WTF Weds: Blackface Othello, Germany

Posted on
Apr 23, 2014
Posted in: WTF, WTF Wednesdays

I’ve learned that certain things which may be considered totally acceptable in one country aren’t okay in another. That customs and cultures don’t necessarily translate. Even the things that we find to be horrifically offensive aren’t universal.

Recently, I visited my family in Italy. I got to talking with my cousin, and she explained to me that the term “finocchio” (literally: fennel) is an offensive term to describe someone who is homosexual.

“You would never, ever use it,” she said, her green eyes wide.

It’s a reminder that words have power, that even something innocuous can be offensive if you are crossing cultural lines.

That being said, I do not consider this to be innocuous. I consider this to be seriously effed up:

This. Just. NO.

 

That is a poster for a recent production of a play (“Othello darf nicht platzen” – literally, “Othello may not burst”) featuring two white guys in blackface. When I saw it in the Munich subway, I found myself just staring blankly, my mouth hanging limply open.

It’s profoundly offensive, right? And just when I started getting all self-righteous about it, ready to start lecturing Bavarians on cultural sensitivity, I found out something else.

It’s an American play. It was written in the 1980s. And the characters you see on the movie poster are supposed to be in blackface. That is an actual fucking component of the play. This is the shit we are exporting to other countries.

The original name of it is “Lend Me a Tenor”. The plot is this: a famous white opera singer is about to play Othello (which is already problematic – see Laurence Olivier), but he somehow gets knocked unconscious. So a hapless young man is smeared in blackface and sent onto the stage in his place. The young man does a convincing job, but then the opera singer comes to, and there’s a bunch of ridiculous confusion as to who’s who and WE ARE GETTING AWAY FROM THE POINT THAT THERE ARE WHITE GUYS DRESSED IN BLACKFACE IN 2014 AND THAT IS FUCKED UP.

What bothered me even more, though, was that the play seems to be fairly popular (it’s been performed in 25 countries and translated into 16 languages), and yet I found very few articles that addressed the fact that the premise is problematic, at best.

One reviewer described it as “clean humor” and went on to extensively explain that the blackface was not offensive at all (by … quoting Wikipedia? I just … WHAT).

And then I realized: nothing is universal. Take something that the vast majority of people find appalling, and after a bit of searching, you’ll find someone who isn’t bothered by it at all.

Some people like “Lend Me a Tenor.” That doesn’t mean the play isn’t antiquated or that blackface isn’t offensive – regardless of what country you’re in.

Leave a Comment

  • Amy

    One thing to remember is e.g. Germany has no history of mass subjugation of dark-skinned peoples. What is terribly offensive hinges on what awful things you’ve historically done.

    • Everywhereist

      Yeah, I was thinking about this – perhaps blackface is a bigger crime in the states than in Germany. Still, I think that reducing another race to a garish caricature is offensive, regardless of whether or not a country has a history of subjugating that race.

      • Just for the sake of the argument. I’m jewish. Would I be offended if in the Merchant of Venice the jew is depicted as wearing a Kippa? Certainly not. So as you said, I think it strongly depends on the cultural context and your personal background. Agree?

        • Everywhereist

          While I agree that cultural context makes a difference, I don’t think the situation you’ve presented is an analogous one at all. Wearing a kippa is not at all comparable to wearing blackface. There is nothing inherently offensive about wearing a yarmulke, but changing your appearance in drastic ways through make-up and wigs in order to portray a different race is another matter entirely.

        • Blackface is also inherently offensive because of its history and how it has/had been used in the past. A more analogous situation for Jews (of which I, too, am one) would be someone dressing up in a Nazi costume (which we all, clearly, seem to think is offensive).

          This Reddit post on blackface has some good context: http://www.reddit.com/r/explainlikeimfive/comments/1plkvj/risky_question_why_is_black_face_as_part_of_a/cd3kxjh

          As far as Germany’s history with oppression and racism, I’d be skeptical of the claim that those with dark skin didn’t (or don’t) face racism there. http://www.todayszaman.com/news-327021-discrimination-racism-remain-problems-in-germany.html and http://www.dw.de/foreigners-not-welcome-racism-in-germanys-housing-market/a-17223748 are good example suggesting otherwise. I love Germany – and I’ve found it extremely accepting of Jews. We visit every year and I have tons of German friends, but my guess is that most of them would say that being black in Germany carries at least some of the same challenges that it does in the US.

