What are racism and discrimination?

The following definitions are not exhaustive, but rather are the result of BDB’s many years experience in dealing with the issues of discrimination and racism, both in theory as well as in practice.



Discrimination is the unequal and exclusionary treatment of groups and individuals based on their membership in a group – or based on the assumption that they belong to this group. This discrimination or exclusionary treatment can, for example, lead to people not being considered for a job or an apartment or to people not being allowed into certain places, such as discos or fitness studios. Discrimination may take the form of personal insults or the boycotting of goods from certain groups. It may arise in the form of exclusionary, stereotyping images shown in the media or in school curricula. Discrimination also takes place if the interests of a certain group are not heard in politics or if people from a particular group are not represented in politics.

There are different forms of discrimination:

  • in laws and regulations (structural governmental discrimination
  • in the everyday treatment in state-run public offices (institutional governmental discrimination)
  • in businesses, stores, recreational facilities or the housing market (institutional discrimination in the private sector)
  • in interaction with individuals as well as with informally and formally organised groups in civil society, such as political parties or sport clubs (everyday discrimination)
  • in the media and books (cultural discrimination)
  • in physical assaults, threats and attacks (violent discrimination)

The General Equal Opportunities Act (AGG) in Germany has a definition of discrimination that is not exhaustive, but aims to provide protection for certain groups which are strongly affected by discrimination. The AGG primarily deals with protection in the private sector. Discrimination in interaction with governmental institutions can only be punished with the help of the AGG if it deals with discrimination in the employee/employer relationship. It is assumed that other laws, such as the Social Code, police laws, national laws, school laws and higher education laws, already sufficiently protect citizens from governmental discrimination. 

Discrimination is defined as follows by the AGG:
Discrimination is the unequal treatment of people based on group-specific characteristics, such as skin colour and ethnic origin, gender, religion, belief, disability, age or sexual identity. Discrimination is expressed through spoken statements, actions, regulations and institutional structures. 
Disadvantaged positions result from unequal treatment – as well as from equal treatment if this equal treatment does not consider how particular groups may be unequally and strongly affected by particular regulations or actions (for instance, if a company lays off primarily part-time workers, this will have an unequal and much stronger effect upon women, who work much more often in part-time employment than men).

Link for the German General Equal Treatment Act (AGG) IN GERMAN

Link to a guide for understanding the General Equal Treatment Act (AGG) IN ENGLISH


We define racism as a particular, historically developed pattern of seeing, presenting and organising groups in order to justify some groups’ exclusion and others groups’ privileges. It is based on the idea that people belong to clearly defined groups which can be linked with certain non-changing personality traits and abilities. The group categories that are used in racism usually have to do with “ethnicity”, “nation”, “culture” or “religion”, and often people think they can tell if a person belongs to that group because of physical characteristics, like “skin color” or clothing (like a headscarf).

Racist acts, words, images oder regulations draw a connection between people’s outside appearance or membership in a group with the idea that they must also have certain personality traits (e.g. criminality, ‘feisty’ temperament or lack of interest in education) and skills (e.g. music and sports, but not management or physics). It is assumed that people from these ‘other’ groups must all be the same – maybe with a few ‘exceptions’ to confirm the rule – and that these characteristics are not changeable: “That’s just the way these people they are.” It is also assumed that the boundaries are very clear separating those who belong to a particular cultural group and those who do not – and what belongs to a particular culture and not to others.

Of course, most people can see the diversity of people and ideas within their own groups and can see how they change over the years. This especially applies to diversity within larger group categories such as nation (they see the differences between Germans in the city/countryside, Berlin/Bavaria) or religion (they see the differences between Christians who were Evangelists from the former GDR, former West Germany or the United States, and Catholics in Bavaria, in France or Latin America). They usually also see that some individual characteristics and values, such as respect for parents and family, are not just found in their own “culture”, but also in the culture of others. They may also notice that since globalisation has become so strong, it is very visible that certain ideas, such as democracy, and generally certain ways of thinking and living are not just present in their own country, but also in others. And yet, many still believe that the boundaries between these groups are very clear and find it difficult to really believe that other national or religious groups can be just as diverse and changeable. This is also an aspect of racist thinking.

Racist discrimination is the pattern of exclusion and privileges that different groups experience based on racist categories. Exclusion and privileges comes into effect not only through people’s behaviour, but also through laws, organisational structures, cultural images and beliefs. See als the section above on discrimination.

These exclusions and privileges are felt differently according to the situation context, but even more based on one’s position in society. For some people, a racist comment towards them in public may be an insult which hurts their feelings and their pride in who they believe they are, or makes them feel pushed into a category which does not take into consideration who they are as individuals. It is degrading, painful and frustrating, which is bad enough. For another person, it may degrading and painful, but in addition, it is also a public denouncement which not only insults that person’s self-esteem, but also confirms for themselves and others watching that they are not really equal people in society who deserve an equal chance in finding a job or housing – or strengthens the observers’ feelings of mistrust such that people in that group are searched out when looking for suspects for a crime or for scapegoats for their social problems. For the first person, it was painful and degrading. For the second person, it was painful, degrading and additionally affect their chances in life for belonging and survival in everyday life.

