Obamamania, lost in translation

Obamamania, lost in translation

13th April 2009, Comments 0 comments

A German company’s new line of frozen fried chicken called Obama-Fingers is sparking outrage on both sides of the Atlantic and inspiring a new debate on racist stereotypes.

After Barack Obama’s victory last fall and inauguration in January as America’s first black president, Obama-fever swept the globe.

And with that came the unending array of products relating to the popular leader, including glow-in-the-dark magnets, bobble heads and even a Dutch-produced “Obama flower.”

However, a German company’s release this month of a new line of frozen chicken strips, called Obama-Fingers, suggests that there are aspects about Obama and American culture that get lost in translation.

The chicken fingers, packaged in a box showing the product against a blurred American flag and the Golden Gate Bridge, have sparked outrage in both Germany and North America: Many are calling the product racist, saying that it plays on a bigoted stereotype about black people and fried chicken.

In the United States, at least two politicians, Councilman Charles Barron (D-Brooklyn) and New York State Senator Bill Perkins (D-Harlem), have already publicly condemned the product.
Obama fingers
“Without a doubt it does raise concerns that are rooted in the history of racism and stereotypical types of characterizations of African-Americans," Perkins told The New York Daily News. "It reminds us that [Obama's] victory does not automatically end that which we've been struggling against."

One blogger on Gawker.com suggested that Sprehe, the company that released Obama-Fingers, add watermelon sorbet to its Obama line. Another website, Brandfreak, anointed the product its “offensive food item of the day.”

Judith Witting, sales manager for Sprehe, told Spiegel Online that the connection between her product and the racist stereotype never occurred to her.

"It was supposed to pay homage to the American lifestyle and the new U.S. president," she said. "We noticed that American products and the American way of eating are trendy at the moment.”

For some, however, Sprehe’s explanation of the reasoning behind their product falls short.

“I think it is absolutely typical for a German firm,” said Natasha Kelly, editor of X, das Magazin für AfroKultur, who characterizes the product as unequivocally racist and adds that saying “oops” is not an excuse for ignorance and racism. “The problem that we have here in Germany is that there is no awareness at all about black topics and black history in general and no institutions dealing with black culture. The [Black German] community has been fighting for over 20 years now to be heard but it’s just not happening and that's why these kinds of things happen repeatedly.”

This is not the first time during Obama’s rise to power that Germans have gotten into trouble for playing into racist stereotypes.

Last June, just after Obama won the Democratic nomination and formally began his run for the presidency, the leftist German newspaper Die Tageszeitung ran a picture of the White House on its front cover with the caption: “Uncle Barack’s Cabin.”
BANDUNG : A child eats from a pack of snacks bearing a caricature of US President Barack Obama making a peace sign, in Bandung on 6 March 2009. The snacks have gone on sale in Indonesia, but worried consumer activists are already calling for it to be banned. The Indonesian Consumer Foundation has called on the government to investigate, saying the snack is defamatory to President Obama and potentially harmful to children's health.

The caption refers to Harriet Beecher Stowe’s 1852 anti-slavery novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin, which many credit with generating and perpetuating racist stereotypes -- despite its generally positive role in the abolitionist movement. The novel’s protagonist, for instance, Uncle Tom, has become a pejorative way to refer to blacks that are overeager to please white people.

"The headline is intended to be satirical," deputy editor-in-chief Reiner Metzger told Spiegel Online in response to the subsequent indignation about the cover. "'Uncle Tom's Cabin' is a book that all Germans know and which they associate with issues of racism. The headline is supposed to make people think about these stereotypes. It works on many levels."

The Obama cover was at least the second time the alternative paper, known for its outspoken positions on issues such as xenophobia in Germany, the environment and globalization, made the literary allusion in connection to a black American politician. In 2004, the paper ran a story about Condoleezza Rice’s appointment to U.S. Secretary of State titled: “Uncle Tom’s Rice.”

The persistent use of such stereotypes, most of which would be considered unacceptable in the American mainstream press, is due to a different understanding of what counts as racism in Germany, said Henrik Hartmann, a project manager at the Institute for Cultural Diplomacy based in Berlin. He explains that Germans either don’t realize such stereotypes can be bigoted or just don’t consider them “serious” racism.

“It does invoke a racist stereotype,” said Hartmann of the Obama-Fingers. “But I think Germans don’t consider subtle racism really racism. When we talk of racism in Germany, it’s always about physical attacks on people who are black: That is the public discourse on racism. [For many, the use of such stereotypes are] not racist – they’re funny.”

The Schokokuss or Negerkuss (Negro kiss)There are other instances of German products being named in a way that wouldn’t fit with sensitivities that exist in American culture. Hartmann cites the example of the popular German dessert that arose in the early 20th century, the Schokokuss or Schaumkuss. The Schokokuss, made out of sweet, white filling coated in chocolate with a waffle bottom, was traditionally called a Negerkuss (Negro kiss) -- although many manufacturers ultimately avoided marketing it under that name.

Average German consumers tend to brush off the darker implications of such labeling. “It’s a sign of reconciliation,” said Stefan Baumann, who works in executive sales, of the Obama-Fingers. “We would have never named something after Bush. But we love Obama.”

Given this spirit of goodwill, Germans like Kelly are still hopeful about changing German attitudes toward race, identity and stereotypes.

“This is our time especially in countries like Germany where we don’t have [a lot of racial awareness] to strike – to make the mainstream aware that Germany has a black history too,” said Kelly. “The most important thing for me is to be able to tell my kids that they can do anything. [With Obama,] we finally have a world idol.”

As for the fate of Obama-Fingers, perhaps the true disciples of Obamamania will note the irony of a company marketing frozen fried chicken under the banner of a man who champions healthy, locally-produced food – and stick to buying expensive arugula.

Jessica Dorrance/ ARA / Expatica

© Associated Reporters Abroad

Head photo credit: This undated handout image released by Russian advertising agency Voskhod on 20 March 2009 shows a smiling, cartoonish black man flashing a V-for-Victory sign in front of the US capital building, along with the Russian slogan: "Everyone's talking about it: dark inside white!" Obama ice cream, anyone? Chocolate-vanilla ice cream is one of several Russian products being marketed using America's first black president, even as critics call the ads racist. AFP PHOTO / HO / VOSKHOD

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