Monday, September 7, 2009

Obama the Monkey

A short post, hopefully the last in a trilogy of hate-speech. Basically, a German zoo got into trouble after calling a baby mandrill ‘Obama’. Now there are two things you need to understand here. Firstly, Germans are obsessed with Obama. You can buy packets of tissues there with ‘yes we can’ printed on them in block capitals. Barack. Obama. Snotting tissues. So relieved are the Krauts now Bush is gone, they’ll name almost anything after his replacement. They like the guy. Germans also have a slightly bizarre, exotic view of African-American culture (evidenced by sticking the Average White Band under “Black Music”). Secondly, Germans call us Brits (among other things, like ‘English’) ‘Inselaffen’, or ‘island monkeys’.

Anyway, I was once watching The Fresh Prince of Bel Air in German and, in a light-hearted dig at his Limey roots, Will called Geoffrey an Inselaffe. Now I doubt anybody at that TV station had batted an eyelid, but I almost fell off my seat. You just couldn’t say that in English, in the same way something as innocent to us as the name ‘Isaac’ can make Germans flinch. So I wonder, is there a tradition in German of racists calling black people monkeys? I remember seeing a lot of racist graffiti in Vienna, mostly like this, and often in godawful English which could equally be an expression of surprise. This very occasionally involved primates, but mostly didn’t. But apart from that one very prolific racist vandal, I’ve never really seen it in German (as you can see, racist German speakers like to use trendy English abuse for black people, and I suppose they save the monkey digs for the likes of me). So accidental use in the zoo and Fresh Prince is probably not as big a deal as it is in other languages, and rather than just the zookeepers showing racial insensitivity, both they and the press may have made miscalculations on English and German discourses of race.

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