What's it like to be Mixed Race? Print
Articles - Mixed Race Matters
Monday, 14 September 2009 20:37

On this day May 10, 1940, Hitler begins his Western offensive with the radio code word "Danzig," he sends his forces into Holland and Belgium. In the mean time in the UK The Labour Party, British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain resigns after losing support. Sounds familiar, however, on same day Sir Winston Churchill accedes to the office, becoming defense minister. A little bit of history to remind us that the relationship between Germany and Holland has not always been great and still memories of that very day hide behind the little streets of Holland. 59 years later and now these little towns and streets have new neighbors.

 

I thought we should take a look at two of our European Neighbours across the water - Germany and Holland - not always best friends, understandably so, but time moves on and so do we. Alice is Ghanaian and German, Teddy is Dutch and Ghanaian, they both spent time in Ghana during their teens and have chosen to live and work in their mother's native country. However similar both countries might be their political back grounds are entirely different. I will not even endeavor to discuss Dutch Colonization and the struggles of colonialism, it is blatantly apparent over and over again - through history, literature and cinema - that the indigenous people who were being subjected to colonization have difficulty maintaining and perpetuating their identities, language and culture. This is evident in Asia, Africa and Netherlands West Indies or Dutch Antilles/West Indies. There is no sequence of events in understanding the history of German colonialism over the past decade; there colonial past has experienced a dramatic transformation in its scope of enquiry. Influenced by new practical and academic approaches to the study of race, nationalism, and globalization, these new studies initiate a process of re-evaluating and redefining the parameters within which German Colonialism is understood. My intentions however remain clear, cause and effect therefore I shall not to deviate into the history of Dutch and German Colonization or its political agenda either; rather take a softer approach and capture and observe their souvenirs' acquired.

 

Here we have two people of mixed race, Alice and Teddy, both around the same age early 40's they have both lived in their fathers’ country Ghana and are familiar with both cultures.

 

The town Alice lives in a town in Germany which has a very high percentage of Turkish nationals (over 30%), followed by Italian nationals (over 12%) and Polish nationals (over 7%). That would,, theoretically, make for a corresponding number of mixed race children, but they do not stand out since they all have the same skin color. Naturally, people with a different skin color would stand out more. Increasingly, I see people I would describe as "African-looking", but I have no way of guessing the percentage

 

Due to its history as a base for American soldiers during WW2, the population of this town is "used to" seeing darker-skinned people. From what I hear of the social mores at that time (40s/50s), women who had darker-skinned babies were shunned because they'd had a dalliance with dark-skinned soldiers who then went back to America. But at that time, any unmarried woman with a child was not made very welcome. I imagine that life for them (and subsequently for the children) must have been difficult.

 

Teddy lives in Holland, a nice town called Den Haag, the number of mixed race people could amount to maybe around the 3% or 4%. The Hague (with capital T; Dutch: Den Haag, officially also - Gravenhage) is the third largest city in the Netherlands after Amsterdam and Rotterdam, with a population of 482,742 (as of December 31, 2008) (population of agglomeration: 1,000,000) and an area of approximately 100km². As well as being the political centre of the Netherlands, The Hague is also an international city of peace and justice.

 

ALICE

This is Alice's personal view in her own words of where she lives and her perception of changes around people of color living in Germany. TA

 

I cannot say how it is in other towns but there have been reports in the news that people in former East Germany are much less friendly (assault, battery) towards people of (obvious) non-German origin. I am glad that we live in a relatively peaceful town. There are "Skins" (Skinheads, politically nationalistic, racist), but, knock on wood, I have not encountered any. Nor would I wish to.

 

As far as I can make out, there are quite a few ministers with obvious non-German names, but I do not know how high the percentage is. I have not seen any darker-skinned ones, though. Nor have I seen darker-skinned news readers/anchormen on television. In the media, there are some actresses and actors and I see a few darker-skinned presenters either hosting shows like MTV or rainbow press programmes. One or two present short information shows or the weather forecast on secondary (i.e. not the main 10) channels. Which brings up the question: do they not want to or would there be an outcry? I fear that viewers might not react positively. Pity, because when one asks people the tenor is almost always: 'we have nothing against darker-skinned people. But such things take time'.

