Canan Topcu
“I’ve always fought against being made a victim.”

Journalist Canan Topçu has also lectured at Darmstadt University (h_da) since 2004. At the faculty for social sciences she offers seminars on social and cultural sciences as complementary study courses – addressing, among others, such topics as rhetoric, media-competency and immigration societies. The 56 year old daughter of Turkish migrant workers believes the current anti-racism debate is overly aggressive, accusatory and too generalized. Her latest book appeared recently, in which she appeals for people to, “listen to one-another instead of forbidding each-other to speak”. Topçu has been actively engaged for several years in appealing for a migration policy on an equal basis. She refuses outright to join any movement which classifies ‘white Germans’ as the baddies per se, and victims of discrimination as the goodies. As the combative author points out, a viewpoint with which she is bound to  make enemies, once more.

An interview by Astrid Ludwig, 18.11.2021

impact: Your study courses at the h_da incorporate the ‘Literary Salon’. Authors with a migratory background are invited to share their experiences, whereby you begin by asking the guest how they would describe themselves. How do you describe yourself?

Canan Topçu: As a socially integrated German citizen with Turkish origins. Quite deliberately so, in order to differentiate between my geographic, ethnic and legal status. I wasn’t born in Germany, so I find it difficult to say that I am German.

impact: You have lived in Germany since you were eight years old. Do you feel German?

Topçu: I have no idea how it feels to be German. However, I can say, with a clear conscience, that I enjoy very much being a German citizen. I stand by the values of this Republic, as a true patriot supporting the constitution. Nonetheless, I have serious issues with anything involving German jingoism or nationalism.

impact: You don’t describe yourself as a muslima?

Topçu: In effect as a cultural muslima. I have cultural roots for I grew up and was socialized within a Muslim environment. I am spiritual and a believer, yet not within the sense of the categories currently being so emphasised. In my opinion, religion ought not to play such a central role in public debates, in part because this can be socially divisive. In my dealings with people it is irrelevant whether someone is religious and what or in whom someone believes. I do my best to treat everyone with respect.

impact: Both in articles and in your latest book ‘Nicht mein Antirassismus’ (‘Not My Anti-Racism’ – ich weiß nicht ob es schon ein Titel auf Englisch gibt) you clearly appeal for such respectful behaviour, for direct encounters and coherent debates instead of attacks. What is it precisely that you find abhorrent and the current racism debate?

Topçu: The increasing levels of aggression and polarisation. Indigenous Germans are categorised as ‘whites’, and therefore per se as racists, whilst people with a minority background are seen as victims. Being part of a minority does not make one a better person, though. I find this black and white scenario far too simplistic, too one-sided. The groups which tend to dominate the anti-racism debate are mainly black people or young, academic activists with a working migrant background. The resentments or motives of each group differ. They post on social media or report via conventional media to paint, in my opinion, an image of Germany which is far too negative. Whenever I hear, see or read these contributions, I keep asking myself whether I live in the same country as they do. Of course I’m aware that discrimination and exclusion take place. Of course real-life racism and exclusion against blacks  occurs – but this is not only for racist reasons, but rather also because someone or something is perceived as foreign or merely different. I don’t automatically diagnose racism to be the base cause of all forms of exclusion or social grievance. Many anti-racist activists are filled with rage and hate, attitudes I disagree with, because I find such accusations as those aimed at ‘old white men’ to be too sweeping and undifferentiated. One always needs to take people’s history into account. Many elderly Germans, ‘the whites’, to employ the wording of anti-racist activists, have also had to work extremely hard here to earn the privileges or lifestyles they enjoy.

impact: You yourself have also experienced racism here in Germany as a child.

Topçu: The term racist didn’t exist at the time. I was excluded from things at school because I was different, foreign. It made me very sad. The question at the time remains current for me: how does one deal with these experiences and what can we glean from them? Your parental home and surroundings are important in order to be able to effectively deal experiences of exclusion. For instance, my mother made my sister and me stronger, giving us courage, and she used to say: “don’t let anyone put you down. It doesn’t matter what negative and nasty things anyone says about you, it’s not true”. I’ve always fought against being made a victim – or to be seen as one. I’m convinced that there are no benefits to seeing oneself in the position of being the weaker. However, what needs to be considered is that migration creates a lifelong trauma, as it did for me as well. I still experience moments when I feel helpless. I speak about these experiences in order to create a sensitizing effect for them. I deliberately talk about my own personal migration story and wish to employ my biography to appeal for more understanding, more dialogue – and thus the ability to see others more clearly and genuinely listen to them.

impact: You have campaigned for over 25 years on political committees and in civic initiatives against exclusion and discrimination, for instance many years on the ‘Runden Tisches interkultureller Journalismus’ – the ‘Intercultural Journalism Round Table’. You are a founding member of the ‘Neue Deutsche Medienmacher’ – the ‘New German Media-Makers’ network, and an appointed member in the ‘Dialogforum Islam’ – the ‘Dialogue Forum on Islam’, a committee convened by the Hessian state government. What do you feel is the difference between your commitment and that of the older generation from the activities of the current generation of activists? 

