Racial profiling by police isn’t just an American problem: I’m experiencing it in Germany

Since New Year's Eve, Germany is talking about racial profiling. But it's not only Cologne, the problem is much bigger. For the German police, it seems to be a part of their daily routine.

von Sandhya Kambhampati

It was a foggy morning in March. I was new to the neighborhood, having moved to Berlin a few days before. My jet lag kept me awake until the early hours of the morning. I needed to clear my head.

I was wearing a black track jacket, a pair of leggings, and my bright purple and orange running sneakers. I heard someone yelling at me on the other side of the track. I remember my headphones getting tangled in my headband as I struggled to pull them out. When the person came closer, I realized it was a police officer.

All I understood was „hello.“ He continued talking in German for a good minute until he realized I didn’t understand.

“Excuse me“, he said. „What are you doing here? Where are you from? Can I see your ID?“

My first thought: Oh, great, I literally just arrived in Germany and a police officer is asking me questions. Am I doing something wrong?

I told him I didn’t carry my ID. All I had were my apartment keys.

He continued to ask me questions: „Where do you live?“ „Why are you here so early?“

I told him I was sorry that I didn’t have my ID and would remember to carry it with me next time.

He told me I should always have my ID on me and left. I continued running, blasting my iPod. I didn’t think much of the encounter at the time. I assumed it was a one-time thing, or maybe there was an ordinance of some sort for running in the park that early in the morning I didn’t know about. As a woman of color, I didn’t think race could be a reason why he stopped me. I just figured it was because I was the only person in the park. I also didn’t think I would encounter the police again for the duration of my 10-month fellowship at Correctiv, an investigative nonprofit newsroom in Berlin, unless I had to talk to them for a story.

When I got back to my apartment I recalled the conversations I’d had with a few people I knew in Berlin about racism in Germany. They told me Berlin was generally safe and that I should avoid the some of the smaller Eastern towns in Germany, where I might run into neo-Nazis. The only checks I could expect were at the U-bahn (public transportation) for my ticket, but not for an ID.

They also told me German citizens by law are required to carry a national ID card, but no one I know had ever been stopped and asked for it, except at the borders and on the train or at the airport. I was told I shouldn’t carry my passport at all times, especially because I might lose it. No one ever mentioned that I could get stopped while running in the park. And when I told these friends about my encounter with the police officer while running, they assured me it was a one-time event. No one thought I would continue to get stopped.

I’ve had my ID checked by the police 23 times in the nine months I’ve lived in Berlin

Nine months and 23 identification checks later, I’m tired of getting asked where I’m from and where my ID is. I’m annoyed by the grocery store security guard asking me if I’m going to purchase the things I have in my cart whenever I stop in the store to think about what else I am forgetting on my list. I’m annoyed by the police officer who picks me out of my group of white friends and asks for my ID. I’m annoyed by the police officer who asks me where I’m going on a Sunday morning walk to the park and asks to see my ID.

These stops have made me question what people see when they look at me. Getting humiliated on the street by authorities has shown me that for some people, I’m just another „brown“ person who could be a terrorist or a criminal. When I show the police officers my passport, they always seem surprised that I’m from the US and not from India because of my skin color and appearance. It’s not only insulting, but it also shows me that their image of what an American person could look like is narrow. I understand that for many people, I might be the first person of color they’ve ever met or seen, but this does not give anyone the right to question my nationality or assume I’m a criminal.

At the beginning I felt ostracized by these encounters, but I’m sad to say I’ve gotten so used to it that I feel despondent. I want to know what can be done to help these officers understand that each time they stop me or another person of color, they are reinforcing the stereotypes we all deal with on a daily basis.

What also worries me is the message this sends to the refugees who have been for the most part welcomed into Germany with open arms. It makes me wonder about how many others are getting stopped and how they are dealing with it. If I feel this angered and hopeless, I can’t imagine what someone who seeks asylum is feeling, especially when they thought they were going to be in a safe place that gave them more respect but instead are singled out for the color of their skin.

My experience with the German police has also made me reassess my attitude toward their role of making sure the country is safe. I don’t really know what my rights are living in Germany and what I can and can’t be asked for. It’s also more difficult for me to answer questions from authorities because I don’t speak German. And because I’ve been stopped for identification so many times and feel targeted, it makes me question if I’m really truly safe. I understand that they might find the suspect for a crime during these ID checks, but it’s hard for me to wrap my head around how people of color can truly trust the police here when they are so often seen as terrorists or criminals.

