One warm evening in Berlin, I wandered over to the ice cream shop facing a lively square. “Can I try this one?” I asked in my halting German. The woman behind the counter glared at me. “Dieses hier,” I repeated, pointing. Wordlessly, she handed me a tasting spoon. I tried the ice cream and started putting the spoon into an empty cup atop the counter.
“Nein! ” she shouted, snatching the cup away. “Wo soll ich? ” I stammered. She pointed at the garbage and turned away, muttering to herself. I backed away, stunned, and watched from a distance as she politely served the family next in line.
I had this kind of experience puzzlingly often during my time living in Germany in 2019. Why did people on the subway stare at me with what seemed like disgust? Why did they yell at me when I asked where to find something in the supermarket? Berliners are notoriously brusque, but I was used to that. I’d spent a year in Berlin in 2007 and one in Leipzig in 2014 with my husband, who teaches German literature; our second child was born there. Germany was familiar, if not quite like home. But this felt different. A boundary had shifted, and suddenly I was on the dividing line.
In the United States, I’m white, a conclusion I draw from the trusting smiles of white strangers and my pleasant interactions with police. Once in a while, I’ll be asked: “Where are you from? ” The answer—Connecticut—sometimes seems to leave the questioner unsatisfied. But mostly, I blend in.
My mother’s family is Syrian, my father’s Polish. My combination of big nose, dark hair, and olive skin often prompts people to ask if I’m Italian or Jewish. People rarely guess that the otherness they see is Arabness, because most people in the United States don’t really know what Arabs look like. My confident English puts any doubts to rest. I act like I belong here, and people believe me.
Not so in Germany, following the recent influx of 1.7 million refugees largely from Syria, Iraq, North Africa, and Afghanistan, adding to well-established communities of Turks and Arabs. In this context, my whiteness became less reliable. Germans seemed to see some darkness behind it, as if it were a threadbare sheet.
Not until I read Isabel Wilkerson’s Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents (2020) did I find words for my experience, and how it related to my parents’ and grandparents’ process of becoming white in the United States. Wilkerson explains that caste is “neither synonymous nor mutually exclusive” with race; it is “the powerful infrastructure that holds each group in its place.” Indeed, the boundaries of whiteness have shifted over time—coming to include Eastern European and Middle Eastern immigrants like my grandparents—while the caste privileges of white people have remained fixed. The status of Arabs has always been ambiguous, contested through court cases in the early 20th century and played out in tense, sometimes violent encounters since 9/11. If caste is what keeps people in their places, Arabs have always been hard to pin down.
In 1914, a Syrian immigrant named George Dow filed suit against the United States after his bid to become a naturalized citizen was denied. Because the law at that time restricted naturalization to “aliens being free white persons” or “aliens of African nativity” or “African descent,” Dow had to prove that he was either white or Black. Not surprisingly, given the Jim Crow laws he would have faced in South Carolina, he argued that he was white.
In her 2009 book, Between Arab and White: Race and Ethnicity in the Early Syrian American Diaspora, historian Sarah M. A. Gualtieri explains that before 1909 Syrians had been granted naturalization without controversy. But as anxieties about the influx of foreigners rose, Arabs began losing what historian Ian F. Haney López called “racial prerequisite cases,” in which immigrants argued for their path to citizenship through whiteness.
Wilkerson also describes the struggles of “middle caste” people in the United States—Arabs, Asians, and everyone in between—to stake out a foothold above Black people. Yet it was an uphill climb. In 1913, Syrian immigrant Faras Shahid was denied naturalization partly because, as the judge noted, he was “somewhat darker” than “the usual mulatto.”
Dow, therefore, aimed for a scientific justification. Racial typologies classified Syrians and others from the Middle East as “Caucasian” (after all, they were closer to the Caucasus than, say, Norwegians). In 1870, anthropologist Thomas Huxley had postulated that Caucasians comprised Xanthochroic, or “fair whites,” and Melanochroic, “dark whites”: Mediterranean peoples. Dow’s lawyers bolstered this argument by noting that Syrians were considered “Semitic”—like Jews, who had not been denied naturalization on the basis of race alone (although, of course, they did then and continue now to face discrimination).
