Hoisted from the comments

Thanks to Scott Hanson for pointing me to the German coverage of Die Tageszeitung’s astoundingly ill-judged headline. Here’s some of the Der Spiegel reporting (Die Tageszeitung is apparently known as Taz):

The headline refers to Harriet Beecher Stowe’s 1852 anti-slavery novel “Uncle Tom’s Cabin,” which has become controversial due to its perceived stereotyping of African-Americans. The novel led to the expression “Uncle Tom” being used to pejoratively refer to an African-American who is subservient to whites.

Gary Smith, executive director of the American Academy in Berlin, a private center which promotes trans-Atlantic relations, told SPIEGEL ONLINE Thursday that the cover left him “speechless.” “‘Uncle Tom’ is a racial slur, and the Taz editors clearly sacrificed substance and principle for an unreflected laugh,” he said. “A journalism that prides itself on treating stereotypes with irreverence needs to think harder about its own deployment of stereotypes and racial allusions. There are countless ways to address the issue of race in this year’s election more intelligently.”

Editors at Taz defended their decision to run the headline on Thursday. “The headline is intended to be satirical,” deputy editor-in-chief Reiner Metzger told SPIEGEL ONLINE. “‘Uncle Tom’s Cabin’ is a book that all Germans know and which they associate with issues of racism. The headline is supposed to make people think about these stereotypes. It works on many levels.”

He said that the issue of race surrounds Obama in the presidential election campaign. “The fact that he is African-American plays a constant role in the campaign, but no one talks about it explicitly. One can play with that fact.”

Metzger said that the Taz is famous for not being politically correct and is well-known for its ironic and cheeky cover headlines. “I’m sure 99 percent of our readers would understand it correctly. As for the rest, well, tough luck. You can’t please everybody.”

But many were clearly displeased by the Taz’s cover choice — including representatives of Germany’s black community, who reacted with indignation. “I find the Taz cover very problematic,” said Yonis Ayeh, a board member at the Initiative of Black People in Germany (ISD). The ISD represents the interests of black Germans, who are estimated to number up to 500,000 within Germany’s population of 82 million.

“The newspaper is comparing Obama with Uncle Tom, a subservient slave,” Ayeh said. “I’m sure Obama doesn’t see himself like that. It transmits an image of black people as submissive, uneducated people, which is simply not true.”

Ayeh was not surprised that an insensitive headline could come from a left-leaning newspaper. “There is also acute racism within the left-wing scene in Germany,” he said. “They are no angels, and the Taz contributes to that when it commits such gaffes.”

One thought on “Hoisted from the comments

  1. Beate Kaebel

    Dear Mr. Knobel,

    I just wanted to add that some reactions out of Germany’s left-wing and hence “p.c.” (or should I say, “right”-minded…) camp just go to prove Yonis Ayeh’s point about the racism you find among many on the left in Germany. One example is a comment by Katja Nicodemus in DIE ZEIT (No. 25, of June 12, 2008, p. 47), a weekly by and large exemplary of decent journalism, but with some bad apples.

    Ms. Nicodemus, all indignation and noble foe of racism, is virtually ablaze with anti-(white)American hatred in her defense of this unjustifiable and inexcusable headline. Not only does she ignore black people’s reactions to that headline – which, in any event, should be the main concern here – , but she distorts U.S. reactions, focusing exclusively on accusations of Nazism etc., and ultimately placing the blame at the doorstep of “America’s racism,” which the taz supposedly exposed.

    This way of twisting the facts to one’s liking is typical of the people Yonis Ayeh obviously had in mind, who only utilize people of African descent in the pursuit of their agenda(s) and are as deeply steeped in colonialist, paternalistic, and other racist attitudes as any die-hard right-wing bigot. All the while they are so caught up in their posture of moral and ideological self-righteousness – after all, they alone among wo/men possess “the truth,” and, of course, the way to the light – that you cannot even get them to refrain from using the German equivalent of “coloreds” for blacks: THEY don’t feel it’s offensive, so black folks shouldn’t either, got it? (And if the latter don’t like it, tough on them.) And that’s just the tip of the iceberg.

    Racism is a cancer, and cancer is a disease we are still far from able to overcome. It is both sad and criminal that so many people in key positions, e.g. journalists, not only carry and spread this disease, but are actually stubbornly proud that they do so. On the bright side, and for whatever it’s worth, a number of (white) readers of the taz as well as other people around the country rejected the whole “satire and irony” spin on this abominable headline, and quite some are sorry and ashamed for this disparagement of black people, as am I.


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