When I moved to Germany two and a half years ago to work as a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Göttingen, I considered it to be just another stop in my incessantly nomadic academic life. Little did I know that this adventure would force me to think about my national identity in a way none of my previous migration experiences had. I had left my native Turkey in 2007, to pursue a Ph.D. in sociology in the United States and had lived in the UK and the Netherlands before moving to Germany.
Yet, it was only in Germany that I received the comment “but you don’t look Turkish!”[i] when I mentioned where I came from. Soon enough, my mind was occupied with what it means to “look Turkish.”
With this question in mind, in 2018 I saw online a photo-performance series by the Berlin-based Turkish artist Işıl Eğrikavuk. Intrigued by the frequency with which she has been getting the same comment since she moved to Germany in September 2017, Eğrikavuk posed for a series of photos carrying a placard that read “but you don’t look Turkish!” She explains the background to this project as follows: “It is very interesting to be Turkish in Germany due to the long-existing Gastarbeiter community here and due to the strong stereotypes in peoples’ minds… One thing that I hear a lot is that I don’t look or act like a Turkish person. This makes me ponder a lot: ‘What is a Turkish woman in your mind?’ It is strange when people stereotype just by looking at your origins”.
Eğrikavuk’s project allowed me to see I was not alone in my endeavor to navigate the established perception of Turkishness in Germany. This prompted me to dig deeper into this topic and conduct interviews with highly-skilled immigrants from Turkey who had arrived in Germany in the last 10 years.
Credits: Işıl Eğrikavuk, BUT YOU DON’T, Photography, 2018
What reactions do they get when they introduce themselves as Turkish/coming from Turkey? Do they ever hear the infamous “but you don’t look Turkish”? If so, how do they respond to this? If not, what other remarks do they get? Based on the 15 interviews I have conducted so far in Goettingen, Dusseldorf, Cologne, Berlin, Bielefeld, Mainz, Giessen, and Munich, I can easily say “but you don’t look Turkish” is not just about ethnicity or national identity.
It is about socio-economic status. It is about religion. It is about rural/urban background. Moreover, it is not only a question of German perceptions of Turkish people. It also reflects the self-perception of Turkish people and the fault lines that have historically divided the heterogeneous Turkish society.
Innocent and simple as it may sound, it is the embodiment of existing judgments about the Turkish diaspora in Germany, and unpacking the multi-level connotations it carries requires an examination of the complex history of Turkish immigration to Germany.
The history of immigration from Turkey to Germany
According to Germany’s Federal Office for Statistics, around 2.7 million people with Turkish roots were living in Germany in 2017—constituting 3.4% of the overall population of 81.7 million. The origins of Turkish immigration go back to 1961, when Turkey and then West Germany signed a bilateral labor recruitment agreement.
Between 1968 and 1973, 80% of the 525,000 workers who left Turkey arrived in West Germany as “guest workers” (Gastarbeiter). As a result, the Turkish population in the country rose from 6,700 in 1961 to 605,000 in 1973. Initially, workers could not bring their families with them, and the recruitment agreement limited their period of residence to a maximum of two years. In 1964 the two-year limitation was removed and family unifications were allowed.
By 1974, 20% of Turkish immigrants in Germany were non-working spouses, while another 20% were children. Despite the total halt on foreign labor recruitment in 1973, the number of Turkish immigrants in Germany kept growing.
A 1963 survey conducted in West Germany by the State Planning Organization showed that, in comparison to later arrivals, Turkish immigrants arriving in early ‘60s were better educated: 13% had completed middle school, and 15% vocational schools, while 49% were primary school graduates.
This first group of migrants was also rather urban (only 17% had a rural background[ii]) and hailed from all over Turkey, including the more developed western and northwestern cities. Yet, this was the exception rather than the norm. Things changed rapidly in the second half of the 1960s.
As German manufacturing needed semi-skilled or unskilled laborers for jobs on assembly lines and in shift work, they mainly recruited Turkish workers with low education levels; 73% of first-generation Turkish immigrants in European countries had only elementary school degrees.
