Really Bavaria?

I almost choked on my big fat German wiener when I saw these photographs in the local Bavarian newspaper. Apologies for their quality. If you look closely you’ll see images of children – some with their faces ‘blackened’ – to make them look like Jesus’ Three Kings for Three Kings Day on January 6.  I hasten to add these were taken this year in 2013, not sometime in the 1930s.

For a country so desperate to escape its Nazi past, Germany really surprises me sometimes. Maybe I’m too uptight and British. Maybe the fact that this just wouldn’t happen in Britain today says that society there has become too politically correct. Or maybe living in Bavaria has made me lose touch with reality.  “They’re just trying to represent the Three Kings better,” a local explained to me. Personally, I don’t think they need to smear children’s faces in black paint to do so. Before I moved to Germany a year ago I wrote a list of what my expectations of this country and its people were. “Highly-intelligent, forward-thinking society” was on it. But when I see this proudly splashed across the local news I really do wonder.

Having spent a few days thinking over the pictures I have come to the conclusion that those responsible are not intentionally racist. I’m sure the children and the adults behind their supervision would be horrified to think they could cause offence. The problem is, there are very few black people in Bavaria outside of Munich. I guess if there were more black children here then church groups celebrating Three Kings Day wouldn’t be able to get away with doing something so ignorant. The people would hold them accountable.  Why am I getting so worked out about it? Well, I’m in the process of deciding whether Germany is a good place to bring up my son, now aged nine months. He was born here, and I figured that Germany would be a better place for him than England. If it was just me, I probably wouldn’t ponder these issues so much. What do you think? Are these pictures racist, offensive or just harmless fun? Does Bavaria need to move with the times more? I would be REALLY interested to hear your thoughts. Please leave a comment!

On a lighter note, I did have a good laugh at how badly these youngsters were made up. Poor things.

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19 thoughts on “Really Bavaria?

  1. I hold a very unpopular opinion, that being there is a vast difference between “blackface” and painting your face black. It is one of the dearly held beliefs among Catholics/Christians that one of the three wise men was a black man. Honestly, if the worst thing here is that in order to depict a black wise man they painted one of the children black – that there wasn’t racial stereotyping, insulting behavior by or toward said character, or any negative connotation applied to it – then to me, it’s just kids portraying a character.

    This is exactly the same as saying that there is a Mayan story that has a white character in it, so a Mayan child paints his or her face white to portray the character.

    Isn’t this better than erasing the character? Sure, if there was a black kid in the group, he probably would have been picked to play the character, but you mentioned there really aren’t that many in Bavaria, so I guess it’s one of those catch 22s. If they ignore the character’s color, people will accuse them of white-washing and making blacks invisible in Church history. If they don’t, they’re accused of racism/black face. I wouldn’t even call it harmless “fun”, I’d call it being very out in the open with honouring a black figure.

    I really think there *is* something between the two, and it’s harmless and really seems to be more inclusive and tolerant than either extreme would try to make it out to be. I rather would like to think it’s teaching kids that there is nothing wrong with being black, that one of their honoured historic figures is black, and maybe those kids will grow up a lot more tolerant for it.

    But that’s just me, I’m not in Bavaria so…

    • Thank you for taking the time to comment, it’s very interesting to hear your views and I’m sure others will agree. Yes as you say there could be the case that if the black king was ignored then those involved could be accused of white-washing. A case of damned if you do, and damned if you don’t.

  2. Hi,
    being Bavarian (Franconian in fact) myself, let me comment on your question:
    Yes, I think Munich IS a good place to bring up a child (I have two myself). Munich offers a huge variety of activities and opportunities, a great surrounding, the advantages of a big city, while still being small enough to avoid stress and to allow for a somehow personal flair.

    I would not say so for the south-bavarian countryside, which is beautiful, but still quite akwardly conservative and even maybe racist in some places.

    Munich I would say is different from that, because of the huge numbers of non-bavarians living there. This makes this city much more tolerant than the surrounding.

    Regarding the photo:
    Well, some children did that singing stuff in my youth as well, and as you say it, it never struck me or anyone else that this could be offensive. It was just fun being someone else like dressing for carnival as a cowboy, a native american or as a police man, without thinking about offending these groups (would you dress as a native american in the UK for carnival?).
    But then, you and your boy can perfectly avoid “Sternsinger” in a big city like Munich if you like. I know of not a single parent whos kids are part of it, as it seems to be that mostly the deeply catholic and rooted natives would participate – and I have the feeling this will not be your most common company anyway.