This experience has helped me empathize and think a lot about how people of color in the US feel when the police target them. I know plenty of people of color who’ve lost trust in the police and don’t know whom to turn to when they witness or are a victim of an actual crime. This is exactly how I feel in Germany. I don’t know if I would trust the police here to believe me when there is a crime happening because some of them have made me feel as if I’m a criminal already.

Getting my ID checked so often makes me question myself

I talked to my colleagues at CORRECTIV — mostly white men — about these ID checks. All of them but one, a Syrian refugee, were shocked. They urged me to tell my story, but at first I was skeptical. They also urged me to request any information the police had recorded on me, because if I was going to tell this story there would be a lot of people coming forward saying this was impossible since they had never experienced such a thing.

I spoke to my fellowship, Knight-Mozilla OpenNews, and they were shocked as well. They had never heard of such a thing happening before — they’d had two fellows in Berlin previously, but the prior fellows weren’t people of color. They urged me to seek out groups to talk to that might have experience with ID checks.

When I reached out to a few people of color I knew in Berlin, they were surprised, but not for the same reason my colleagues and fellowship were. It was because I’m a woman. Normally, they said, these identification checks happen to men of color, especially black men, who are presumed to be drug dealers by the police.

Each time I get checked, I question what I’m wearing or if I’m doing something I shouldn’t be doing. Why me? And each time, I know I shouldn’t ask myself these questions, because I know it clearly has nothing to do with either of those things. It’s gotten to the point where I have a copy of my ID folded so small, it fits in my running clothes so that I have it in case I get stopped.

My life in the United States

I’m a first-generation Indian American. I grew up in a diverse township in New Jersey. I never thought about people singling me out for my skin color or family background. I had my fair share of getting made fun of, especially because I was what they called a „geek.“ I got made fun of for wearing glasses, called „four eyes“, for always having braids in my hair, and for having „weird“ food like idlis for lunch. Looking back, I was naive in thinking that these comments weren’t targeted toward my family background. I didn’t think much about why people said the things they did to me.

I never thought about whether I looked „American“ or „Indian“ while growing up. That changed when I went to college. My college, Ohio University, was in the heart of Appalachia, and I was one of a few Indian Americans on campus. One of my first memories was when a woman in the student resources center spoke really slowly to me until I asked a question. Once she heard me talk and realized I spoke English, she spoke faster.

Another time, while I was working at the TV station on campus, a person in the newsroom told me I needed to put more powder on and have brighter lights because the lights used for everyone else weren’t bright enough for my dark skin. Even worse: The person said this in front of other people, which only reinforced the idea that people of color don’t belong on television. It made me hesitant to want to continue to work toward a goal of being on national TV as a reporter one day. This person also suggested if I wanted to continue doing TV, I should consider shortening my name and getting a name that was „easier to pronounce.“ That was a punch in the gut and made me want to quit journalism.

Several times while I was out reporting, I was told by people I’d interview on the street and in trailer parks, „I don’t speak your language, honey, so don’t bother wasting your time here“, or, „I don’t speak Hindu, sorry.“ I also had a guy pull out his gun when I approached his lawn, after he shouted, „Your kind don’t belong here.“

At first, I was angry at these people. Soon, I felt bad for them because they didn’t know anything else but their small bubble of white people.

The color of my skin was speaking for me. It didn’t matter that I am a US citizen. It was the fact I had a strange name that they choked on to pronounce and prompted them to ask if I had a nickname. And the fact I didn’t look like what they thought was „American“ since they never saw a brown-skinned person in their life.

So living in Germany, I wasn’t completely outraged by the racism, since I’ve experienced different types before. I’ve been trying to pinpoint why I feel ostracized in a different way when I hear racist remarks in the US versus my experience here in Germany. In the US, I just feel bad for people who aren’t educated enough to know what the difference between „Hindi“ and „Hindu“ is and how stupid they sound when they say I don’t belong. Their statements are harsh, but I know they are not true and I can dismiss them.

