Think racism is inherently ignorant

Can it be racist if I don't mean it racist? Whiteness, theater and the normality of racist representation

by Julia Lemmle

In January 2012, criticism was made of a poster on the Facebook page of the Schlossparktheater in Berlin, run by Dieter Hallervorden, promoting a production of “Ich bin nicht Rappaport”, a play by US author Herb Gardner. Two older white men could be seen: Dieter Hallervorden himself in the role of Nat and his colleague Joachim Bliese in the role of Afro-American Midge. Bliese was painted with black make-up - so in blackface. Critics who positioned themselves as black, Afro-German, of color or white explained in letters to the theater and on Facebook, in detailed posts and with numerous references to further literature to what extent blackface is a racist practice that can be seen in connection with colonial exploitation, torture, slavery and murder - and which white actors cannot simply reinterpret into a “neutral” theatrical medium. In the course of the Facebook discussions, the initiative “Bühnenwatch” was founded - an association of black, of color and white theater makers, scientists and cultural workers who are committed to (self) critical reflection with unconscious and structural racisms at German-speaking, mostly white-run theaters deploy.

In the following I would like to elaborate on some arguments and strategies that were and are used by white actors in connection with the debate about blackface in theater. The manners are not specific to theater or art, but can also be found in the scientific or political field. In addition to an actual ignorance of facts and historical contexts in the case of white actors, the ignorance or non-understanding of the privileged is often much more decisive for the course of the confrontation with racism. Blackface's critics provided enough information and references to fill the gaps in knowledge, yet many white actors remained immobile and defensive. The reasons for this attitude, however, are usually not verbalized, but can only be read indirectly from the arguments. It seems important to me to address these unspoken premises in order to have a more precise idea of ​​which forms of discussion and (self) criticism would actually be necessary in order to be able to do contemporary theater that is appropriate to the diversity of the German audience.

Not wanting to understand I: White universal perspective and interpretative sovereignty

In the reactions to the explanations of the critics of Blackfacing, defense strategies of white participants in the discussion were and can be observed. The reactions of the theater makers hardly differ from those of any white Facebook user or discussant. The definition of blackface as a racist practice is rejected and instead emphasized that it has nothing to do with racism, that the staging is anti-racist, critical or provocative and that art is free in principle. Blackface also has a long, positive tradition in German theater: “The play has always been staged that way". Or it is precisely the opposite claim that blackface has no tradition in German theater: "This remedy, and consequently the colonial context, can only be found in the USA". Fundamental to the entire process of denying participation and responsibility within racist structures is not naming one's own white and privileged perspective. It is precisely a privilege of white people to be able to pass off their own position as “universal” and “generally human”. However, very few people are aware of this privilege. They simply assume their own perception and level of knowledge as generally relevant and representative for everyone. This is an exclusive and unempathetic way of dealing with power relations, which is often not even noticed by the privileged and is not at all "mean". The following could not be heard from the white male theater workers and journalists: “As a white man, I think the discussion is exaggerated. I want to represent who I want and how I want in my art. It has been done this way for centuries. I don't want to question these traditions and don't understand why I should go into other perspectives. " Instead, the tradition of European cultural history simply continues to equate humanity with the male white position.

In the blackface debate, it is and were primarily white male cultural workers who defined art and artistic freedom as such in a binding manner for everyone and referred positively to the exclusive theater traditions of white bourgeois theater. They demanded for themselves the right to continue to determine in the sense of these very traditions how all other non-white and non-male persons can be represented. This not wanting to see the limited perspective leads to unconscious or “well-intentioned” discrimination. Likewise, not wanting to see one's own privileges in connection with racist structures leads to “well-intentioned” discriminatory actions. This behavior is also based on a predominantly superficial white definition of racism, which is never given directly, but has to be inferred indirectly from the inferences.

By racism, the defenders understand deliberately executed discriminatory acts - mainly by proven right-wing extremists: "Nazis". This also makes it understandable why white people like to find out "The blackface used is racist" reply: "I'm not a Nazi!" Thinking of yourself as far removed from the issue of racism is not altruistic and accidental. It allows white actors to benefit from their privileges while at the same time telling themselves and others that these are not undeserved privileges, but their own merits. This explains why white theater professionals who have no knowledge of the issues they are supposed to deal with - blackface, racism, portrayal of “strangers” - insist on their status as competent experts and disqualify critics as incompetent and “unrelated to the subject”. It is part of white self-image to be able to talk about anything anytime, anywhere. This can also be seen in the idea that one would be able to make an anti-racist staging without having to deal intensively with the topic.