Yet Dow lost his first case. The judge utilized “common knowledge” rhetoric—the idea that an average citizen would not consider him to be white. Dow needed to prove that Arabs were white regardless of their appearance.
Dow supported his claim to whiteness by asserting that he was Christian. In a previous naturalization case, lawyers for the government had suggested that because Syrian immigrants were accustomed to the rule of a Muslim sultan in the Ottoman Empire, they wouldn’t be “predisposed toward our form of government” and thus might not “assimilate with the people of the United States.” It had been counted against Faras Shahid that he “could neither read nor write English, and spoke and understood English very imperfectly, did not understand any questions relating to the manner or methods of American government, or the responsibilities of a citizen, and could not be made to understand in English the purport of questions whether he was a polygamist or a disbeliever in organized government.” It was not enough to be racially white; one had to fit the dominant caste’s behavioral expectations as well. People such as Dow made an argument for proximity to whiteness based on political identity, moral standing, and disposition to assimilate.
Dow was denied a second time before he finally won an appeal in 1915. His victory was celebrated by Syrians across the country and in the diaspora. But like many aspects of the American dream, this supposed triumph also entailed losses—both for Syrians and for the nonwhite people from whom they differentiated themselves.
My grandfather arrived in the port of Providence, Rhode Island, in 1921, an Arabic-speaking 10-year-old from a small village in the Ottoman Empire. Between his arrival and his death at the age of 107, he became a fluent English speaker, a successful businessman, a U.S. citizen, and a white person. He had several advantages in making those transformations: he was Christian; his father was already part of an established Syrian community in Bridgeport, Connecticut; and George Dow, and others, had secured his right to enter the dominant caste.
He was also resilient, a quick learner, and a person who seized opportunities. As a child, he had walked across the Syrian desert with a flood of refugees from the Ottoman Empire’s genocide of Armenians and other Christians; his mother died along the way, and he and his 12-year-old brother got themselves to the United States alone. He left school after eighth grade and began peddling fruit and vegetables in the wealthy towns that line the Connecticut coast. After marrying a girl whose family came from the same Syrian village as he did, he had five children with her, opened a grocery market in Bridgeport, and helped found an Antiochian Orthodox church there.
My grandfather worked six and a half days a week for decades to make sure his children had a firm foothold in the white middle class. He was proud of his Syrian heritage, but he didn’t let it limit his children. He and his wife spoke only English to their kids, all of whom earned college degrees. Years after he’d peddled produce among Fairfield’s fancy beach houses, he retired there.
But when people pull themselves up by their bootstraps, there’s often someone they’re stepping on. My grandfather put the profits from his store into real estate in Bridgeport’s ghettos, renting poorly maintained houses to Black people who would not have been welcome in his own neighborhood. He passed the profits from those slums on to his children, and my mother passed them on to me.
It was my Polish grandmother who suggested naming me Rosalie, an Americanized version of the Polish Rozalia. Her own parents had named her Jadvyga, but by the time I knew her she was Ida. Clearly, she thought I’d be better off with a name most people could pronounce. Our last name, Metro, is a mystery to everyone—a shortened Polish name, or a mistake at Ellis Island?
Whatever the case may be, my name, Rosalie Metro, does not signal a race or a history. To me, our hyphen always seemed like an alibi. If we were Polish-American or Syrian-American, that meant we belonged here. My birth certificate lists my race as white. But because the racial logic of the United States is the “one drop rule,” in which the darker heritage trumps the lighter, over time I came to see myself as Arab-American. When people ask, “Where are you from?” that is what they want to know.
