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Black In Berlin: If Europe Was Graded On Its Race Relations, It’d Fail

White and non-white relationships in Germany and the rest of Europe aren’t as good as locals want you to think. The progressiveness Europe clings to when comparing itself to the United States bares some inconsistencies though some countries in the EU have universal health care, a death penalty ban and recognize same sex marriages. All these things are great but when it comes to acknowledging racism and its impact on the growing multi-cultural population of Europe, I would have to give them a collective D-.

A few examples (click the links, they’ll help)

  • In Finland a chocolate covered marshmallow treat went by the name “negerkyss” (negro kiss) up until 2001. Although the name changed to “Brunberg Kisses” the chocolate company still uses the offensive logo of two stereotypical African cartoon characters barely clothed with bright red lips.
  • In modern day Netherlands on December 5th, Sinterklaas (Santa) is accompanied by his servants Zwarte Piet or Black Pete. Black Petes are commonly portrayed by white Dutch adults who wear black face paint, bright red lips and afro wigs. If the imagery isn’t offensive enough, to add insult to injury the Black Pete’s typically speak pigeon Dutch in a Surinamese accent, jumping around like utter baffoons. Santa is, of course, always white and in a position of authority.
  •  Another holiday culture foul is committed when groups of children in Germany go from door to door pretending to be the Wise Men celebrating the birth of Jesus. They sing and ask for donations for charity while wearing costumes. One kid gets to paint his face black because it is believed that one of the wise men was from Africa. We (as in Christmas celebrating Christians) can ignore the fact that Jesus most likely wasn’t born in the winter time but ,wait oh wait, in the interest of historical accuracy Germans have to have one black wise man? Really Germany?
  • Most recently in my city of Berlin, a theater group decided to cast a white man in blackface as the lead black character in the play “I’m not Rappaport.” The theater maintains they have no racist intention and that basically, in Germany’s most cosmopolitan city, they couldn’t find one suitable black actor who spoke with a “perfect” German accent. I call shenanigans.

Racism denial aficionados usual spam the Internets and dinner conversation with the following gems and after my eyerolls I usually give replies like these:

If you don’t like the traditions of the Netherlands/Germany/etc, you can just pack up and leave.

Well, what an intelligent and truly original argument. Anti-immigration rhetoric really doesn’t do well in painting anyone as an unracist, just sayin’. Telling someone to GTFO is probably one of the most xenophobic defense mechanisms I have ever heard. I really get it, you want to be allowed to be as bigoted and insensitive as you want in your own country but we are in modern times and the gates are open. Not only are borders disappearing but there are brown and black Germans, people who find these things just as offensive as an politically correct, uber-sensitive American such as myself. Many claim they don’t hear criticisms coming from the inside, I would argue that they aren’t exactly listening and simply don’t want to.

Europe is not North America. Europe does not have the same cultural context of America in regards to blackface and minstrel shows therefore our black face isn’t racist.

Not having the same racist history as America doesn’t make you exempt from committing racist acts in modern day. Just because Europe doesn’t share the same history of minstrel shows, it does not mean it is immune to the influence of them. How do you suspect that the same image of black people that disseminated across America is still common place globally and dancing like an idiot around Santa Claus? Europe can no longer seek shelter in their “this isn’t America” cocoon. Act accordingly by accepting that people find it offensive and change. Painting one’s skin or mimicking ethnic traits of a minority as a general rule of thumb is not cool. It’s debasing and unnecessary! FACT.

It is totally harmless and it’s strickly for the LOL’s.

Harmless to you, that’s your privilege as a member of the majority culture! In many instances these “portrayals” of dark skinned people are the only depictions of minorities that some people will ever see. There simply are not enough black people to provide balance to often negative messages these images send. I think of the effects on the psyche of a child, especially one of color growing up bombarded with this imagery. How will they grow up feeling about themselves  if they constantly see year after year, dark skin people acting a fool for Santa and learning that it’s only cool to have dark skin when you can wipe it off.

It’s not racist/offensive.

Sigh. Germans, Dutch, Danes, French, Brits, have all looked me dead in the face and told me something that offended me was not racist. Like a little kid with their fingers in their ears, they just aren’t hearing it. I think Europeans have an aschewed understanding of racism. Hell, even Americans have a hard time discerning what is racist and what is not and supposedly we wrote the book. The problem is that many believe racism is an American anomaly and when they envision racism they picture active violence, flagrant misuse and abuse towards a certain group. They don’t understand that racism isn’t always making white and blacks use different water fountains or hauling  state deemed undesirables to concentration camps. It’s not always so blatant and brutal. It can also be subtle, passive, subliminal. Pertuating archetypes that present an entire race as inferior imbeciles, dehumanzing an entire race of people to some one dimensional shade of grease paint  and using a white German for a role because you simply don’t think a non-ethnic German can do a good enough job are all manifestations of racist sentiments.

