Does German theatre have a race problem?



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In an ideal world...

In an ideal world, this would be about talent, subjectivity, and intellectual discourse surrounding Blackface that matters. But we're not there yet. Blackface in this context, or in any other has strong connotations to the slave trade, Jim Crow, segregation, the KKK and using black people as entertainment. Blackface dehumanises and generalises, and of all people, it's not for white actors to decide whether it's appropriate. I'm all for real discussions on race and gender within theatre and I believe in free speech and the right to push boundaries, but we still live in a white world; where the majority of prisoners in the US are black. Black people still have the lowest paying jobs, the least percentage of affordable healthcare and the highest percentage of violence related fatalities in the US..

I don't think that it is 'silly', or 'overly PC' to take issue with Blackface being used - we need to step back and look at this in the wider context. I don't think about pagan practise, witchcraft or black actors using make up when I see Blackface, I think of the subjugation and dehumanisation of black people throughout history and up to and including today and that casts a much longer and darker shadow over this practise, that we can't afford to brush off just yet.

Gem Andrews more than 6 years ago


"Blackface, in this context, has strong connotations to the slave trade, Jim Crow, segregation, the KKK, using black people as entertainment", you wrote. I assume that you realize that every single item in your list (and later also your comment about prisoners) is entirely tied to American history and culture? Why would expect, in a country where none of these are relevant, historically and culturally, that the American idea that donning a blackface is an inherently racist act would be followed, or even, in fact, considered?

Dastein more than 3 years ago

its actually an old pagan practice of witchcraft

the practice of blacking up of face or corking of face is actually and old pagan practise even blacks do it too. I am not a pagan but a christian and we learn in the book of malachi God getting cheesed off at the Jewish leaders who had gone after pagan practises of blacking face in worship to a foreign God.

holy jo more than 8 years ago

...Just a precision

Re: the first comment 'Watch out during Carnival!' by Susan --

The German term for a black person which is still sometimes used by older generations is 'Neger' and not 'Niger' or 'Nigger'.
While this term's denotation is today considered as being offensive or at the very least not PC, its semantic meaning has shifted since the 1970s. Prior to this time, it wasn't as charged, and hence while it displays a certain head-strong linguistic stubbornness when older people refuse to adapt another term for a black person, it doesn't necessarily mean the term 'Neger' is being used in a pejorative way.

Derivatives of the Latin word for black (niger) are still used in other languages without coming across as problematic or racially offensive (e.g. neger in Dutch).

Jana more than 9 years ago

Watch out during Carnival!

I will never forget the years that the Kaufhof on Alexander Platz had hugh banners advertising Karnival costumes for children. Year after year, I would come up from the U-bahn exit and stare right up at a kid in black face and fake frizzy "afro" hair. The advertised costume came complete with a beat-up, dirty looking dress, available in children and adult size. The very first time I saw this, I literally gasped. Even more shocking was that I seemed to be the only person who noticed! Dressing up as a "Niger" is still a socially acceptable practice during the carnival season-for kids and adults alike.
More than I would like, I hear the word "Nigger" or "Niger" used auf Deutsch. I have lived in the German-speaking world for 15 years, but it shocks me everytime. I have had countless discussions with university- educated people, several were even professors, who failed to see the inherant racism in this word. Even more, they insist that it is not as bad auf deutsch as it is in English.
On a similar topic- Many seem to be oblivious to the real meanings of the confederate flag, used by the southern US states during the American civil war. I have educated many Germans as to the racist message associated with the "Rebel" flag . These true fashion victims had no idea that only red necks, racists and KKK members openly wear a confederate flag on their t-shirt.

Susan more than 9 years ago

Use Wisdom People

I'm so tired of people continuing to pull this race card! I am black and I am old enough to know that fair is fair.... We play white characters all the time on TV and I believe you all still watch it. I've been in Germany for quite some time now and though I've experienced racism maybe once otherwise I've felt more love here than I would at home sometimes...

Grow up and if it's such an issue with you, STOP watching Dave Chapelle, Martin Lawrence, The Wayans Brothers, and many more of our famous African American Actors. We do it for comedy and often times think its funny... Not to hurt or harm but We can do some crazy and funny things too. Don't be so one-sided and say only black people can laugh at black people but Black people can laugh at everyone.

Just have the sense enough to know when something is done to hurt or harm and not for creative purposes or humor.....

Unknown more than 9 years ago

race in the EU?

