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.

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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.


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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?
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.
romp 28th-Jan-2013 02:06 am (UTC)
Good examples. My default is that the books should be preserved but no longer considered children's lit. They can remain as historical documents. But I'd hate to lose Pippi!
intrikate88 27th-Jan-2013 07:19 pm (UTC)
I know that there are, in English at least, a lot of bowdlerized novels and stories condensed to an easier reading level for children, and perhaps that's the answer here for these books- put out a children's edition for children who may be reading them on their own or not have teachers/parents equipped to explain historical context and slurs.

I think it IS valuable, for older students, to be able to see the original language in the context of teaching that that was another time, and while it was acceptable then it was acceptable in a broader context of a more racist society, and examine WHY there is a problem with that language. Because while I don't want little kids with no guidance to get the impression that slurs are alright to use, neither do I want adults to be ignorant of why it is unacceptable to use such language and what type of hate and bigotry you are associating yourself with if you do.
shhh_its_s3cr3t 27th-Jan-2013 10:30 pm (UTC)
I would love to disagree with you on this point, but I can't...

"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."

The reality is that there are more people out there today that just don't want to deal with it being wrong, encourage it in their own homes or just aren't educated enough on HOW to educate their children.

My son is 11 now, and he's into Mark Twain in a big way - but he was afraid to read Huck Finn at first because of the n-word used. I had to explain to him that its good to read this and understand the roots of why things today are different and that we don't just let things go unchecked. Educating and not ignoring the full context of history is so important. Kids are not given enough credit to critically think nowadays.

Edited at 2013-01-27 10:31 pm (UTC)
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