In college in the late 1990s, I briefly flirted with identifying as a “person of color.” (George Dow would have been appalled.) But I found that it required too much explanation. I was proud of my heritage, but I hadn’t experienced the discrimination my grandparents had, and certainly nothing like the blistering injustice suffered by Black people. Now, in my 40s, I can’t count the number of times I’ve prefaced something I said with, “As a middle-class white woman …” I always knew how hard my family worked to become middle-class, but I hadn’t thought about how hard they worked to become white—until I went to Germany.
Germans don’t talk about race. Part of the legacy of Hitler’s quest for Aryan supremacy is that white Germans do not identify as such; the only people who talk about race are neo-Nazis. Instead, the dominant caste is Deutsch—German. The subordinate caste is Ausländer—foreigners. Or more politely, people from a Migrationshintergrund, or immigrant background.
For most Ausländer, it is impossible to become Deutsch. It has nothing to do with citizenship, or with how many generations of your family have lived in Germany. Ausländer can rise in the social hierarchy by speaking perfect German, by gaining wealth and education, by taking off their headscarves and shaving their beards. But when someone asks me in German how many of the kids in my son’s preschool class are Deutsch, we both know what they mean.
Technically, white American, British, and Swedish people are also Ausländer, and the word can be used in a neutral way. But it’s easy to tell when it carries a resonance of caste. There’s a certain inflection, a lower tone of voice—much like the way white Americans mouth “Black” in public as if it’s a bad word. The Ausländer caste is heterogeneous and can include people who, in the United States, would be considered white—for instance, Polish, Russian, and Italian people who have come to work in Germany but don’t yet speak the language fluently. In a generation or two, these Ausländer might pass as Deutsch. But people with darker skin don’t have that mobility.
As in all nation-states, the idea of “German” people is a social construct that evolved over hundreds of years. Yet in the early 20th century, Germanness defined itself increasingly in opposition to a group that American whiteness was expanding to include: Semites. While Dow was arguing for U.S. citizenship on the basis of Syrians’ similarity to Jewish people, Jews in Germany were losing their rights based on pseudoscientific racial theories. Even Germans with dark hair, skin, and eyes fell under the suspicion that they carried an impure bloodline.
Isabel Wilkerson examines the Nazis’ caste system (alongside India’s) in an attempt to understand that of the United States. She notes that all three share “pillars” of heritability, purity and pollution, occupational hierarchy, and dehumanization of lower-caste people. Thankfully, most Germans soundly rejected the Nazi caste system after the Second World War, and the state has made strong efforts toward reparations for those who were harmed by it.
But less attention has been given to the social and racial hierarchy that replaced the Nazis’ brutal practices. The pillars of the Nazi caste system have been eroded by ideologies of democracy, pluralism, and multiculturalism, but there remains a clear idea of us and them. White supremacy doesn’t disappear overnight, no matter how much people in Germany (or the United States) might hope it will. Instead, the spectrum ranges from neo-Nazism at one end to the polite rejection an architecture firm accidentally shared with job applicant Yaseen Gabr last year: “no Arabs please.”
My first year in Germany, in 2007, I took a language course in the Volkshochschule, something like a community college. In my class were Turks, Italians, Brazilians, and Poles, many of them required to be there as part of their quest for citizenship. Our German-born Turkish teacher was frank with us: we might face discrimination, no matter how good our language skills became. But I never felt like she was talking to me. I was an expat, not a striver looking to make a life.
I emerged from this course with German that is bad, but not bad enough to seem like I’m not trying. It is decidedly that of an Ausländer making desperate attempts to be understood. I can start sentences fluently, but I trail off, unsure of how to make the verb agree with the subject or how to form the dreaded cases.
Nonetheless, that year, and during the year we lived in Leipzig in 2014, and through most of my time in Berlin in 2019, I continued to act like a middle-class white woman, someone who could expect to be trusted and welcomed. When people were rude to me, I snapped right back at them in my half-assed German, oblivious to what they might think. Hence the friction, the confusion, the mutual misrecognition. Meanwhile, Germany was changing around me.