In addition, in the early 1970s, the Turkish Employment Service started prioritizing applications from developing and under-developed provinces, which led to an influx of immigrants from rural Turkish towns.
In the 1980s and 1990s, as a result of the 1980 military coup and the intensifying Kurdish conflict, the migration pattern took a different turn. Many asylum seekers and refugees from Turkey—mostly Kurds and Alevis, but also leftists fleeing the post-1980 crackdown—started arriving in Germany.
While this new group was on average far more skilled and educated, many were locked out of the labor market due to a lack of legal status or qualifications unrecognized by employers. Most ended up working in undocumented jobs. Thus, as immigrants from Turkey in Germany grew more socially, politically, and ethnically diverse, their overall socio-economic status shifted little.
Despite upward inter-generational mobility, data from the German Socio-Economic Panel covering a period from 1985 to 2014, show that full-time employed immigrants from Turkey between the ages 25 and 64 had a considerably lower level of educational attainment than their German counterparts.[iii]
This trend is now poised to change as a “new wave” of Turkish immigrants is taking root in Germany. According to the German Ministry of Immigration, 47,750 people immigrated from Turkey in 2017—a 15% increase from 2016. The number of asylum seekers skyrocketed following the coup attempt of July 2016; the number of family reunifications has also increased.
This “new wave” of immigrants is quite diverse: Gülenists (followers of Fethullah Gülen, the US-based Turkish cleric, believed to have masterminded the failed coup attempt in 2016, after his fall-out with Erdoğan), white-collar professionals who no longer see a future for themselves in Turkey, students, leftist oppositional figures, Kurdish political actors, persecuted academics, and exiled intellectuals, among others.
In 2018, 48% of the 10,600 Turkish nationals who applied for asylum in Germany reported having university degrees. Even in 2012 and 2015, recent immigrants from Turkey had higher levels of educational attainment than their earlier counterparts. Originating from big cities like Istanbul, Izmir, and Ankara, they are also more urban.
Hence, the socio-economic profile of migrants from Turkey has changed drastically in recent years. It is exactly this discrepancy that gives birth to the comment, “But you don’t look Turkish!” Because newly arriving immigrants do not fit the existing perception of Turkishness in Germany, most end up having to explain how they, too, are Turkish/from Turkey. The exhaustion caused by this process is the most commonly cited feeling among my interviewees.
“It is tiring to have to constantly explain yourself”
“I understand where this comment originates from”, says Duygu,[iv] an anthropologist who came to Germany two years ago, after being dismissed from her position at a Turkish university for having signed the Academics for Peace Petition. “Yet, I do not wear my social scientist hat 24/7. Usually, if I start the conversation in English, they think I am Spanish or French. When I say I am from Turkey, their face darkens and they take a step back.
When the conversation gets interrupted like that, I get frustrated. I think to myself ‘what have I done to you? Why do you punish me just because I come from Turkey?’”
Damla, a marketing specialist living in Germany since 2010, shares the frustration:
“When I receive this comment, I immediately give details: ‘I was not born here, I have come here for work, I am different from the Turkish people living here’. Yet, living in a country where I am not comfortable declaring ‘I am Turkish’ disturbs me in a weird way. I did not experience this in the United States. In Germany, I constantly have to clarify that ‘I am not one of those Turks’”.
Esin, an academic who has been in Germany since 2017, underlines the strength of racism and prevalent prejudices in Germany: “When I first came to Germany I used to get quite angry at this comment, especially if it was followed by questions about Turkey’s EU membership or about ‘why I don’t wear a headscarf’. In time, it has become less annoying.
I know racism is strong in this country, so I just do not care anymore. Still, having to explain myself at the beginning of a conversation tires me. Also, because most people use ‘but you don’t look Turkish’ as a ‘compliment’ I sometimes find myself defending things about Turkey which I would otherwise not defend.”
This weariness is particularly pronounced in narratives about diet and perceived religiosity. Demir, an electrical engineer who moved to Germany four years ago, says:
“I cannot drink beer and wine, I drink only whiskey. Hence, when I have dinner with my German colleagues they immediately ask if I am not drinking alcohol because I am Turkish. ‘No,’ I say, ‘I drink whiskey, just not at dinner time.’ The same with pork. Every time I avoid it at company dinners I feel the urge to explain that it is not because of religious reasons, but because I simply do not like the taste. Having to explain all these details becomes tiring at times”.
