“Schwarz auf Weiss: Eine Reise durch Deutschland,” or “Black on White: A journey through Germany,” premieres on Thursday, and is the product of famous undercover journalist Günter Wallraff’s year-long odyssey as a black man.
The film highlights shocking instances of discrimination and near-violent racism that Wallraff details in his book, “Aus der schönen neuen Welt: Expeditionen ins Landesinnere,” or “From the Brave New World: Expeditions in the Heartland,” which was released on October 14.
“In all of the months that I was on the road as a black man, it was not seldom that I felt my dignity had been taken from me,” 67-year-old Wallraff wrote in an article for Die Zeit last week of his experiences undercover as Kwami Ogonno. “It’s difficult to decide what was worse, to experience open aggression, cold rejection, or false, condescending friendliness.”
The problem of latent racism in Germany reached international attention in July when United Nations’ special rapporteur Githu Muigai’s said the country needs to do more to tackle daily discrimination against ethnic minorities after a fact-finding trip. And while Wallraff’s critics agree that it’s important for Germany to address the country’s undeniable problems of xenophobia and racism, many aren’t sure that it’s a white man’s job to deliver the message with the help of a theatre makeup expert.
“We already had this blackface story back in the 1920s in the US,” director of the Initiative for Black Germans (ISD) Tahir Della told The Local.
“It came about because blacks weren’t allowed to perform in clubs and theatres, so whites dressed up to caricature them – rendering them voiceless with no access to cultural life. Mr Wallraff is using the same form, playing a role he’s not entitled to and preventing those who are really affected from having a voice.”
Meanwhile professor and musician Noah Sow, who works with media watchdog Der Braune Mob, or The Brown Mob, accused Wallraff of earning money “on the costs of our suffering,” news magazine Der Spiegel reported on Wednesday.
Wallraff is well-respected in Germany for several similar undercover investigations, ranging from acting as a Turkish guest worker in 1985 to infiltrating the news room at tabloid daily Bild to highlight questionable journalistic practices. But the question remains whether his notoriety will aid in delivering a message that has been unwelcome coming from minority writers.
“This is an issue that many work to expose every day within Germany,” Della told The Local. “He is of course white, with a certain prominence and reputation for standing on the correct moral side of the disenfranchised. When we attempt to address it the problem is denied and placated. The question is whether this grievance we have will be heard and he’s doing us a favour – but I tend to think not.”
In addition to being offensive to Germany’s black community, Wallraff’s adventure in blackface makeup is not as original as the country’s audience may think. A non-fiction account of a white man travelling as a black man in the segregated American south, entitled “Black Like Me,” was published in 1961 and has since become required reading in many US schools.
A wholly different context means that almost 50 years later Germany has only recently begun to grapple with its own race problems and the fact that it has become an immigrant destination – even as much of the population remains overwhelmingly white.
“It’s difficult to count how many black Germans there are due to census issues, but let’s just say there are enough for our voice to matter,” Della told The Local.
But it’s hard for many Germans to recognise that racism exists in their country, particularly in light of residual Holocaust guilt, he added.
“Maybe it’s because racism is considered to be a problem only in other countries,” he said. “Germany thinks it made its mistakes in the past and learned from them, but this is wrong.”
Ultimately the problem can’t be solved without direct interaction with the disaffected, he added.
“Wallraff could have used his prominence to do something with us together and reach a larger public, but he didn’t,” Della concluded.