Since moving to Germany, I’ve often been surprised by the lack of racial sensitivity in the country. Of course, Germany’s 20th Century history always lurks in the background and generally Germans have (quite rightly) zero tolerance for Neonazis or Holocaust denial. But I have witnessed, I suppose what you would call, a lot casual racism borne out in the language, media, politics and everyday conversation.
For instance, yesterday I came across a Deutsche Welle article on the Afro-German experience which I think illustrates what I’ve encountered quite well. In it, Sharmaine Lovegrove, the black British owner of the English bookstore Dialogue Books in Berlin, mentions an anti-racism play at the Schlosspark Theater in which a white actor is blackfaced. She said she was shocked when she saw the posters and wondered what type of place she was living in. I personally nearly fell off the bench in the u-bahn station upon seeing the posters for the play. The play’s director says he could not find a black actor suitable for the role and instead decided to paint a white actor black, seemingly seeing no clash with the play’s anti-racism message, despite the history of blackface theatre. I spoke to a Canadian friend of mine about it who told me about one of the election posters used by the sartirical political party, Die Partei, during the Berlin senate elections in September of last year. The posters depicted comedian and former Titanic editor Martin Sonneborn (who was running for election for the sartirical party) painted black as President Obama alongside the words “Ick bin ein Obama” – a reference to JFK’s famous “Ich bin ein Berliner” speech. Sonneborn was subject to widespread criticism for the poster, but when asked about it, he merely said that he wasn’t aware of the history of blackface and didn’t care if it offended anyone. Is a plea of ignorance really a good enough excuse especially when you’ve since been informed about the connonations of your words or actions?
African immigration to Germany is traditionally quite low, probably because of the lack of historical ties here. (People like to point to Germany’s generally non-colonial past, but let’s not kid ourselves Germany did have some African colonies and its treatment of its conquered subjects was brutal.) Perhaps Germans feel it is not their history and for this reason are not sensitive to it. Perhaps it’s that the Afro-German community is relatively small. I’m not sure. But I do think that Rochelle Rowe, a London-born academic who lives in Berlin, makes a pertinent point in the DW article about identity politics and the seeming difficulty in Germany with having a hyphenated identity:
“One of the feelings she has is that people seem to be disappointed when she says where she is from. ‘They’re looking for something sounding more exotic. This might be to do with the problem there seems to be here of being able to be of a migrant background and German at the same time,’ she explained. ‘I don’t feel the need to say ‘I’m from London but my grandparents came from Barbados.’ I’m black British and it’s an established identity that people have fought for.’
This issue is reflected in Germany’s citizenship laws and treatment of the country’s Turkish poplution. It’s something I want to delve into more. Unfortunately this is a very unformed post full of partially-formed thoughts. I want to do more research on it and will blog about it again soon.