ONTD Political

Racism and Stereotypes in German Children's Books

11:58 am - 01/27/2013
Take Out the N-Word: It's Time to Remove Racism from Children's Books



By Dialika Neufeld

SPIEGEL reporter Dialika Neufeld has a German mother and a Senegalese father. In an essay, she recalls the discrimination she experienced as a child and argues it is correct for publishers to remove deeply offensive language, such as the N-word, from children's books because it perpetuates racist stereotypes.

A few weeks ago I experienced a feeling I had almost forgotten about, but one which was familiar to me from my childhood. It's a feeling that had to do with the fact that people liked to call me a "nigger".

I was called this often as a child. That's how it was in the northern German city of Kiel in the early 1990s, when I was in elementary school. A boy at the playground might tug at his mother's sleeve, point at me and say, "Look, Mom, a nigger!" When a child had a birthday party, the parents served marshmallow-filled chocolates known as "Negerküsse," or "Nigger kisses." When I dove into the swimming pool and the water beaded off my curls, someone was bound to say, "Niggers don't even get their hair wet, do they?"

My mother is German and my father Senegalese. I looked different, and the other kids let me know it. Their treatment of me was, of course, largely a product of how they were raised. But it was in some sense also a product of the writers they read, children's book authors such as Astrid Lindgren and Otfried Preussler, who put this word in my playmates' heads. There are "Negroes" in "Pippi Longstocking," "little Negroes" in Preussler's "The Little Witch" and "woolly-headed Black-a-moors" in "Struwwelpeter," another German children's classic. Anyone reading these books would think, logically enough, that there was nothing wrong with using the same words to describe me, since I was black like the character Jim Button in "Jim Button and Luke the Engine Driver" and had frizzy hair. I read those books too, and loved the stories in them. But at the same time I hated them too.

Modernization or Censorship?

A recent statement by German Family Minister Kristina Schröder unleashed a flood of memories in the back of my mind. In an interview with Die Zeit, Schröder explained that when she reads books like "Pippi Longstocking" to her child, she leaves out discriminatory terms like "Negro king," saying she does so "to keep my child from picking up such expressions." That comment sparked a debate in Germany's newspapers, on the Internet and among publishers. Publishing house Thienemann Verlag has since announced that it will update "The Little Witch" to remove the term "little Negroes." It's about time, I say.

The critics, though, are up in arms, calling this censorship. Such critics can be divided into three categories: Those who insist on saying "Negro" or "nigger" as a matter of principle, those who deny a problem even exists and those who have honest concerns about literature.

I'm familiar with those who use the N-word as a matter of principle. There are many people like this, people who perceive political correctness as a threat and glorify the language of their childhood. "But then I won't be able to say 'Zigeunerschnitzel'* anymore either," when I order a schnitzel, they fret -- since "Zigeuner" is German for "Gypsy."

My second grade teacher fell into this category. He insisted on singing "Zehn kleine Negerlein" ("Ten Little Niggers") with us, a children's song in which one black child after another dies in a variety of amusing ways: one falls off a barn, one gets shot, one freezes to death. There were two black children in this teacher's class, my best friend and I, and we refused to sing along. But the song is still sung in Germany to this day.

People in the second category -- those who deny the problem exists -- claim that everyone nowadays knows not to use words like "Negro," "Gypsy," "Polack" or "Slit-Eyes," these terms that seem to come straight out of some handbook of discrimination. But their view holds little weight, given that I regularly find myself having to explain to adults why they shouldn't use the words "nigger" or "Negro" -- and certainly not in my presence.

Perpetuating Racist Stereotypes

Then there is the third category, people who are concerned about literature. This is a valid concern, because there is an important question at stake here: Is it acceptable to alter the original version of a text?

I say yes, when the texts in question are children's books that serve to perpetuate racist stereotypes. These books are not only read aloud to children, they are also read by children themselves, without anyone there to help them make sense of what they read. And the things children pick up from their reading, they bring with them into the classroom -- classrooms where their fellow students might have parents who come from Ghana or Pakistan. One in five children born in Germany today has some kind of immigrant background.

The worst thing for me as a child was being ostracized and insulted because of the color of my skin. And it wasn't just about language. This was the 1990s, when neo-Nazis set homes for asylum-seekers on fire and black people were chased through the streets by right-wing thugs. "nigger," for me, was neo-Nazi language.