Topçu: A shift has occurred: young members of minorities and migrant families are increasingly positioning themselves as the disadvantaged – the underdogs. In the context of worker migration there are groups who complain that their grandparents were exploited here in Germany, that they were never appreciated, and that they themselves never receive what they deserve from German society. What is often left unsaid is that our parents and grandparents voluntarily came to Germany as part of the recruitment scheme of the time, and that they would not have been better off in their countries of origin.  

People like me, who are grateful for the liberties this country offers, are accused of failing to perceive the racism here, in other words of ignoring reality. They refer to a form of structural racism here in Germany. My attitude is: it may be the case that the person I’m currently talking to is a racist, but this is not necessarily the case for every instance of rejection. This is not my view of humankind, which differentiates me from many of today’s activists. I see it as part and parcel of being a decent person to treat every person with respect, and for me to learn how to reflect on my own prejudices. I appeal to people to consider the conditions of our social interaction from a variety of perspectives, and for them to be empathetic and supportive in helping to create a fairer society. My biography encompasses many people – including old ‘white men’ – who have played a role in ensuring that I had a future. In my view, judging people in black and white categories is unjust and hurtful towards the majority of society.

impact: You criticise aloof language codes and a form of political correctness which unsettles many people and impedes our social interactions. For instance, you feel asking someone about their origins should not be taboo?

Topçu: If we wish for the country’s plurality to become a simple fact of life, and that everyone can be a part of the country, then it should be okay to ask this question. If we pigeonhole someone who looks the way I do as “she’s not from here”, then the results can only be corrected via an open dialogue. I can respond by saying that I have a foreign-sounding name, that my parents are from Turkey and that I’m a German citizen. Changes in peoples’ attitudes and an end to pigeonholing can only be commenced via such an exchange. If we answer these questions we may be paving the way for the next generation, or the one after it, to no longer be confronted with them. These days, no-one asks the Littbarskis or the Lipinskys any more whether they are German. In my view this is all a transition phase. Not all of the social reforms achieved have been accepted in every milieu. People live in their own bubbles, where it is simply not ‘normal’ that there are Germans who cannot be categorized right away. Any expectations that what I consider self-evident should also be self-evident for others only result in conflicts.

impact: You live in Hanau, the city where a far-right assassin shot nine people with migration backgrounds. You reported on the event, whereby your views partly cast a different version once more.

Topçu: I was stunned, some of the crime scenes were merely a few hundred metres away from my home. I wrote about what happened in my city as an observer, not as someone affected. I can fully understand the powerlessness felt by relatives in view of the failures on the part of the authorities, as well as their questions, and I criticise the inadequate way the police and judiciary communicated with people who had lost loved ones. However, my observations also differed from some pictures generated by the media. I saw things that others didn’t, or didn’t want to. I wrote a commentary in the Frankfurter Rundschau, where I had worked for many years. In it I denounced that the demonstration held four days later, and which was attended by many thousand people, was misused to ideological and political ends and instrumentalize the suffering of the victims. Via circulars, Turkish consulates had previously contacted Turkish associations, clubs and mosques encouraging them to attend. Demonstrators with Turkish origins arrived from all parts of the country, some on specially chartered busses. On the march I spotted Turkish Parliament members, along with many Turkish men and women waving Turkish flags and crying out “Allahu akbar”, or “Nazis raus!”. People also took part in the demo to express their  sympathy, yet these were relegated to mere extras in a scenario produced by Turkish nationalists.

impact: You received threats for expressing this criticism?

Topçu: I received hate messages and threatening calls, leading me to draw back – partly because reports which didn’t cover, per se, the perspective of the victims’ relatives, was hardly possible and obviously unwelcome.

impact: Which leads us back to your appeal for people with a migrant background to avoid taking on the role of victim, and that we should be allowed to express ourselves as we wish. How do you convey this approach to your students at the h_da? 

Topçu: The majority of my students have migrant backgrounds – partly because they recommend my courses to one-another. I encourage them not to take rejections personally, but rather to seek to adapt a shift in perspective. Why is this person behaving this way? I encourage them to remain friendly and to seek a dialogue.

What I have noticed is that we need many more core competencies in the ways we communicate and in the ways we interact with one-another. In order to convey these issues we need more money to train teachers and student teachers, as well as to support and further educate parents. If we wish to invest in the future of a country in order to create a fairer society, then investments in education should be prioritized. If anything makes me furious, then it’s over the miserable education policy of such a rich country as Germany.

Translation: Paul Comley

Contact details

Christina Janssen
Scientific editor
Press department
Tel.: +49.6151.16-30112

Canan Topçu's book

Canan Topçu: Nicht mein Antirassismus, Quadriga-Verlag, ISBN 978-3-86995-115-7

Book review by Christina Janssen on German national-public broadcasting Deutschlandfunk (in German):  "Andruck", 21.2.22