Joel Stonington, Vocativ, 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 this 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.
Two years ago, a German theater chose to feature actors in blackface—a decision that sparked online backlash. At the time, some argued that there weren’t enough black actors in Germany. But Della says this was just an excuse used to justify the practice. Few, he says, were willing to take a real look at what dressing in blackface really means: That on some level, we’re giving credence to the ideas behind the shoe polish.
So why is it still acceptable in Germany? Part of the problem is that racism here means Nazism, according to T. Vicky Germain, a filmmaker and activist in Berlin. If you try and explain why something’s racist, people will often give you an annoyed look and say they aren’t Nazis. “That’s a serious problem,” says Germain.
Just two months ago, nearly 7 million people tuned in to ZDF, a major, publicly funded German TV station, when the program presenter on Wetten, Dass…? (Wanna Bet That…?) dared the audience to come dressed as two characters in a well-known children’s book. For one of the characters, the presenter suggested audience members use “coal or shoe polish” to blacken their faces.
The studio audience complied, and so did the mayor of Augsburg, a city of in southern Germany. After the incident, the network refused to apologize, and the local newspaper argued that the incident could not be called racist because audience members were dressing up like a “bold, adventurous and sympathetic hero.”
As one Reddit user, whose name has since been deleted, writes: “I bet that about 99 percent of Germans could not tell you what a minstrel show or blackface is. [The children’s character] has a positive image here and this has nothing to do with a minstrel type black caricature at all.”