The answers given by Dieter Hallervorden on the theater's Facebook page on January 9, 2012 are an example of the premises of the defense that have already been mentioned: “In my mind there is absolutely no place for racism. [1] Before making an allegation about this, one should look at the performance […]. [2] The way in which our theater is threatened in this context does not correspond to my understanding of civilized confrontation. […] [3] What's the problem in 2012 that it wasn't until 2010? […] [4] Let us think the accusations through to the end: Is Hallervorden allowed to play a Jew even though he is not a Jew? Can Sigmar Gabriel advocate measures against hunger in the world, even though he is abundant? […] [5] Find out before the fuses blow […]! [6] For me, one thing is certain: It is not primarily the design of a poster that matters, but the content that the piece reflects. [7] “As I said, this reaction is not an individual way of dealing with Hallervorden, but can be found in partially identical wording in public or private discussions in which white people should, want or have to behave towards racism, who have so far been involved in a reflection of their position have shown no interest.

Strategies and premises of white defense arguments based on Hallervorden's statements can be summarized as follows:

  1. Defending one's own non-racist self-image
  2. Claiming the authority to define, both about racism and about which context is decisive for the interpretation
  3. Reversal of roles: the white, racist theater-makers become threatened, those discriminated become perpetrators
  4. one's own ignorance of protest and criticism of racist structures is set universally and thus black criticism is made invisible
  5. Using false and inappropriate comparisons and equations of positions in order to reduce the criticism to absurdity
  6. the collusion of expertise and the pathologization of the critics
  7. the renewed assertion of own definition sovereignty as universal perception

Not wanting to understand II: Blackface as a representation of the "foreign", of "being foreign" or as a means of "alienation"

In the course of the media-led debate about the medium blackface in the theater, the white speakers (who dominated the debate) drew attention away from the subject of racism towards the subject of art and artistic freedom. Racism in Germany - in everyday life, in politics, in art, in the theater - was hardly or not at all discussed in the articles and blog posts. When white cultural workers argue that blackface cannot be left out without endangering artistic freedom, then the actual topic of the debate - structural racism - is not mentioned, but denied, "forgotten", or filed under "other topics". The critics, on the other hand, were often accused of wanting to “only” talk about blackface, not about the much more urgent, “real” racism or the big and important issue of “being foreign” and the experience of being “foreign”. The idea that blackface has to do with being a stranger is another indication that it has not been understood what it is about: structural racism. Blackface is just a symptom. If you want to talk about structural racism, blackface is a vivid and concrete example. Conversely, the following applies: You cannot talk meaningfully about blackface without talking about racism. Every conversation about blackface is a conversation about structural and everyday racism, colonial history and whiteness. In this respect, the resentment expressed by director Ulrich Khuon in an interview with Dirk Pilz on May 25, 2012 in the Berliner Zeitung can be understood as a white defensive reflex: “What disappointed me about this debate was that it was given too little content. With this piece we wanted to address the issue of dealing with and discrimination against strangers. The representatives from Bühnenwatch were not interested enough in a conversation beyond this one medium. " Translated, this means: I wanted and want to talk about something other than structural racism, colonial history and whiteness. I want to talk about dealing with and discriminating against “strangers”.

Members of the Deutsches Theater, including Ulrich Khuon, had a conversation with Bühnenwatch on February 12, 2012, on the occasion of an intervention against the blackface used in the performance of “Innocence”, that is, with a group of blacks and Afro-German cultural workers, people of color and white supporters. Nobody from this group was “foreign” in the German context. The activists are also not unfamiliar with the cultural context of the theatergoers of the Deutsches Theater, nor the theater context, as the majority of them work in the fields of directing, dramaturgy, acting, theater or cultural studies. This group explained to members of the house and the ensemble the racist issue of the use of blackface. The course of the conversation was thoroughly positive, it was understood that the white theater team was not only insensitive and hurtful, but ignorant despite their professional claims and ignorant despite their anti-racist claims. It was emphasized that the aim is not to hurt black people, but rather to hold a mirror up to the white audience as they see “strangers”. An apparently new thought for the theater professionals was that being black has absolutely nothing to do with being a stranger. Because structural racism has nothing to do with “being a stranger”. When people born and raised in Germany are racially abused on the street by white passers-by, or - in apparent contrast to this, they are asked in a very "friendly" way in small talk at the bus stop "Where are you from?" - No, I mean where do you actually come from? ”- then that has nothing to do with strangeness. What happens here is the CONSTRUCTION of “being foreign” or “being different” from a white perspective based on external characteristics.

Only the term racialization applies to such a construction, not “xenophobia”, “xenophobia” or the like. Culture, religion or “migration background” are just new catchphrases that are intended to substantiate why people are perceived and categorized by whites as “different”. When it comes to racialization, social status symbols are no longer effective. People who the white majority society wants to perceive as “foreign” can be more polite, more educated and higher in rank than their white counterpart - this usually does not prevent the latter from being exoticized and racialized. Among other things, being white can be recognized by the fact that all boundaries of the otherwise usual respect and politeness are falling: Whites ask detailed questions about the family tree and touch their counterparts by the hair. The argument that one just wants to show what is “foreign” or show again how German society deals with “foreigners” ultimately only serves to continue the racialization and construction of people as “othering” . Classifying people as “strangers” enables white interpretive sovereignty and supremacy to be maintained. It is also significant in a national context. Germany imagines itself as a white nation and suppresses and denies its own migration history (s) and diversity.