          All together, these data points strongly suggest to me that blackface is, at the very least, insensitive and uncool, even in Germany.

    • “Germany has no history of mass subjugation of dark-skinned peoples.”

      Actually, Germany has an extremely horrible history of subjugation AND genocide in what is now Namibia. It was the precursor to the Holocaust. http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/africa/3565938.stm

      And if the people who are being mocked by blackface feel that it’s offensive, it’s offensive. That’s it. As a black woman, I find it infuriating that countries in Europe, South America and elsewhere seem to think it’s okay to continue doing this because they never had institutionalized racism on their (current) country soil. Blackface always has racist undertones and it’s never okay anywhere in the world.

      • Everywhereist

        Totally agree. Had a long discussion with a friend this weekend about how blackface isn’t okay, anywhere. Regardless of what your country’s particular history is, it’s offensive, period.

  • Blackface has been a huge issue here in the Netherlands. Just google ‘Black Pete’ or ‘Zwarte Piet’ – he is the equivalent of Santa’s elves here and is always in blackface. Dutch people – who are known to be so liberal – defend the character as central to their culture. In fact, over 2 million people signed an online petition (called the ‘Pietitie’) supporting its continued use and promotion. I just don’t get it and the Dutch don’t get why I don’t get it.

  • Oh, yeah, I feel like I’ve had the “Europeans are racist” discussion a million times with my boyfriend.

    One day I saw Tina Fey spoofing Girls at the SNL (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-MGrXTkI–o) and – besides finding it genius and hilarious – I wondered if the media would have publicly stoned her for that. Then I realized that in the US nobody really gives a damn about Albania: my concern came naturally by the fact that in Italy – on the other hand – we have a huge Albanian immigration. If she had portrayed in the same manner a girl from – say – Ghana I guess the reaction would have been quite different.

    That Comedy does look pretty trashy from the poster, anyway 😀

  • I live in Argentina where every independence day celebration (July 9th, fwiw) includes dressing up as people did at the time of the independence. So you can imagine the reaction as this American walked into my daughters kindergarten class to see little kids in black face and afro wigs running by. Many of the teachers were also dressed that way. Full on black face.

    Thing is, now, there’s pretty much no African descended population in Argentina, so the obvious question is what happened here? There used to be. They used to be servants and were most likely on the front lines of battle. Still, how does one eradicate an entire population.

    I have yet to find an answer.

    • Everywhereist

      Wait, WHAT? I just … what?

  • Liz

    Are you familiar with “Black Pete?” The Dutch, instead of having elves for Santa, have this helper who is a white guy in blackface. http://www.washingtonpost.com/world/europe/santas-helpers-in-blackface-ignite-a-controversy-in-the-netherlands/2013/11/17/78999870-4d49-11e3-bf60-c1ca136ae14a_story.html

  • Mark Davidson

    Hmm…. I wonder what you’d say about the Cape Town yearly ‘Coon Carnival’ where BLACKS often wear blackface makeup?

    It’s now officially been given the politically correct name of the ‘Cape Minstrel Carnival’, but it’s still universally known as the Coon Carnival to all the BLACK people taking part in it.

    Google images:
    http://www.google.co.za/search?q=cape+town+coon+carnival&tbm=isch

    News Flash: America is not the world, and American values are certainly not the standard by which everyone else has to be judged.

    Has it ever occurred to you that maybe it’s the Americans who are a bit weird?

    • Everywhereist

      Hi, Mark –

      Yes, I’m aware that America is not the world. I note it at the beginning of my post. That certain things are not universal. That being said, I think that some things are pretty much universally offensive. I think dressing up as other races is one of those things.

      I also note that things are messed up in the states, too. The play in question was, in fact, written by an American, and performed in the U.S.

      As for the Cape Minstrel Carnival, I’m assuming that you are bringing that up because you think that it is acceptable for white people to dress in blackface, because black people are, in fact, doing it, too. But that suffers from the fallacy of equivocation. A white person dressing in blackface is an entirely different matter.

      • Mark Davidson

        In the US that may be the case, but obviously not in Germany.

