Germany’s ‘Jamaica coalition’ provides plenty of material for media – but is the use of Caribbean stereotypes racist?

Chancellor Amgela Merkel is seeking to form government with two other parties – their colours of black, yellow and green match the Jamaican flag

PUBLISHED : Friday, 10 November, 2017, 11:40am
UPDATED : Friday, 10 November, 2017, 9:40pm

A German news weekly illustrated the outcome of September’s election with a picture of Chancellor Angela Merkel wearing a Rastafarian hat and passing a joint to stoned fellow leaders sporting dreadlocks.

The drawing on the cover of Frankfurter Allgemeine Woche was one of the least subtle comic sallies in a post-election period fixated on “Jamaica” – as politics and media have dubbed a prospective coalition between Merkel’s conservatives, the liberal Free Democrats and the ecologist Greens.

The fact that the three parties’ colours of black, yellow and green match the Caribbean nation’s flag has proven irresistible for politicians and journalists hunting for questionable jokes.

Many have been harmless, like leaders noting the roughly 8,500km that separate Berlin from Kingston as a metaphor for the distance all sides must go in the arduous negotiations.

This is just reproduction of racist views and perspectives and images. People should stop doing it
Tahir Della, anti-racism campaigner

Sceptics have also cracked wise about the “Curse of the Caribbean” – the German title of the first Pirates of the Caribbean movie – when predicting that the talks will fail.

But critics say there is a current underlying the Rastafarian jokes that rely on stereotypes about Jamaica and black people.

“This is just reproduction of racist views and perspectives and images,” Tahir Della of anti-racism campaign group Initiative for Black People in Germany (ISD) said. “People should stop doing it.”

Nikolas Busse, the editor of Frankfurter Allgemeine Woche, said its cover picture was intended as an eye-catching satirical commentary on the “strange political situation” Germany now faces, and that he was not aware of any reader complaints or hurt feelings.

Seeking a lighthearted tone, one journalist at conservative newspaper Die Welt expressed mock concern about “a government with the name of a stoner paradise”.

He warned “the naturalisation of Jamaica looms”, riffing on battles over integration, ethnicity and national identity sparked by the arrival of more than 1 million migrants and refugees since 2015.

Political scientist Joachim Trebbe of Berlin’s Free University said that although he considered the stereotyping “comparatively harmless”, equating Jamaicans to Rastafarians was “unfair and perhaps discriminatory”, similar to common clichés abroad about “beer-swilling, lederhosen-clad Bavarians” standing in for Germany.

George Llewellyn, a Jamaican chef living in western German city Wuppertal, said “there will be people making jokes about it who don’t understand the cultural aspects of it, and there will be people who don’t joke, because they know the cultural aspect behind it”.

Nevertheless, “we are living in a democratic land, of course we are free to make jokes about anything”, he added.

At the Press Council, Germany’s media watchdog, there have been no complaints about the Jamaica comparisons in newspapers, general manager Lutz Tillmanns said.

“This quickly turns to a discussion of caricature, of visual discussion, maybe even satire, and I’d say you can’t tar it all with the same brush,” he added.

This quickly turns to a discussion of caricature, of visual discussion, maybe even satire ... you can’t tar it all with the same brush
Lutz Tillmanns, Press Council

Della said that such questions are “always brushed off with the phrase ‘anything goes in satire’, that the intention is what counts”.

“The reader accepts it with a smile and doesn’t see that behind it racist fantasies are being served,” Della said.

In recent years there have been more complaints about the coverage of non-white groups as fear of increased crime has been woven into reporting on immigration, Tillmanns said.

Meanwhile public concern about press discrimination against groups that fell victim to the Holocaust such as the Jews, Roma and Sinti has ebbed, he noted.

Germany is widely admired for its atonement for its Nazi past and the Holocaust. Nevertheless, it hasn’t had the same intense debate as other western nations about colonialism, with contemporary anti-black racism having a lower profile as relatively few people of African descent live in the country.

“[Germany has] a very narrow understanding of racism and how it affects people”, Della said. “Nuanced knowledge about the functioning and mechanisms of racism is not widespread.”

In a stunning example, Bavarian politician Joachim Herrmann referred to Afro-Cuban singer Roberto Blanco as a “wonderful negro” in a 2015 TV appearance.

While such a gaffe might endanger a political career in Britain or the United States, Herrmann weathered a brief squall of outrage before becoming a lead candidate in this year’s elections.

As for the nation that has been the butt of the cringe-inducing jokes over the past month, the Jamaican embassy in Berlin declined to comment on Germany’s internal affairs.