This spring, the zoo in the eastern German city of Dresden named a newborn mandrill after freshly inaugurated US President Barack Obama, apparently unaware that there is a long history of using monkeys to racially stereotype black people. When pressed on the issue, the zoo renamed the animal “Okeke” last Friday. But Munich-based ISD director Tahir Della told The Local on Monday that the new name was also an insensitive mistake.
The Local: What’s wrong with the name Okeke?
Della: It happens to be the shared by a Nigerian football player for Chemnitz FC, Chibuike Okeke. Unfortunately black players are regularly taunted in German football stadiums by fans mimicking monkeys and throwing bananas. The zoo clearly didn’t get the message. All it takes is a bit of sensitivity and a simple Google search to insure that the name won’t be connected to racially problematic images.
The Local: Some critics have said that the incident was a case of exaggerated adherence to political correctness. What is your response to that claim?
Della: I don’t think Germany has done enough in the realm of political correctness to say that. For the last 50 years Jewish organisations have rightfully fought to extinguish the anti-Semitic undercurrents which still remain. The standards of sensitivity that they have achieved should also apply to all minority groups in Germany – but that hasn’t happened yet.
The Local: What about the implications of naming a zoo animal after a public figure?
Della: This is also absurd. I don’t know of a cow named ‘Merkel.’
The Local: You’ve said that the ISD has made numerous such complaints against institutions in the past to no avail, and that you were surprised the Dresden Zoo changed the name. Have you had a response from the zoo director on your most recent complaint?
Della: No, he is on vacation, but I don’t expect to get one. After so much media attention they’re probably hoping it will be forgotten.
The Local: Do you think this incident will help people become more aware of race issues in Germany?
Della: The Augsburg Zoo Völkerschau [ethnological exposition] issue in 2005 – where black people were placed in an ‘African Village’ between the zoo animals – got a lot more media attention after complaints. But I still think this is a good opportunity to fundamentally discuss the question of racism in Germany – it’s hard to get people to take it seriously.