        I wonder if German blacks are offended by a blackface Othello? If they are, then it shouldn’t be done, but if not, then there’s no problem except in the imagination of Americans.

        Similarly, are black people in the Netherlands actually offended by Zwarte Piet, or is it only that some whites think that they may be offended?

        • Everywhereist

          I’m just going to put this here: http://www.hbvl.be/nieuws/buitenland/aid1489970/honderden-betogen-in-amsterdam-tegen-zwarte-piet.aspx

          In the meantime, feel free to go around telling people that blackface is only offensive in the imagination of Americans. I bet you’ll make lots of friends.

        • Rosemary

          Yes, they are offended, and not just Africans. Also our very large Indonesian and Surinamese population feel violated by it. And a lot, maybe even most ‘white’ Dutch people feel very uncomfortable about it, to say the least.
          I think that it is almost our dutch “innocence” or naivety that made it ok to have people dress up like black slaves for so long, but things are changing here over the last couple of years and I don’t think it will be long before the tradition stops alltogether.

          However, would we be just as shocked as when a coloured person would dress up as a white dude?

  • Emily

    When I was in Germany in 2006, I saw what was probably the most offensive commercial I’ve ever seen. It was for a lotion product (Nivea or similar). In it, a black man was applying for jobs and kept getting turned down. You see him at the end, back to the camera, accepting a job and when he turns around, his face is covered in lotion. He’s essentially in white face. I was just so shocked by it because this would never, ever air in the US.

    • Mo

      I think I remeber that ‘commercial’, and I’m quite sure that it was satire.
      (And I think it’s quite obivious – “Cover your face in our product until your original skin isn’t visible anymore, and then run around like this all day” surely isn’t a use any company would advertise 🙂 ) .

  • Laura

    I studied in Spain in college and I was there for El Dia de los Reyes Magos (or Three Kings’ Day), in which the three Wise Men arrive and bring gifts to children. They have parades all around the country with the three Kings riding on floats. I was watching a parade and was shocked to see that Balthazar, the King from Africa, was actually a Spaniard in blackface. What made it even worse was that he had young children dancing around his float, and each of them was in blackface as well.

    Every photo I can find of those parades indicates that this isn’t the norm, but still. WTF, Spain?

  • AmyS

    Geraldine, I’ve been a long time fan of yours, I’ve read through your archives (truth!) and finally am caught up to present day, and I just had to come out of anonymity to comment on this post. So I am a coach and judge for speech teams, and at least once a year I see a duo perform ‘Lend Me A Tenor’ at a tournament. Although they are unable to wear costumes or other enhancements (they perform in suits), somehow they manage to convey the whole racial issue, and unfortunately it is rarely done in good taste. Let me tell you, trying to keep a straight face while white bread high school boys from the Midwest perform these scenes is challenging during the best of days. I applaud your willingness to highlight and create discourse on this issue, and posts like these are why I really admire you as a writer. Can’t wait for the book!!

    • Everywhereist

      Thank you so much for your kind words, Amy. I cannot even imagine what viewing that must be like (I’m cringing on your behalf).

      On a semi-related note, I was a total debate and speech nerd in high school. 🙂

      • AmyS

        I KNEW there was a reason I connected with you so much! 🙂

  • I actually had to look up what ‘blackface’ was to understand your indignation, Geraldine. Here in Paraguay is also very common for people to wear make-up to get a darker skin colour for St. Baltazar, Othello, or any black character. What I find interesting is that people of darker skin would not necessarily get cast for those roles, sometimes a person with lighter skin would be cast and they’d darken their skin for the role (with people with darker skin in other roles).

    While studying in the US I always found it interesting how there are taboo words for certain races due to historical reasons, and now I’ll add this to that set. The chat about those taboo words always turns into a history lesson with my ESL students. I just hope ‘blackface’ doesn’t come up in class before I read more on it.

    (PS: Is it only with whites as blacks? What about Tom Hanks in Cloud Atlas, or Johnny Depp in Lone Ranger? Were those movies controversial as well?)

    I cannot wait for your book!