“I sometimes feel scared to ‘confess’ I do not eat pork thinking it might put me in the same category as the Turks living here”, says Damla. Zerrin, an academic who has lived in Germany for five years, defines this as “self-orientalism”: “When I was pregnant and I could not drink alcohol, I felt the urge to explain why, even if they did not ask. Come to think about it, it is self-orientalism”.
“We are not like them!”: Reproducing stereotypes
Some interviewees are less reactionary. Underlining how different they are from the Turkish diaspora in Germany, they think it is only understandable that some Germans would think they are not Turkish. Merve, a chemist who came to Germany for her doctoral studies, says:
“When I first received this comment, I was perplexed; I asked the person why he thinks I am not Turkish, he said ‘because you don’t wear a headscarf.’ Over time, I have decided we need to empathize with Germans, they have been living with foreigners for years and not every Turk in Germany is educated and modern like us.
Nowadays, when I go back to Turkey I am disturbed by the number of Arabs and Kurds in my hometown. Then I put myself in Germans’ shoes and ask myself ‘would I want my child to attend school with Syrian children?’”
Begüm, a mechanical engineer who moved to Germany five years ago “after the governmental reaction to the Gezi uprising”, reiterates the distinction between the newcomers and the established diaspora. She draws attention to how it is reproduced even by the latter: “I usually do not get angry when I hear this comment.
I explain how different the Turks here in Germany are, especially in terms of educational background. Also, I come from Istanbul, and people know Istanbulites are more modern. Plus, I have these conversations also with Turks born and raised here. For example, they are surprised I am fluent in English. Especially the younger generation here does not know Turks like us exist in Turkey”.
Some interviewees are concerned about reproducing this distinction. Orhan, an industrial engineer who left Turkey due to “political and socio-economic reasons” 18 months ago, says:
“I find this comment rather normal. In the beginning, I even felt proud to receive it, thinking ‘it’s good I don’t look like the Turks here.’ Over time, I have started explaining in detail: ‘Look,’ I say, ‘half of the Turkish population is like me, and the other half is like the Turks in Germany.’ Yet, I am also unhappy about accepting and reproducing this distinction”.
Gamze, a marketing specialist who left Turkey because of the “inhumane working hours”, says such comments are intersectional with class. She does not receive them in business life, where “people are used to meeting with expats”.
She does, however, receive them in more public settings: “Just a few days ago, at a hospital, I was told I don’t look Turkish. I explained to the nurse that Turkey is a diverse country with varying skin colors. At other times, I am not that patient, and I get angry about being judged by where I come from. Yet, I think that we—Turkish people—are much more judgmental than Germans who are quite open-minded.
By declaring ‘we are not like the Turks here’, we are othering those Turks. I do not like this at all, but I do it too. For example, when someone cuts a queue, or breaches traffic rules, my husband and I immediately think ‘this person must be Turkish.’
Boundaries of Turkishness in Germany and in Turkey
My interviewees frequently note how unhelpful phenotypical categorization is when it comes to defining “Turkishness.” “As a blond person I get this comment a lot”, says Bora, who works in management consultancy. “I explain that Turkey is ethnically diverse, home to people with different phenotypic features”.
When I ask if he thinks he looks Turkish, he continues: “I don’t think it is possible to define Turkishness. Turkey might not be as diverse as, say, Brazil and the average Turkish person might have darker hair but still, I think I look quite Turkish”. Similarly, Duygu, who is ethnically Tatar, says that no particular image comes to her mind when she thinks of a Turkish person. “It is such a mixed country. Because it is that mixed, it might as well be that I look Turkish.”
Başak, an academic living in Germany since 2012, summarizes the issue with the following anecdote: “I do online dating from time to time. When my dates ask me the dreaded origins question, I flirtatiously ask them to guess. They typically list Mediterranean countries all the way up to Greece and stop there in confusion (some move on to Latin America). I guess they think ‘a Turkish woman—by default Muslim, in their eyes—cannot be doing something the obvious purpose of which is casual sex”.