My mother taught me from a young age to defend myself. My best friends were African-German children, Turks and Iranians. We went with our parents to anti-racism demonstrations and we sang "Zehn kleine Nazi-Schweine" ("Ten Little Nazi Pigs"). We became little smart alecks: "You shouldn't say that," we called after the people who had insulted us. "That's what Nazis say."

At some point, the ostracism I experienced transformed into a sense of pride. I came to see that it can be an advantage not always to be part of the crowd. The world was bigger for me than it was for other people, because I didn't know just German culture, I knew other cultures as well. I had a name other people could remember easily, and I started to like the way I looked.

But there are also children for whom constantly being labeled a "nigger" is more painful than it was for me in my own childhood. That alone is enough reason why publishers should revise their children's books and parents should stop claiming the whole thing "isn't so bad."

A few years ago, Oetinger Verlag made changes to "Pippi Longstocking," turning the "Negro king" into a "South Sea king." The text doesn't suffer for it in the least. And in Michael Ende's "The Dream Eater," the "Negro children" have been replaced with "children from all the world."
In Preussler's story "The Little Witch," the scene in question is of carnival costume festivities. It doesn't matter to the story in the least whether the child is dressed as a "Negro" or as a cook.

A fellow student at my high school wrote in my friendship book, under the heading "Things I Don't Like": "spinach and asylum-seekers." Who can say what she had been reading.

---
Editor's notes: In any usage, the term Neger, can be considered inappropriate and offensive in the German language, and, depending on the context, it can be translated to mean either "Negro" or "nigger".

* Zigeunerschnitzel is a schnitzel served with a so-called Zigeuner, or "gypsy" sauce.


Source and Photo Gallery

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Dear mods, I haven't seen the N-word written out like that in a lot of entries here, so if it's inappropriate, feel free to kick the article out.

Personally I'm torn on the issue. On one hand I understand why certain racist terms that were deemed "okay" in the past should be changed today - especially in children's books and especially if they are really only supposed to "add exotic flavour" to the story in question. On the other hand it's a part of history that's being "sanitized". Take Heinrich Hoffmann's "The Story of the Inky Boys". It was published in 1845, and the German word "Mohr" was a perfectly okay term for a black person, nowhere near the meaning of the N-word. It doesn't mean that Hoffmann, as well as probably most of the German population, didn't look down on people of colour, though.

Maybe a compromise could be found, like publishing different editions for children and adults, with the offensive stories plus some more information on the discussion in the adult version? That way these books could also be used in schools to teach older kids.
I followed the discussion around Mark Twain's works for a bit, did they find a solution in the end?
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thedorkygirl 27th-Jan-2013 12:47 pm (UTC)
I see your argument and the author's here, especially as I grew up reading a LOT of turn of the century children's novels. Racism is a difficult subject, especially when you think about how Mary Lennox referred to the "natives" in India.

Ultimately, I do not think later editions need to have that language included. We can preserve the original if it is so important to us, and perhaps we ought to, but we don't need to expose impressionable minds to the language and expect that parents, teachers, etc, will be able to adequately explain how it is wrong.
suzycat 27th-Jan-2013 01:12 pm (UTC)
How does one work around it best though? I'm thinking of the time I recently reread Swallows and Amazons, which remains a fantastic book for kids - except for the use of the terms "savages" and "natives" by the kids in make-believe (which touches on class, actually, too, but that's not what we are discussing). I really dislike censorship of books, but I understand that in some cases there are not parents, teachers around who can talk kids through the subjects. So what do you use instead of 'savages' and 'natives' in a book about some white British kids playing pirates on a lake with boats in the 1920s?

