Blackface is not a new phenomenon, but the attitudes around it have evolved with the changing times. Today it may be seen as shocking or taboo, but its racist roots can be traced back almost two hundred years. While in the 1800s this “humor” was accepted as open racism that justified slavery and Jim Crow laws in the United States and other oppressive policies against People of Color by the West, today white society tries to avoid the guilt of its roots while gripping the giggles.
A brief review… Blackface has been a staple in Western Society since the mid 19th century, when white men first began to perform “minstrel shows”. These performances date back to the Transatlantic Slave era when European colonizers kidnapped and enslaved African Peoples. Blackface was a form of entertainment amongst white mass society that perpetuated stereotypes of inferiority about Africans held in bondage. These stereotypes were imposed on Africans by white society in order to justify and normalize the brutality of enslavement and exploitation. White men would paint their skin black with grease, cork, or even shoe polish, and dance and sing on stage for white audiences as if a “happy” “silly” “loyal” and most importantly – “stupid” — slave. The humor was simple: See how these savages are? Slavery… They love it! And if that could make the white audience roar with laughter, how bad could it really be then?
And that’s the point. Racist humor functions as a license issued by and for the Oppressor to dehumanize those they oppress with a joke, normalizing their violence and downplaying its effects with a chuckle. It’s cognitive dissonance.
Western societies that have built their empires on the colonization and enslavement of People of Color across the world normalize their oppression so that it can continue on today, morphing, coding, and evolving from language to policy in order to perpetuate the system.
We saw this play out last month when Guido Cantz gave a disturbing Blackface performance on the television show “Verstehen Sie Spass?” (Do You Get ‘Funny’? Yes, ironic). The skit included all Aryan characters, from the host and woman seeking his help to the audience members eager to witness something scandalous.
The woman claimed her father went missing in South Africa (of all places) and she hadn’t seen him since. The host then “revealed” to have found her father, calling him out to the stage. To everyone’s “surprise” however, they are joined by Guido Cantz in Blackface. (Spoiler Alert: That’s funny because he’s not white like them… see: othering, or Africans! Ew! Ha ha!).
Blackface Guido then goes on to try and reconnect with “his daughter” while she and the host awkwardly scramble to get out of the situation. Their faces look tense and disgusted when they interact with Guido, asking him questions in an attempt to lead him to the conclusion they’ve already come to: He can’t be her father — he’s Black and she’s white! How can he not see? Oh, because he’s a stupid African! Funny!
And if that’s not already hilarious enough, the skit continues with this “funny” (see: racist) dialogue between the three of them where Blackface Guido speaks in broken English frosted with what my American-ears can only perceive as a bad attempt at a pseudo Indian accent. The punchline of Verstehen Sie Spaß is simple: Look how stupid this “African” is! Hilarious!
It’s gut-punching. Literally.
Around 1 million Black People are estimated to live in Germany out of a population of 80 million. But the small numbers are no reflection of our strength or depth here. Black People have a long and complex relationship in Germany. Our roots go back to the early 1700s when the Ghanaian Anton Wilhelm Amo studied at the University of Helmstedt and went on to lecture across the country. The strength of those roots could be seen in the response to the Verstehen Sie Spass episode aired last month. Black people all across the country were calling out the Blackface broadcasted on our tv screens, our message clear: Not then, not now, not ever.
Our societies are as they are because of the intricate relationship between power, culture, and history, not an unlucky strike of cosmic dice. To talk about the oppressive nature of Blackface in 2016 could be compared to continuing a conversation that has been going in circles for almost 200 years. For Western Society to play up old racist tropes in 2016 is not edgy or new, nor is it part of any artistic or satirical freedom of expression. It’s lazy and oppressive. We will loudly resist the normalization of racist stereotypes in media. This is a matter of dignity, not debate.
That means the appropriate response from SWR (the channel that aired Blackface Guido) would have been in the form of an apology.
We recognize the roots of Blackface and in that context this episode was inappropriate and highly offensive. We extend a deep apology to the community we’ve offended and will work to produce better content in the future.
Maybe they’d even hire some Black people on the network to avoid blunders like this in the future. Sadly, SWR instead reminded the world why we must continue to fight for basic human recognition. They responded by saying that the skit was neither defaming, discriminatory, or injurious but “obviously believable”; and they feel bad if anyone was offended.
Or in other words, white people have once again appointed themselves as the definers of all that is defaming, discriminatory, and injurious after inflicting pain on another community to avoid responsibility and reform. Then to add insult to injury, they’ve twisted the debacle to position themselves in a place of victimhood because of their guilty “feelings”. Here’s my response:
Dear SWR, don’t cry me a river of the same Aryan tears that were dripping down your face while you watched that Verstehen Sie Spass episode. Are you kidding me? This is white fragility on an institutional level. Deal with it.
And in the meantime we will continue to speak out and protest Blackface in society, at full volume. Unapologetically. As long as it remains a staple across Western Society. From Verstehen Sie Spass in Germany to Sinterklaas in the Netherlands to Halloween costumes across the West, white people continue to paint their skin to perpetuate ideas of inferiority about Black people and normalize their own cognitive dissonance about their relationship to oppression… In order to escape the acknowledgement that they are a problem. But it’s only in admitting that that they can begin to change.
Blackface has existed in our societies for centuries, and to have a conversation with white people about it 200 years in (at the state of this world right now) is, as SWR demonstrated in their response, moot. We know white supremacy exists. We see it parade in politics, talk on tv, sneer at us in stations, follow us in the store. We understand its roots.
So if this is actually a white people problem for white people to solve, where do we go once we’ve yelled our lungs dry? And where do we go between call-outs?
We go to us: The millions of Black people all over the world expressing ourselves and telling our own narratives. We find and support our own voices. Amplify them. Echo them.
Ultimately, this is what empowers us and ignites change. I believe that everyone wants that, even white people. But as long as they choose to cling to the same racist skits and oppressive tropes they’ve clung to for centuries, we’re leaving them behind. Because even in our dust, one white person has a bad idea and it ends up on television. Millions of Black people have good ideas all the time; where are they?
All around us. Turn off SWR and find them. Your community, your healing, your strength. The time is now.
This sentiment of superiority – racism, xenophobia, islamophobia, classism, and homophobia – which built up Western nations through colonization is currently erupting from beneath the surface like wildfire. Alt-right groups have sprouted up around the West and their hatred and phobia are manifesting in policy from Brexit to the election of Donald Trump for U.S. president.
And so, while Blackface Guido stings to see, we must continue to look at the situation in its entirety, acknowledging the intersections of social and political issues and discussing their relationships to racism, history, and justice. Most importantly, we must continue to be loud about our existences, which means amplifying only our true voices, faces, and identities, whether it’s in protest against Blackface or celebrating at Afropunk. From Ava DuVarney to Cecile Emeke; from vine (RIP) to the twittersphere and beyond, Black people are creating curative content that’s just waiting for to be absorbed, responded to, and acted on.
By Dan Biss, written for European Network of People of African Descent
Dan Biss is an artist and local organizer who cares deeply about social equity and justice, and loves to collaborate with siblings across the Diaspora.