Producing Ignorance: Racial Knowledge and Immigration in Germany

We are members of knowledge societies, but we live in “an age of ignorance.” We are swimming in “oceans of ignorance” that have been consciously, unconsciously, and structurally produced “by neglect, forgetfulness, myopia, extinction, secrecy, or suppression.”[1] Little wonder, then, that there is also a lot of ignorance about the persistence of racism as a structural phenomenon that orders society in discriminatory ways and racial knowledge as a normalized element of our knowledge societies.

Racism has its own histories in different times and spaces and has to be contextualized in its respective national, regional, local, but also global historical contexts. Today it appears in many forms and shades, from outright murder to microaggressions such as eye-rolling to diminish the Other in concert with ignoring practices, whether by state security personnel or civilian bystanders.

How many people know how refugees live in Germany? Photograph taken inside an asylum seeker’s shelter by an activist of the group Freie Flüchtlingsstadt Mannheim (Open Refugee City Mannheim) in the early 1990s. This image was displayed by the migrant organization Die Unmündigen e.V. (see text box below) in a 2007 photo exhibition about the migration history of Mannheim. Courtesy of Die Unmündigen e.V. Mannheim.

Racial knowledge—apprehending the world through a “racial” lens, “knowing” that categories of difference such as blood, skin color, culture, and religion “other” people in a fundamental way, physically and mentally—has deep roots in modernity.[2] Still with us after the Holocaust, the U.S. civil rights movement, and the dissolution of Apartheid, it can be found in institutional memories and practices, in societal structures and discourses, and in everyday thought and practices. Racism as ideology, systemic structure, and state policy may have been officially renounced, as have the most blatantly racist practices by extremists. Still, racial knowledge persists.

Ignorance and racial knowledge seem to be symbiotic. Ignoring traces of racial knowledge in institutions, structures, practices, and discourses is decisive in preserving and reproducing it in democratic, pluralistic, would-be color-blind and nonracist societies. The transfer and reproduction of racial knowledge is not always intentional; however, it seems to be easier (in some cases even reassuring) to ignore it rather than to throw the spotlight on it. At the same time, racial knowledge structures many fields in and across democratic societies. It is part of a knowledge power structure that wraps the privileges it produces and sustains in layers of ignorance, helping those at the top of racialized hierarchies to ignore the structure they benefit from but don’t want to know about.

What's in a Name? Die Unmündigen
The picture above and the first one below were provided by a migrant association called Die Unmündigen. Someone who is unmündig has not reached maturity and legal adulthood, but the metaphor behind the term relates to voice (Mund = mouth), making the term mean “voiceless” in a legal, political, or even moral sense. More specifically, the term unmündig references Immanuel Kant’s famous essay, “What is Enlightenment?” or “Was ist Aufklärung?,” which begins, “Enlightenment is man’s emergence from his self-imposed nonage [Unmündigkeit, sometimes translated as immaturity]. Nonage is the inability to use one’s own understanding without another’s guidance. This nonage is self-imposed if its cause lies not in lack of understanding but in indecision and lack of courage to use one’s own mind without another’s guidance. Dare to know! (Sapere aude.)…”

Historiography and memory culture contribute to the problem. In Germany, contemporary history as an academic discipline and the country’s considerable remembrance apparatus are fairly proud of their record on racism. Germany even considers itself a world champion in remembrance. Every inch of its extraordinary racist past seems to be examined, assessed, and remembered not only in relation to anti-Semitism and the Shoah but increasingly also in terms of German colonial history. Given the professed anti-racist or nonracist attitude manifest in this academic, political, and social endeavor, it might seem unnecessary to think about racism in Germany as a historical phenomenon after 1945, let alone a phenomenon silenced in significant aspects by this remembrance apparatus itself. Moreover, German historiography does not consider “race” an appropriate analytical concept for studying the practices and discourses that target and produce migrant Others on the basis of origin, culture, or religion.