    Cheers,
    Woodpecker
    http://www.gooddaytolive.net

    • Hello and thank you for your comments. As you have observed we are in the south of Bavaria rather than in the city. There are plenty of plus points here too for raising a child, particularly safety and such beautiful nature. My travels have shown to me that cities are usually not representative of the state/country they are to be found in so I can understand when you say Munich is less conservative. It is also good to hear from someone who participated in the Three Kings celebrations. As you say it never struck you or anyone else as being offensive and I think that is the interesting point here. That here in Bavaria people can’t see what the fuss is about, whereas in Britain or the States it would be a very different story. But it would be a very boring world if everywhere was the same! Regarding what you say about dressing as a native American, usually I wouldn’t have found that offensive, just fun However I have recently made friends with a native American, and she says it is racist to do so. It’s a minefield out there!

      • There you go, most if not all of the kids and their parents that dress as the black king will just have spent no thought at all on the possibility that this might offend someone. As you absolutely correctly observed this might be due to the lack of non-whites in Bavarian countryside (there are virtually none, similar to the lack of native americans in the UK).

        But I wrongly thought you live in Munich. If not, well, the Bavarian countryside IS special. For me personnaly it would be difficult to adapt there to be honest, because I have the impression natives can be quite conservative and stubborn there. What is your experience as a foreigner?
        And did you ever consider moving closer to a city (even if it is a smaller one)?

      • Yes the Bavarian countryside is special indeed! I’m enjoying being in a completely different area although sometimes the differences can be too much. I lived in London previously and I have travelled a lot. But this is all part of the process of living abroad and being surrounded by a new culture. I like that we are not too far from Munich so I can experience the city too when it gets too much. Blogging here and gaining the views of others also helps to put things into perspective. As a foreigner I have been treated well. The people have been very friendly and welcoming. However I have heard the locals moaning about Germans from the north – so I do wonder what they really must think of me, being a complete non-German! I will stick it out as there are so many great aspects about living here but who knows how long I will last.I hope your experiences in Munich are great.

      • Thanks, yes, I enjoy Munich – an excellent city in my opinion (except housing prices maybe).
        Regarding the Bavarian/Prussian(=all northern Germans) relationship:
        You might well be better accepted than them, because you are only one(or two) and thus cannot really challenge their life style.
        It is a different case about the thousands of people who come here mostly to work in Munich and live in the countryside.
        As said, many rural locals are very conservative and seem to fear that they will change things – which indeed they do of course.
        I do not want to judge them, sure many or most a very friendly people – it’s just an observation.

        However, enjoy and I’m sure you will have a great time, especially if you focus on the great things the region offers!

        Woodpecker

  3. My thoughts? I think the kids are cute that way and i have no idea what it all means.

  4. Maybe you would like to look up http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/entertainment/2223239.stm However, the Sternsinger represent the Three Kings visiting the manger and bringing presents. And according to lore one of them was of dark colour so the kids donning “royal robes” and represent these kings in order to collect funds for Third World Aid. The tradition in Bavaria goes back to the 16th century.

    • Thanks for the link, interesting to see that something fairly similar was causing a stir back in the 1960s/70s. A strong Bavarian tradition as you say, that is still going strong today. Be interesting to see whether this is still the case in many years to come.

  5. I don’t understand why you think painting a person’s face black is racist. Are they not just acting a part? Using your logic, does that then make men who dress in women’s clothes sexist? Perhaps not being American, and by extent not having a country’s collective guilt over having black slaves, I shall never understand.

  6. Hi Suzanne
    Thanks for taking the time to add your views. I never actually said this was racist, but that I’m sure those involved did not intend to be so. This is however seen as racist by many people and what I am asking here is for other people’s views as to be honest I can’t make up my mind as to whether this is racist or not. I do think it is insensitive and that it could cause offence. But racist? As I said I’m still not sure. The pictures shocked me as yes, I am from a more multi-cultural society where this wouldn’t be allowed to happen. If you have a moment take a look at the link Zyriacus posted to a BBC story above. It’s a different situation but it does show how something similar has caused offence.

  7. Hello! I’m a native Bavarian and in my childhood I used to be a “Ministrant”; I assume you already figured out that kids up to the age of 12 “work” as church service helpers. Usually those Ministranten play the Three Kings. I remember that it always was a great honour to play the African king and the painted face made you feel even more like an ancient king from the mysterious continent of Africa. In my opinion it might be more offensive or even a sign of white supremacy if the African king was depicted as a white European. It has nothing to do with the depiction of African people as in old cartoons where they have swollen lips, a dull facial expression and wear suspenders. All of the Three Kings are usually pictured in a dignified manner.

