Monday, August 13, 2007

The Strange Politics of Race in Germany

The following images are part of an ad campaign by UNICEF in Germany. The campaign purports to raise awareness about educational inequality in African nations, but strangely has opted to use white German children posing in blackface as uneducated African children to convey that message. According to the ad agency that created the campaign, the poster "shows four german kids who appeal for solidarity with their contemporaries in Afrika." The text that goes along with each image is translated beneath the ad:

"in africa, many kids would be glad to worry about school"

"some teachers suck. no teachers sucks even more."

"I'm waiting for my last day in school, the children in africa still for their first one."

"in africa, kids don't come to school late, but not at all"

Not surprisingly, the ads have generated quite a bit of heat as they zoom around the world on the internet.

Malena Amusa has written at, "Besides claiming that every single person in 'Africa' isn't educated, and doing so in an extremely patronising way, it is also disturbing that this organisation thinks blackfacing kids with mud (!) equals 'relating to african children'. Also, the kids' statements ignore the existence of millions of african academics and regular people and one again reduces a whole continent to a village of muddy uneducated uncivilized people who need to be educated (probably by any random westerner). This a really sad regression. Bottom lines of this campaign are: Black = mud = African = uneducated. White = educated. We feel this campaign might do just as much harm as it does any good. You don't collect money for helping people by humiliating and trivializing them first."

In response, one reader wrote, "The ads seem to be trying to evoke in the viewer a sense of 'what if these were our children.'" Another posted, "Cultural context and imagery are handled slightly different in Germany. Sublime and slightly overboard. Why not using imagery like that for a pressing issue? Don`t apply US PCism." A different reader charged that those criticizing the campaign were merely "looking for the racist element in everything." And one final person asked, "This is clearly an attempt to help some poor kids. Why make a BIG DEAL out of it?"

Check it out the full Alternet piece at this link (be sure to scroll through the comments):
German Ad Campaign Uses White Children in Blackface to Portray "Uneducated Africans"

So, what is this all about? Is it just another example of racism, white supremacy and neo-colonialism? Or, is it American PC run amok, American cultural police imposing their values and perspectives on the rest of the world? Or, is it well-intentions gone awry? Or, is it some knowing use of historically loaded imagery to make a statement, or get attention? Or, is it something else altogether...?

For what it is worth, when I saw this story, I was reminded of a story from 2005, about a German city (Augsburg) that had decided to have an African cultural celebration inside their local zoo! The exhibit included real human beings along side the exotic animals. Anti-racist organizations throughout the country and around the world reacted. Here is the story:
BBC: "Row over German zoo's Africa show"


  1. When I saw these ads I thought they were in extreme poor taste. There is a better way to show solidarity & to raise awareness. I can't imagine coming up with this idea & thinking it's going to generate results.

    One of the downsides of socially conscious ads is that a good portion are done for creativity's sake so they can get into some industry annuals, and oh yeah, if they do some good, then all the better.

    As a graphic designer, I usually think that socially conscious ads are the best of advertising, a sign that it isn’t all bad. But in this case, it just crosses over into being ineffective and really missing an opportunity to do something that could help the situation, rather than creating controversy about the ad itself.

  2. Justin, as an industry person, do you think there is pressure or energy toward shocking folks with ads, a la the old United Colors of Benetton ad campaign? If so, is it possible this was a miscalculation along those lines?

    Also, I am interested in your comments that a lot of the socially conscious designs are mainly puff pieces for companies, appearing most often in industry annuals and trotted out to prove a company's "liberal" credentials... but not really making it out there broadly, and thus having little real impact.

  3. We talked about the Benetton ads when I was in school and the effectiveness, or lack thereof, of "shock value." My feelings then as now are that there is a time & place. This I don't think was the time or place & could be chalked up to a miscalculation.

    I've always been skeptical of industry awards. A lot of firms I respect don't have anything to do with them. And when you do a small run of posters dealing with a social cause, with very few going up, and the rest going into competitions, that's just not the reason you should be doing projects of that sort.

    To your point on that type of work being "puff pieces" to prove credentials, that is becoming quite an issue & we citizens need to be ever more critical of that ad game. You see this a lot with eco-friendly labels, and being "green." I mean, when you see Hummer billboards touting their MPG, it's just laughable.

    And frankly, as a good industry friend of mine has said, being socially conscious is hip right now. The Red campaign to buy products for a good cause. Brands like American Apparel showing off their sweatshop-free nature. MTV & the Break the Addiction campaign.

    On the surface, it's nice to see. But are these corporations following through? Is it all just fluff with the intentions of making huge profits winning out when the decision to not get those clothes made in a sweatshop in Indonesia just doesn't cut it on the bottom line.

    Those Unicef ads, where did they end up? Did they make the desired impact? Did they raise money? Are kids in Africa going to be worrying about school?

    Is it to flex creative muscle? Or is it to actually do some good?

  4. Blackface on white German kids as an "appeal to solidarity" sounds pretty shaky to me. And "PC" is unregenerate white folk's talk, which sends a signal to Blacks, Asians, Chicanos, and Native Americans that people using the term really don't understand struggles for social equity, or are not in favor of the idea. The term "PC" is for whiners and nay-sayers who ought to get their s#*t together. The reason I checked out this website is because I am looking into UNICEF's creds, having a UNICEF honcho on my Linkedin account, and a UNICEF website linked to mine, if I don't like their politics I'll kick them out, as I did to the Mexican Consul General, the Mexican Consul of Chicago, and the official Mexican Gov't "Indian Agent", for upholding and seconding Mex Pres Enrique Peña Nieto's drivel. Nor did I accept on my Linkedin account a rep of the US State Dept., she can be on Linkedin, but not under my auspices. Human Rights watch is also Link'd with me on probation. In their reports they bitch about Assad's barrel bombs, but not about the US's current version of it's 170 year history of violent imperialist policies, or it's military use of Depleted Uranium, which poisons regions forever and leaves behind a huge uptick in birth deformities. HRW reports fail to consider, for example, the US State Dept's support, by way of USAID/CIA, for right-wing or outright bourgeois fascistic attempts to overthrow democratically elected governments as in Venezuela, but prefer to carp about the proven instigators bring jailed and tried in legitimate Venezuelan courts. Yes, I just convinced myself: I am bouncing HRW. Why do these worthies want to join me on Linkedin?...see my website and find out for yourself.

  5. Oh yeah, my blog is XLOWRIDER TIMES PANCHO VILLA--resembling nothing else on the web, guaranteed. Un saludo cordial.