Reconciling American and German takes on political correctness
Recently, the following sign has been popping up all over train stations in Berlin:
The text translates to, "We'll carry your groceries, you carry little Indians."
As an American who has been beat soundly over the head with the assertion that white people dressing up in Native American headdresses for fun is unequivocally a form of cultural appropriation that should be avoided at all costs, this was quite jarring to see. My first instinct was to be shocked at the cavalier use of these traditional clothing accessories to advertise some sort of grocery delivery service (btw, way to join 2015, Germany).
But, then I remembered that this is Germany -- things that we consider to be quite politically incorrect in the U.S. are often seen differently here, and even trying to suggest that there might be something questionable about making use of such images often elicits a blank stare and confusion as to why you're trying to make a big deal out of something so innocuous.
It's something I struggle with. How do you find a balance between fairly absolute convictions about what is appropriate and what is not with acknowledgements that you are interacting with a different culture with a completely different history and relation to these "racist" ideas? On the one hand, it seems far too spineless to go the pure relativist route and say that all cultures can set standards for political correctness as they see fit and that, as a non-member of this society, you have no right to even question whether something is right. Yet on the other hand, it seems unfair to to criticize practices that are specifically controversial in the U.S. due to our unique history of having treated these groups of people in horrid, often inhumane ways -- a history that Germany doesn't share (specifically in relation to the treatment of Native Americans and African Americans).
Another prime example of a disconnect between American and German standards of political correctness is the use of blackface. This practice is viewed as extremely offensive and socially unacceptable in the U.S., and individuals and groups are routinely lambasted in local or national news if it comes to light that they partook in blackface (think poorly themed college fraternity parties or questionable Halloween costumes).
In Germany, blackening your face to dress up as someone of African descent is still largely viewed as harmless fun. There is a German Christmas-season tradition of the "Sternsinger" ("Star-singers") that involves children dressing up as the Three Wise Men who brought gifts to baby Jesus. They usually go around door to door, singing songs and collecting money for charity (so, it's like caroling in the U.S.). Except, one of the traditions is for a child to blacken his or her face, in order to more closely resemble Balthasar, one of the three kings who is traditionally depicted as black. Just do a Google image search for "Sternsinger" and scan through the results.
There are even pictures of German Chancellor Angela Merkel being photographed with children who have blackened their faces. Think for a second about the almighty shitstorm that would ensue if an American politician were photographed in such a circumstance.
Another common instance where you might see Germans partaking in blackface is during Carneval celebrations, when many people dress up in costumes. There, darkening your face is just seen as part of your outfit.
None of this is meant to imply there is complete acceptance of blackface in Germany. This article (in German) from the Spiegel magazine is talking about an instance where a German game show asked members of the audience to dress up as a beloved Children's book character, Jim Knopf, who is black. For some Germans, it was obvious that dressing up as Jim Knopf meant you would need to blacken your face, but others took to Facebook and Twitter to decry what they saw as the racism of that act. But generally, the attitude among mainstream Germans seems to be that since blackfacing in Germany does not have the same controversial history that it does in the United States, it therefore should not be viewed as anything more than dressing up for fun.
When it comes to making use of Native American headdresses, it's important to remember that to Germans, Native Americans aren't exactly a real people. They have almost no chance to meet someone from that background, and what they do know about Native Americans, they learn from depictions in books or movies or television shows. Thus there is no real consideration of the culture behind the apparel. I don't necessarily know how much I can fault them for this -- it seems a little odd to shame someone for not knowing another culture better when Americans ourselves are not exactly leading the pack in awareness of foreign cultures.
Ultimately, I don't really have a clear conclusion to draw from this. I'm not willing to compromise on my personal beliefs that appropriating Native American clothing is wrong, or that blackface is never acceptable for me or anyone in my immediate friend circle. But I have a hard time making absolute criticisms of German culture, when I am very firmly an outsider looking in. I can offer my own perspectives on this, but ultimately I think Germans as a whole need to have these discussions among themselves, and hopefully move toward a direction that is more thoughtful of how minorities are depicted and used in the everyday culture here.