Philipp Rösler’s Asian Face, Uncle Barack’s Cabin, and my translation of the Taz interview


After the childbirth horror story and the Nazi labor camp post, I wanted my next post to be something more upbeat. But now I feel compelled to comment on the taz/Philipp Rösler racism debacle, so bear with me, readers. The next post will be lighter, I promise.

Philipp Rösler is the head of the FDP, the libertarian junior partner in the current coalition government. Last week he was interviewed by the taz, an alternative-leftist newspaper that, as such, has an inherently antagonistic relationship with the FDP. The FDP then refused to allow the paper to print Rösler’s answers from the interview, on the grounds that the line of questioning was racist.

Philipp Rösler was born in Vietnam and adopted by a white West German couple as a baby. He has lived his entire life since the age of nine months in Germany. Contrary to the racist impressions of him that some German comedians like to do (pulling your eyes back to look “slanty” is also considered acceptable comedy here), he does not speak German with a Vietnamese accent. He has repeatedly stated that he self-identifies as completely German in every way. He is not, however, white.

Below is my translation of a complete list of the questions two white journalists asked Rösler in the interview. Some questions will be a bit unclear because the answers are missing, but the racist bullying is plenty clear. Of 23 questions asked to the head of a political party at the height of an election campaign, only 6 address any topic other than Rösler’s Asian face. That’s 74% “Mr. Rösler, please explain why exactly your face fails to be as white as ours” and 26% other topics.

Obviously racism isn’t limited to the left, but the German left is kinda the worst. Not in terms of racist policy positions, but in terms of racist ways of talking. White German progressive discourse has this particular maddening, smug confidence that being leftist is some sort of get-out-of-racism-free card. The way the German left talks about race combines a level of fetishization of the exotic other that would make a 19th-century anthropologist blush, an oblivious white-normativity so absurd it feels like an Onion article, and a blithe deafness to the voice of anyone who isn’t white. Now we can add to that list the conviction that racist bullying of a public figure is an appropriate way to express your disagreement with his party’s positions on tax policy. I’m not going to get into why exactly the series of questions below is racist – for more on that topic, refer to Jacinta Nandi’s righteous wrath in the Ex-Berliner (in English) – including the comments section, which is a devastating indictment of everyday racism in Germany – or these choice quotes from organizations representing German minority groups in haGalil (in German).

What I will say is that the white taz editors’ embodiment of the pompous racism of the German left rang awfully familiar: A very similar conversation occurred in June 2008 after the same “progressive” newspaper ran a picture of the White House on its cover with the headline Uncle Barack’s Cabin (Onkel Baracks Hütte). After Spiegel International and a slew of Wonkette commenters called them out on it, the taz editors joined the Wonkette comments thread to explain that all these Americans (never mind that it was also black Germans) crying racism had simply misunderstood the matter: See, a few white taz editors had decided amongst themselves before printing the cover that their intentions were satirical. Ergo, it was not racist. Racism cannot possibly occur where white Germans deem it not to be their intention! (Far from disavowing Uncle Barack’s Cabin, taz readers would a year later vote it one of the paper’s top 10 best covers ever, leading a white editor to reiterate the absurd claim that because Uncle Tom has different connotations for Germans than Americans, it was clearly not racist.)

Onkel Baracks Hütte

I’d like to think the level of awareness about racism in the German media has risen since 2008. I do see some improvements – gratuitous references to the race of non-white people in articles have become less frequent. A musical performance in Germany by an Asian woman, for example, now has better chances of being reviewed without reference to delicate Oriental blossoms. But the taz‘s Rösler interview is straight back to Uncle Barack’s Cabin and then some, and the German media’s preoccupation with Philipp Rösler’s “Asian face” is inexcusable. Yet again, the German public discourse on race is sounding like the kind of conversation a group of well-intentioned white Americans might have had in about 1960.*

Here are the interview questions:

-Mr. Rösler, we’d like to speak to you about hatred.

-Yes, your press officer also prefers that we call the topic “style and decorum in the election campaign.”

-Mr. Rösler, what experiences have you had of other people having a problem with your Asian appearance?

-You have repeatedly received hate mail. Is this because you’re the head of the FDP or because of your visibly non-German roots?

-Why are you hated?

– In Lower Saxony, where you come from, you were often referred to as “the Chinaman.” In your view, is this an expression of hatred and resentment?

– While canvassing during the campaign, members of the FDP have been told by voters “I’d vote for your party if you didn’t have that Chinaman as your head.”

-Traditionally, taxes are the biggest issue for the FDP. That’s why the party gets votes, but also why it’s hated. Can you understand that?

– The Mövenpick party [reference to Mövenpick Group donations to the FDP] that gives tax breaks to their hotel business clientele?

-Why do you believe Angela Merkel when she says she’d like to have a coalition government with the FDP again?

-How well do you get along with the Chancellor?

-With a Vice-Chancellor from the FDP, the SDP or the Greens?

-But rather?

-Mr. Rösler, let’s return to the topic of you personally. When did you first become aware that you looked different from most children in Germany?

-Did you experience discrimination as a child?

-Do you consider yourself an immigrant?

-You didn’t visit Vietnam until you were 33, at your wife’s initiative. Why aren’t you interested in the country of your birth parents?

– You introduced to the political conversation the image of a piece of bamboo that bends in the wind without breaking. What were you trying to say with this?

-As a professional politician you should have known that when an Asian-looking person uses such an image [of bamboo], his Asianness will be understood as the reason he said it. Are you trying to claim that the fact you used this metaphor has nothing to do with being Asian, that it’s just a coincidence?**

– [FDP parliamentary leader] Rainer Brüderle has repeatedly taken up this image and said “credibility is gained not by waving back and forth like bamboo, but by standing firm like an oak. That’s why the oak is native to Germany and bamboo isn’t.” Why does he say this?

-So why weren’t you relaxed about Peer Steinbrück’s press officer Rolf Kleine’s statement?  Kleine made fun of you with a Facebook post comparing you to a North Vietnamese general. Afterward you said in an interview that whoever acts in such a way has to decide if he has the decency to respond appropriately.

-It’s not hard to see similar connotations in Brüderle’s statement. That you, at least publicly, take a very relaxed view of the one and criticize the other as latent racism is difficult to understand.

-What, do you think we need a broader debate about racism in Germany?


*Re. I’m-not-bashing-all-white-Germans-here, I’d like to give props to Federal Human Rights Commissioner Markus Löning’s awesome tweet “Liebe taz, wie nennt man das, wenn man jemanden auf sein Aussehen und seine Herkunft reduziert?”

**See, Mr. Rösler, we white people, we’re just normative neutral human beings. We can use whatever flora we wish in our metaphors, whatever continent it may grow on. But when an Asian-faced person refers to a plant that grows in Asia, the image of that plant reminds us of the speaker’s Asian face. That doesn’t mean the connections our minds make are racist, it means he should have expected us to make this connection!

2 thoughts on “Philipp Rösler’s Asian Face, Uncle Barack’s Cabin, and my translation of the Taz interview

  1. Ack! That’s really all I can say. It’s so difficult to be a “critical optimist”–and often I’m so tired of arguing with supposed comrades–but we have to find ways, right?

  2. I guess one thing that makes me feel optimistic in this whole debacle is to see there were almost a thousand German comments on the taz blog’s posting of these questions, the majority of them saying hey, that’s really racist.

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