I lived in Kreuzberg, a poorer neighborhood of West Berlin that was a haven to artists. Kreuzberg was also full of Turkish Gastarbeiter, guest workers who had helped rebuild Germany after World War II but then “outstayed their welcome” by having children who became citizens under Germany’s birthright citizenship laws. This conflict was as old as the metics of ancient Athens and as fresh as the “dreamers” and DACA students of the 21st-century United States. Many more lessons on racism in those days, but I resisted it rather than passively letting it seep into my brain.
I had a German girlfriend and we regularly visited her parents on their farm in the village of Kisdorf in the Schleswig-Holstein region of West Germany. On one visit, in 1978, the nine-and-a-half-hour, American mini-series Holocaust aired on the WDR network over the course of four evenings. Panel discussion with historians and other experts followed each evening’s episodes. My girlfriend’s siblings and their partners and I all wanted to watch. Her parents, who had both lived through the war, had very different responses. O—, the mother, ran from the room, almost crying, insisting that these constant reminders of the Holocaust were unfair. After all, she had not been involved and didn’t she know some Jewish people and hadn’t she been perfectly nice to them while they were still around. B—, the father, said that he would watch with us. Hmm. B— was an uneducated farmer and one of the kindest people you could ever meet, but in his youth he had bought into the Nazi propaganda, enlisted in the Wehrmacht, and only escaped death on the Russian Front—according to family legend—by missing his troop transport train and, not knowing what else to do, walking back to the farm. B—’s viewing of Holocaust was somewhat comical. The program aired late at night, and after 9pm, the 68-year-old dosed in and out. He seemed to waken whenever anyone in the show said something about “the greatness of Germany,” then resumed his snoring whenever the Jews were being boarded onto trains for the death camps.
In “Fear of the Past? Notes on the Reaction to Holocaust,” the historian Julius H. Schoeps described similar responses in households across Germany. WDR had set up phone banks to take viewers’ calls during the broadcast. Some callers expressed latent anti-Semitism, making claims that the program had been financed by Jews, or was broadcast as a way to disparage the German people. A few callers were more overt, denying the Holocaust or claiming that the Jews were to blame for it. But as the mini-series progressed, as Germans of the post-war generation kept watching, most of the calls expressed sadness, consternation, shame, and guilt. “How could it have come to that?” viewers asked again and again. According to Schoeps:
"After four evenings … after roughly 10,000 incoming telephone calls … something was set in motion … More than just a few became aware for the first time that they had repressed the murder of the Jews that was committed in the name of the German people and had previously avoided dealing with the past. Did the Hollywood film “Holocaust” signal a turning point in these attitudes? Only the future will tell."
In 2000, the German television station ZDF produced a documentary called Holokaust, amid a fresh surge in anti-Semitic and racist hate crimes.
Subtle racist indoctrination was everywhere. Not just television and the movies. It was also being transmitted in school.
Colonial Hills Elementary, fourth grade class of Mrs. D—. Before interactive educational computer programs, pedagogy ran on flash cards. Mrs. D— had flash cards for everything. One set had silhouettes of all the states in the Union. Another had all the countries in the world. See the shape, guess the right country, and get a shot of dopamine to the nucleus accumbens, the pleasure center of the brain. Capital cities and major crops and industries were listed on the back of these cards for extra points. I was a master of any and all flash cards. Without realizing it, I was also a slave to the rewards (approval, love) that their correct answers promised. Mmmm, dopamine.
In the pre-Powerpoint era, flashcards also served as presentational tools. One day, Mrs. D— was presenting cards that showed “families of the world.” There was a photo of a Japanese family in which everyone wore a kimono. A family from an unspecified country in Africa wore dashiki. A generic Arab family had the men in burnous with the women in hijab. Everything was going well until she got to a card depicting a white family. The father in the family wore a grey suit with straight lines. The mother wore a pleated skirt with petticoats. The daughter dressed like the mother, but the son wore dungarees and a striped shirt that let you know he was made of “snips and snails and puppy dog tails.” As she flipped through the flash cards, Mrs. D— provided minimal commentary.
“This is a Japanese family,” she said.
“This is an African family.”
“This is an Arab family.”
“And this is a normal family.” You could almost hear the brakes in her mind screeching to a halt. “Oh, no,” she corrected herself. “I mean, this is an American family.”
There is something beautiful about the way my fourth-grade teacher caught herself in her own normative bias, recognized the problem, and attempted to redirect the attention of her young charges. All of the families were “normal,” she must have realized, and she didn’t want to give her students the idea that American families are more normal than others. What was the point of having “families of the world” flash cards if not to teach intercultural understanding and diversity? Of course, I don’t recall Mrs. D— using those phrases. The fact that she caught and corrected herself is likely the only reason that I remember this episode, but the memory is so vivid that I can smell the mimeographed worksheets and waxy crayons in the room; I can feel the cool linoleum floor where we sat on cushions watching the “families of the world” flash by. I’m sure I must have been wearing dungarees and a striped shirt as I watched. My family had been “normal” for a split second, then we became American.
This ridiculous set of flash cards is so rife with racism that it’s almost impossible to figure out what to unpack first. The depiction of families in “native costumes” is a good beginning. Were we meant to believe that everyone in Japan only wore kimonos? The costumes were bright and exotic and grabbed our attention, but where was the harm in showing Japanese businessmen wearing grey suits with straight lines as they rode the high-speed rail to work? Or the school uniforms that Japanese children wore? Or what the children wore when they weren’t at school? This wasn’t feudal Japan in the age of the samurai for God’s sake! This was 1967, when many Japanese people shared the Western fashion choices of Americans. That idea is problematic, too, but at least it represented contemporary culture. And an “African family”? Not a family from Benin or Zimbabwe or Tunisia? Did the creators of “families of the world” flash cards believe that nine-year-olds were so unsophisticated that they couldn’t grasp different people from different countries? Benin is a country that is shaped like Vermont. Zimbabwe is shaped like Ohio. Tunisia is shaped like New Jersey. And Africa, which is a continent and not a country, is shaped like … well, Africa! I learned to distinguish all of this from the flash cards produced by the same company that made “families of the world.” If I could differentiate all of those countries and states, why didn’t they trust me with more nuanced depictions of people!?
The most infuriating piece was that Americans were depicted as white and upper middle class. The family on that flash card came right out of central casting for every TV sitcom of the 1950s. I didn’t know anything about Japan or Africa, but even I knew that there were all kinds of ways that an American family might look. The racist subtext of these flash cards seeped into my brain. But, thanks to my teacher’s slip-up, I also started to carry the tiniest nugget of discomfort about what the school was feeding me. I began to “question the dominant paradigm,” as I would later say in grad school. I was on my way to ... something.