The Identity Politics Of Being A Foreign Body

Quickly after moving to Berlin I assumed the title of ‘expat.’ Being an American expat became part of my identity. For better or worse, it was something I was stuck with. For better, it established a profound connection with other wayward souls like me. For worse, it meant being singled out as somehow representing the country I had taken pretty big measures to leave.

This new cultural and conceptual layer to my identity often takes very tangible forms, too, and this became evident right from the start. When I went to apply for my visa, at the height of the so-called ‘refugee crisis’, I experienced the ways that my identity as a foreign person differs from others with migration backgrounds in a very real and tangible way.

The task necessitated a visit to Berlin’s Ausländerbehörde, Germany’s foreign authority bureau and the place where all non-EU citizens come to gain legal status as residents of the country. After pacing around the compound, it came to light that the bureau is organized into multiple buildings, as a means of filtering and categorizing people of different national origin. I will never forget walking past buildings A and B where a long line of refugees stood waiting to gain access to a designated agent who, despite being over worked and flooded with such cases—held the power to help them gain asylum status and the legal protections that come with it.

After scanning a plaque outside for the words Die Vereinigten Staaten von Amerika, a name that was in itself a bit disorienting at the time, I determined that my building, letter C, was entirely distinct from the other two that had come before it. This separation and categorization at the bureaucratic level has obvious implications, from the ways in which applications are processed to the kinds of residence permits granted to the sheer volume of people the staff in each building are expected to handle each day. All of these factors—many of which, I might add, still elude me—make the experience of seeking residence in Germany quite varied depending on nationality in conjunction with intended purpose of arrival. Of course, this is only one small way that identity politics play in to the experiences a person has living abroad, but they could potentially be grave ones.

I haven’t since been able to shake the uncanny sense of categorization so deeply engrained in people’s perceptions of foreigners. So what differentiates immigrants from expats? Where do refugees seem to fall into this schematic? Are there legitimate elements to these differentiations? From a bit of research I have basically discerned that immigrants and expats are roughly the same thing—foreigners—distinguished by their countries of origin and German-speaking capabilities.

Those typified as immigrants are blamed for stealing jobs and diluting European cultural identity, simultaneously those—white, predominantly English-speaking—expats are more or less welcomed, largely with the implication that they are a necessary evil in an increasingly globalizing economy. In many cases, expats are quite literally reshaping neighborhoods and superimposing their cultures over existing ones through the infamous process of gentrification. Yet, this trend seems to be occurring right beneath the noses of those who are opposed to the presence of immigrants and refugees, who are typically associated with low-skilled jobs and a dependency on social systems.

The broad based assumptions that we hold about immigrants are also their fair share of erroneous, often playing into xenophobic prejudices. I have come across accounts1 of people hailing from Africa, for instance, who are persistently labeled as immigrants despite their extensive professional qualifications. Therefore, it would seem that the distinction has just as much to do with the color of one’s skin and cultural background.

Of course, adding in the refugee dimension only makes things more complicated, especially in light of the recent ‘crisis’ of asylum seekers that have poured into Germany. That is, despite the stereotypes that have reduced these individuals to hoards of faceless masses hailing from the Middle East, plenty of the Syrian refugees who were able to afford travel to Germany are, in fact, educated,2  skilled workers,3  or members of the middle class.4  Not to mention, Syria itself is an incredibly diverse country, home to many languages, religions, ethnicities, and cultures. Indeed, the term ‘refugee’ constitutes a problematically broad array of people who are seeking asylum from dangerous conditions in their home countries. These labels feed into equally problematic representations by painting many thousands of individuals with inaccurately broad strokes.

The plight of the refugee is exacerbated due to the rise of rightwing populism. Immigrants and refugees function as the targets for xenophobia and blame particularly in times of joblessness or economic stagnation. Even this, however, ought to be dissected. Such is supported by the fact that more refugees than expected have professional qualifications and high levels of educational attainment,5  according to studies conducted by the Institute for Employment Research (IAB). Many pundits and politicians have successfully mobilized working class demographics against the influx of foreigners under the notion that they are stealing their jobs. Furthermore, the German labor force is supposed to decrease by the tens of millions in the next 50 years due to lower birth rates, which means in the long term, the presence of refugees could ultimately help to fill that gap over the course of the subsequent decades. Thus, successful integration of refugees could actually be the antidote to an impending economic slump in Germany.

Populist parties like AfD seem to know that where these arguments fall short, they can win supporters to their agendas by using acts of terror as political fodder. In recent times, perhaps the starkest example of the ways that identity politics differentially impact the lives of foreign bodies came after the December 19th attack on a Christmas Market in Berlin. Being that this was a senseless affront on an aspect of the culture that most Germans view with a level of sanctity, the populist right was quick to point fingers of blame at Merkel for her tolerance as well as at the country’s immigrants and refugees more broadly. It is logical to presume that this climate of diatribe ultimately contributed to the false accusation of a Pakistani refugee.

The situation should be alarming on multiple levels. When we are willing to normalize discrimination as a response to fear, we give the state the power to override the civil liberties of all people, and of course, those people of color with foreign backgrounds– the immigrants and refugees– are the direct target of such political changes. Indeed, the identity politics of being a foreign body can be life threatening, especially for refugees and immigrants who are people of color. Meanwhile, the idea of I or even any of my male expat friends being falsely accused of the attack never even crossed my mind – it would seem so absurd.

In correspondence with this mentality, the rightwing parties are quiet when it comes to other instances of violence that have occurred in Germany over the past year. Once it was determined that the perpetrators of the Munich massacre and the shooter at a cinema in Viernheim who took dozens hostage were not Middle Eastern asylum seekers, the media and the pundits seemed to lose interest. In the case of the latter, the press7 even dismissed the event saying, ‘police believed the gunman was a “confused individual” rather than a terrorist.’

We need to invite a more nuanced understanding to conversations about migration, immigration, and those seeking asylum abroad. The first step in doing so would be to re-conceptualize our understandings of these various groups of foreigners. This must be reflected first and foremost in political rhetoric and bureaucratic practices. These changes, along with the proper institutions geared towards helping refugees to integrate would allow for more successful cohesion and better outcomes economically5  and socially for all people. As Laurie Penny has stated so eloquently, ‘little changes in grammar and vocabulary can affect the entire architecture of our political imagination.’


  3. Cachola Schmal, Peter; et al. Making Heimat. Berlin: Hatje Cantz. 2016

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