There’s a message scrawled on the wall of my apartment building. The shorthand is crude, almost illegible, but the size of the graffiti more than compensates. I pass by it everyday, usually dismissing it as a minor nuisance.
Occasionally, I choose to interpret the message as an explicit warning, to be cautious and wary of my surroundings. In big, accusing letters, the graffiti reads 'Nigger raus!'
I’m no stranger to nativism, xenophobia nor even to racism. In fact, I’d say I’m quite difficult to offend. Growing up in cosmopolitan cities on both sides of the Atlantic has left me largely immune to the truculence of elderly bigots and mistrustful strangers.
Austria, however, has presented me with new challenges.
From my first days in Austria, approximately a year ago, I’ve been made to feel like an unwelcome element. Whether I wear a three-piece suit or jeans and a t-shirt, the reactions are almost invariable—suspicious looks, insulting comments, and body language that implies distrust.
Of course, the problem exists everywhere—all humans suffer from a propensity for tribalism. For hundreds of thousands of years, we travelled in small bands of foragers and hunters. So the tendency to define oneself by allegiance to the “ingroup” and opposition to “outgroups” has become hardwired into our cognitive profile.
But Austria stands apart, in my experience, due to the incognisance of its discrimination.
Especially in smaller towns, but even in Vienna, I’ve been shocked to witness explicit bigotry committed by people who would vociferously deny being racist. And often times, their cognitive dissonance goes unchallenged.
Chris Stephan, an Austrian stand-up comedian, quickly comes to mind. His idea of a friendly hoax was to dress up in black-face and follow Kim Kardashian, recently wed to Kanye West, around the Vienna Opera Ball.
Despite the historic connection between black-face and offensive minstrel shows, Stephan claimed he isn’t racist. His excuse— “I’m part- Arab”—only underscores his ignorance of what racism is.
Andreas Moelzer, an Austrian former MEP, provides another example. After decrying the European Union as a “conglomerate of negroes,” and after receiving some political backlash, Moelzer admitted that his comments may have been “nonconformist” or “politically incorrect,” but they certainly weren’t racist.
In my experience, a great deal of Freedom Party (FPÖ) voters are equally capable of the same intellectual jiujitsu.
Do Austrians fully understand what constitutes a racist remark or action? I’m often left in doubt.
ZARA (Zivilcourage und Anti-Rassismus-Arbeit), an NGO which monitors racism in Austria, identified 731 racist incidents in 2013, 53 of which were graffiti. The majority of these incidents occurred in the public sphere—a comment by a politician, an unjust arrest, or an indiscriminate attack.
Oft-times, the people responsible for the racist acts avoid any consequences because the act isn’t considered sufficiently offensive.
Less than a month ago, I found myself seated on the U6, headed for Floridsdorf to visit a video game store owned by a friend. I was traveling directly from work, carrying a briefcase and wearing a suit. Seated directly across from me was an older woman, somewhere in her 60s.
For the duration of five U-Bahn stations, she stared at me without pausing to gaze elsewhere. She fixed her eyes on my clothing, scrutinised my posture, and analysed my face.
Having suffered enough of her unwanted attention, I stared back and asked, “Kann ich Ihnen helfen?” ("Can I help you?")
Her response was as quick as it was shocking: “Ich habe noch nie einen Affen in einem Anzug gesehen.” ("I've never before seen a monkey in a suit.")
Restraining myself, I simply smiled and leaned back into my seat. I was certainly taken aback by the flagrant insult, but what really shocked me was the sheepish reaction of the other passengers. Enough people had heard the remark, and yet no one uttered a word of protest.
Some people were still staring at me—expecting a violent backlash, perhaps. Otherwise, the cabin was as silent as a crypt.
In the West, we often castigate other cultures for failing to address the extremism in their midst. A notable example is the constant appeal to moderate muslims to condemn acts of terrorism. But by that same token, we should feel encouraged to address our own demons. In particular, the rise of the extreme right and nationalists in Europe.
Thankfully, I often see signs of a political counterpoise, but is enough being done?
Something that happened last week gave me a modicum of hope. The sign that I pass by everyday, the one which reads “Nigger raus,” was recently defaced by an anonymous Samaritan. The word “Nigger” was replaced with “Nazi.”