An All-White Panel on German TV Decided Racism Wasn’t a Big Deal

The show is facing a backlash after one guest had described how dressing up in blackface as Jimi Hendrix at a costume party had helped him understand how black people felt.
February 2, 2021, 5:39pm
The Last Resort
The Last Resort. Photo: WDR/ Max Kohr

German TV personalities have apologised for taking part in a controversial chat show discussion of racism, in which an all-white panel dismissed calls to rename a meat sauce that uses a pejorative name for Roma people.

The discussion on WDR’s “The Last Resort” — which originally aired last year but was rebroadcast on Friday night — featured guests dismissing calls to rename “Zigeunersoße,” or “gypsy sauce.” The show has sparked a huge social media backlash, fuelling a wider discussion about how race is debated in Germany.

In response to the controversy, German broadcaster WDR issued a statement saying the criticism was warranted, and that the panel should have included people who were directly affected by racism.

“With such a sensitive topic, people who bring other perspectives with them, and/or are directly affected by it, should definitely have been involved,” read the statement from the producers of the show, which bills itself as a forum for celebrity guests to air controversial opinions.

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“We will learn from it and do better.”

In the broadcast, the four celebrities discussed the push to rename “Zigeunersoße,” the name by which a popular spicy sauce of tomato paste, paprika, bell peppers and onions has been known for more than a century.

The term “Zigeuner” is viewed as a derogatory slur by the Roma community, who have repeatedly called for the name of the sauce to be changed. Last year, those calls gathered momentum as the Black Lives Matter movement triggered a global reckoning around racism, and in August, the German food giant Knorr said it was renaming its version of the product “Paprika Sauce Hungarian Style.”

But during the discussion on “The Last Resort,” when asked whether the end of Zigeunersoße was “a necessary step,” the four guests — author Micky Beisenherz, entertainer Thomas Gottschalk, actress Janine Kunze and pop singer Jürgen Milski — all answered no.

Gottschalk, digging himself deeper, went on to explain how he had once dressed up in blackface as Jimi Hendrix at a party, and it had been "a kind of awakening experience" that made him understand for the first time how black people felt.

While the episode attracted little attention when it first aired, the repeat airing generated a massive backlash on social media, with viewers slamming the guests for their thoughtless and tone-deaf defence of racist terms, and the monocultural makeup of the panel.

“This is by far the most ignorant, arrogant and discriminatory thing I've seen on German TV for a long time!” wrote one Twitter user. “Four white people who explain how exhausting and silly it is to deal with criticism of racism.”

Germany’s Federal Anti-Discrimination Agency condemned the “unspeakable statements,” while SPD politician Saskia Esken tweeted that she was “lost for words.” 

“This is really [something] to be ashamed of,” she wrote.

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Roma advocate Zeljko Jovanovic, director of the Open Society Foundations’ Roma Initiative, told VICE World News that of the various words used to describe the Roma community across Europe, the German term was the most offensive, because of its close association with the Nazi genocide of the Roma.

“No other slur is so strongly associated with the genocidal experience of our people,” he said.

“This is why when the racial slur is used in German language… it resonates deeply. We as Roma, we feel it in our bones, in the bones of our ancestors, as something that is horrifying.”

He said that while some Roma in parts of Europe used terms like gypsy or tzigane to refer to themselves, “this is far from being an adequate rationale for all of us being called this way.”

“You don’t say to somebody that he or she is a gypsy, tzigane or Zigeuner because you respect the person,” he said.

“When people want to humiliate us, consider us as moral unequals, or subordinate us, they communicate in this way. Then they want to respect us and regard us as moral equals, they call us the way we call ourselves, which in our own language is Roma.”

The controversy has prompted a wave of apologies and vows to do better from those who appeared on the show, with host Steffen Hallaschka writing on Facebook that he despised racism and was devastated to learn the discussion had been received by so many as “massively hurtful and racially discriminatory.”

“I understand well that many have long been tired of this kind of careless everyday racism,” he wrote. “The bitter lesson: In terms of society, we are obviously not yet where we thought we were the year after ‘Black Lives Matter’.”