I don't know the Pippi books that well, but I am a little uncertain about the appropriateness of "South Seas king" as well. I am from the "South Seas" and most kings from round here are Polynesian. They're real people, not fantasies.
magli 27th-Jan-2013 01:35 pm (UTC)
I think the Pippi Longstocking example is a really good one here. Making Pippi's father a "Negro King" wasn't really about what Pippi's father was doing or what kind of people he was around, it was a way to say he was really far away and Pippi was somewhat abandoned, allowing her to do things other children can't because they have adults around. 50 + years ago (I'm not sure when it was written, exactly) the Scandinavian image of "negro" was someone very far away. As the world has changed and that is no longer the case, it doesn't make any sense to have her father be a "Negro King" any more. The point is that he's far away, and "South Seas King" expresses that better now. I think it has improved the books, in that it has made the meaning clearer.

roseofjuly 28th-Jan-2013 03:18 am (UTC)
I read a version of this story in the 1990s that referred to him as a South Sea king, and I don't remember any mention of Negroes in the Pippi Longstocking books. So it didn't change the experience of the story at all.
mieronna 27th-Jan-2013 02:14 pm (UTC)
I don't think it's got anything to do with sanitizing history and everything with removing unacceptable language from kids' books - as the author says, they don't reflect about the terms they read, at least not on the level necessary and German parents (as a whole, yes, there are individual differences etc) aren't equipped to challenge this language or simply won't do it - as the arguments against Thienemann's decision clearly show.... and then there was that discussion we had in my children's literature class (in library school...) about whether the old Jim Button illustrations or the puppets from the puppet show are acceptable, where a very vocal part of the class said "...but tradition! Our childhood!".

Of course ultimately removing the words themselves isn't enough, because it doesn't remove the underlying concepts...

If you speak German and somehow missed this whole discussion, I rather liked these blog posts & articles:
fuckermothers
shehadistan
gluecklichscheitern
Simone Dede Ayivi
Dr. Mutti

mangosorbet007 27th-Jan-2013 02:22 pm (UTC)
While I do understand where she's coming from, "Neger" simply doesn't translate as "nigger", just like "negro" is a term that in and by itself does not have a derogatory meaning. Too bad that the article kind of derails itself by this inaccuracy.

kaizopp 27th-Jan-2013 02:47 pm (UTC)
Oh I wasn't too wrong then (comment under yours). Do you consider the word as used today to still be neutral? (are you german?)
kaizopp 27th-Jan-2013 02:40 pm (UTC)
When I was 11-12ish, we had to write some kind of short analysis on documents about triangular trade or whatever in (french) school. I remember thinking that it seemed rather rude to just "les noirs" so I used "les nègres". The teacher got kind of freaked out, lol. I thought it was more correct, since it's more correct in dutch. Then I started doubting myself, thinking it maybe wasn't correct in dutch either. I looked it up, but as far as I could find out, it wasn't a slur in dutch, so just a translation problem. Now I don't know about german at all especially since the minister considers it offensive (and I don't even know that much about its use in the Netherlands, not having grown up there) but I'm wondering if the word as a slur isn't a recent import from other languages.

Note: don't get me wrong, even if it's a recent evolution of the language, it seems quite clearly to be used/perceived as a slur, so by all means, remove it!
angelofdeath275 27th-Jan-2013 03:02 pm (UTC)
OP i cant remember if your black or not so what are you


I agree with her. If it means less black kids being subjected to racist name-calling so be it
scolaro 27th-Jan-2013 03:08 pm (UTC)
So...no adult versions of historic books at all to teach this subject in schools? I agree with changing these bits in children's books, but wouldn't want to sweep them under the rug completely, as if they'd never existed. But maybe that's just me and I certainly respect it if you disagree.
vampfan30 27th-Jan-2013 03:08 pm (UTC)
as one who has grown up in the South ( during the 70s ) I actually remember a book reprinted from the late 1800s/early 1900s called Sambo. There was even a restaurant named after it. There were words like n***** & negro in it, but without any malice at all.I read & re read it all the time as a kid & enjoyed his adventures.
I didn't read the entire above article, but what I did see didn't strike me as racist at all, just like the Sambo books. Maybe I have missed something in the books since it has been decades since I have seen them & I should read the article in its entirety, but that was my immediate reaction.( which has been known to be totally off at times...)
* goes back to read the whole thing *
scolaro 27th-Jan-2013 03:21 pm (UTC)
I haven't read Sambo, but it seems to be a similar issue as Hoffmann's story. In essence Inky Boys is about someone punishing a group of asshole boys for making fun of a black person. Which...is a good thing. But at the same time the vocabulary used makes my hair stand up, and yes, it's certainly considered racist today.

