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Associations’ considerations: Discussion about racism and "blackfacing" in carnival

Associations’ considerations : Discussion about racism and "blackfacing" in carnival

Leaving everyday life, for a completely new identity. For many „being jeck“ (=in carnival mode) is what makes carnival so much fun. Costumes with feather decoration, furs or black painted faces are criticised for racism and "blackfacing". A positive example are the "Bönnsche Chinese".

Leaving everyday life, for a completely new identity. For many „being jeck“ (=in carnival mode) is what makes carnival so much fun. Popular for a long time were ethnic costumes with feather decoration, furs or black painted faces - an African or Indian style. "In the meantime a change in thinking has set in," observes Tanja Holthaus, spokeswoman of the Cologne Carnival Festival Committee. "Certain costumes, which were common ten years ago, are no longer okay today.“

The debate about racism and "blackfacing" has reached the small carnival clubs - that's what it's called when white people put on make-up and costumes to portray Africans or Asians in a clichéd way. "Racism is not only racism when there is an intention behind it. The effect is what matters," says Tahir Della, spokesperson for the Initiative Schwarze Menschen in Deutschland Bund e.V.

The "Mülheim Negroes" became the "Müllemer Klütte"

People whose ethnicity is portrayed in carnival as a costume with stereotypical features such as bone chains or fur clothing felt discriminated against and not taken seriously. Again and again it is argued that this is a tradition and not meant to be racist, but rather fun. "The fact is that not everyone enjoys it," Della replies.

In the Cologne area, for example, it was often small clubs that made ethnic costumes their trademark and gave themselves names like "Negerköpp" or "Kannibalen". In the meantime some of these clubs have changed their names, says Holthaus. The "Mülheimer Negroes" became the "Müllemer Klütte", the "Frechener Negerköpp" the "Wilden Frechener". As a rule, it is protests and criticism from outside that make the associations change their minds.

This was also the case with the Hessian club "Südend Fulda", which traditionally marched through the streets on Rosenmontag with a "Negro from the South End": a carnivalist painted black with an Afro wig, fur and a chain of bones. The Fulda carnivalists had initially massively resisted accusations of racism. Their argument: It is a tradition and it is only about having fun. In the end, however, the association did without the "Negro from the South End" - he had received threats and only took part in the Rosenmontag parade in 2017 under police protection.

Historian Jürgen Zimmerer is (little understanding) not sympathetic

What remained, however, were the bright uniforms with pith helmets in the style of the colonial troops of the German Empire, which were also sharply criticised. Association chairwoman Alexandra Schultheis does not want to comment on why the association is sticking to this allusion to an ominous chapter of German history. "We have already been much too hostile," she says.

The Hamburg historian Jürgen Zimmerer has little sympathy for this attitude. Association costumes that deliberately remind us of colonial uniforms are no longer in keeping with the times, says the professor of global history. "Those who want to cling to them want to profess a heroic or at least nostalgic transfiguration of colonialism. And colonialism means racism." Carnival associations also have a historical responsibility.

For dark-skinned people, "blackfacing" in carnival is also a problem because many people are already confronted with discrimination in everyday life because of their skin colour, says Tahir Della. "We cannot get out of our skin. White people, on the other hand, can afford the luxury of slipping into this role and slipping out again after carnival". He is not interested in putting carnivalists in the dock, emphasizes Della. "But there should be a debate about it, so that people realize the problem."

"Böönsche Chinese" as a positive example

Ultimately, it is not a question of whether costumed people pursue racist intentions or whether their disguise is just thoughtless fun, Zimmerer also argues. What counts is the "sensation of racial denigration".

The "Bönnsche Chinese" show how exotic costumes and carnival can be combined without offending others. They parade in Chinese costumes and with typical Chinese attributes such as dragon figures in the Bonn Rose Monday procession. The decisive difference: here Germans and Chinese celebrate together. Because one third of the approximately 300 club members are Chinese, and the traditional clothing comes originally from China.

The society was founded eight years ago by a German carnivalist and a Chinese restaurateur and sees itself not only as a carnival but also as a cultural association. "It is unique in this form," says first chairman Werner Knauf proudly. The members also celebrate the Chinese New Year or St. Nicholas Day together. With its president Jia Jian Shu and the Chinese Xin-Ying Zhang, the association even provided the carnival prince and princess couple in the Bonn district of Buschdorf for the first time last year. Thus carnival can integrate instead of discriminating.

Original text: Claudia Rometsch, epd

Translation: Mareike Graepel