Despite a growing PC backlash against it, blackface is still hugely 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 possible.
It has a long history in this country of roughly 82 million, where Nazism is banned.
“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.”
Hougan Jean Claude is possessed by the Spirit Ogou. Ogou is the male warrior spirit who wields a machete during the ceremony. Ogou is known as a tough task master who regularly calls people out at ceremonies to demand that the become initiated into the Vodou religion.
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. 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.
The company later 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, stereotypes about black people linger: That they’re lazy, stupid, brutish and subhuman.
In Germany today, many claim that minstrel shows were a uniquely American phenomenon with little or no history on the continent. But blackface is sometimes 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.
Germany’s blackface problems go far beyond costumes or candy. German Chancellor Angela Merkel posed with children dressed in blackface last year for an official event.
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.
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.”
On social media, some were outraged, as the hashtag #blackface spread widely. But the practice is still so common—in costume ads and elsewhere—that it’s not likely to disappear anytime soon.