(see here: Inky Boys)
badgerly 27th-Jan-2013 03:24 pm (UTC)
I'm not a big fan of changing or censoring books, personally, mostly because these books are what I consider to be more or less nothing more than of historical/anthropological interest. There are books that I just don't give my kids to read, unless I feel confident that I can explain the use of words and why they're considered offensive to the child reading it. For example, my daughter has read The Secret Garden and we talked about what peoples Mary is referring to during her talks of "natives", that Mary had prejudices, what that meant, and why we know better than to use words and harbor false prejudices. I don't allow the Little House on the Prairie books and won't for some time, since the "Indians" are spoken about in the worst of terms ("hairy, violent, unintelligent, savage, dangerous etc). When she's older and has learned about The Trail of Tears and can understand better the genocide settlers visited upon them, maybe she can read them, if she has any desire to. Eventually, she'll read To Kill a Mockingbird, which will always be one of my favorite books. And yes, it is rife with the n-word, which any kid over the age of what? 7? knows to be A Bad Word, but understanding why it is is more difficult. As is the more subtle but still problematic issue of the White Savior theme. However, it needs to be read as a period piece, as well as a good story, still relevant.

I see this stuff as kind of like nursery rhymes. They're weird, violent and dark. They were never really meant for children, however, but were written as commentary on the time's issues. (This site talks a lot about nursery rhyme origins and meanings: http://www.rhymes.org.uk/) They really aren't great bedtime-reading material, but I think having them changed would be losing something from history. I don't generally teach my kids nurswry rhymes for that reason. However, there is a great (and I mean really, truly wonderful) book of nurswry rhymes that are for children. It's called
Father Gander Nursery Rhymes: The Equal Rhymes Amendment. It's such an awesome book, and I encourage all parents - hey, even non-parents! - to get a copy. (Examples from it include Jill be nimble/Jump it too/if Jack can do it/so can you! and (regarding the old couple in the shoe) there's only one thing/I don't understand/if they didn't want so many children/why didn't they plan?. Good stuff.

I guess my (tl;dr) point is just: Leave those books alone unless they're being used for some kind of learning purpose (historical, or discussions of race/racism, etc), and find books that are not problematic. Maybe I'm being too generous to the human race in general, but I think that most parents are able to differentiate and capable of teaching children about racism without books being banned or changed.
lady_tigerlily 27th-Jan-2013 03:59 pm (UTC)
"I'm not a big fan of changing or censoring books, personally, mostly because these books are what I consider to be more or less nothing more than of historical/anthropological interest. There are books that I just don't give my kids to read, unless I feel confident that I can explain the use of words and why they're considered offensive to the child reading it."

IAWT so much.
sobota 27th-Jan-2013 03:35 pm (UTC)
as a black german, i can say that i've never experienced this sort of racism until i got to america. it does suck that the author experienced it, though. also, 'negerküsse' are now called 'schaumküsse', or 'foam kisses', because hey, they saw that as insensitive and changed it. changing insensitive things is not censoring--the historical record still stands as a teaching moment about how we change language to be more inclusive.
angelofdeath275 27th-Jan-2013 03:39 pm (UTC)
the immediate pearl-clutching about censoring is pretty hilarious to me tbh
lady_tigerlily 27th-Jan-2013 03:57 pm (UTC)
Not black or German, but I am ethnic Chinese. A lot of literature has been less than kind to my demographic as well, from around the world. Despite being rather young still, I experienced a smattering of pretty serious racism in my childhood and even in my young adulthood, some who meant it in completely derogative ways and others who were just insensitive about the terms they used, but weren't actually trying to be negative (like when an old boyfriend's grandfather said that I was very beautiful, but then went on to say it was because of my "chinky eyes" and his aunt said I must keep my figure because chopsticks are too hard to use to eat proper amounts of food, or the time my US History teacher! said that when I wore a red cheongsam to prom, I looked like I was "straight out of The World of Suzie Wong".) I was still get asked if my feet were ever bound because my shoe size is a 4½W (34UK size). Consequently, I experienced exactly none of this when I lived in Austria for 6 months, or when I took a sojourn to Eastern Europe.