Not wanting to understand III: The critically-reflected-humanistic identity or the self-image of white artists and cultural workers

The defense arguments to be found exemplarily at Hallervorden were merely varied in the following months by the majority of white journalists (mainly male). Most of the articles shared an aggressive and / or disparaging tone.

Gerhard Stadelmaier repeated Hallervordens equation strategy in the FAZ on January 10, 2012 and reproduced in the polemic "Blackened" even more colonial racist terms in an uncritical and offensive tone. Ulrich Seidler referred on March 23, 2012 under the heading “Make up. Success for spoilers ”on the decision of the German theater, after a critical intervention and discussions with Bühnenwatch, to replace the black face in the staging of“ Innocence ”with white make-up. Seidler defamed the Bühnenwatch activists as "delusional [..] people [..] ”. In addition, his text contains an instructive distinction between "Emotionally injured spectators"Which the theater"take the artistic freedom " want and the two uncritical white actors who so far appeared in blackface who, according to Seidler, “must feel attacked by the criticism”. It is not difficult to read between the lines that consequently black people, that is to say precisely those “emotionally injured spectators”, were not or cannot be attacked as “persons”. In any case, they are negligible subjects in the discussion of racism. The article consequently ends with the appeal: "No consideration for spoilers! " Other uncritical whites learn here: Criticism of racist structures, references to colonial history and the ignorance of theater professionals are just "spoiling games". The game and the rules of the game, according to which the theater landscape dominated by whites functions, have already been irrevocably determined, cannot be further problematized and, above all, should not be disturbed. Seidler's appeal can certainly be interpreted as a defensive threat in the direction of the critics.Seidler's and Stadelmeier's defamations, their pathologizing of critical voices and the reproduction of colonial racist language are just another example of the deeply rooted "normal", i.e. everyday racism, especially among people who consider themselves enlightened and educated and influence the formation of public opinion .

It should be noted that white journalists work hand in hand with white artists to maintain the authority to define and interpret. In the blackface debate, the media and journalists, who otherwise tend to fight politically, took the same defensive stance. Both z. B. Gerhard Stadelmaier from the FAZ and Hans-Dieter Schütt from Neues Deutschland (“Innocence?” On March 26, 2012) agree to present the anti-racist criticism as exaggerated and anti-democratic. "Whites keep white spaces white“(1) one could argue with Ursula Wachendorfer about this process. The vehemence and aggression with which criticism, and in particular the Bühnenwatch initiative, is countered, is a reaction to the fact that the white rooms are named as such and non-white people claim a place in them, be it symbolic in the form - racist representation or be it specifically in the question of casting policies and employment relationships in the theater institutions. It is not surprising that white men, who until now have had a monopoly on state-funded houses in Germany, determine what theater is and how it should look - or write about it - are afraid of losing privileges and positions and of being named and categorized themselves one day . In order not to have to address this point directly, however, white cultural workers (here, too, the majority of those involved in the discussion are male) choose other strategies of distraction and concealment, which I would like to briefly discuss in the following.

A central reason for the defensive attitude of white cultural workers, be they journalists or theater makers, is the will to maintain their own self-image as a critical expert. Linked to this is the already mentioned superficial understanding of racism as a deliberately malicious act. The forms of racist action that Bühnenwatch criticizes, namely the unreflective, “well-intentioned” way whites deal with racist means, does not belong in the “racism” category, but is seen as “artistic freedom”. Art freedom, on the other hand, is seen as a positive and important achievement that is equally accessible to and benefits everyone - regardless of the fact that German theaters are almost exclusively run by white men. Both artists and journalists benefit from the still powerful nimbus of their professions, as a result of which they tend to exercise a "neutral" observational and critical activity. They did not create reality, only showed what the world or society was like. The artist and the journalist - these roles are thought of as white and male in the continuity of European cultural history - are those who “enlighten” and recognize, in order to then share their knowledge or their unselfish observations.

