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.

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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?
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?)
scolaro 27th-Jan-2013 03:02 pm (UTC)
Sorry for jumping in (as I'm not the one you addressed the question to). The word "Neger" is very outdated and not used anymore (except by old people, e.g. my grandpa). It's not neutral, but it certainly doesn't have the same meaning as "Nigger", mangosorbet007 is right here. I'd say it's about the same difference as between "nigger" and "negro" in the US.
mangosorbet007 27th-Jan-2013 04:17 pm (UTC)
I'm a native speaker in my 40s, and while I cringe just a little bit when I hear the word "Neger" I've always put that down to having spent quite a few years in the US. I myself have a much easier time using the terms "black" or "African American" in English than "schwarz" or "Afrikaner" in German. Somehow the words do feel ... uncomfortable, even if they are actually neutral.
"Neger", however, is a word that is truly dated. I'd expect older people from small villages would use it.
happypurinsu 27th-Jan-2013 08:28 pm (UTC)
I'm Danish, and we use that word too - it's extremely neutral here, compared to Nigger or even Negro, and I actually feel more comfortable calling a dark-skinned person 'neger' than 'sort' (black in Danish).
angelofdeath275 27th-Jan-2013 03:00 pm (UTC)
so her experiences are wrong
mangosorbet007 27th-Jan-2013 04:21 pm (UTC)
No. Her translation of the word "Neger" is, though.
angelofdeath275 27th-Jan-2013 04:26 pm (UTC)
ok. it seems like she thinks it translates to nigger from her experience. like at the end of the day its a slur or something

i was hoping id find out more about the author to see if theres more reason for the mistranslation but cant find anything
pleasure_past 27th-Jan-2013 05:25 pm (UTC)
Did Neufeld write this article in English? Der Spiegel often prints both English and German versions, and I don't think the English translations are always or even often done by the people who wrote the German versions.
scolaro 27th-Jan-2013 05:32 pm (UTC)
I tried to find the German version by looking up the author's name, but no luck...
mangosorbet007 27th-Jan-2013 05:34 pm (UTC)
I searched both the Spiegel International and the German-language Spiegel site and found only one collaborative article in German but a handful in English, with no translator mentioned. No idea if she wrote them herself.
lady_tigerlily 27th-Jan-2013 03:30 pm (UTC)
This, thank you. I'm not a native German speaker, but I've been studying the language for 12 years, and I'll echo what a bunch of other people have said and agree that it's not neutral, but it's not the same as "nigger". "Negro" is how I've always translated it, and I feel like it has that clout.
if_by_sea 27th-Jan-2013 04:33 pm (UTC)
yeah because negro is just totally less offensive than nigger. i am sure that she is not the only person of african descent in germany who is offended by this language; the fact that you're boiling it down to semantics and marginalizing the impact of words like this is really gross.
mangosorbet007 27th-Jan-2013 04:48 pm (UTC)
You're looking at the *English* words, where "Negro" and "nigger" are both offensive, even though to a different degree.

The author is writing about the German word "Neger", which simply doesn't carry the same historical connotations as "nigger". Her experience of exclusion and marginalization isn't under debate. Her (or her translator's?) English skills are, and since the exact meaning of the word is at the core of the article it's far from "gross" to question it.
roseofjuly 28th-Jan-2013 03:20 am (UTC)
Well maybe she, or the translator, chose to translate it as "nigger" to better convey the sense of exclusion and marginalization she felt. Using the word "Negro" wouldn't connote the same thing to English-speaking audiences.

I also have to question why people here feel the need to point this out.
mangosorbet007 28th-Jan-2013 01:31 pm (UTC)
Words *mean* things and to arbitrarily assign meaning (including connotation) is not the way to go if you want to have a debate.

I felt the need to point this out because I am well aware of the fact that many people will walk away from reading this article thinking that Germans throw around racist slurs as a matter of course.
roseofjuly 28th-Jan-2013 03:14 pm (UTC)
She wasn't attempting to initiate a debate, though. She was writing an argument about her personal experiences.
mangosorbet007 28th-Jan-2013 03:41 pm (UTC)
Fair enough: Words *mean* things and to arbitrarily assign meaning (including connotation) is not the way to go if you want others to understand what you're trying to say.
roseofjuly 28th-Jan-2013 05:46 pm (UTC)
Do you feel that there was significant misunderstanding of this article?
lady_tigerlily 27th-Jan-2013 04:49 pm (UTC)
No, I'm not, actually. And I'm not saying she's the only one who is offended, or even saying anyone SHOULDN'T get offended by it. I'm just saying it's not the same. I still has a negative connotation, but the way we talk about things really has an effect on our attitudes towards them. And I do have a bit of a problem with putting "moor" and "negro" on the same level as "nigger". By no means, though, does anyone have to agree with me.

This example isn't a 1:1 correlation, but it's the closest analogy I have. My family's Chinese, and we use "fahn yun" for white people all the time, but my grandparents would use "bak gwai" instead, almost interchangeably. The first one is along the lines of "white guy" or maybe "cracker", but the latter means "white devil". To equate those two terms would not be right, even though they're both terms for white folks. "Fahn yun" isn't a neutral term (it's almost endearingly negative), but it's not got the same weight as calling someone a "white devil". I had the discussion with my family a while ago, and someone suggested using "bak yun" (literally "white people"), but then it sounds like we're talking about all white people in a completely neutral way, which isn't correct either. Using it in place of either of the other terms would almost be worse, because it sounds like we mean all white people everywhere.

White people are "bak yun". White tourists who mean well but are kind of bludering are "fahn yun". The legislators who came up with and passed the Chinese Exclusion Act are "bak gwai".
romp 28th-Jan-2013 02:28 am (UTC)
damn, the things I learn in this community!
moonshaz 28th-Jan-2013 04:12 am (UTC)
Ikr? It's one of the things that keeps me coming back here!
carmy_w 28th-Jan-2013 06:17 pm (UTC)
Total agreement!
happypurinsu 27th-Jan-2013 08:50 pm (UTC)
I agree; 'neger' is a very neutral word, far from having the meaning of 'nigger' and even 'negro'. It simply is an old word used as synonym today for an "original African" person, someone really dark-skinned. Nothing more or less than that.
kishmet 28th-Jan-2013 01:23 am (UTC)
idk I'd like to hear this from someone black who's living/lived in Germany if you're not. In the US 'Negro' is still pretty freaking offensive - somebody here who uses that word tends to be the type who uses the other n word in private so
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