I am just being an over-sensitive American?

Last 5 posts by Nicole is the new black

  • Geepoet

    Back in March 2006, I wrote & edited a special issue of Exberliner titled Blacks in Berlin. Racism, of course, among other topics, was explored. And the magazine editor told me that her young, white German staff had demured. They held that there was no racism in Berlin because blacks could enter many (not all!) discos and dance with whites. That’s it! A bit of weekend interracial booty-bumping was held as PROOF that Berlin was non-racist! 
    Take care,
    G. Lasana

  • natashazoe

    I agree with most of what you are saying, but Germany does not equal Europe.  Don’t fall into the American trap of thinking all Europeans are the same.  

  • I know Germany does not equal Europe, I live in Germany but also cite instances from Finland and the Netherlands. My experiences with the racism denial happens with more than Germans. To portray this as a German only problem would be silly. Europe on a whole needs to take a look at how they address racism.

  • Haha this reminds of the time someone invited me to a goth rave like thing. It was in a part of town where occasionally racial stuff pops off.  I asked the girl who invited me if it was safe for me to go to this club. Considering the girl was white, she never really paid attention to note if skin heads attended this club and she said she had never seen a black person all the weeks she had gone.  A German who was attending the same party said, oh dont be silly,  you will have no problem, I have even seen people in wheelchairs there. Now I just didnt know how to take her response. She kinda fanned off my question as if it was ludicrous for me to even be concerned. I mean was she equating my skin color to being disabled?
    I find the dismissal of racism dangerous.

  • One reason why I never visited Berlin because of skinheads and other racist groups. Europe is Europe and there are still a lot of places more accepting than other, even though I still enjoyed my life there.

  • Erkin da styler

    A black wise man….. those intolerant Germans will never learn! Making fun even out of their own religion.

    U think you blacks can’t go in every Club?!?…noo way I often get blocked by black bouncers in Hamburg, just because I’m turkish!! And because they are not muslim!!

    And no your not an over-sensitive American. Americans are not sensitive, they always think they are best and lead crusades against peaceful countries!!

  • Excellent post. As a Berliner (and an American) it never ceases to amaze me how a nation like Germany that says “never again” about once being led by the biggest racist in history not too long ago (yeah, I went there), still isn’t quite sure what’s racist and what isn’t. I mean they’ve made great strides since and represent social fairness around the world in a lot of ways, but domestically still I’m afraid Germany (and Europe, yes) is a couple decades behind the US as far as race relations go. And this is coming from a big US-critic. The US excels here, sorry. And let’s not forget what last year’s best-selling book in Germany was… http://www.thelocal.de/national/20120114-40111.html (plus, check the islamophobic comments on that link, too).

  • Longshanks

    I find the illustration on the Brunberg Kisses box to be only slightly offensive. Take away the guy’s drums and put a shirt on him, and I think that that picture could stand, and it wouldn’t be offensive.
    And, what’s offensive about a black Wise Man? Is it that it’s a white kid in blackface? Well, so what? If they don’t have a black kid in their group and they want to represent one of the Wise Men as black, what else are they going to do?
    For the record, I’m a white Canadian.

  • Guest

    The three wise men are racist? Honestly, I don’t get it.  Racism is “a belief that race is the primary determinant of human traits and capacities and that racial differences produce an inherent superiority of a particular race” (http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/racism).  How does this definition apply here? Last time I looked, the particular way epiphany is celebrated in Germany had nothing with the superiority of one race over the other or with a connection of race and human traits and capacities.

    The tradition that one of the three wise men was black goes back to artistic depictions in the late Middle Ags and is deeply symbolic.  Before that time, artists had already shown the wise men to be representatives of all age groups (a young, a middle-aged, and an old man). The symbolic meaning behind this was of course that the Christian message is universal, that it concerns everybody. In the same vein, medieval artists later portrayed the three wise men as representatives of the three continents that were known at the time: Africa, Asia, and Europe.  This depiction has become traditional and the get-up of the “star singer” kids is based on it. Incidentally, representing one of the three wise men as black and as a king has nothing to do with wanting to be “historically accurate” – like the date when Christmas is celebrated, it’s a tradition that developed over time.