These hierarchisations, as we know them in Germany and other European countries, were created and shaped during the European colonial history in order to justify taking over and exploiting people from other, usually non-European countries, as well as their lands and resources.

Skin colour and other physical characteristics are less (openly) emphasised today than they used to be in racist thinking. Instead, physical features, names, pronunciations or clothing are taken as unnamed impulses to assign people to certain “cultures”. Similar to the old understanding of racism, these cultural characteristics (including religion) are also thought of together with certain personality traits and abilities. They are also treated as unchangeable, almost biological features that should distinguish one group from another group. This racist approach to culture is called “culturalisation”.

Some aspects of culture, including religion, were already used in the past as an excuse to discriminate against or even kill other people – even before (European-based) racism itself became widespread. However, these older forms of discrimination, such Islamophobie and Antisemitism in Europe, have become mixed with racism over time so that they also function like racism, for instance that these religions and the negative personality traits one associates with them may be seen as inborn and unchangeable.

This exclusion includes behaviour which may seem harmless for those who are not affected by it, such as the categorisations of “we” and “they”, stereotypic jokes or costumes or “well-intended” group descriptions, such as “exotic” or “feisty temperament”. However, these categorisations deny the fact that these people have individual personalities and skills and exclude them from “really belonging” to broader “German” society. If this happens often, these little insults and exclusions add up to a very painful experience for those affected, which become difficult to just blow off, ignore and not get angry about. At the same time, these “little exclusions” become a part of a society’s “common sense” over time and make larger exclusions seem less problematic (for instance, stereotypical jokes about Polish stealing cars makes it feel over time like this is “common sense”, and people maybe be less likely to protest when policemen explicitly do police controls on Polish people). In this way, seemingly “little” or “harmless” exclusions lay the groundwork for ever-increasing escalations of discrimination. Starting from preventing others access to an equal education or particular jobs and housing to increased suspicions about this group and increased police controls of that group to violent attacks, murders and genocides.


In Germany, people frequently associate the word racism with the old idea of biological racism which was especially prevalent during the German Nazi period and European colonial period. This type of racism classified physical differences into group categories and attributed characteristics and abilities to these groups. These groups were then put in a hierarchy which ranked particular groups as better and more worthy of survival than others. These categories, and the characteristics thought to belong to them, served to justify Europeans’ claims to power in other parts of the world – as well as their claims to privileges within their own growing nation-states.

After the Second World War and especially in the course of the US-American civil right movements and the anti-colonial movements and wars, this type of racism was no longer considered socially acceptable. Scientific research also repeatedly confirmed that there are no (physically defined) races in and of themselves, because it is impossible to define boundaries between characteristics which clearly belong to one group and not other groups. Indeed the actual spectrum of differences within any one group category are much wider than the differences between group categories.

Today people in Germany still mainly associate the word racism with the Jewish Holocaust and mass genocide of Roma, homosexuals and political opposition der Nazi era or with right-wing extremist violence on the margins of society. And even if these forms of racism are indeed less socially acceptable today, racism still exists.

Racism exists in many aspects of our social lives that we often don’t notice, sometimes even when we are confronted with them directly. Many laws, organisational structures and behavioural expectations that we have of each other are still marked by ideas that have been passed on to us from times past. These are often taken as a matter of course, as a part of people’s unquestioned “normality”, making it very difficult to see the racist way they function and even more difficult to change them.

Sometimes the fact that one grew up with particular things that were considered normal makes it very difficult to give them up – it may feel like giving up a part of one’s identity or questioning the goodness of the people and society that raised them. This may be the case for words such as N-Küsse und for old pictures of Black people painted in exaggerated ways and presented as happy servants.

Sometimes changing these things requires giving up privileges, such as accepting the increased competition for a job to include minorities or women. For all of these reasons, many people still hold on to the prejudices which have developed over history and are still buzzing around in the media, in our educational content, in our laws and governmental institutions.

However, maintaining racist and other discrimination structures not only affects those who are disadvantaged by it. It also weakens the sense of moral responsibility of those who gain from it. Democratic societies gain their sense of morals through the idea that everyone is treated equally. When this does not really happen, people in privileged positions start creating lies to themselves to maintain the idea that they are still good and fair people. For instance, colonial society created the image of the happy, clown-looking Black servant. On the one hand, it made White European during colonial times people feel better about their higher position than Blacks, because it made it seem like Black people did not really suffer from it. On the other hand, the painted images of them are almost silly, which makes them look harmless and not like unhappy subjects who may rise up and rebel against their disadvantaged position. Both of these aspects were comforting to White Europeans and helped cover up the disgrace of not really fulfilling their self-image as people who value democratic freedoms for the individual.

But losing one’s sense of moral responsibility to one group is a slippery slope, making it easier to lose moral responsibility towards other groups. In the extreme case, one can see how the development of the Nazi regime began by targeting only a few groups, especially Jews and Polish, but gradually grew to encompass the repression and then murder of more groups, Roma and Sinti, homosexuals, people with physical and mental disabilities, oppositional activists, women who did not live as subservient wives and so on. In losing a sense of moral responsibility to one group (at first the Jews), it caused a falling sense of morality with more and more other groups – until even Nazi personnel turned against other Nazis. In other words, a systematic denial of dignity to others is at the same time a systematic denial of dignity to oneself.