 

I cannot say whether the general populace in Germany is (still) racist toward mixed marriages. My ex-husband's family was friendly to me, but there were some barriers, too. His sister's boyfriend was Spanish/Polish and I felt he was accepted more than I. Maybe because he was a man? Or maybe I just didn't feel at home because my personality does not like to be fitted in a pre-carved niche?

 

There was only one reference to my origins that I can remember:

 

I was discussing the wedding with my now ex- mother-in-law. The topic was that one does not only invite the guests to a restaurant after the ceremony at the registry, one also invites them home for coffee and cake. I thought that since the invitation was also for a tour the following day in a nostalgic tram, one could do the coffee and cake thing during the tour. My ignorance.... I was told that that is not the way it was done here. After all, we were not in Africa. At which point I said if we were in Africa, the wedding would take up to five days and I would need at least three dresses for each day. End of discussion.

 

But everything went well and even though the tram tour was unconventional, all said it was a great idea.

 

What's it like being mixed race in Germany? Hmm.... I can only say that I personally have had hardly any problems. Or maybe I do not look for them? I like to avoid conflict. When I came to live here in the early 80s, I tried a little experiment on the tram which I took to school every day. One day, I dressed in trousers and Bata Kari (North Ghanaian dress - actually for men, but I like the strip-woven cloth), had my hair in lots of braids and slouched on the seat, my attitude more one of "so who cares?". I was given some looks. No-one sat opposite me. The next day, I dressed in a neat costume-like skirt, buttoned my blouse all the way to the top, had my hair in a neat chignon, sat up straight with my hands on my bag on my lap, my attitude more one of "sorry I forgot my knitting". Friendly looks, an elderly lady sat opposite me. Coincidence? Maybe. Maybe not, But I do believe that the way one is treated also has to do with one's behavior. And that should not be based on what race one is. All peoples have "please" and "thank you" in their vocabulary. Politeness may vary according to culture, but rudeness, I would say, is generally frowned upon, or not? Unfortunately, one rotten apple can spoil the whole barrel, so no matter how much some might try to blend in, if there was first one negative incident involving someone with the same skin color/tattoo/clothing/nationality, then people will make a connection based on this one obvious similarity. If the majority of incidents are of a positive nature, then the reaction might not be that strong.

 

As a child I always thought it would be better to live in Germany as one could buy everything one wanted, but in retrospect, I am very glad I had the opportunity to grow up in Ghana (from age 2 to age 20).

 

I was two years old when I went to Ghana with my German mother and saw my Ghanaian father for the first time. Their marriage was a so-called rocky one. I don't know whether the problems were mainly due to the different cultural backgrounds (misunderstanding thereof) or whether their personalities just didn't get on well. Probably, a mixture of both. I do know that as a child, I divided my world into people like my mother (white), people like my father (black), and people like me (children). Since the grown-ups didn't seem to be having a good time with each other and I wasn't too happy about being caught up in it, I think I made my friends in my family. I'm still in weekly touch (more often, if possible) with my first "brothers" whom I met when I was two-and-a-half and my first "sister" whom I met when I was 4 and lots of my playmates.

 

My daughter's father is white, so she is one-quarter Ghanaian and very light-skinned. We live in Germany. She says in the large town in which we live, she does not feel stared at, but in my mother's village she does feel stared at. My daughter has been to Ghana a number of times and it used to bother her that she is called "white" there. But now, at age 17, she's not bothered by that anymore. She says she feels German. Whatever that means. I cannot relate to that.

 

I feel I have more than one mentality. A German one, a Ghanaian one and my very own. Sounds schizophrenic, I suppose. Which one do I use? It depends on the situation. I probably compromise a lot but I'm not sure since I don't go analyzing everything I do all the time. But I get on well with all of me, generally.

 

I refuse to give up one in favor of or to the detriment of the other.

 

Sometimes I describe myself as being neither meat nor fish. This seems to worry my teenage daughter who feels this means I do not "belong" anywhere. I have assured her that this is not so. Some reactions have been more on the lines of "poor thing, not knowing what you are" but: I have a choice: I can either feel sorry, that I am neither meat nor fish (this would not really accomplish anything) or I can accept it as an unchangeable fact and live my life as best I can. It sounds so easy here but I must admit that it took me a while to come to this conclusion. Helped along by more or less subtle nudges in this School of Life for which I am grateful.