    I fail to see where racism comes into play. Is it because tradition has it that one of the first followers of Christ, a “wise man” and a king, was black? Or is it the fact that white German children use black make-up to represent this king (if there is no  black child to play the part – not an uncommon occurence, given Germany has a black population of less than 1 %) ? In either case, there is no belittling or degrading of black people involved, which would be a sign of racism. The black “wise man” is, as the name already implies, not a clownesque role – quite the opposite.Please don’t take it personally, but yes, I think you’re being oversensitive and  lack intercultural understanding. What you’re doing is transferring your own cultural traditions to a different country, apparently believing them to be  independent of time and place. The tradition of minstrel shows and blackfacing, which is virtually unknown in Germany, developed in an entirely different context centuries later and had completely different aims: amusing white people and belittling black people. It is, in short, clearly racist. Because white actors used black make-up  in the minstrel shows, painting your face black has, understandably, become a taboo in the United States. But demanding that all other people in the world follow specific U.S. traditions in cases where the use of black make-up occurs in a non-racist context smacks of a certain cultural insularity and (sorry!) also of cultural arrogance. Would be a bit like me going to India and complaining that “all these foolish natives are clearly Nazis, because they have swastikas all over the place. In Germany, swastikas are forbidden, how dare those Indians display them? No matter if they claim that their swastikas are religious symbols that have nothing to do with Nazism – it’s  time that a more enlightened human being, that is  a German like myself, educated them!”Please don’t get me wrong – I am NOT denying that there is racism  in Germany. Unfortunately, German society has its fair share of it. But pointing to the epiphany celebrations as an instance of racism is completely off the mark.

  • P

    Don’t speak if you don’t know what you’re talking about…. Sinterklaas is not racist! ‘Zwarte Pieten’ are black because of the ashes from when they climb down the chimney. They do not speak with an Surinam accent or wear afro wigs, they jump around because in the stories they jump from roof to roof to deliver the presents. Every dutch child knows these things… You obviously didn’t do any research and just assumed it was racist because you’re an over-sensitive ignorant american.

  • عمر عثمان

    Excellent Article! I am not sure If we are witnessing a revival of white supremacy and an assertion of white privilege or it has been there for a few centuries in the “west”, and it is getting better. If we are witnessing a revival of the ideology, then it is definitely fueled by the growing inequality caused by the racist “neoliberal” economic policy that is aiming at enriching white people at the cost of others and aiming at creating a racist division of labor in the world. The recent growing racial ideology is also provoked by the large immigration waves of non Europeans to European countries and the increasing of their % of population, which means a competition against western culture and dominance.

  • Sinterklaas

    Yawn. Crying racism is so tired. America is racist. Europe is racist. African-American women can clearly never be happy anywhere on Earth.

  • steph

    I am heading to Germany from the States for work and I am terrified considering I’m black. I’m already getting a very negative vibe from the people I work with in Germany, but I was advised to travel there because it might help shape things up. A part of me doesn’t really want to go. I careless about the cold treatment, but my mind is just not at ease because i just keep thinking of them hurting me physically.

    I don’t know why anyone would hate another human being or feel they are better of. I just think anyone that does that has low self esteem.

    God bless Ameerica! In as much we complain about In Justice in America, no other place in the world woulld give a black man/woman an opportunity to be whoever they want to be.

  • Jessica2248

    That’s not in any way a generalizing statement. SMH!

  • Jessica2248

    I lived in Germany for a little over 6 years. If you made it all this time in America, you will most definitely be fine in Germany. There will be instances of bigotry everywhere you go, but I would stake my life that it is not nearly as horrible as in America. If you’re already there…travel!

  • Jessica2248

    That’s not true! I had the time of my life in Germany! I even have fun in the states sometimes.

  • BakerGirl70

    Then use a BLACK child to be the BLACK wise man; not a white child in black face. Are you serious??

  • Countess Night Fury

    I’ve traveled to Europe 4x since 1999, and I noticed on my last visit – 2010 – that there are far more people of color than there were on my first. I have racially vague features and always feared I would be mistaken for a Gypsy, which is one reason I have not been to Eastern Europe other than parts of the Czech Republic the last time I was overseas. However, I never felt self-conscious in any German city (except Berlin somewhat), and I was treated better by the Germans in Munich and Cologne and some others cities than I have by many of my fellow Americans (White, of course – I live in the South). I wouldn’t allow racism to prevent me from ever returning to Europe, but I would definitely be more aware. By the way, I never had issues with the Italians or the Austrians.

  • Marolas

    I can understand why some of these can be deeply offensive, and not only for a black person, but for anyone with a certain degree of sensitivity…

    But the wise men?? Really??

    I totally fail to understand why is that even slightly racist…. The wise men were believed to be 3 kings from 3 different continents, one is european, one is asian and one is african. The three of them are equally respected.

    During epiphany celebrations, some towns hire actors (i.e. from different ethnicities depending on their role) to play the kings in a big parade for children . Although in some countries it is also a tradition that small kids get dressed up as the “wise men”. That involves wearing white wig and beard to play the old european king, long brown beard and asian clothes to play the asian king, and african clothes for the african king. The face is usually painted too, with the european king displaying very wrinkled and pale face cos he’s also the oldest, the asian having darker/light brown skin, and the african darkest/black skin.

    How is this disrespectful at all??