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(Dis)locating Identity, Community, and Citizenship:

Victoria Bernal and Bettina Conrad





The aim of this paper is to map out how the diverging conditions in Germany and the U.S.A. influence the more recent African immigrant communities, or "new African Diasporas'", regarding their relationship with home and host country, and their modes of internal organisation and networking. We also ask what implication these differences might have in terms of applying concepts of "black diaspora" in the U.S. to the study of "black Europeans."


About us: We have both been engaged in long term research on the Eritrean Diaspora, including extensive field work not only in the US and Germany, but also in Eritrea. Victoria Bernal has been looking at questions of citizenship and the diaspora's involvement in homeland politics. Bettina Conrad's special interest is with the second generation and the influence of transnational politics on local diaspora communities. Both of us have also explored different aspects of Eritrean "cyber-diaspora". Our contact dates back to 2001, yet it was a recent collaboration in a publishing project that provided the incentive for a comparative analysis of our work.

About the Eritrean Diaspora: A 30-year war of independence from Ethiopia and continued hardship thereafter has resulted in the outmigration of almost a third of the Eritrean population. The largest community of Eritreans in Europe is to be found in Germany. Counting about 25,000 people they constitute the forth largest group of African immigrants in the country. In the U.S. live an estimated 60,000 Eritreans. In both countries the Eritrean diaspora was actively involved in supporting the liberation movement(s) and has to this day retained a strong sense of belonging and obligation towards Eritrea, even though many Eritreans are naturalized U.S./German citizens.

"Melting Pot" and "Leitkultur"
In difference to the US, Eritrean immigration to Germany has largely happened by granting refugees a temporary asylum, rather offering them than a permanent resettlement opportunity. Moreover, the popular perception of Germany as a "monocultural" rather than a"multicultural" society has it that refugees are either expected to return "where they belong," or to else adopt the German "Leitkultur." Another major difference is that in the U.S., immigrants are more or less left to fend for themselves. US-Eritreans thus often look down on German-Eritreans whom they consider to have lived on state welfare. What is overlooked is that while providing for the refugees' basic needs, Germany policies prevent them from entering the labour market, the educational sector and even from moving freely within the country until their they are granted asylum - a process that could draw out over years. Clearly Eritreans in the U.S. were initially more occupied with securing their survival, but they also had better opportunities to be economically successful and upwardly mobile. Another important difference relates to the non-acceptance of double citizenship in Germany and the issue of "race". In contrast to "Black Americans", "Black Germans" are still seen - at best - as exotic. While new African immigrants in the US are faced with stereotyping that reflects the country's difficult relationship with the old black diaspora and the legacy of slavery, the connotations in Europe are different, and perhaps more ambivalent, yet nonetheless make "integration" into mainstrean society extremely hard.

The different constructions of citizenship in the U.S. and Germany, the two countries' diverging perceptions and practises regarding immigration, as well as different forms of racial prejudice determine the situation of Eritrean immigrants in important ways. In the proposed paper we want to outline how conditions found in the host country not only show in sociographic differences between the Eritrean diasporas in Germany and the US, but are also impacting


  • the diasporas' relationship with home (double citizenship, diaspora taxation, political involvement)
  • the relationship/degree of integration within the host or resettlement country
  • the patterns of networking and self-organisation (e.g. role of religious associations in the US
  • versus "eingetragene Vereine,", i.e. registered associations, in Germany)
  • the preservation of Eritrean identity and languages in the second/third generation
  • the networking and rivalries between Eritreans from different countries of residence
  • the importance of return and onward migration
  • the positioning within the larger immigrant cultures/societies witin Germany/the US


Implications for the Choice of Theoretical Approaches

While the reflections on the historical Black diaspora in the Americas certainly provides an insightful background, it cannot be denied that the experience of Africans on the American continent also differs from the experience of Africans that have begun to settle in post WWII Europe. The German case provides a further exception here since colonial links have played only a marginal role in the establishment of African diasporas. Rather, it was Germany's relatively liberal asylum laws that until the mid-1980s made the country a destination for exiles and refugees. Their future fate, their difficulties and experiences of discrimination are shaped by conditions that cannot be reduced to the question of racism, but must be seen in a larger historical context of how Germany and other European countries have dealt or rather not dealt with immigration. Undoubtedly, being of African origin makes it particularly hard to "integrate" within German society or be accepted as German.

One of the most challenging questions of Black European studies would thus be to explore the origins of lasting racial prejudice vis-a-vis Africans without simply adopting the analysis of Black Atlantic scholars. Eritreans as a self-conscious diaspora identified with Eritrea and as part of a larger Black diaspora offer an excellent entry point into theorizing the changing significance and meaning of identity, community, „race,“ and citizenship. The comparison of their experiences in Germany and the U.S. will shed light on what it means to be Black European in the 21st century.

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