Why Black-Face Isn't Funny, a Simple Guide for Germans
I noticed the poster in the subway station about a month ago and shook my head in annoyance. I didn't go home and write a blog about it, I didn't complain to my husband and ask why, why, why? I just sighed and thought, "Man, this is getting so tired."
I have to confess, I've lowered my expectations. A lot. I have seen white people painted brown so often these last eleven years in Germany I've sort of gotten used to it in a passively disgusted way.
Then, a few days ago, I received an email from a black woman relatively new to Berlin who was upset by the poster (advertising a play in Berlin in which there is a black character played by a white actor) and the controversy it caused. But racial controversy rarely ever seems to change much here. Instead of apologies there are explanations as to why something isn't meant that way, articles debating whether or not the R word is applicable. . .and the usual, self-entitled response of the accused, I didn't mean to be offensive, therefore, it wasn't offensive. (is the previous post coming to anyone's mind?)
Because there appears to be no way to have a sophisticated discussion about why black-face is not acceptable, ever, let me try to break it down in simple terms:
* Black-face is an offensive depiction of black people that goes back to the 19th century American minstrel shows. Don't know about it? Get a book or just type it into Wikipedia. Even if the minstrel aesthetic is not being replicated, painting white people black/brown is still painfully reminiscent of this denigrating period. It's not funny. Ever. Don't go there. You come across as ignorant, racist and everyone will start blaming it on your history.
* If you have a black character. . .get a black person to play it. There is no excuse Germany, there are plenty of black Germans. Stop being lazy and get a casting director who has heard of Tyron Ricketts, Ernest Allan Hausmann, Charles Huber. . .
* Even if you think you're a smart investigative journalist who wants to know about the black experience in Germany, drop the brown make-up. Just ASK black people here what it's like being black in Germany. Save yourself the hours of make-up application and the ridicule you'll receive from your colleagues after your stunt.
* When you're caught being insensitive and offensive to a group of people who have been persecuted, try putting yourself in their shoes, not now, but during the period in history when they were being persecuted. Saying, "I wouldn't be offended if someone painted himself white?" is irrelevant because your ancestors were never slaves, were never depicted as apes raping white German women (don't know about that, then read about Die Schwarze Schmach), your ancestors were not considered to be partially human and, well, as I recommend in point 1, reading helps.
* It's tasteless.
* You already have a bad rap with all the anti-immigrant sentiment and reports coming out about how much anti-Semiticism there is here. Don't add fuel to the fire.
* By the way, black people aren't just black because of their/our skin color. Take a chance, dig deeper, accept that there are cultural, historical and societal experiences that might influence a black character in a way that your white fill-in can't.
*Stop asking "is there anything that isn't offensive. . .soon we won't be able to say anything without someone having a tantrum." Yes, you will have to start being culturally and racially sensitive and limit your fun to the Schlager TV Channel, FKK and drinking yourselves into oblivion when your favorite soccer team wins (or loses).