  • Mo

    Actually, there was quite a controversy in Germany about balckface not too long ago.
    “Wetten, dass…?!”, a quite popular betting game show (that IMHO jumped the shark about 15 years ago) had people from the city they were shooting in come in dressed up as Jim Button and Luke, The Engine Driver (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jim_Button_and_Luke_the_Engine_Driver), and almost everybody who dressed up as “jim” did so using blackface. There was quite an uproar about it.
    There was also, unfortunately, a substantial number of people essentially telling everyone to unbunch their panties. So yes, way too many people in Germany still see blackface as “not really offensive”, but it’s not uncontroversial either, and times are changing.

    I guess the difference in sensitivity towards this issue stems from the fact that we simply do not have the same historical background regarding minstrel shows and their ilk over here (or not in any substantial extent). Now that we have this Internet thingy people tend to be more informed about such issues and sensitivity grows. We still have a way to go, but we’re getting there 😉

    Historical background makes a lot of difference. In a not-quite-similar vein, the term “nazi” gets thrown around a lot in the US fo anyone who is somewhat aggressively obsessive about whatever, while it’s super, mouth-agape, did-you-just-call-me-that offensive to Germans.

  • Annie

    Thanks Rand for the Reddit link, it was helpful to me who (being Swedish) don’t automatically react to blackface as inherently offensive, and thanks also for the other comments above, it is a very interesting discussion.

    I understand that one may feel offended if an actor’s performance reduces one’s entire identity to skin colour, but whether this (or downright mocking which of course is awful) is actually happening must depend on the story as a whole – the identity of the character, the context and behaviour of the actors, no? I can’t help but wonder – are we really helping progress towards true equality by taking offence by things that are not meant to be offensive? Are we really treating each other as equals if we cannot even mention the differences among us (race, gender, sexuality…)? I feel as if discrimination is forced upon me sometimes when I have no intention to discriminate anyone, by people taking offence from things that they know are not intended to be offensive. If I have to be afraid to insult my gay or black or whatever friends by making any reference to this aspect of their person, or to existing cultural phenomena that relates to them, then I’m being hindered from expressing my friendship or love towards them and we can’t be real friends. I don’t think it’s helpful, it MUST be better to turn it around and instead celebrate these aspects, and take deliberate action to counteract any cultural negative connotation there is that surrounds them.

    The Black Pete issue in Netherlands – why is it offensive that white people dress up as Black Pete if the identity of Black Pete is that he is Santa’s right hand? If he was a slave, yes of course it would be offensive, but that doesn’t seem to be the case (unless I misundererstood). If he’s just a respected and loved black character that is helping Santa’s noble cause (just go with me here) to bring presents to children and there is no racism implied in the story – why is it offensive that white people paint their faces to portray him? Why do we have to assume racism and mockery where there is none? I truly don’t see it as demeaning in any way. You’re right Geraldine that it is amazing how people can see things so differently.

    I think it IS a problem when we let discriminating groups like extreme right wing, xenophobic groups take power over beloved cultural symbols. In Sweden I feel very weird nowadays when the national anthem is sung, since it has come to be associated with neonazi groups. This is horrible and it it is horrible that we are letting it happen. Also in my job (sorry this is becoming a rant) which is political, many good initiatives have to be abandoned because people are incredibly quick to make well intended efforts offensive. We allow a huge movement to be “stolen” by extremist groups, or demand massive efforts to be abandoned because someone made a mistake that was offensive to someone. It’s important that we isolate the things that are truly offensive and correct them, and always acknowledge the true motivation for people’s actions.

  • Wow. There are a lot of comments about this. All I was gonna say is, you know the Dutch have Zwarte Piet, right? The most tolerant race in the whole world.

  • Hagar

    I’m not sure I understand this issue. Thousands of actors portray roles that they are not, acting as a handicapped person, a nazi, a jew, or the opposite gender. Sometimes in a serious role sometimes in a comedy. Also in america characters can be portrayed in a very stereotypical way. I remember a South Park episode where Cartman goes to a jewish school and right away becomes the soccer play of the year because he was the only one to even be able to kick the ball (because sterotype jewish = can’t play sports). I’m jewish, and I thought that episode was hilarious. There are also hundreds of movies where actors from the same background play stereotypical roles, such as african americans in all those gangster movies. At the same time, it does feel to me when I look at that poster that it looks somewhat offensive. But I can’t really figure out what the difference is or what is going to far.

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