The nexus of ignorance and racism has to be studied on the intertwined levels of actors and metanarratives because this entanglement seems to render racism against migrant Others invisible in German historiography, even on a conceptual level. Can revisionist history, as critical race theory proposes,[3] counter ignorance by bringing racial knowledge into the light? Can such goals be met by rereading events and documents from this perspective? By listening for counternarratives about discrimination experienced on the grounds of origin? Where should this knowledge—migrant knowledge about racial knowledge—fit in?

One telling example I found in my local research on the immigration history of the city of Mannheim underscores what Mark Terkessidis has labeled “the banality of racism.”[4] It shows how easily racial knowledge and ignorance of this knowledge are produced.

One of the main problems of West Germany’s so-called guest workers in the 1960s and 1970s was housing. The issue was not only their living conditions in work camps or rooms with multiple beds in old buildings situated in derelict parts of the city. Adequate housing was also essential for residence permits. A vast number of labor migrants were raising a family and had already entered an immigration process by that time. The first step in their settlement was to secure decent housing. Yet, the regional government of Baden-Württemberg had been pursuing a severely restrictive immigration policy and had clearly defined what orderly housing had to be. Every foreign inhabitant had to have at least twelve square meters space in an apartment, even children. When a new baby was born to a family, the family had to show they had an apartment with twelve square meters additional space. If they did not, they could be called on to send their child to the “homeland” or they could be deported as family.[5] In 1977, the regulatory office of the city of Mannheim did not extend residence permits in 105 cases involving the addition of family members. Other migrants wishing to bring their spouse and children to Germany faced the same obstacle. They were not allowed to reunite their families, if they did not rent a conforming apartment.[6]

Angelika G., a Greek immigrant, with child in Mannheim, Germany, late 1960s. Families like hers were the target of German Ausländerpolitik or “foreigner policy,” a term as problematic as it sounds. Courtesy of Die Unmündigen e.V. Mannheim.

But housing was scarce, particularly for “foreigners” or Ausländer, as this new societal group was called by the 1970s. A 1971 study observed that more than 50 percent of all migrant workers in Mannheim were looking for new housing.[7] In 1974, 30 to 40 percent of the 2,800 potential clients eligible to rent a city-owned apartment were “foreigners”, although their share of the population was 12 percent.[8] In 1977, the GBG asked the housing office for a reduced allocation of migrants as tenants, “especially fewer Turks,” because German tenants left when too many migrants moved in. The GBG then asked for permission to rent some buildings only to “foreigners” and to reserve other buildings in preferred locations and districts for German tenants. Fearing a public outcry, the housing office refused to concede to this practice. Nevertheless, the housing office often “deliberately turned down the application of foreigners and preferred Germans,” as a letter from the head of the department to the mayor of Mannheim from 1978 reveals.[9]

At the same time, a majority of private landlords did not want to rent to labor migrants either. The notice board where landlords advertised their apartments at the public housing office had a special section marked “no foreigners.” In 1974, the newly assigned city commissioner for foreign inhabitants, Herbert Lidy, criticized this practice as discriminatory and tried to convince the head of the office, Dieter Kronenberger, to end it. Kronenberger declined since in that case most of the landlords would withdraw their offers altogether.[10] This changed in 1978 after a Turkish tenants’ association—the first of its kind in Germany—publicly accused the GBG of renting newer buildings in preferred areas solely to Germans, whereas only unattractive buildings were open to labor migrants, particularly Turks. The association also denounced discriminatory practices in the housing office of the city, especially the “no foreigners” sign on the housing notices board in a public space.

Their open letter caused some discomfort in the city’s traditionally Social Democratic administration. In order to calm tensions, the “no foreigners” sign was eventually removed. Nonetheless, 90 percent of the German landlords, as Kronenberger pointed out in a public meeting of the Coordinating Committee for Foreign Inhabitants, did not want to rent to “foreigners.” Thus, not only the sign was removed but the whole notice board. Henceforth, clients were only offered apartments at the counters.[11]

In this way, discriminatory housing practices remained the same with the even deeper involvement of a public authority. German landlords still did not rent to labor migrants, and the housing office controlled who saw which apartment offerings. Only now the discrimination was hidden, rendered invisible. Those affected by this racist practice were surely aware of it, but the public and actors such as Lidy or members of the Coordinating Committee could easily ignore it.

