German comedian Martin Sonneborn has a reputation for jokes that push the envelope of taste. But, as head of the satirical political party Die Partei, Sonneborn may just have shoved through the envelope with his latest bit of "humor."

With state elections taking place in Berlin this Sunday, Sonneborn has erected a campaign billboard in the city's central Ernst Reuter Plaza square depicting himself in blackface as the U.S. president, along with the headline, "Ick bin ein Obama" (I am an Obama). The words are an obvious play on JFK's famous "Ich bin ein Berliner" speech.

The poster by Die Partei was intended to poke fun at German politics in general, joining put-downs of the neo-Nazi National Democratic Party, as well as another poster that reads "MILFS against Merkel." But referencing the shameful and embarrassing minstrelsy of old blackface theater in a non-educative manner will never be okay. Tahir Dello, a spokesman for the Initiative for Black Germans, found the billboard "unbelievably hurtful" and said, "This is 2011 and not 1950. I find it racist through and through."

Sonneborn, however, doesn't seem to get it. Still in the guise of the leader of Die Partei, he told English-language online-news portal, The Local, that the billboard wasn't racist, and that he was "Germany's Obama" and was merely satirizing the "hype" surrounding the president. He revealed that he was ignorant of the history of blackface, and didn't care if anyone was offended. He said, "No, I didn't know that. If Americans associate it with that, then I'm sorry, but I'm not going to take it down."

This latest scandal follows two other Obama-related incidents in 2009 that led to accusations of German racial insensitivity. Frozen-food company Sprehe had sold a product called Obama chicken fingers, later also claiming ignorance of possible stereotyping overtones. And the Dresden Zoo had to rename a mandrill it called Obama, in an ill-advised attempt to "honor" the president.

Commentarium (29 Comments)

Sep 16 11 - 3:02pm
Me

In fairness, blackface was an American and British tradition. He's probably telling the truth when he said he was ignorant of the history of blackface.

Sep 16 11 - 3:45pm
profrobert

I agree with @me, but I also think that if you are German, given the history, you have an obligation to educate yourself before embarking on racial/ethnic-oriented humor about other races/ethnicities. It's not that hard to google "blackface" to see whether it might be deeply offensive.

Sep 16 11 - 3:51pm
anon

I think he's telling the truth in that he's ignorant.

Sep 17 11 - 7:07pm
...

@profrobert:
I'm pretty sure that the term "blackface" is as unknown to the average German as the history of the practice itself. That would make googling quite impossible.

Sep 19 11 - 7:20pm
just another German

Black face is a part of American history - not of German history. So, this is a German billboard in a German city for German people. Just tell me: Do you really expect the rest of the world to know every fucking detail of your history? So, Americans are offended by black face, because it got this offending meaning in America - why should I care? Why should anyone who isn't American care about this nonsense?

And about using google: If you would use google for getting more informations about Sonneborn and the PARTEI, you would realize that he and his party are most lily no racists. Maybe you Americans can't deal with even slightly subtle messages, but here in germany it's possible to parody racists by acting like one. Sonneborn actually parodied German politicans by imitating their desperate tries to be succesfull as Obama by imitating him. he also parodied Obama himself by imitating his election campaign wich only smart slogans but nor real issues. That's why i consider this billboard as most funny.

So please stop blubbering and deal with real problems!

May 31 12 - 12:29am
prof77

Actually, American blackface minstrelsy, just like the American circus, the American film industry, and the American recording industry, were exported all over Europe, much of Africa, Asia, and the South Pacific. So, while it may be surprising to some, Germans do have a long history and context in which to place this sort of image. Blackface minstrelsy was quite popular in Germany--as it was all over the British Isles and Europe. So, unfortunately, the racism inherent in this image WOULD be known to most Germans. I study blackface troupes that came to Germany and there were many and for a long period. Many of them travelled with Native American Wild West troupes, another highly problematic American race issue.

Sep 16 11 - 4:08pm
Herr Sensitive

The Germans are so hyper-sensitive to anything offensive, frankly it's offensive. This is the kind of comedy they need to lighten up a little.

Sep 17 11 - 5:33pm
ggg

+1

Sep 16 11 - 4:32pm
so-what

Look if it was meant to be flat out rascist that be one thing, but black face can funny some times. The episode were they made Lethal Weapon 5, and Mac does black face. Funny. And no one said, hey those guys are racist. Louie CK and David Cross use the word nigger in their stand up routines and no one claims their racists. That's the great thing about comedy, you can push the envelope. Do I think he's still an asshole, yeah, but not a rasist.

Sep 17 11 - 3:01am
Sunny Fan

in that episode, the characters were arguing about blackface in satire. There was a whole scene on it where Mac, Dennis and Frank were talking about it. It wasnt just not discussed, and then Mac is in blackface and no one says anything. that was the joke, that they he was so oblivious to it.

Sep 16 11 - 4:35pm
Random

Maybe they couldn't find any actual black people.

Sep 16 11 - 7:09pm
GeeBee

There are some black people in Germany (besides imported soccer players). A few generations of US servicemen have seen to that. Milli Vanilli were German and black. Or were they in blackface...?

Sep 17 11 - 7:12pm
...

The guy on the billboard is the politician himself, but you might be on to something actually: Why shouldn't politicians use face-doubles who might look more honest or just plain better on billboards?

Sep 16 11 - 7:11pm
GeeBee

Jeff, if you're going to borrow engineering expressions like "push the envelope", try to use them properly. You don't push the envelope *to* somewhere, you try to push out of it from the inside, thus stretching or enlarging it.

Sep 17 11 - 8:33am
Arizonan

Still, they're not as bad as the leathery racists in Arizona. Just ask Hayboob Heigl, nerve's race baiter-in-chief.

