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).
I'm with my children at a holiday event in a large party tent and during dinner, the boys get up to get drinks. While they are gone, a woman comes over and starts clearing away the plates to make room for herself, until I say, "Excuse me, my kids are sitting there."
"Well there is still plenty of room for me," she says, without stopping. Then she squeeezes herself in and moves my kids' jackets to make room for her friend.
I'm in line at the post office and realize I've written the wrong zip code on the package. I ask my children to stay in line while I go to the desk with the pens. When I return, my eldest has a disappointed look on his face and whispers in my ear, "That man just cut in front of us." I looked at the man and said, "Excuse me, you just cut in front of my kids. They were standing in line." He simply shrugged and turned around and ignored me.
I am listening to a German friend talk about her love troubles and she tells me, in the memorized speech she got straight from therapy "I can not hurt someone, a person allows him/herself to be hurt" and "I am not responsible for how someone else interprets my words."
Wow, really? We're no longer responsible for what we say or how we behave? I don't mean to sound overly moral here, but since when do our actions not have an impact on others? That's not what they told us in kindergarten!
The first and second situations certainly appear less trivial than the third example but aren't they all situations in which self entitlement takes over empathy?
CBS readers know I have struggled, laughed and been shocked by German bluntness (which I would say sometimes crosses the line into rudeness) and I wonder if the directness, saying what one thinks regardless of how it is perceived, isn't simply a part of the already prevelant German preoccupation with Selbstverwirklichung or "self realization" or the all-about-me syndrome.
How long, honestly, can you realize yourself without eventually becoming insensitive? I also wonder, does this have anything to do with Germany's anemic birthrate? The German government has resorted to all kinds of benefits for new families, yet the German birthrate remains very low. Might it have something to do with not having time/interest in committing to someone/anything other than one's self? I know I'm going to get some comments about this theory. . . but it almost seems logical in a country where there is so much emphasis placed on the self that the job of parenting, which sometimes requires being selfless, is a very unpopular one here.
You’ve spent over a decade trying to make it work. You learned a language that hurts your face, you said goodbye to your home, your comfort zone, your roots and everything else that needed no explanation in your heart or mind. You started a family in a place where you weren’t a child. You learned nursery rhymes that you never sang as a kid. You put real candles on a Christmas tree even though you internally panicked at the thought of your kids going up in flames. You fit-in, every time. You passively questioned what it meant about your identity, but you did it nonetheless.
You were careful not to assimilate, because "educated" expats don’t have to. You weren’t dependent on the foreign state. You didn’t have to be here/there. Still, you cared what they thought about you. You knew you would never look or sound like the rest, who take home for granted (as you once took home for granted). You didn’t hide who you were but you also didn’t be who you are.
You yanked out a couple of roots. You drank the kool-aid, “you’re here now, make your life here.” You took a step too far into the here and away from, not just the past, but from you, your culture, your view of the world, the way things make sense to you.
Hey, don’t be too hard on yourself. It’s a delicate balance. You wanted approval, admiration and acknowledgement that you tried. You also wanted to challenge yourself, at least that’s what you told yourself.
But you realized, (it has taken you quite a bit of time) that you follows you wherever you go. It watches while you try on another exterior, but it keeps reminding that you’ve forgotten something, you’ve left something behind in the changing room.
A country ain’t nothing but a place. A place is incidental, it's the you that that's the constant. Pick up your boots immigrant/ordinary/extraordinary girl, dust them off, walk on your own, lift up your chin, look at your blue-eyed world with your brown eyes and count and sing in the language you know. One, two, three. . . look at me, (or don’t, it doesn't matter anymore) Four, five, six, pick up sticks. Is it corny? Of course it is. You are corny, you were born in the 70s, you wore brown and orange to kindergarten and you drank from plastic cups in neon colors, you ate too much, non-organic junk food until you got to college, you listened to hip hop, you did The Wop, you watched too much TV, you thought New York was the center of the universe, you cursed too much, through your cracked open Brooklyn window, you listened to Meringue blasting from the corner store and you couldn't help but shake your black girl’s posterior, you once smoked a blunt with a half Jewish, half Iraqi friend, you wore heels that were too high and stayed out too late, you read the New York Times in the subway using the ¼ fold that makes sense.
You became a woman in the imperfect place of superficial people who start too many wars around the world. That’s where you come from. This is who you are and you like you. You are happy to shake the native’s hand and listen to his story but you also don’t need his approval or his opinion about it. Not any more.
Welcome to your new year, ordinary/extraordinary/immigrant girl. Welcome to 2012.