Are black actors and media professionals stereotyped in Germany?

This was the main question put to me by NDR-Zapp, the program me on all things media in Germany. They came to visit me at DEKRA Hochschule Berlin, where I am teaching journalism during the Wintersemerster. The Video (in German) of the broadcast can be viewed here. But for those of you, who do not speak German a shortened print version in English.

By Sugárka Sielaff

Translation Jeannine Kantara

Interview with Professor John A. Kantara, DEKRA-University, Berlin

The variety of characters for Black Germans in German television seems to be rather limited and dull.

Stereotypes are important in Germany. There is always the need to pigeonhole someone. This seems to be very important. What we have failed in Germany so far is freeing ourselves from stereotypes. I believe that many television producers have the opportunity to cast more ethnic minorities. However, they do not have much confidence in their audience. Therefore, the media does not reflect reality.

What sort of reality are you talking about?

For instance, here in Berlin – a multiethnic city – there are two Black Chief Inspectors. They are leading officers with the Berlin Police. However, you do not find them on the small screen.

What do you think are the reasons?

Producers and people in charge of television programs believe they have found a successful concept, which they are trying to recreate over and over again.

During my research I came across a newspaper article with the rather sarcastic headline: “The bushman shall telegenic, happy and colourful.” What image of Africa is portrayed in German television productions?

It is antiquated picture. As I said before, here in Germany – that includes the media -, we love clichés. It is just too convenient. Africa is supposed to be beautiful and easy. We should not dramatise too much, so everybody will be put at ease with what Africa apparently is about. Unfortunately, that has nothing to do with reality and I am not happy about it.

What does that mean for Black German actors and actresses?

Many Black German actors have told me that they lack decent offers. They can be singers or dancers or rather prostitutes, pimps or drug dealers, because that fits the cliché about Black people. But where are the Black judges, police officers? Where are the Black inspectors who are intelligent and in charge and who manage to solve their cases without being the sidekick or sub worker? I do not think that such parts are not even written with a Black person in mind. Perhaps writers cannot imagine that this would be appreciated in Germany. But the audience is much more open to change, since the audience itself has changed over the past decades. So why not introducing a Black Head of Department for the next hospital soap?

Reality is also created through images and stories. So what reality is portrayed when a Black employee who speaks fluent German serves dinner to a well-known white German actress at her farm in Africa?

That is absolutely ridiculous. It is the epitome of a cliché. A badly written story with an unrealistic plot which mostly features a romance between the two white main characters, set against an exotic African backdrop. Black people are used as extras to provide some sort of authenticity. Unfortunately, these kinds of television productions are reproduced over and over again. The German audience deserves better. How about showing real black people with their own biographies, their own dreams and aspirations? There is a vast field of opportunities here, but so far no one dares to use them.

Do you see any kind of progress? And how could it happen?

I know that television stations are trying to recruit qualified young people, but it is a slow process. Progress is in Germany is rather slow in that respect. We could be much more progressive by acknowledging the fact that we are a multi-racial society. TV stations could be more affirmative by clearly showing: Yes, we are Asian-German, we are Black-German, we are white German and it does not matter. We are all of that. It is enrichment to our society and it would certainly be enrichment on the television screen.

Are there any positive examples that you could quote?

The Black Austrian actor and singer Tyron Ricketts played a detective in SOKO-Leipzig. Ghanaian-German actress Liz Baffoe, known as Mary in the soap Lindenstraße, is offered more interesting roles such a playing a teacher. But for me it would be a huge improvement to see more Black judges, police officers or teachers – just like in real life.

What about other countries? Do you see more progress there?

Absolutely, I can see it in France; I can see it in the United Kingdom. Of course, I have heard the argument so many times: “Well, they had colonies.” Germany too had colonies. And many Black Germans can trace their roots back to immigrants who came from German colonies – as German cities! – into the country. There is nothing unusual about that.

But it is the idea of a White Germany that still determines the picture?

Germany still acts like we were a homogenous society. We have been that for a long time. And while politicians are slowly waking up and adjusting to the fact that we are a multiracial society, there is always a call for integration. But: I was born and raised in Germany, my mother tongue is German, and I have been integrated since birth. I am a journalist and a teacher. How much more integration is required? I am still Black.

Let’s face it: Only in the past ten years Black journalist have started to make a more frequent appearance on-screen, thereby changing Germany’s self-image. For instance, I am a Science reporter. I make documentaries about Quantum Physics and about our muscles. I want to make films about everything not just black issues. My interests are wide-reaching so I do not want to stick to themes about minorities (which I have also done numerous times, by the way). Why? Being a journalist, I cannot afford to restrict myself to only a small aspect of journalistic work. I want to do everything and I can do everything (at least I think so when megalomania strikes me). It is the same with black actors; however, they are not allowed to do everything. Even if reality contradicts those stereotypical television images. Germany’s Foreign Minister is of Asian-German decent, the former Foreign Minister and the Berlin mayor are gay. The leader of the German Green party is of Turkish-German descent. Something is definitely changing within German society. The question is: How long before we see that change reflected on television? Our task as journalists and media people is to create awareness for this problem.

The contract between the German government and public television stations states that they need to be at the forefront to create a non-discriminatory environment for everyone. Are public stations doing their job?

Not at all! Private stations are much faster when it comes to putting black people on the television screen. They are somewhat more groundbreaking than public stations. Why? Because they are much closer interlinked with their audience. However, public television is fighting to get those audiences back, and they really have to fight. Which means: A German television production that features no people with a migration background at all, cannot reflect reality in a country where 15 per cent of the population are of ethnical mixed heritage.

Filming in Africa has become some sort of boom in recent years. “Africa, mon amour”,Africa, where my heart carries me”, “No sky above Africa”… are just some of the titles and the list could be continued

Yes, Africa is a projection screen. We all know Africa is where Black people come from. In Africa, we can fulfil our desire for purity and originality. Africa provides the perfect scenery for all sorts of clichés that have been implemented in our minds from early kindergarten days – be it Jim Knopf or Pipi Longstocking, whose father is a “negro king”.  Those childhood images stay with us and they keep us company into adult life. Television producers are using those images by pushing the right buttons. They do not want to tell complex stories, that force the audience to (re-)think those images. They want simple, exotic storylines that fit well into the cliché. To a certain extent, they are even successful with that approach. However, eventually there is no authenticity left. When the old audience who still appreciates such kind of television program is gone, there will be no replacement. The younger generation will not be interested in such stories, as they do not reflect their reality. At this point, public television will have a problem.

But where do you draw the line between let’s say shallow entertainment and racism?

For me this is simple. I refer to what is written in our Constitution: Human dignity is inviolable. This is what we journalists and media people have to be aware of and respect. It is humiliating to constantly revive stereotypes that do not do justice to people.

But those stereotypes do have a certain function?

It is an old-age principle to discriminate against someone, in order to enhance your own status. We find that in every society. As someone who works in the media and therefore reaches many people, it is important to me to honour our basic rights that we all share.  Our country is inclusive. We want to work together, create something together, and build this country. However, this will only possible if it is also reflected in the media.

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