Sep 17 11 - 8:47am
Salute Uber Alles

I'd be a little more concerned about the poster's apparent heil hitler/sieg heil right arm movement before any blackface. Has the slightly crooked arm fooled everyone else as to its implication/s?

Sep 17 11 - 11:01am
Secret Character

I think that the IDEA of someone going through the trouble of painting their face "black" is just as funny as the actual blackface. I think it all depends on what you do with the blackface. The humor is in the absurdity right?

Sep 17 11 - 3:54pm
Summer

Blackface is NEVER okay. I encourage everyone to watch Spike Lee's "Bamboozled" to see how desensitized the world has become to blatant racism.

Sep 17 11 - 7:33pm
Hmm

The movie "White Chicks" seemed to do fairly well, and a lot of people found it hilarious. Wasn't that, in essence, exploiting white stereotypes while in a Caucasian guise? Funny is funny, whether it's black face or white face, there's always going to be those who don't find it and those who will. Focus on more important issues.

Sep 17 11 - 7:50pm
Yeah! String him up!

Let's ban southpark because it makes fun of white people. Whoops, I forgot. It's ok to make fun of white people, just not blacks or Jews. But everyone else is ok ... and you know what? That idiotic mindset is not racist in America's eyes.

Seriously, America needs to take a good long hard look at itself. It's perverted "doo gooderism" towards blacks makes me sick. If you can joke with everyone (regardless of skin color or religion) then you truly are not racist. I'm sure i'll be branded as a racist by some left-wing nut for suggesting that people should be treated equally.

Sep 17 11 - 8:08pm
Jason

South Park makes fun of white people? I've been watching 15 years of South Park and I don't know how many times they made fun of everything from Jews, Blacks, Hispanics, Rednecks, Gingers, Midge...err small people.

Sep 17 11 - 10:06pm
Lawrence

Again? Hitler was Austrian? Germany probably has less Nazi's than the USA.

Sep 18 11 - 4:38am
regretfully ignorant

OK, question from a German:
Without the context of blackface in popular entetainment during the 19/20 centuty in the US (which is not widely known in Germnay), what is the problem?
Would it also be sexist, if the politician here had the photo taken in womens clothes with a quote from Angela Merkel?

Sep 18 11 - 3:20pm
profrobert

The problem is the ignorance of the context. Obviously, Sonneborn knew there was such a thing as blackface. It's not as if he tried simply to match Obama's light-brown skin tone (the way, for example, Fred Armisen does for his portrayals of Obama on Saturday Night Live). Instead, Sonneborn selected the extremely dark skin tone make-up that was used for blackface portrayals from racist minstrel shows. Even if the reference is not well known in Germany -- and I believe you when you say it isn't -- Sonneborn clearly knew he was referring to blackface performances, and he had a responsibility to educate himself as to whether it would be racist to depict himself in blackface.

I have a German language question: Is there any significance to the quotation saying "Ick," as opposed to "Ich," which I thought was the correct spelling? Is "Ick" an accepted substitute in common speech or writing? Or does it imply something about the speaker?

As for the Merkel-in-drag point, I think it depends on what the other context of the photo was. There is no history of drag shows being sexist, unlike the history of blackface being racist, so it would not be inherently sexist simply to appear in drag as Merkel.

And for people up the thread who say, "Well, no one complains when someone makes fun of white people here," you seem to forget that there is no history of systemic discrimination against white, Christian, straight men. White, Christian, straight men have not had legal and social barriers erected against their ability to live and work where they choose. There is no history of them being persecuted, even to the point of murder, for their racial, religious, orientation and gender characteristics. You really need to understand that there is a difference in effect of ridiculing the privileged and ridiculing the disprivileged.

Sep 18 11 - 5:50pm
regretfully ignorant

Sonneborn has a history of insulting just about everyone, so I will accept your point.

Regarding ick/ich, there are two explanations: For one, in the Berliner dialect, ich is pronounced that way. Secondly, the ch sound is notoriously difficult for people who have English (or probably any other language without this sound) as their native language. So writing it as "Ick could add a bit of local colour or imitate an American accent*.
Credit where it is due: Kennedy actually pronounced "Ich" correctly. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hH6nQhss4Yc

*Simailar to ze Germans who cant pronounce ze "th" wizout training and concentration.

Sep 19 11 - 12:08am
profrobert

Thanks for the insight into "Ick." For what it's worth, "th" is one of the harder sounds to properly form in English, even for native speakers. My almost-three-year-old still hasn't got it yet, so "I think" comes out as "I fink," for example.

Sep 19 11 - 12:47am
Frustrated Liberal

Why are German comedians obliged to frame their humour through American sensitivities? This is a billboard in Germany- not Times Square.

Do all U.S. comedians ensure that their comedy does not upset any cultural sensitivities to any other
foreign audience prior to delivering it on home soil?

Do the ghosts of America's poor Afro-American relations have to be the rest of the World's responsibilitiy and guilt as well?

In Germany, all references to Nazism and the swastika are banned outright due to sensitivities following WWII. Yet Neo-Nazis and the image of the swastika isn't banned in the U.S. Hypocritical?
Your guilt is not the rest of the worlds, and it is arrogance of the highest order to insist that all other countries are to view things from an American cultural reference point and perspective.

There are so many other issues relating to class and race inequality and real issues of racism and genocide occuring in the world at present. Perhaps we should be worrying about those matters first?

Sep 19 11 - 7:28pm
just another German

Couldn't have said it better!

The funny thing is, that even left-wing minded people in Germany (like myself) can't really understand this outrage of some Americans about this billboard. Even my black friends here in germany are laughing about it.

Oct 13 11 - 3:12am
Randhil

Ah, i see. Well that's not too tkircy at all!"