Still, I wouldn't change something like literature. It's present-day attitude we have to focus on, and then we can look back at something like Uncle Tom's Cabin and go "Wow, look at how we just tossed these words around". Sometimes I feel like there's too much of an extreme view either way on the issue of how to approach racial language; either people get really up in arms about getting rid of or altering it to be more PC for today's standards, or they hunker down with their "Tradition! Childhood!" flag flying.
badgerly 27th-Jan-2013 04:11 pm (UTC)
his aunt said I must keep my figure because chopsticks are too hard to use to eat proper amounts of food

This is totally gross of her, but I admit, I had to laugh. Clearly, this woman has never been around while I was inhaling sushi or pad Thai.
soundczech 27th-Jan-2013 04:24 pm (UTC)
though i think it is important to have access to copies of the original versions as historical documents, there is no need for kids to be reading those versions (unless someone is actually taking the time to educate them about racism).
oddityangel 27th-Jan-2013 04:30 pm (UTC)
That's pretty much how I feel. A child's reading experience is not enhanced by reading the original problematic language (in fact for many kids it detracts from it), so there's little to no reason NOT to choose different versions when dealing with children. Only an adult would kick up this kind of fuss over the original 'integrity' of the book and their 'right' to read the n-word, so leave that for 'adult' versions for adults to seek out and read.

Edited at 2013-01-27 04:31 pm (UTC)
endlos_schleife 27th-Jan-2013 04:34 pm (UTC)
tbh I don't think changing the language in those books will accomplish anything in fighting the accepted everyday racism prevalent in German society. I think people using the N-word or other things are bound to pick it up at home/from peers/somewhere else.

That being said I still welcome changing those terms in children's books.
aviv 27th-Jan-2013 04:43 pm (UTC)
I used to be against any change to children literature but after I saw American History X (which I hate) and went to tumblr/google to find what people thought and found a bunch of racist and antisemites... well, I'm kind of thinking that, is it really necessary to have the n-word in Huckleberry Finn? (NO).

At the end of the day, you can still teach all those things that we don't want to erase or "sanitize" without using offensive language. (as in: history class, a footnote on the book explaining why the word was removed, etc.)

(edited to add word)

Edited at 2013-01-27 06:26 pm (UTC)
apostle_of_eris 27th-Jan-2013 11:10 pm (UTC)
is it really necessary to have the n-word in Huckleberry Finn?
Absolutely.
Mark Twain takes great pains to clarify that he is portraying people as they really sounded. Huck's moral heroism is diminished if you make it all clean and nice, and you're gutting one of America's greatest novels.
evildevil 'Tom Sawyer,' 'Finn'27th-Jan-2013 04:55 pm (UTC)
Purists call the changes censorship
others say more kids will read book

http://www.salon.com/2011/01/04/huck_finn_n_word/

Elon James White argues that the only way to get Americans to deal openly and honestly with prejudice is to force students to be uncomfortable with terms that -- unpleasant though they may be -- are part and parcel of our country's blatantly racist past. "America is a society in which our ugly history is not so far gone as to allow for cold, detached analysis,"

http://www.salon.com/2011/01/04/huckleberry_finn_cleaned_up/

Williams points out just how hard it would be to appropriately contextualize the racism in the book for a group of children.

http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2011/jan/05/huckleberry-finn-edition-censors-n-word
the N-word, as Gribben points out, has gotten more, not less, offensive over time. "The N-word possessed, then as now, demeaning implications more vile than almost any insult that can be applied to other racial groups," he said. "As a result, with every passing decade this affront appears to gain rather than lose its impact."
fishphile Re: 'Tom Sawyer,' 'Finn'27th-Jan-2013 05:05 pm (UTC)
I'm not sure if the N-word has gotten more offensive or if Black people are just more comfortable publically expressing their dislike of the word.
fishphile 27th-Jan-2013 04:58 pm (UTC)
I think children's literature should be changed. I would be perfectly fine with dual versions, one for adults with the original language and one for children (sort of like abridged versions of books).

Children's literature like this is usually read at home and is completely up to parents to educate (they may not be aware of insensitivities-sp?). If they are read at school, it seems because of the age group, there is not much analysis around it. There is also the problem of microagressions against the children the slur/insensitivity is geared towards. They get to read/hear the words they may deem upsetting and the language gets normalized for the kids who are not one of the negatively impacted children.

I also believe this opinion piece might be written around another article I've read recently (can't find it right now nor do I know how recent it is, but it's been reblogged a bit on Tumblr) where a little boy in Germany wants the language changed.
othellia 27th-Jan-2013 10:41 pm (UTC)
I would be perfectly fine with dual versions, one for adults with the original language and one for children (sort of like abridged versions of books).