    By the way, I like your blog. Keep at it! Best regards
    Chris (Upper Palatinate, Bavaria)

    • Hi Christian
      Thank you very much for your interesting comments, always insightful to hear from an actual Bavarian! I’m glad you like the blog, keep reading and commenting as it’s good to hear a local’s point of view.

  8. This Weekend I learned something, which explained your excitement about blackface to me. Before that I really did Not understand what this Article was about.

    Let me explain what happened. On Saturday a big TV-Show (Wetten dass …) was broadcasted from Augsburg. You or may not have heard of the Augsburger Puppenkiste and their most famous play Jim Knopf und Lukas der Lokomotovführer. Anyway, Jim Knopf, is a orphaned Child of African origin, who is found by Lukas the engineer. Lukas fosters him and together they master a lot of adventures.

    The show is about strange bets and the presenter called the Augsburgers to come in disguise like Jim Knopf and Lukas, explicitly saying, that the face of the Jim Knopf actors should be blackfaced. The presenter and I guess 90% of the German public including me did not know that this could be an offense against black people, but the next day there was a big excitement in the news about this. And so I did a little investigation and I learned this about blackface …

    In the 19th century especially in the US, but also in other states which dealt with slavery/colonialization issues (US, UK, France) there were stage plays which featured roles of silly and dumb blacks. The actors of such black roles were whites, which colored their face and of course this kind of acting was an insult against black people. If you want to know more just google blackface.

    In Germany such plays never became popular and therefore only a small minority here connects colored black faces with an offense against black people. Although I regard myself as a person with fairly good general knowledge (at least I went to school for 13 years and sometimes I even paid attention to the lessons), I have never heard of this blackface issue before.

    So in three weeks time when the little three wise kings are on the road again, please be not too harsh with the children. A racism offense can only regarded as such when it is done intentionally. Otherwise it is just lack of knowledge.

  9. I’m native Bavarian too, and live in a little village, though I work in Munich.
    When I was a child I didn’t know what racism was, and it shocks me always again how feared people are about racism.
    In fact, I had a black guy in my class, but it took me some years to realize that he was actually black.
    I never made a bigger difference between him and me than I would between somebody who has blue eyes or red hair. Always when somebody from other countries asked me if I know somebody who is black then I answered with no, because as I said, in my youth I just didn’t know what racism was, and never connected him with this word.
    I think being scared of being racist is dumb. I used to be very scared to be racist when I was a teenager, when I knew what racism was, to a point even where I didn’t dare to talk to black people, in fear that they would think I’m racist. Isn’t that in fact more racist from me than not caring about his skin color and asking him from where he comes?
    So I am just as I am, and do what I think is right. If any person has a problem with that, and I care enough about that person, then I apologize. In any case I think ones intentions are way more important than the actual words one is using.
    Bavarians have no feeling like racism, except if you give us reason (e.g. taking our freedom or insulting us because of the way we are (not including jokes)).

    Also to shortly define who is Bavarian to me, Bavarian are those who live this culture of ours, speak the language of ours and who follow the the popular Bavarian term “Liberalitas Bavarica”.

    This is my very own personal view on these things. I also was writing about the majority of Bavarians, by no means we are we perfect, and by no means is every single Bavarian like described above.

    Hope this was useful 🙂

    • Hello! Thank you for taking the time to read this and comment. I’m interested to hear a local’s take on this especially your comment “Bavarians have no feeling like racism.” I do think Bavaria exists in its own isolated world with very deep traditions that are still in full swing today, particularly in the villages. That has good and bad points as many other places in the developed world become more integrated. It’s been interesting to experience that kind of lifestyle as for me it is totally different to anything I have ever been used to.

      • I am from black Jamaican and have lived in the U.S.A. Didn’t realised that painting of face black was ‘racist’ until I lived there. I used to see old black and white shows of this in Jamaica and thought it was just silly comedy. I think most people of colour (including blacks) are not as parnoid by racism except in the US, Uk were they have suffered and still is from it.

        My country motto is Out of Many, One people’, which includes German decents too. I hope to visit Germany at some point. I have an open mind. Enjoy meeting good people, learning other culture and will only avoid certain people if they don’t want to know me because of silly things like skin colour. If we all spend time to learn and understand each other the world would be a better place. Good and Evil exist in all race, culture and creed.

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