Even before Germany accepted millions of refugees and asylum seekers from the Middle East, white nationalism was on the rise. While we lived in Leipzig, a group called PEGIDA (Patriotic Europeans Against the Islamization of the Occident) held marches there and in the neighboring city of Dresden. In the wake of the refugees’ arrival, the right-wing nationalist party AfD (Alternative for Germany) gained strength, increasing its support from fewer than a million votes in 2013 to more than five million in 2017. The AfD argues that immigrants and refugees drain the country’s resources and dilute its culture, and sometimes its leaders and supporters veer into open racism. In 2017, the head of the AfD in Saxony was reprimanded by the party for using the slogan Deutschland für die Deutschen (Germany for the Germans), long associated with neo-Nazis.
Leftist and centrist Germans who welcome refugees and immigrants vigorously reject the AfD’s platform. Yet the party’s margins increase in each election. Police recorded around 650 anti-Muslim hate crimes in Germany in 2020. Recent reports that neo-Nazis have infiltrated the police and the military and have been plotting violence adds to the evidence that some Germans want a return to the caste system of the 1940s.
Like Donald Trump’s “America first” rhetoric, it is racism framed as nationalism that drives the AfD and its supporters, an unexamined concept of “we” that excludes many of the people who make the economy run.
Germany in 2019 was both familiar and alien to me; I knew the hierarchy, I just didn’t know where I fit into it. One afternoon in Berlin, I was describing to a German friend an essay I wanted to write about differing ideas of customer service in Germany and the United States. I had come up with an elaborate theory about the distinction between social democracy and capitalism. I told her about the perplexing rudeness I’d encountered in stores—most recently at the ice cream shop.
My friend nodded. “Or …” she hesitated. “It could be because they think you
are … from somewhere else.”
It took a moment for what she was saying to sink in.
“You mean they think I’m—”
“Not white,” she finished.
This particular friend was a bit of an anomaly in my circle. She had studied anthropology and political science, lived in South America, and done research in Indonesia. Her partner was an Italian man who had faced discrimination himself. She explained how she had seen police racially profile Muslims and dark-skinned people during her daily train commute, singling them out for searches, insisting on seeing their IDs. Racism in Germany was more common than people thought, she explained. It might be one factor affecting how people were treating me.
I started to look back on my years living in Germany, and although my most unpleasant experiences had occurred in 2019, I began to register earlier incidents. When my second child was born in Germany, the doctors who had given me prenatal care had treated me as if I were incapable of making decisions for myself. I remembered how they would palpably relax when my blond, blue-eyed, German-fluent husband came into the room. As they talked to him about me, I felt like I was disappearing. My eyes would fill with tears, but I chalked it up to hormones. Other times, people were overly nice, explaining things to me like I was a child, going out of their way to be “welcoming.”
After my conversation with my German friend, I started to notice something. When I felt exhausted by the strain of being an Ausländer in public, I would unconsciously switch to my confident, American-accented English, pretending that I did not speak German at all. It was like magic. Instead of being one of the millions of people struggling to make it in a culture that didn’t fully accept them, I was just a tourist. People did not always understand me, but they never treated me poorly. Sometimes, they apologized that their English was not better!
I had known what racism was intellectually. I had read books and listened to friends’ stories about microaggressions. But I was unprepared for what losing my grip on whiteness might feel like. It felt like dread. It felt like steeling myself before every interaction with a bureaucrat. It felt like being ashamed by the way my children saw people treat me.
Because my kids had noticed my slipping caste status, too. They refused to go back into a particular grocery store where they’d witnessed a clerk scolding me. When I returned home after solo outings, my daughter would scan my face with concern. “Mommy, was anyone mean to you?” she’d ask.
Wilkerson explains that “what people look like, or, rather, the race they have been assigned or are perceived to belong to, is the visible cue to their caste.” Looking Middle Eastern was a clue, but not the only one. Whether I spoke fluent English or halting German was another. That seemed to be the deciding factor that strangers used to place me in the caste hierarchy.