I was thinking the same thing, especially since a lot of the older kids' books that have that sort of language to start with are usually written in a more archaic style of prose.
silver_apples 27th-Jan-2013 05:09 pm (UTC)
I'm all for editing picture books or removing them from the children's section (put them under Classics or with the nonfiction books like they do with fairy tale anthologies, where the adults can find them but the 5-year-olds aren't likely to be looking). With the chapter books, I guess it would depend on how much is changed and lost by the editing. If they are just changing derogatory terms that add nothing to the plot, I see no problem with it. If racism is a theme of the work, it's more complicated (but often, if racism is a theme, the book is aimed at an older audience).

A big part of the problem is that the kids who are repeating the derogatory terms and stereotypes are having that behavior reinforced at home. They probably would have learned it without the books. But that doesn't mean publishers, libraries, book sellers, and schools should reinforce it too.

Sometimes the books go away on their own in time. I read "Tarzan" for the first time a few years ago, and dear Lord, it had so many -isms. But it does not seem to be a popular or widely-read book any more--everyone knows who Tarzan is, but not many are reading the source material. I certainly wouldn't encourage a child or teenager to read it, unless I already thought he/she had a good understanding of the problems with racism, sexism, and classism.
theguindo 27th-Jan-2013 07:03 pm (UTC)
A big part of the problem is that the kids who are repeating the derogatory terms and stereotypes are having that behavior reinforced at home. They probably would have learned it without the books. But that doesn't mean publishers, libraries, book sellers, and schools should reinforce it too.

I feel like it'd be easier for children to realize "wait, my parents are wrong" if the attitude isn't being subtly reinforced by the literature they consume, so yeah, ia with this.
fenris_lorsrai 27th-Jan-2013 05:58 pm (UTC)
New editions of "classic" works using different draft versions are produced all the time. Or ones produced from a different editorial cut where its closer to the authors original manuscript. Sometimes there may have been multiple editorial passes! So they aren't as fixed in stone as we often like to think.

Doing a more modern draft which just updates the language and updates text to make it less dated is not uncommon and goes unremarked upon in most cases. (for example, changing the names of cities/countries that have no changed names and/or spellings. switching anachronistic technology for familiar items, etc) Changing the text where it makes it clearer that the intent was NOT offensive or explicitly racist actually is likely to improve the text. if the intent is clearly that it IS explicitly racist or offensive, then it should not be changed.

To illustrate what I mean, lets go with two general plot scenarios.

1. Background characters are referred to by an offensive word... that was not considered particularly offensive at the time. it's even a word most people aren't familiar with anymore, so kids are likely to outright ask "whats a n?"
Yes, definitely change it. It changes nothing with the themes of book, makes it more enjoyable and relevant.

To use technology example, changing it from using an 8 track player to an MP3 player. has no change on story, makes it easier for kids to comprehend story.

2. One of the major themes is how one of the characters is treated and it is based partially upon being part of the group the offensive word refers to. Use of the term would be accurate in the setting. Character would not use a non-offensive term because that it IS offensive is the point, to offend, oppress, alienate, or otherwise point out that the targetted character is part of that group and express all the hatred directed at that group with the use of that one specific, hurtful word.

No, don't change it because it would fundamentally alter the book. a black character reacting to being called N is a fundamentally different reaction than being called ugly or stupid. If the N word is tossed around just as generic insult and any strong insult would do for the button pushing, then go ahead and replace it.

what do I mean here with distinguishing between explicitly using its precise meaning vs a generic insult? lets pretend that the black character is also gay in this scenario. Would replacing the N word with slurs related to sexual orientation fundamentally change what the theme of the book was about or the motivation of the characters using the offensive term? If it would, you still should use the original offensive term. If it doesn't, switch to the non offensive term or a non-specific insult.

Using that guideline you can have the scenario where you change SOME of the terms, but not all of them. if its descriptive material written in third person, even if the book is about racism, its probably a good idea to change it. Neutral third person description can be changed from the offensive term without changing theme of the book and may actually make the themes clearer. If its written as a character's PERCEPTION of another character as the loaded term or dialog using it in that loaded manner, then it should probably stay to illustrate the intent of the loaded term. So you might well take out 90% of the use in a book... and leave that 10% as a dramatic, jarring racist slap in the face that drives the theme home.