If we continue to associate the word racism only with the most extreme cases of it, it makes it even more difficult to see the foundations of everyday racism which justify and make possible the extreme cases of violent racism. Everyday racism needs to be talked about and addressed, just as much as violent racism does – not only to give everyone more dignity in their everyday life, but also to prevent a spiral of escalation which sucks everyone into its depths.


Racial Profiling is when people have to deal with more controls and searches from the police and other state institutions just because they have a different “skin colour” or appearance. This is unequal and unfair treatment, in other words discrimination.

* For asylum seekers or people without legal papers, further problems may arise. The following organisations offer counselling and support: KUB (kontakt@kub-berlin.org, Tel: 030/6149400), AntidiskriminierungsBüro Berlin (adb_berlin@gmx.de, Tel: 030/2042511)

Important information in case of a police search *:

If the police have already started an identity check, they will generally finish it. Attempts to stop them from continuing their check are likely to fail.

The police are allowed to check your identity:
This means that the police can ask you for your identification card/passport and for your name, date of birth, place of birth, home address and nationality. You do not have to ask any other questions. If you do not show your identification card or passport to the police, then they will be allowed to search your person or your possessions (for this purpose) or take you to the police station. The police may compare your data on the computer.

The police may examine individuals without reasonable grounds for suspicion at the following locations:
• “Kriminalitätsbelastete Orte” (KbOs**) [high crime rate areas] in Berlin: The Berlin police manages a list of KbOs, i.e. locations where they notice many serious crimes take place. Here, the police is allowed to check your identity, search you and your belongings.
• Trains, train stations, airports or in border regions (up to 30 km): To prevent the illegal entry of foreigners, the federal police is allowed to carry out check your identity, but may only search you and your things if there is grounds for suspicion (see below).
• In the car: the police is allowed to ask your identity and ask you for your driver’s licence and car registration. The police may then check whether the car is in work-ing order, i.e. equipped correctly and securely. If there are grounds for suspicion (for example, smell of alcohol), the police may have a doctor take a blood sample at the police station or hospital. All other searches (trunk, suitcases) and tests (urine sample, balancing tests) are voluntary. You do not have to take them if you say “no”.

IF YOU ARE NOT IN ONE OF THESE PLACES, the police should only carry out identity checks and searches if there is grounds for suspicion, that is there is evidence making you a suspect for a crime or there are reasons to believe that a search will help catch the suspect or the police has reason to believe that you could attack him or her (so stay calm). According to the German Constitution, skin colour or assumed religion or nationality is not supposed to be a reason for suspicion!

You are allowed to:…
1) … ask for a stop and search form (Kontrollschein) (see previous page).
2) … ask for the identification of the policeman/-woman and write down his/her number.
3) … use this identification number to file a complaint (Always file both a “Strafanzeige” and a “Strafantrag”, because some complaints are only pursued for “Strafantrag”.) Do not file the complaint with the police, but rather with the public prosecutors’ office (Staatsanwaltschaft).
4) … refuse to answer any questions (“Hierzu mache ich keine Angaben”). Caution! Saying nothing is considered consent!
5) … ask people passing by to be a witness. If he/she says yes, exchange your contact information.

*Sources: „Was darf die Polizei? Was darf sie nicht?“ (www.kop-berlin.de), Berliner Polizeigesetz and Bundespolizeigesetz (www.gesetze-im-internet.de), “Was darf die Polizei bei einer Polizeikontrolle” und “Polizeikontrolle: Das sind Ihre Rechte” Deutsche Anwaltsauskunft (anwaltsauskunft.de.), Thanks to Prof. Dr. Clemens Arzt for his comments!
** List of KbOs in Berlin: Berlin.de, Der Polizeipräsident in Berlin, “Kriminalitätsbelastete Orte”

What can you do when you are controlled by the police?
  1. Breathe. Remain calm and respectful. It is understandable if you get upset in a situation like this. However, the police have more power in this situation than you do. With comments such as “racist” or insults such as “nazi”, the police will charge you with “insulting an officer”. It is easier to file a complaint with the official authorities if you have remained calm.
  2. Ask “why?” Ask the police why they want to see your identification. They have to give you an answer. The police are also not allowed to search you or take you to the police department without a reason (See the next page).
  3. Find witnesses. Especially if the communication with the police starts to become difficult, it makes sense to ask people passing by if they could be a witness to this situation. If someone says yes, then exchange your contact information with him/her. People passing by are more likely to help you if you yourself are calm.
  4. Ask the police for a “stop and search form” (Kontrollschein). This way they will become more aware of how they are conducting these police checks. With this form, you also have “proof” of being stopped. You may also give a copy of this form to an organization which documents police checks of people with a migrant background (for example, ReachOut, Tel: 030/69568339).
    If the police does not give you a stop and search form, ask to see his or her police identification, in order to write down his or her name, status, and number.


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