In Germany, there are no statements made toward me. It’s just a few questions that make me feel invalidated. Both are ways of people making someone else feel like an outsider, but the questioning makes me feel as if there are more fingers pointed at me. If it were questions from ignorant everyday people, I don’t think I’d be as bothered. It’s because this uncertainty is coming from authority figures (like the police) that society tells us to trust and respect. When they are uncertain about me, I’m uncertain about their role to keep people safe and feel like I’m accused of doing something wrong since the questions are so short and accusatory.

How big a problem is racial profiling in Germany?

The third time I got checked, I asked myself: What data are they collecting, and how many other people are having this happen? I can’t just let myself be angry about these checks. I know it can’t just be me. As a journalist, it bothers me that others may be getting hurt in the same way and may not have the experience dealing with racism before.

Germans are very private people and are very cautious about giving out personal information. There is a form anyone can fill out to request the information authorities are storing about them. Curious to see what the police department had on me, I sent in a request and got a note back stating they had no information on me. So why was it that the police officers had a notebook and seemed to be writing down something when they asked me questions?

I followed up this records request to the Berlin police department, who responded saying they don’t racially profile anyone because that’s illegal — and they don’t do illegal things. The police said it only collects information on raids in the so-called „danger zones.“ These danger zones are designated areas the police frequently visit because of high crimes. I also asked for the location of these danger zones. They told me getting this information would be harmful to the police security practices.

I also talked with more than a dozen people of color who’ve also experienced identification checks from the police. I met many of these people through racial profiling advocacy organizations and through friends of friends. A few of the refugees I spoke to told me they felt ostracized coming to a country where they thought they’d be accepted and instead feel as if they don’t belong. They too questioned whether they were wearing something inappropriate or walking on a street they weren’t supposed to. Another man with two young children told me he was stopped and asked if those were his children. His children are mixed black and white and looked, according to the police, „more ‘white’ than ‘black.’“

When I sat down with the Berlin police spokesperson, Thomas Neuendorf, he said he was shocked that I’d been stopped so many times. He said the checks I had experienced could be seen as illegal, since police officers only perform checks on areas where there is a suspicion of crime. He went on to assure me the police only do checks on „people who look suspicious“ because the person fits a profile of someone they are already looking for.

He said the police wouldn’t search a „blond, German-looking person.“ He added that the police force has several people of migrant backgrounds and has intercultural competence trainings to prevent racial profiling from happening. But, he said, training is different from the reality of being a police officer, so they can’t help if someone turns out to be racist despite all the trainings. He apologized on behalf of the department for what I’d experienced.

Hearing the words „German-looking person“ alarmed me. This is the root of the problem. Who comes up with the definition of who looks German or Australian or American or Indian? When are we going to move past this and realize that a person’s skin color does not define their nationality? I also wondered what goes in the intercultural trainings the officers went through. I asked Neuendorf about the words „German-looking person“, and he said he’d used the wrong words and that phrase isn’t what he actually meant.

Still, I know that the dozen people I spoke to are only a small fraction of the number of people experiencing racial profiling in Germany and in Europe. I spoke to the European Commission Against Racism and Intolerance as well as other organizations that have been researching this issue for a while. And I know this answer I’ve gotten from the Berlin police is not acceptable.

This experience made me see how authority figures can reinforce damaging stereotypes

I’m not the only one asking questions. In August, a member of the state parliament in Berlin asked about how the police are handling racial profiling, citing research from Commission Against Racism and Intolerance as well as the United Nations, which had a report on institutional racism by law enforcement in Germany. Similar to what I was told from the police, he was also told the German police departments don’t racially profile.

This experience has opened my eyes to how authority figures can reinforce stereotypes. I empathize with those who feel lost because of accusations and targeting from authority figures. My hope is that by raising awareness about these issues, more people will come forward and tell their story and show people that what they are doing is not acceptable. I also hope people will educate themselves and understand that skin color should not define what nationality they are, especially in a time when we are welcoming people from different backgrounds into our countries.

I’m interested in hearing the stories of people who’ve been profiled by the police. If you’re living in Germany, I want to know where and how the police stopped you and what kind of data the police have collected. I’m doing more interviews in the coming weeks into this subject and want to hear from you. This article originally appeared on vox.com on December 15, 2016.