Art is also seen as tending to be progressive, democratic and critical. Art as a means to maintain rule, to (re) produce or legitimize unequal power relations - this idea only occurs in majority discourse when it comes to art in dictatorships. This figure of thought was used again and again in the debates to defame anti-racist criticism. The defensive voices assign the unreflective white theater per se a democratic, educated and progressive status, while those who describe this presumption as wrong and point out where the same theater specifically excludes and discriminates, as anti-democratic and art hostile, and as described by Seidler as "dictatorial". In order to really dissolve these thought figures and chains of associations, one would have to go back further and analyze their traditions and continuities. Above all, this means the history of so-called bourgeois theater and the “Enlightenment” should be critically examined. The idea that the French Revolution won human rights for all people is still widespread and is also taught in schools and universities. The fact that in 1789 neither women nor black people received “human rights” is not addressed in the white rooms of the educational institutions. It is not mentioned, or only marginally, that colonization, enslavement and racial doctrine were part of the “scientific” worldview of the popular and still received enlightenmentists. That, for example, Immanuel Kant introduced the term “race” in the German context and advocated and continued the racist discourse of his time about black people.

This list could go on indefinitely and yet it always shows the same thing: theater and history - and also theater history - are mostly presented in Germany from a white, uncritical perspective. The contemporary German theater is not only the legacy of magnificent buildings, on whose stages performances are still being given behind the red velvet curtains, it is of course also the legacy of the historical concepts in the history of European and German bourgeois theater. And theater professionals would have to refer to this critically and knowledgeably - instead of citing the “genius” of canonical authors when they are addressed critically about the content and forms of presentation of their productions.


So it remains to be stated once again: Blackface is only a symptom. Blackface in white theater rooms refers to the structural racism that generally prevails there and that is the order of the day in Germany. Blackface refers to who is producing art for whom in German theaters and whose interests are at risk if racism is pointed out. White cultural workers - whether theater makers or journalists - have often not even taken the first step: Namely, to recognize and name their own position and point of view as white and privileged. Regardless of this, they are convinced that they could make critical and reflective statements about racism without further education and without dealing with the literature of Black authors. In doing so, they are constantly pushing the actual experts out of the white theater and cultural spaces, because their knowledge and perspective make one's own whiteness and the benefit of exclusion and marginalization visible. Anyone who wants to understand what blackfacing means and why it reproduces racist structures has to become familiar with and deal with complex and comprehensive subject areas: The contribution of culture to the maintenance of structures of rule, the construction of the other ("othering") / whiteness as a privileged position and limited perspective / history of colonialism and racial doctrine. This list makes it clear that the topic of blackface cannot be "regulated" and filed on the same level with a conversation or a decision. The misunderstanding and anger of many white actors evidently stems from the fact that energy is used to vehemently deny these diverse and unpleasant connections between artistic practice and colonial history. Their own ignorance and ignorance are projected onto the critics and they are imagined as “dictatorial” and “delusional” enemies of art and “civilized debate”.

Actually, these defense strategies, which by the way are always the same and presented like a prayer wheel, are very informative. White actors talk about themselves in them. After all, it is the defensive theater makers and journalists who only want to talk about “painting”, that is, pretending that blackface is about make-up. They are also indignant about a detail. With what great anger and aggression they want to hold on to something as "unimportant" as make-up at any cost. If it were just make-up and just a detail, white theater professionals could shrug their shoulders and say, “Oh, I did not even know that it is a hurtful and traumatizing practice that offends people who have experienced racism. Of course, I don't want to continue discriminating against those who have been oppressed for centuries. That would be cruel and racist. But I would like to criticize the establishment and do something anti-racist. Thanks for the hint. It's really easy to leave off the make-up at least now. " The DT has at least reacted in this regard and continued the staging of "Innocence" on March 21, 2012 instead of black with white make-up. The omission of blackface is gratifying and a correct and important step on the way to the deconstruction of white rooms.

Maintaining the refugees' mark remains problematic. Instead, theater professionals need the courage to name their own white gaze if they are really interested in making critical statements about discrimination, injustice and racism. Recognizing whiteness as a perspective that is not neutral, but benefits from racism and often (re) produces it, whether intentional or unintentional, is usually an uncomfortable to painful path for white people. But the discussions about blackface and racism in the theater are not about the assignment of good and bad roles. White cultural workers seem trapped in this dichotomous thinking when they assume stage watch that the group strives for a purification process and considers itself to be the better people. The text, which was distributed in the Deutsches Theater after “Innocence” and which was also printed in the in-house theater newspaper, emphasizes exactly the opposite:

We want those who are not affected to listen and question their perspective [...]. Racism is not a single malicious act, but a structure that is part of culture and socialization and affects us all. We also work on discovering racist imprints / ideas / images in ourselves - and then acting in such a way that we do not repeat them, but rather enable real togetherness.

White cultural workers must and can assume their share of responsibility in order to create a common artistic space for reflection in the theater.

(1) Ursula Wachendorfer: Whites keep white rooms white. In: Myths, Masks and Subjects. Edited by Maureen Maisha Eggers, Grada Kilomba, Peggy Piesche and Susan Arndt. 2009, pp. 530-539.

Julia Lemmle studied history and literature and teaches at the Free University of Berlin. She also works as a freelance trainer and artist on the topics of sexism & racism.