Such practices helped to produce “ghettos,” as areas with many migrants were labeled in West Germany in the 1970s. Discriminatory practices were decisive for locating the families of labor migrants permanently in quasi segregated districts in town. These developments formed a crucial prologue to the so-called parallel societies that discursively succeeded the ghettos in the 1990s.

German press photographers filed this image from Mannheim in November 1979 under the then somewhat negative-sounding Türkenviertel (Turkish Quarter). Today this neighborhood is a vibrant hot spot whose many restaurants, bars, and bridal shops attract customers even from abroad. Source: Marchivum, Sammlung Bohnert & Neusch: Stadtansichten, Sig. ABBN1141-6-20713-27a.

That the inhabitants of these ghettos isolated themselves by choice in order to preserve their cultures is the underlying assumption of parallel societies, a concept that emerged in Germany in sociology.[12] The concept has been permeated with racial knowledge about the supposed self-segregation of ostensibly backward groups. Renouncing and othering migrants in toto, the notion of parallel societies was a manifestation of the new (cultural) racism of the 1980s and has flourished ever since.

A historiography of contemporary Germany that does not uncover the roots of the social and cultural structures that emerged with labor migration, telling the little stories and incidents involved, spelling out their meaning, helps to stabilize discriminatory structures and preserve racial knowledge. As the American philosopher Linda Martín Alcoff argues, ignoring racism is not a “neglectful epistemic practice but … a substantive epistemic practice in itself.”[13]

Maria Alexopoulou is an assistant professor (akademische Mitarbeiterin ) at the University of Mannheim.


  1. Robert Proctor, “Preface” and “Agnotology: A Missing Term to Describe the Cultural Production of Ignorance (and Its Study),” in Agnotology: The Making and Unmaking of Ignorance, ed. Robert N. Proctor and Londa Scheibinger, (Stanford, CA: Standford University Press, 2008), vii and 3.  ↩
  2. David Theo Goldberg, Racist Culture, Oxford, UK: Blackwell, 1993.  ↩
  3. Richard Delgado and Jean Stefancic, Critical Race Theory: An Introduction, 2nd ed. (New York: New York University Press, 2012), 24–25.  ↩
  4. See Mark Terkessidis, Die Banalität des Rassismus: Migranten zweiter Generation entwickeln eine neue Perspektive (Bielefeld: transcript-Verlag, 2004).  ↩
  5. For example: Ordnungsamt to Ms. Laskari, Marchivum (Mannheim City Archive), Dezernatsregistratur 16/1993, 77.  ↩
  6. Minutes of the Coordinating Committee for Foreign Inhabitants, June 7, 1978, Marchivum, Dezernatsregistratur 16/1993, 5.  ↩
  7. See report of Mannheim’s Statistical Office in Marchivum, Dezernatsregistratur16/1993, 75.  ↩
  8. Minutes of the Coordinating Committee for Foreign Inhabitants, November 21, 1974, Marchivum, Dezernatsregistratur 16/1993, 3.  ↩
  9. All the documents pertaining to this topic can be found in Marchivum, Dezernatsregistratur 34/2003, 154.  ↩
  10. Note from Lidy to Head of Department Watzinger, January 8, 1974, Marchivum, Dezernatsregistratur,16/1993, 76.  ↩
  11. Minutes of the Coordinating Committee for Foreign Inhabitants, September 25, 1978, Marchivum, Dezernatsregistratur, 34/2003, 154.  ↩
  12. Hartmut Esser, “Multikulturelle Gesellschaft als Alternative zu Isolation und Assimilation,” in Die fremden Mitbürger: Möglichkeiten und Grenzen der Integration von Ausländern, ed. Hartmut Esser (Düsseldorf: Patmos Verlag, 1983), 33.  ↩
  13. Linda Martín Alcoff, “Epistemologies of Ignorance: Three Types,” in Race and Epistemologies of Ignorance, ed. Shannon Sullivan and Nancy Tuana (Albany, NY: Sunny Press, 2007), 39.  ↩