The younger the kids, the more you should err towards cleaning it up. Kindergarteners probably won't understand intent as well as teens will. ages in between, it gets a little less clear cut and really, hire an editor to REALLY read it for context and intent and do same with several previous editions to get at heart of matter.

TLDR: don't sanitize the language if the point is it IS ugly and offensive. if it doesn't matter, go ahead and swap.


Edited at 2013-01-27 06:02 pm (UTC)
catalana 27th-Jan-2013 06:21 pm (UTC)
Nice analysis!
apostle_of_eris 27th-Jan-2013 11:13 pm (UTC)
You win the Straw Person prize.
redstar826 27th-Jan-2013 06:52 pm (UTC)
I see no issue with having various editions of these books, some with the original language and some not and therefore allowing librarians, educators, parents, etc the choice as to which one they will use.

I followed the discussion around Mark Twain's works for a bit, did they find a solution in the end?

If I recall correctly, there was one new edition of the book that was changing some of the language. I personally never understood the uproar over it because that was one edition out of I don't know how many different editions out there (you can find all sorts of various editions of 'the classics' because they are in the public domain)
scolaro 27th-Jan-2013 08:31 pm (UTC)
Ah ok. It sounded like a lot of hot air to begin with...I thought they'd at least come to a decision on which edition to use in schools.
yeats 27th-Jan-2013 07:20 pm (UTC)
as i'm a white american, i'm going to leave the substantive discussions to people of color here, but i will say this, as a historian: guys, you don't have to worry about us. i promise you, we will be able to do work on important topics in history, including race, even if these books aren't in common circulation. the teaching of history will not suffer because a seven year-old can no longer access these books unsupervised.
glass_houses 27th-Jan-2013 07:41 pm (UTC)
My first thought was: parents, don't let your kids read these stories if you're truly worried. If you want, when they're older, you can have them read them and teach them why the language and situations are considered unacceptable now.
happypurinsu 27th-Jan-2013 08:42 pm (UTC)
I'm Danish (part German), and we use the term 'neger' too - it's much more neutral a word than 'nigger', and even tamer than 'negro'; actually, if I have to be honest, I prefer calling a dark-skinned person 'neger' over saying 'sort' (black in Danish), simply because what you associate 'neger' with is more innocent than 'black'. Perhaps because of a candy called "flødeboller", whose nickname is "negerkys" (kys means kiss)? 'Neger' is like a synonym for 'original African', means nothing more or less than that.

However, I have to admit that the younger generations seem to associate 'neger' with 'nigger' more than the older ones (damn, I feel old now, though I'm only 20!); it was actually a discussion in my family not long ago, where my parents and I stood for 'neger' being okay, while my younger sister cringed at the word and called us racists. Something changed quickly, huh?

That being said, I actually don't think it's necessary to change such words, words that used to have neutral or other meanings than now, because they reflect the time the stories were written. It's almost hypocrisy or overly political correctness to erase something that used (or even still is) part of your culture, because the meaning of the word is translated into a 'bad' word in other languages. Someone mentioned Pippi above; that's the same case - leave it as it is, or don't read it to your children, if you fear that it will turn them racist; you may end up robbing them of some culture, though, but it's your choice.


You have to take the original language, society and culture the books were written in into consideration, use the context, instead of immediately thinking of the American 'NIGGER'! Not all words and terms in other languages hold the same meaning as in English; please try to remember and respect this. Just my two cents about this topic~

Edited at 2013-01-27 08:57 pm (UTC)
staticmatrix 27th-Jan-2013 10:39 pm (UTC)
I'm not a native speaker but I've studied Scandinavian languages quite a bit, and I think rushing to emphasize the 'neutrality' or supposed 'innocence' of the word neger by being like, oh, it's just a nickname for food or whatever is just making your argument look worse tbh. It's the same thing as Swedish negerbollar - using black skin as a comparison for food products is pretty nauseating and definitely not okay no matter how neutral you think the word is.
caerfrli 27th-Jan-2013 09:38 pm (UTC)
Most kids don't read Twain until they're old enough to understand, with the help of teachers, parents and annotations that what was common 150 years ago need not be acceptable now, plus it's good for them to learn things have no always been as they are today. I do recall a passage in, I believe, Tom Sawyer, in which an explosion is discussed that "killed a nigger" but, fortunately, no one was hurt. I first read it at 9 or 10 and was appalled. It was quite educational. The Inky Boys books and certainly Little Black Sambo probably should be restricted in their circulation.
scolaro 27th-Jan-2013 10:04 pm (UTC)
I second the explosion bit in Tom Sawyer. It's been ages, but I had to read this (and a few other passages in the book, as far as I recall) several times to make sure I hadn't misunderstood anything. >.<

