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Black, White, and German: The Oxymoron of Blackness in the (White) German Context

Wendy Sutherland

The fact that much of how twentieth and twenty-first century ideas of race are perceived today goes back to the eighteenth-century, and specifically for the German context, to German Enlightenment philosophy, especially of Immanuel Kant, but also Johann Gottfried Herder, Johann Friedrich Blumenbach, Samuel Thomas Soemmerring, and Christoph Meiners play a decisive role. Terms such as Rasse, Varietaet, Spielart, Volk and ultimately Nation also emerged in an eighteenth-century Germany on the canvas of blackness, where the Black, be he fictional or real, served to construct an explicit whiteness and an implicit Germanness at a time when there was no German nation.

The context of eighteenth-century globalism achieved through European colonial expansion, slavery and the transatlantic slave trade served to highlight these differences. In eighteenth-century Germany, Blackness functioned as a means to define all that is not white, not beautiful, not intellectual, not German. Simultaneously, the German states were beginning to conceive of themselves as a nation unified by a common language, culture, and blood, where implicit in the term Nation are embedded notions of birth, blood and soil.

For many in twenty-first century Germany and Europe as a whole, it is still inconceivable to imagine a European/German who is black. As a result, the term “Afro-German” is often viewed as an oxymoron for the simple fact that historically, Europeans have been perceived to be white. Whiteness exhibits a certain invisibility or a normative aesthetic in Europe, which becomes visible only in the context of blackness and otherness. At present, as Europe contemplates itself as a unit and union, it’s interesting to see how eighteenth-century ideas that defined the individual as belonging to a Volk, that of language, culture and blood, are tested when the individual is both black and European.

The topic of the construction of blackness in eighteenth-century Germany and the terms used to define race during this period is the subject of a book chapter I am in the process of writing. The larger book project, Staging Blackness: Race, Aesthetics, and the Black in Eighteenth-century Germany deals with the literary, specifically the theatrical, and philosophical staging of blackness, a canvas for whiteness, beauty, racial tension through potential seduction, and colonial desire. Interesting to me are the terms used by Kant and others to define race and the definitions of these terms, their implications of inclusion and exclusion of those who do or do not belong to the German cultural group.
Workshop Questions
Black European Studies Curricula

  1. How does one develop a curriculum for Afro-German Studies that does not discourage students from wanting to visit Germany? In the past, I have taught a course called “Black, White, and German: Afro-Germans and German Identity.” Students are always very amazed to learn about this history, but at the end of the course, they do not want to go to Germany because they feel the country is too racist. However, the racism of the USA is invisible to many of them.
  2. What are some ways to bridge the cultural/racial gap between American students and their views of race and racism in the United States and German/European views of race and racism?

  3. How can one deal with colleagues in German Studies who may resent the inclusion of Blacks as victims of the Holocaust, in which the Jew has historically been viewed as the victim. On the flip side, courses taught on Holocaust usually do not include the mention of Blacks who were also persecuted. Here an exclusion is apparent.

  4. How can Black European Studies be introduced into Diaspora Studies programs? What are the links between Black European Studies, Caribbean Studies, African American Studies, etc.?

Racism and the Academy

  1. How can the traditional German Studies program be “raced” by looking at literary, philosophical and cultural texts of various periods in German history from the perspective of race, colonialism, slavery, etc.?

  2. How can one deal with racist colleagues and students who claim to want diversity in the classroom, when in fact, they are resistant to the diversity of ideas and perspectives that come with diversity of backgrounds and cultures?

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