I think the point is extraordinary, and it is very clearly true. Germans - and Europeans more generally - tend not to recognize 'race' in terms of a particular person, but rather as a vaguely identified other. this is only rarely a problem in Germany, since it is so rare for people of different 'racial' categories to interact (although I lived in Berlin for years, I was the only non-white among a crowd of 'ethnic' Germans). But the political economy of difference deserves to be addressed, particularly in light of the intensively nationalized ways that Germans (and others) have begun to talk about European identities. Germans laugh about the European peripheries, but perhaps it will give Germans pause to know how they are being represented on the outsides of the borders (in the North in leftist circles, but in the South from both the radical right and the moderate left). The point that Obermueller makes, and rightfully so, is that raciialized identities ought to be treated with skepticism if not outright disdain precisely because there is such a powerful impulse to ignore difference when it is safe to do so. *Blacks* of African or African American (or Afro-European?) descent are easy targets in Germany precisely because there are so few. But the presentation of *difference* as marked by color seems to be a step down the wrong road. Germans in particular, colonial powers in general (not to mention powerful minorities in the *global south*) have long played race as though it was a minor card in a major key. But those games have - and will continue to - end badly.

Berlin is supposed to be a global city, and that image gained traction (beyond the minimal techno-house dj scene) in 2006 in the WM. Since 2006, the international stature of Berlin has continued to expand, and the city has become a model of the way things *might* be. Industrious, humane, tolerant, vibrant, creative, alive, open. (reverse the order...)

Obermueller is right to recognize the ways that aesthetic practice sometimes highlights subterranean categories. As far as I can tell, that is not what *political correctness* means. Instead, it seems to be thoughtful discussion, careful analysis or something like that?

I have a guess at what a solution might be. Maybe a producer or translator could find a way to make a black person smoking weed in CP not someone distinguished by color? Of course, my guess is that person would somehow end up wearing a fez or speaking with a slavic accent.

Thanks Obermueller...

Avi Sharma more than 9 years ago


Stop placing so much emphasis on skin colour. When the black American comedian Chapelle plays a ".White" I find it very amusing. This is not racism!

Malcom more than 9 years ago

Talent not skin color counts

Blacks sing Orientals, Orientals play Whites; the Berlin stage has become so multi-cultural in the past decades, so why is it an issue now that a White plays a Black, especially in a non-stereotypical way? Directors should be free to select actors according to talent and not skin color. Being truly politically correct means being able to ignore the skin color. Conversely, being a stickler about skin color is being racist.

Alan Benson more than 9 years ago

Oh Gawd

German citizens = (92%)[21]
Germans of no immigrant background: (81%) 66.7 million[21]
German citizens of immigrant background (including people of partial immigrant background.): (10%)[21]
"Foreigners" (persons without German citizenship): (8%)

When your population is comprised of over 60% immigrants and non-citizens who control your government and determine how you will live your life, and make the current debt problems look laughable by comparison, then you may wish that you'd dedicated yourself to real topics vs. whether people manufactured sense of political correctness is soiled by theater.

Angel more than 9 years ago

It starts early

Even been to a nativity play in Germany? I've seen five-year-olds wearing blackface (and dark blue gloves) to play Wise Men in churches here in Berlin. Obviously this is not PC (nor is it mentioned in scripture which race the Magi were), but I bet if I had grown up with it, it would seem more alright to me too. Hopefully Europeans in blackface - I'm looking at Holland and Sweden here too - will get a clue thanks to "the power of the Internet."

Britta more than 9 years ago

Racism in Germany

Its not only in Theatre but also a daily occurence,onTV black actors are pteey thieves,HIV and home workers

keniaberlinblog more than 9 years ago


Thank you for writing about this disgraceful spectacle, which is sadly, far from a mere hiccup within the German theatre community. Blatant racism is often played down or downright ignored. German ignorance knows no bounds when it comes to racial discrimination. The 'Otto Normalverbraucher' seems incapable of understanding that boiling down an entire race to a skin colour is insanely offensive. Even when you try to explain the offense by drawing parallels to painting yourself yellow with slanted eyes to be 'Asian', brown to 'be Indian' and red to 'be a First Nations person', you're usually met with blank stares. Perhaps putting on a hooked nose to play a Jew...? The argument of a needing a Dane to play Hamlet is definitely telling of someone's intelligence and cultural/world awareness. The only tiny critique of an otherwise great article, is the arguably not-quite politically correct usage of 'white' v. 'black' (I hail from Canada), rather than Caucasian or African. I hope we're soon past using colours to describe a person.

laura's staringatthesun more than 9 years ago

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