Inky Boys is (thankfully) not a series of books, only one story in the book Struwwelpeter - that still gives me the creeps, even though I'm an adult. It's mainly about what horrible things happen to children who don't do what they're told.

(If you don't eat your soup, you get thin and weak and die. If you play with fire, you burn the house down and die in the flames. If you use an umbrella in windy weather, you will be taken away by the wind, never to be seen again. If you suck your thumb, someone will come to cut it off with big-ass scissors. Each story with colourful illustrations. You know, light entertainment for children. Not sure it should *only* be restricted for racism.)
kishmet 28th-Jan-2013 02:57 am (UTC)
In a lot of cases it's unquestionably modernization. No books that are accessible to kids under a certain age should include slurs of any kind imo - my first thought's for the kids those words are aimed at because it's like a slap in the face to run across a slur you're not expecting.

Then too, seeing them used casually from an early age makes them seem more acceptable to kids who haven't been hurt by them. I think parents and teachers can discuss racism/slurs with young kids in certain ways but there's no way children can grasp the full historical context when the words are presented this way. For that matter I don't think most (white) highschoolers understand that context and the ways it connects to current racism, thanks to whitewashed history curricula

Realistically most history classes before college are shitty. If we have unedited versions of books like Huck Finn or whatever it seems irresponsible to assign them before college level, which also seems to be the point when they teach critical thinking.
roseofjuly 28th-Jan-2013 03:41 am (UTC)
On the other hand it's a part of history that's being "sanitized". Take Heinrich Hoffmann's "The Story of the Inky Boys". It was published in 1845, and the German word "Mohr" was a perfectly okay term for a black person, nowhere near the meaning of the N-word. It doesn't mean that Hoffmann, as well as probably most of the German population, didn't look down on people of colour, though.

Not referring specifically to the OP, but I find that people who make these arguments are typically white (or not a target of the kind of -ism that's being discussed in said oppressive history).

Who cares if we are "sanitizing" children's books? That doesn't mean the original book will disappear from history - they'll still be available in archives and libraries for adult readers who are doing research on children's books or whatever to access. But if changing the wording means that some black kid in in 2013 doesn't stumble across the book and feel sad because his heritage is being made fun of, or some white kid doesn't read the book and thinks it's okay to start calling the kids of color in his class a racial slur...isn't that more valuable than some philosophical avoidance of "sanitizing" history?

And let's not pretend that all parents sit down and have genteel, educated discussions with their children about the books their children are reading - and that all of these parents are social justice warriors armed with Tim Wise and Friends. Seriously. As a child I was reading WAY above grade level - such that I started reading John Grisham for fun when I was around 10 or 11, if I ran out of library books from the YA section before our next trip - and my mother (while normally very invested in my education) rarely discussed my books with me. I was left to sort them out myself. This was a stay-at-home mom who, like I said, was very invested in my education and taught me to read at age 3.
kitschaster 28th-Jan-2013 03:58 am (UTC)
"But if changing the wording means that some black kid in in 2013 doesn't stumble across the book and feel sad because his heritage is being made fun of, or some white kid doesn't read the book and thinks it's okay to start calling the kids of color in his class a racial slur...isn't that more valuable than some philosophical avoidance of "sanitizing" history?"


Reading many of the comments above you, the short answer is no. Very much no for so many people who don't give two shits about that black kid feeling hurt by language that may or may not reaffirm self-hatred or possibly tip them over into internalized racism, or don't care if that white kid learns that it was okay for the guy to call that guy/girl a slur, so why can't they? How dare you think of a living, breathing human being over a piece of "historical" text!


Edited at 2013-01-28 04:00 am (UTC)
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