Education and Language

Traces of racism in the German language

People can be racist without necessarily being hostile toward someone.  Photo: Helder Almeida © iStockphotoPeople can be racist without necessarily being hostile toward someone.  Photo: Helder Almeida © iStockphotoVery few people see themselves as racists. But does that mean that the way they talk or the words they use are free of racism? Definitely not, says professor Susan Arndt. Her book shows readers the dark side of the German language.

About 15 years ago, English and African studies specialist Susan Arndt began teaching a seminar for African studies at Humboldt University in Berlin. Her courses focused on societies in Africa, processes initiated during colonial times and black people in general around the world. Without having planned it, the discussions that emerged among students often became quite emotional. The question that was frequently posed was how and whether certain terms should or should not be used. “I have to admit that as a white person I didn't think much about how I used language and in the process had taken on numerous expressions that I had learned in school or even from scientific literature,” recalls Arndt. “They were terms that led to totally justifiable outrage among black students. I have seen students both black and white get up and walk out of a lecture in protest of discussions on the subject.”

Racism – emotional on both sides

The book by Professor Susan Arndt and Nadja Ofuatey-Alazard.  Photo: © Unrast VerlagFor years now Arndt has been examining the issue of how racism works and how it may have affected her own life and language. In the process, it became increasingly clear to her that behind some seemingly harmless terms, an understanding had developed in Europe over centuries that being white was somehow the norm. And it is not just about avoiding certain racist expressions in a lecture. If you want to stem the tide of racism, the complex structures of the problem need to be examined more carefully. The result was Arndt's book Wie Rassismus aus Wörtern spricht: (K)Erben des Kolonialismus im Wissensarchiv deutsche Sprache (lit. trans. How Racism Comes out in Words: Legacies of Colonialism in the Archive of German Language), published by Susan Arndt, now professor at the University of Bayreuth, with her colleague Nadja Ofuatey-Alazar.

The book not only features scientists but also artists and activists who had something to say on the subject. In addition to scientific analyses and essays there are interviews, spoken word performances, satirical texts and short stories in this 800-page tome. The pieces clearly illustrate the racist incidents that occur on a daily basis, how racism emerged in general from a historical perspective, why racism is such a powerful force and what we can do to fight it. Even concepts that you would never associate with racism like “Europe”, “peace” and “art” are put under the microscope here. Aicho Diallo, for example, shows us that the term “peace” is “…indeed embedded in European concepts of ethics, philosophy and religion since antiquity”, but were primarily only applied within European territories, societies and communities of faith. However, Diallo criticizes that although the white nations of Europe “celebrate a bastion of civilization” under the guise of peace, they are denying the fact that they are themselves responsible for countless systems of extreme violence in the form of “territorial theft, genocide, slave trading, colonialism and segregation.”

The languages of racism and resistance

Professor Susan Arndt  Photo: © Riolo PhotographyAll of the authors who contributed to the book pursue the question of how to discuss racism without repeatedly using racist terms. Due to many centuries of language study, we are often not even aware of the racist content of the words we use. Still, for Susan Arndt, language is a place where racism is created. “Many people today use the word 'Mulatte' (mulatto), but the word actually comes from the term 'Maulesel' (mule). The idea behind the word is that the animal produced by mixing two distinct races would not be fertile and therefore not be able to produce offspring. That is not something most people would want to support these days."

On the other hand, the book also shows language as a place where we can resist and overturn racism in language. “We do not have to go silent just because we choose not to use terms that are tinged by racism. You can find words that may initially confuse people, but it may also reinitiate the dialog about language and racism. From the N-word or 'colored' have come terms like 'Black German'. Simply by capitalizing the word black in German (Schwarz) you can change the meaning of the term.”

Food for thought

Language is a place where racism is created.  Photo: Sergey Peterman © iStockphotoArndt and Ofuatey-Alzard want their book to inspire a discussion about language. “We often don't spend enough time addressing the issues of racism in Germany. We talk about xenophobia and hostility toward strangers, but in most cases it is not about strangers or foreigners at all. And people can be racist without necessarily being hostile toward someone.” She hopes that the dialog about colonialism, slavery and racism will thrive, and not just in political or academic environments. The whole society needs to face the issues here and perhaps their book will help us all take one further step in that direction.


Susan Arndt, Nadja Ofuatey-Alazard (Hg.):
Wie Rassismus aus Wörtern spricht. (K)Erben des Kolonialismus im Wissensarchiv deutsche Sprache. Ein kritisches Nachschlagewerk. (Unrast, 2011)

Janna Degener
works as a freelance journalist in Cologne.

Translation: Kevin White
Copyright: Goethe-Institut e. V., Internet-Redaktion
July 2012

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