'Mohr' No More? Advertising the Other in German-Speaking Europe

Curator's Note

I will mohr” – I want more/a blackamoor. With this slogan, which conjures age-old racist stereotypes, an ice cream company advertised its newest product targeted specifically at Austrian customers, namely “Mohr im Hemd” ice cream. “Mohr im Hemd,” a warm chocolate cake served with whipped cream, literally translates to “Blackamoor in a shirt,” which triggers associations with colonialism and slavery. But “Mohr im Hemd,” be it as ice cream or in its usual cake form, is not the only product in German-speaking countries whose name bears a racist subtext. Until fairly recently, dark chocolate with whole nuts went by the name of “Negro bread” and dark beer was served as “Negro beer” or “Blackamoor beer.” While the term “Negro” has disappeared from advertising and product naming, the “Blackamoor” is still very present in Austrian and German culture.

Debates on the usage of “Blackamoor” images in advertisements primarily revolve around the question of tradition and branding. In 2000, the Austrian coffee company Meinl proudly advertised that the millennium was coming to an end but the “Blackamoor” on the company’s logo was going to stay. Despite continuous protests against the logo because of its visual perpetuation of injustice, discrimination, and exploitation, Meinl holds on to the “Blackamoor,” who has been part of the company for over 80 years and renders it easily recognizable. The attitude of Meinl is symptomatic for companies that employ the image of the “Blackamoor”; those companies distance themselves from alleged racism but refuse to abandon the “Blackamoor” because that might compromise the recognition of their brands.

Considering the difficult history of the term “blackamoor,” such an attitude is highly problematic. The “court blackamoors” of the 18th and 19th centuries were mostly abducted children, who were taken to Europe, put into “oriental” costumes, and served their masters as “toys.” The “court blackamoor” was considered a status symbol, and frequently aristocrats would have their deceased “court blackamoors” prepared by taxidermists to put them on display. Until today, the term “blackamoor” has retained its belittling, trivializing connotations, which romanticizes the bloody history of slavery and exploitation that is inextricably linked to the fate of “court blackamoors.”

Tradition” does not hold as a valid argument for retaining images of otherness that perpetuate racist stereotypes and ideologies. Why is there such a lack of understanding among “traditionalists” that an ethnic minority rejects certain terms because of their ambivalent history? Where does this apparent lack of awareness concerning the usage of derogatory images and language come from? And how can the sensibility for language be heightened, if problematic images of otherness continue to circulate in advertisements, rendering (more or less) subtle racism socially acceptable?     

Comments

Kimberly Alecia Singletary's picture

Dangerous Doppelgängers

This is a great article, Susanne.  It shows just how deep the roots are in terms of issues of ownership and Othered persons. You rightly point out a tendency among some to harbor resentment against those who defend “commercialized Moors” despite protestation from a resident population offended by the symbols. There is an affective pull in the products we see and consume that become attached to memories, pleasant and horrid; the threat of eliminating those cultural products is, to some, a threat to our memories – even when the memory can only be enacted by participating in an act of consumerism (Chicagoans are still peeved that Macy’s changed the name of our homegrown department store, Marshall Field’s, they still refuse to call Comiskey Park, home of the most awesome White Sox, by its official “new” name (US Cellular Field), and don’t even start a conversation about the Sears Tower being renamed.). 

When Otherness is tied to consumerism, Otherness is both diluted and amplified. It’s diluted because as you rightly note, exploitation is romanticized and a people are belittled, through socially accepted, racially intolerable images. It’s amplified because one’s humanity is overshadowed by an approximation, an imaginary Other that resembles a particular reality created in the minds of those who hadn’t bothered to look at the Other as an equal in the first place.   One wonders if hard-core traditionalists in Europe and the US are so keen to hold onto these caricatures not because they represent a culture, but because they hearken back to a time when Others were purposefully excluded from society. Blackamoors represent utter disregard for blacks and Black-German citizens, and a period in which blacks were forcibly contained. Keeping the Moor as a product symbol not only enriches a company at the moral expense of its citizens, it also reifies a racial hierarchy that keeps blackness at arm’s length. Each purchase buys into the outmoded conception of blackness as a foreign concept and as an object. It encourages us to buy into a cultural tradition that treated blackness as a novelty, and black people as toys. This is especially troublesome given the decades-long efforts of Afro-German activists for accurate representation in German society.  Products featuring Moors represent a company’s unwillingness to lose tradition but also an unwillingness to gain a better understanding of how its representations harm the very society it claims to love.

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