not see you as an individual. I only see you as a member of the Asian race’.
To be denied your individuality is – to say the least – annoying.
So far, I have identified (roughly) two ways of being colour blind: (1) The well-meaning kind. If you work in the Arts, you have no choice: You have to deny the idea of race, otherwise you will be looked upon as a nationalist, a racist, maybe even a Nazi. (Or a Trump.) (2) The blinded-by-colour kind. After they have seen the colour of someone’s skin, some people don’t see anything else. They only see colour. Sometimes the differences between (1) and (2) are miniscule. Sometimes people from both groups only see colour. By denying my ethnic background completely, they react only to my ethnicity – like the friend of a friend, who went on talking about Korea for an entire evening, until I finally pretended that I had an early appointment the next day and had to leave.
The question of colour is making its comeback in Europe. Every time a politician is winning votes by insisting on the insuperability of ‘cultural differences’. Every time a political party is growing stronger by demonizing those who are supposedly a threat to their values, homogeneity being one.
Europe does not only have a refugee crisis. It is suffering from acute racism. Attaching to everyone, who does not look Caucasian but lives in Europe a ‘Migrationshintergrund’, is racist – even if it is meant well.