Race Problems: ‘Blackface’ Is Big in GermanyPosted: February 13, 2014 | |
Despite a growing backlash against it, blackface is still popular in Germany, where people insist they aren’t racist
With Karneval ready to kick off later this month, many in Germany are picking out their festive getups and preparing to drink as much Hefeweizen as humanly possible. Unfortunately, some of the costume ads—like one, eloquently titled “Gaylord Afro Wig, Wet Look for Men”—invite revelers to dress up in blackface.
Despite a growing backlash against it, blackface remains common in Germany. It has a long history in this country of roughly 82 million, where Nazism is banned, but pockets of racial prejudice still hold strong. “It’s horrible that black people are being portrayed as clowns and funny-looking people,” says Tahir Della, spokesperson for the Initiative for Black People in Germany, an anti-racism group. “It’s degrading.”
Mockery, if not total degradation, is part of the history of Germany’s Karneval. Though the holiday itself goes back further, the tradition of wearing costumes developed during the 1800s in the western part the country. At the time, the Germans were under French rule, and they used Karneval as a chance to mock their foreign overlords.
In the modern era, the mockery has moved into other realms. It’s all supposed to be in good fun, but it often crosses the line. One advertisement for a costume on Amazon features a white actor in blackface with cartoonish red lips, a minstrel-like smile, a spear in one hand and a bone in the other (the company did not immediately respond to a request for comment). Another costume on Karneval-Megastore, a site run by the German company Kultfaktor, features a man in blackface wearing a grass skirt with a bone through his nose.
After I called Kultfaktor and asked about the costumes, the company apologized, saying it had returned them to the manufacturer, and expressing “regret and dismay” that anyone would think these outfits were racist.
“Karneval is all about having fun,” says the Kultfaktor spokesperson. “Of course we play with clichés, but this fact also applies at Karneval to all categories of people. We also have costumes that take light-skinned people for a ride, and this may be overlooked.”
For light-skinned people, however, that ride is different. The history of blackface dates back hundreds of years to American minstrel shows, which popularized some of the most harmful stereotypes about black people: That they’re lazy, stupid, brutish and subhuman. These bogus ideas—commonly used to justify slavery—soon became the images of blacks that spread across the Atlantic. (Sadly, some of them are still hanging around, both in the U.S. and abroad, albeit in different forms.)
In Germany today, many have tried to claim that minstrel shows were a uniquely American phenomenon with little or no history on the continent, but that’s simply not true. If anything, blackface is now widely shunned in the U.S., though there are some glaring exceptions.
Europe has been slower to change. In Germany, chocolate-covered marshmallows are still often called Negerkuss, or “Negro kiss,” and some German-made candy was pulled from the shelves in Sweden just a few weeks ago, following customer complaints that its ads were racist.
- Open Letter To Non Blacks, Melanin Is NOT A Costume. (alonabruce.wordpress.com)
- Blackface Still Popular in Germany (dailystormer.com)
- Germany Has a Blackface Problem (jezebel.com)
- Shook Ones: ELLE Magazine Editor Apologizes For Dressing Up As Solange In Blackface Costume (bossip.com)
- Serra High joins blackface controversy (utsandiego.com)
- Blackface: More Than Just a Costume (rtgomer.com)
- Blackface costumes revive controversy at Halloween (aurorasentinel.com)