Turkey is indeed phenotypically diverse, making it difficult to come up with a stereotypical “Turkish” look. Yet, when it comes to demographic details, “but you don’t look Turkish” might have a hint of truth to it.
Highly-skilled immigrants from Turkey, at least the ones I have interviewed so far, differ considerably from the majority of the Turkish population, not only in Germany but also in Turkey, in their educational attainment, religious belief/practices, and lifestyle. According to a nationally representative survey conducted in 2018 by the Istanbul-based research company KONDA across 36 Turkish cities with 5,793 respondents, 16% of the respondents were university graduates.
Similarly, only 2% of mothers and 5% of fathers had university degrees. My interviewees, on the other hand, all have university degrees, and their parents are mostly university graduates (except for a few who are high school graduates). One can observe the same pattern in religious beliefs. Only 3% of the respondents defined themselves as atheists, while 2% were non-believers. In contrast, more than half of my interviewees are atheists or non-believers, while the rest are “non-practicing believers”.
Lastly, while 45% of the respondents defined themselves as traditional conservatives, and 25% as religious conservatives, only 29% consider themselves “modern”, a category to which all my interviewees would belong.
As such, the academics and white-collar professionals I have interviewed are outliers when it comes to socio-economic status and lifestyle. This explains why some Germans think they don’t look Turkish. It also explains why almost all feel estranged from Turkey.
However, national identity is not only about phenotypic features and demographic details. Multi-layered and constantly negotiated, it is also about emotions, language, cultural codes, and familiarity. That is why, despite underlining their alienation from Turkey, highly-skilled Turkish immigrants have difficulty in developing a sense of belonging to Germany and get perplexed when told they don’t look Turkish. As Demir puts it, they “are just black sheep. [They] don’t fit anywhere.”
Gülay Türkmen is a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Göttingen’s Department of Sociology. Her work examines how certain historical, cultural and political developments inform questions of belonging and identity-formation in multi-ethnic and multi-religious societies. She has published in several academic outlets including the Annual Review of Sociology, Qualitative Sociology, Sociological Quarterly, and Nations and Nationalism.
Abadan-Unat, Nermin. 2011. Turks in Europe: From Guest Worker to Transnational Citizen. New York and Oxford: Berghahn Books.
Aydın, Yaşar. 2016. “The Germany-Turkey Migration Corridor: Refitting Policies for a Transnational Age”. Washington, DC: Migration Policy Institute.
Fassman, Heinz, and Ahmet İçduygu. 2013. “Turks in Europe: Migration Flows, Migrant Stocks and Demographic Structure”. European Review 21 (3): 349–361.
Kaya, Ayhan, and Ferhat Kentel. 2004. “Euro-Turks: A Bridge, or a Breach, between Turkey and the European Union? A Comparative Research of German-Turks and French-Turks”. Istanbul: Istanbul Bilgi University, Center for Migration Research.
Martin, Philip. 1991. The Unfinished Story: Turkish Labor Migration to Western Europe. Geneva: International Labor Office.
Ray, Annie. 2017. “Wage Discrimination in Germany Between Turkish Immigrants and German Natives: An Empirical Analysis of Labor Market Outcomes of Turkish Immigrants”. Issues in Political Economy 26 (2): 267–283.
[i] In this piece, I use “Turkish” to refer to nationality and to denote “those from Turkey,” regardless of their ethnicity.
[ii] Abadan-Unat clarifies that “although more than half the sample in the 1963 survey gave Istanbul and Thrace as their place of origin, only 17 percent had actually been born in that region” (2011: 52).
[iii] 12.81% of Turkish workers had inadequate education, while 26.36% had general elementary, 43.54% had middle vocational, and 9.18% had higher education. Those numbers stood at 0.43%, 5.63%, 45.78%, and 31.75% for German workers (Ray 2017: 274–5).
[iv] All given names have been changed to protect the identity of the interviewees.
Photo: JOHN MACDOUGALL / AFP
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