Blackface Obama billboard indicts casual German racism yet again

Pin it

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.