When I explained my new theory to my white German friends—all of them progressive, well-educated people—some of them did not accept that I was experiencing racial discrimination. Although they admitted that racism existed in Germany, they were uncomfortable with the idea that it would affect me. In a way, that made sense. They were fluent English speakers, so I almost never spoke German around them. They couldn’t see the Ausländer lugging groceries through the rain. They just saw Rose, the educated professional, their equal and friend. It was hard for them to understand the sense of vulnerability I felt—an instability of status that has been shared by Arabs in many times and places.
In the 1920s, while my grandfather was peddling vegetables in Connecticut, a Syrian immigrant named Nola Romey was setting up a market in Lake City, Florida. His wife, Fannie Romey, had recently upset the local police chief after demanding compensation that her son had been promised for an auto accident. Fannie often set vegetables out on the sidewalk to display, as did many other shopkeepers. One day the police chief instructed her to move the vegetables, and she objected at first, then relented. Later that day, Nola defiantly contacted the police and told them that the vegetables were back outside. The police chief returned with more officers, who began shooting into the store, and—stunningly—Fannie pulled out her own gun and shot back. She was killed in the fight, and Nola was taken to jail. That night, a mob broke into the jail and lynched him.
The New York Evening World’s headline, “Mob in Florida Lynches White Man; Wife Slain,” illustrates the uncertain status of Arabs and places them alongside other supposedly white people who were lynched in the early 20th century: Jews like Leo Frank in Georgia, Eastern Europeans like John Hodaz in Florida. Were these men lynched despite their place in the caste hierarchy, or because of it? Sarah Gualtieri documents the virulent anti-Arab sentiment in Florida at the time of Romey’s lynching. Supreme Court ruling notwithstanding, Arabs continued to face discrimination and suspicion, as they were denied the caste privileges their whiteness was supposed to guarantee. Sadly, the Syrian community’s response was often to step aside and allow that discrimination to find another target.
A commentator in a Syrian newspaper wrote at the time: “The Syrian is not a negro whom Southerners feel they are justified in lynching when he is suspected of an attack on a white woman. The Syrian is a civilized white man who has excellent traditions and a glorious historical background and should be treated as among the best elements of the American nation.” The objection was not to extrajudicial killing per se, but to the lynching of a Syrian—ostensibly a white person.
Indeed, the Arab claim to whiteness has always been built on anti-Black racism. In 1914, after Dow lost his first case, the Syrian Society for National Defense organized a letter-writing campaign in support of Dow’s appeal. The society’s secretary wrote in an Arabic-language paper that the idea that Dow was not white was “an attack on the Syrian honor,” and he pointed out that cases like this left Syrians “no better than blacks and Mongolians.” And, as Romey’s lynching showed, that position was dangerous.
Then again, it was equally dangerous to act white when others didn’t see you that way. The details of the Romey family’s interaction with the Lake City police are not entirely clear. But I have a theory about why the police chief was so angered by Fannie’s refusal to move her vegetables off the sidewalk. She acted like she was white, and the police chief—like many other white people at the time—was not convinced.
My mother’s second husband also lived on a caste fault line. His Cape Verdean mother identified as Portuguese and wore her kinky hair pulled into a tight bun. As a child, he hadn’t understood why his father’s Italian relatives were so cold to him and his siblings, or why the neighbors scrawled the N-word on the sidewalk in front of their apartment in New Haven’s projects. It was not until adulthood that he said aloud what the world had been telling him his whole life: “I’m a Black man.”
When my mother introduced him to her parents for the first time, my grandfather used the language of class, not race, to express his disapproval. “He’s common,” my grandfather scoffed after he’d left.
My mother was furious, having hoped that my grandfather would be able to see his own similarities to her new partner. Both had experienced hardship and discrimination. Both were resilient, quick learners, people who seized opportunities. But all my grandfather saw was what he had tried not to be.
