More or less open racism

They are desperately sought after and yet they still face discrimination: teachers with a migrant background are often regarded as "exotic" at German schools. According to a recent study, all that many of these teachers want is normality. By Anke-Martina Witt

By Anke-Martina Witt

Saraya Gomis is a teacher at one of Berlin's "problem" schools. She does not want to talk about her age or where her parents come from, as she sees these details as a source of potential prejudice and clichés. "It's enough to say that I am a black woman," she says. And as the only black teacher at her school, she is frequently regarded as "exotic". Experts estimate that although the number of students with a migrant background is constantly rising, the number of teachers with a migrant background accounts for only between one and five per cent of all teachers.

"My students like diversity," observes Gomis. A black pupil once said to her that she didn't even realise that black people could become teachers. "I want to show them that they can achieve everything, regardless of where they come from," she says. Her students have long since stopped regarding her as exotic.

"You blacks tend to be funny"

It is a different story, however, with certain parents, relates Gomis. "Many mothers and fathers came to my first parent-teacher meeting, because they wanted to see a black teacher," she recalls. Of course, this could be regarded in a positive light; the parents were simply interested. "Yet, many parents even went out of their way to touch me in order to prove that they weren't racists." In this way, acts performed with the best of intentions can quickly turn into discrimination, she says.

She has also experienced more or less open racism in the staffroom. "Not one of my colleagues is a committed racist," concedes Gomis. Their actions and remarks are much more subtle. For instance, she has heard comments like "we whites tend to be more intellectual, while you blacks tend to be more funny."

Saraya Gomis (photo: Anke-Martina Witt)
Als schwarze Lehrerin wird Saraya Gomis meist mit offenen und versteckten Vorurteilen und Klischees konfrontiert. "Ihr Schwarzen seid eben eher lustig", musste sie sich schon mal im Lehrerzimmer anhören.

Part of everyday life at school

These are not just the isolated experiences of Saraya Gomis. Aysun Kul is currently conducting research at the University of Bremen on the experiences of student teachers with and without a migrant background. "A student teacher with a Turkish background reported that a colleague once asked her if she was allowed to marry a German," recalls the 37-year-old researcher. "This might have been just a harmless question, but it is highly questionable that this is an appropriate way of establishing first contact."

In one of the first Germany-wide studies on the topic of "diversity in the classroom", researchers Viola B. Georgi, Lisanne Ackermann and Nurten Karakaş set out four years ago to study discrimination against teachers with a migrant background. The researchers evaluated 200 questionnaires and conducted 60 biographical interviews. 

The result was that more than 22 per cent of these educators reported having experienced discrimination and racism during the normal school day. "This discrimination occurs at various levels," explains Viola B. Georgi, director of the Centre for Inclusion in Education at the University of Hildesheim. Comments are made about a teacher's accent, for example, or they have to put up with insinuations about their religion.

Reduced to a "special role"

Yet, the picture remains ambiguous. The other side of the coin is that the majority of those questioned stated that they have experienced a great deal of acceptance, recognition, and esteem from their colleagues. "Teachers with a migrant background are often also appreciated for the role they can play as bridge builders, for example, helping out as interpreters during talks with parents," reports Georgi. Many are happy to take on this role. Problems, however, occasionally do arise.

"They don't want to be reduced to this special role alone," observes the researcher. First and foremost, teachers are responsible for all the children, and this is equally the case for teachers with a migrant background. Aysun Kul confirms this viewpoint. "It all depends on how the teachers see themselves and on how great a role their migrant background plays for them," she asserts. "Some of them simply want to be teachers, without any focus on their backgrounds."

Wissenschaftlerin Nurten Karakaş; Foto: Anke-Martina Witt
Zwischen Kampfgeist und Resignation: Lehrer reagieren ganz verschieden auf Vorurteile, beobachtet Nurten Karakaş, die zurzeit zu dem Thema promoviert.

More sensitivity among teachers needed

The teachers involved in the study deal with their experiences of discrimination in a variety of ways, reports Nurten Karakaş, who is currently working on this topic for her doctoral dissertation. "Some say, now more than ever it is time to deal with this topic in schools," explains Karakaş. Others prefer to remain silent or attempt to justify themselves.

Nevertheless, all of the education experts agree that schools should employ more teachers with a migrant background. The diversity in the classroom should also be mirrored in the staffroom, they say; only then can linguistic, cultural and religious differences be truly perceived as the norm. 

Saraya Gomis also feels that there is an obligation on teachers without a migrant background. "We also need 'white, German' teachers who have received transcultural training and who are aware of the issue of discrimination."

Anke-Martina Witt

© Deutsche Welle 2014

Translated from the German by John Bergeron

Editor: Aingeal Flanagan/