Thursday, 22 October 2009

Günter Wallraff Blacks Up

The German investigative reporter Günter Wallraff is known beyond national borders, predominantly for his groundbreaking 1985 book and film Lowest of the Low, for which he disguised himself as a Turkish "guest worker". And now he's been out and about exposing injustice in Germany again for a new book, Aus der schönen neuen Welt - and a film by the name of Schwarz auf Weiß (black on white). And yes, the film does what it says on the tin: Wallraff blacks up, dons an afro wig and travels around Germany as a Somalian, predictably enough encountering shocking examples of racism, near-violence and unfairness.

So far, so good. That's what Wallraff does - he disguises himself as a homeless man, a call centre agent, an alcoholic, and exposes the grimy sides of life in Germany. But it seems it's not just me who finds the guy's gone a step too far in this day and age by creating Kwami Ogonno. As Der Spiegel points out in its photo gallery:

Black Germans are on the fence about the film. "We find the mindset behind Mr. Wallraff's film very problematic," says Tahir Della, a spokeswoman from the Initiative of Black People in Germany (ISD). "As is so often the case, someone is speaking for rather than with us."

Della's being rather diplomatic there. The blog Black NRW puts it more directly:

Just what we needed: an almost 70-year-old white man, "camouflaged as black" using carnival face-paint, hops and skips around Germany and then, his make up off and white again, makes a sensational announcement via book, film, tour and talk show, naturally only for money: "Yes, it's really true, racism exists. Believe me, I'm white. You should behave in a friendly and humane manner towards all black people – they could be me."

The blogger goes on to recommend that people read a book written by a genuine black author, such as Noah Sow's Deutschland Schwarz Weiß (which I found revealing if irritatingly written). And the woman herself has given a stonking-good angry interview to the news programme Tagesspiegel, pointing out that it seems to take a white man to make the Germans sit up and listen to what she and many others have been saying for decades. Asked to list common prejudices against black people, she replies:

If you're interested try reading a good book on the subject. There are plenty of them. It's not okay or "normal" to have such a huge blind spot on a subject as important as this, that's present everywhere and affects us all. And otherwise I'd like to turn that ethnological gaze around: racism isn't a black tradition, it's a white tradition.

What amazes me is that Wallraff hasn't learned his lesson. As Tom Cheesman writes in his Novels of Turkish German Settlement, there were very mixed reactions to Lowest of the Low within the Turkish community. The book is often experienced as "unwittingly condescending" and playing on a stereotype of Turks as ignorant, unskilled, pitiful - and male, and has been subject to a fair amount of literary parody. Cheesman quotes Petra Fachinger, who relates an episode from the 1980s when the Turkish feminist novelist Aysel Özakin came to Germany:

Özakin "wanted to leave the Federal Republic when she first saw Ganz unten displayed in a bookstore window." The "sullen, despondent dirty face" of Wallraff as Ali "drove her into an identity crisis," as it seemed to force her into a position of ethnic identification "with each and every Turk she saw in the street."

So now we have Wallraff championing black people in Germany – not black Germans, but once again a hapless and pitiable foreigner, as if nothing had changed since 1985. The unwitting message? Black people are victims - and it takes a blacked-up Günter Wallraff in a ridiculous shirt to attract any attention to racism.

Update: See Noah Sow's blog for photos of her dressed up as a white male journalist for Halloween. Apparently she's also willing to spill the beans on her sociological experiences during the evening - for a large sum of money.


Kyra Gaunt, Ph.D. said...

Thanks for this. I had been looking for something in English. I don't speak German. THe only pieces on the web were only in German. I am working on conversations of racism and how those conversations contribute to blindspots that really limit the cultural view that racism exists. Appreciated finding your blog. Follow me on Twitter @ kyraocity

Kyra Gaunt, Ph.D. said...

PS I am teaching a course on racism and I am speaking in London and Rotterdam on racism, first at a Twitter COnference then the in about 2 weeks.

Could you translate this segment on YouTube for me??

Anonymous said...

Here is a piece in English from October 22:

"A new documentary film by a white journalist posing as a Somali immigrant is meant to highlight rampant racism in Germany, but his undercover method is garnering heavy criticism from black advocacy groups."