There's a common line that apologists love to trot out when we're discussing incidents of blackface in cultures outside of the U.S., particularly in Europe. "It's not as offensive," they say. "Blackface doesn't have the same history over there." This, widely speaking, is a lie. Blackface has been used all over the world to degrade and dehumanize darker skinned people, both because of American influence and because racism does indeed exists everywhere.
In modern Europe (and in modern America), white people putting on blackface for costume parties, Halloween and Carnival continues to be a problem and nowhere is this more true than in Germany.
As Joel Stonington at Vocativ writes:
Despite a growing backlash against it, blackface remains common in Germany. It has a long history in this country of roughly 82 million, where Nazism is banned, but pockets of racial prejudice still hold strong. "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."
As Germany's Karneval celebration rapidly approaches, costume shops are increasing their stock of options for those who are looking to dress up as offensive caricatures of different races to celebrate the holiday. There's this costume featuring a woman in traditional minstrel makeup, dressed in a generic tribal outfit, complete with a bone and spear. There's another of a man painted in charcoal black, wearing an afro and a bone through his nose. Then there's one titled "Gaylord Afro Wig, Wet Look for Men" that's so confusing I can't even start explaining it. (Stonington has included photos of the costumes in his article.)
When Stonington spoke with costume retailer Kultfaktor about the inclusion of racist costumes, a spokesperson responded that "Karneval is all about having fun. 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."
Karneval may be about having fun, sure, but it's also historically about mockery — traditionally a mockery of those in power (i.e. typically not black people) — and that's not to be overlooked either.
It's not as if Germany's problem with blackface doesn't move beyond Karneval. From politicians dressing in blackface to complaints over racist candy to play actors wearing minstrel makeup because the director "couldn't find a suitable black actor," the problem is prevalent and the culture appears reluctant to change.
So why is [blackface] 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.
People all over the world, join hands, and let's all just make a blanket agreement the blackface (and any other kind of [insert color here]face) is just a bad, offensive idea no matter where you're from. Sound good? Great.
Image via Getty.