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Controversy: Obama in Blackface? Mr. Sonneborn, Tear Down This Billboard

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By HVculture on September 16, 2011

Ahead of state elections in Berlin this weekend, one political party has gone to such extremes in its own self-promotion that it’s posted two questionable billboards. One is titled “MILFS Against Merkel,” and the other shows party leader, Martin Sonneborn, dressed in shiny blackface with the JFK-esque slogan “Ick bin ein Obama (I am an Obama)” emblazoned across the top.

Take a look at the billboard, which The Local claims is “sparking outrage.”

For Americans, it pretty much goes without saying that the billboard is offensive. Blackface consisted of white performers painting themselves black for degrading minstrel shows and was highly popular in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Even Ted Danson learned that you don’t go blackface in contemporary society. You just don’t — despite what Australians want to believe (for some reason, they still love it).

Sonneborn claims he was merely trying to “mock” the hype surrounding Obama. Sonneborn is regarded as something of a comedian in Germany. He founded a satirical magazine, has written for Spiegel since 2006 and recently founded the satirical political party Die PARTEI, one of whose aims is to rebuild the Berlin Wall. He became a household name in the country a decade ago by attempting to bribe FIFA officials to award Germany the World Cup; he later wrote a book about the experience.

But back to the billboard. Sonneborn says he didn’t know about the American association with blackface, which is almost hard to believe. “No, I didn’t know that,” he told The Local. “If Americans associate it with that, then I’m sorry, but I’m not going to take it down.”

The billboard follows some other questionably racist endeavors in Germany, which on some level could be chalked up to the vast cultural divide. In 2009, a frozen food company released Obama chicken fingers but admitted it wasn’t aware some might see the racist overtones of stereotyping blacks with a fried chicken product. That same year, Dresden’s Zoo renamed a mandrill, yup, a monkey-like primate, “Obama” in an unfortunate effort to honor the U.S. president. German daily die Tageszeitung honored then-candidate Obama during the 2008 election by referring to the White House “Uncle Barack’s Cabin.”

Clearly, Germans don’t quite get America’s cultural and historical racism.

Tahir Della a spokesman for the Initiative for Black Germans (ISD), which tries to represent the interests of the black community in Germany, called the billboard “unbelievably hurtful.”

“This is 2011 and not 1950,” he said. “I find it racist through and through.”

Quaide Williams, the vice chair of the German chapter of Democrats Abroad, also said the poster was insensitive, although he emphasized that he was speaking for himself and not the organization.

“Do I think that racism is a problem in Germany? Yes I do. I think this shows how insensitive people are to this topic,” Williams told The Local. “It’s kind of interesting to look at how little they recognize racism in their own politics.”

Yeah, there’s no question the billboard is racist. On top of that it’s not really funny or enlightening. Though we profess to know little about German politics, we do wonder how a billboard of a white dude in blackface with the slogan “I am an Obama” satirizes anything.

But in the great tradition of Jerry Seinfeld claiming Tim Whatley’s conversion to Judaism offends him not as a Jew but as a comedian, we must point out the obvious: the blackface job is awful. Sonneborn looks like a shiny wax figure. The complexion and skin tone is off by a wide-mile. That‘s offensive!

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