My grandfather saw my mother’s second marriage as a confusing betrayal of everything he had worked for. He had secured his children’s position in the dominant caste and largely insulated them from discrimination, but my mother, ever the rebel, had only become more interested in what was on the other side of that caste boundary.
My mother’s second marriage ended for many reasons, but I believe one of them was the stress of an intercaste relationship. The discrimination that Arabs and Blacks face in the United States is part of the same system of white supremacy but is qualitatively different. No matter how much my mother sympathized with her husband, she couldn’t prevent the assumptions her friends and coworkers made about him. She couldn’t go back across the line that her ancestors had managed to push her over.
Nor could she totally fit in herself. When I showed my mother an early draft of this essay, she pointed me toward Thomas Huxley’s term “dark whites” (“Like we’re a load of laundry!” she exclaimed). It was better than “camel driver,” which she’d been called in high school. “Dark whites” captured something about our in-betweenness: a muted, slightly dirty privilege. You can wash dark whites, but they’re never going to totally come clean.
When I started talking to my German friends about race, all kinds of hidden feelings were unearthed. One friend, who was politically supportive of accepting refugees, confessed that she felt a subtle sense of resentment when hijab-wearing Ausländer came into the thrift store operated by her children’s school. Yet she was uncomfortable using the word race—or Rasse, in German. She was shocked to learn that, unlike in Germany, birth certificates in the United States specify race, which to her seemed like a crass and unnecessary classification. Yet even if the omission is benign in intent, it carries unintended consequences: if race isn’t mentioned, racism seems to disappear. Patterns of educational and economic attainment, of incarceration, of life expectancy, of maternal and infant mortality become random dots on a graph, rather than evidence of a caste system.
In the end, my time in Germany felt like that game where you have a word written on a card stuck to your forehead, and you have to guess what the word is, based on people’s reactions to you. Clueless tourist? Social burden? Dirty Arab? Immigrant invader? I was never sure. Or was someone just having a bad day?
But my lowered caste status also opened new possibilities for solidarity. One day in the post office, I was partway through my “Please excuse my poor German” speech before I looked up and saw that the clerk had dark hair, olive skin, and a beard. He waved aside my apology. I struggled to explain what I needed. I only had a large bill—a cardinal sin in Germany—but instead of the angry theatrics I’d grown to expect, he made change from his own wallet. I thanked him, he smiled, I went on my way. It was such a surprise to be treated with respect that I almost forgot my stamps.
Over and over, it was the Ausländer who were kindest to me. When I lost my phone and arrived frantic at the Vodafone shop, only to find a long queue of stony-faced Deutsche, it was the one Ausländer who held my spot while I ran to see whether the line upstairs was shorter. When I needed directions, I sought out people who looked like me. I had never felt comfortable identifying as a person of color in the United States, but Ausländer fit.
Nonetheless, I was insulated from the full effects of being perceived as part of Germany’s lower caste. My grandparents’ work, the work of whiteness, transcended borders. The money they passed down to me had smoothed my path to an education and a stable job. I faced nothing worse than occasional unpleasantness. For so many others, the discrimination they face is unrelenting and brutal.
My experience in Germany taught me that caste is a performance, much of it rehearsed from such a young age that we forget it’s not real. And yet whom it convinces can make all the difference—in the life of George Dow, in the deaths of Nola and Fannie Romey, in the survival of an intercaste marriage. In March 2021, when a man murdered 10 people at a grocery store in Colorado, many concluded from the fact that police captured him alive that he was white; when they learned of his Syrian origins, they wondered if he was a terrorist. Syrians still aren’t accepted as simply American or German, or as fully white.
In his book Self-Portrait in Black and White, Thomas Chatterton Williams, who describes himself as an “ex-black man,” writes about his life as a racially ambiguous person, with a white mother and a Black father. He assumed that race would matter in his life, and he found that it hasn’t much. He has suggested that we can “unlearn race.” I write from the opposite side of whiteness: I had assumed that race wouldn’t matter in my life, but it has. I have more learning than unlearning to do.
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