 

TEDDY

How are mixed race people perceived in Holland? This I think is two fold. The superior part, they are perceived as colored and thus non-Dutch, obviously, but very much welcomed by most. I think with the older generation, you would have some holdback, so as not to use a too harsh word like racism etc. But even though, from my interactions with people over the last 20 years, I haven't felt too much resentment.

 

However Argentinean-born Princess Maxima and her husband Prince Willem Alexander, the heir to the Dutch throne, have three mixed race daughters. There are two positions as State Secretaries in Parliament held by two people from a minority group, but they are not mixed race. I am sure that somewhere in one of the local governments offices of a city, there will be someone from a mixed marriage.

 

The majority of Dutch people are not racist, I think there are a few here and there, but due to the multicultural nature of the Dutch, I have a strong feeling that "The Dutch" are not racist towards mixed marriages.

 

I have been asked what is it like being mixed race in Holland. I think the answer to this question is better answered from an attitude point of view. Generally, a person from mixed race is not always easy to differentiate from someone from say Aruba, or Turkey or anywhere else outside Holland for that matter. So if the person is light skinned, people may perceive them as colored. Here is where the attitude of the person makes the difference. I think the people are very much accepted into society.

 

There are many mixed race marriages in Holland, which are still going strong, but many also fail due to cultural and attitude differences. In these cases, like always, I think the children may find themselves caught in the middle of to which race do they belong.

 

I am a product of a mixed marriage, my father being Ghanaian and my mother Dutch/Indonesian. In the Netherlands (Holland) there are tons of people who are Indonesian mixed with Dutch/European bearing in mind that at one time Indonesia used to be a Dutch colony.

 

European-Indonesian mixed people are called 'indo' here and even have our own flag. I was born and grew up in Ghana and have now spent as much time in Europe as I had spent in Ghana. I grew up in Ghana in the second generation of mixed marriages, so to speak, but it was still pretty new. Locals would pick you out knowing the one of your parents was white (most likely your mom) and they would approach you as such, mostly for an economic reason. But growing up in school, I didn't know better and was accepted (as far as I can tell and remember) and accepted my Ghanaian friends too. I cannot say I had experienced any bad situations based on my color. And if I did, I either missed it or didn't focus too much on it. Maybe one or two jealousy situations in boarding school where a senior would pick on you because you could swim better than him and he would attribute that to color. I remember one swimming case, where I was asked to organize a swimming open-day since our school was the only one with a swimming pool. So I tried to get as many people as possible to take part and when the day came, we had 2 "blacks". The rest were mixed race. To this day, I don't remember noticing it, but someone did mention it to me later as me being racist. I slapped the person and left it at that.

 

Coming to Holland right after High-school, I spent the first 3 or 4 years trying to fit in to school and learn hard. I wasn't really focused on my color being different and I remember one or two situations where I was not allowed into a club or disco. The excuse being it was too full. If that was because I was colored/black/mixed race whatever term you want to use, I don't know and never followed through. I think a lot has to do with attitude and also the fact that the Dutch have gone through a 'crash course' in being a multicultural society. Up until the '50s, Holland was pretty much "White". it was right after that that people from the colonies and southern Europe started coming in. So I think by the time I came to the country in the late 80s, the people have become very tolerant towards "non-whites". In the 90s, government policy has also helped push 'people of color' and thus mixed race people into different positions. Some of these policies have worked, some have not, but I think Holland is doing very well compared to other European countries.

 

As for me, I'm enjoying being from a mixed marriage. I can fit in to both societies whenever I please. The best of both worlds.....that's the attitude one should have.

______________

 

I would like to thank Alice and Teddy for their honest personal views and input.

 

It is my view that gender also places a strong part in the perception of life as a person of mixed race it highlights many different experiences thought-out their lives for so many different reasons. Women marry into a family, so whatever the dominate part of this family entails, the women is powerless to a certain extent. If the women is single and bears children, she carries the stigma of being of mixed race and a single mum, or visa versa being white with a mixed child/ren. This stigma can effect the economic growth of the single parent family and also affect the children in various ways, education, identity and sense of belonging. However on a positive note this also creates those progressive people who strive to succeed no matter what and eventually do. I often worry about the ones that drop alone the wayside of which I am sorry to say there are still so many.

Tenee Attoh May 2009

 

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