Decolonisation of Language “I’ve had enough of you othering me”

Anton-Wilhelm-Amo-Straße in Berlin sign
The decolonisation of language is not a matter of course for many people. After years of protest, Berlin-Mitte district officials reacted and M*Straße was renamed as Anton-Wilhelm-Amo-Straße. | Photo (detail): Saliva Glance © This file is licensed under the Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic license.

Even now, language includes terms that originate from deep-rooted colonial racism and discriminatory structures in our society. How can vulnerable minorities find a voice? Journalist and book author Mohamed Amjahid takes a look at decolonisation of the German language from an everyday perspective.

By Mohamed Amjahid

Generally speaking, language is a powerful instrument: it simultaneously reflects and forms the realities in which we live. Racism, patriarchy, capitalism – all this and more can be found within the language we all use on a daily basis. Almost five years ago I described the impact of racist language in my first book, Unter Weißen. Was es heißt, privilegiert zu sein (Among Whites: What It Means to Be Privileged). I’m certainly not the first author to flag up this depressing and oppressive aspect of language. Generations of communities affected by hostility have braced themselves against the microagressions and structural othering so deeply rooted and historically evolved in German and other languages.
 
Since then a lot has happened with regard to decolonisation of language. But you can always rely on a specific thing in German-speaking countries. I’d like to illustrate these two aspects of the debate through three points.

Anton-Wilhelm-Amo-Straße

For many years the “Möhrenstraßenfestival” was held every summer in Berlin Mitte, the city centre district. Children drew stick men on the pavement with coloured chalk, music groups played songs from Ghana and Togo, and non-white activists went on stage to explain why this event was no fun despite everything. One summer more than five years ago I was there as a spectator. A Black poet had her say on stage: “I’ve had enough of you othering me.” She stood next to the street sign and in front of the underground station, each emblazoned with the name of the district: M*strasse.

This street name has now been consigned to history. Long gone, in Berlin Mitte at least, are the times when activists drew an umlaut on the underground station signs to turn the racist name of “Mohrenstraße” (Moor Street, Mohr is an archaic term referring to Black people) into “Möhrenstraße” (Carrot Street). Because of a few bureaucratic pitfalls it’s still unclear when the street and underground signs will finally be replaced. The policy was defined several months ago though: this place will soon be named after the Black philosopher and law scholar Anton Wilhelm Amo.

Isn’t that grounds for celebration? I’m sceptical about that. It took the lynching of George Floyd in the USA and the increased attention that followed – which was just a brief time window – to give rise to the Black Lives Matter movement, so that a majority of mostly white political leaders in the district responsible, Berlin Mitte, reacted after years of protest.

“Die beste Instanz”  

At the start of 2021, five white people sat down to take part in a WDR talk show entitled Die letzte Instanz (The last instance) and insisted that the Sinti and Roma people should be referred to using the racist Z-word (Zigeuner for gypsy), and that racist language in general is part of German identity that we wouldn’t want to be without. The patriotic champions of German language included Thomas Gottschalk. Yes, the entire event was somewhat absurd.
 
Watching at home was actor, influencer, style icon and comedian Enissa Amani. She was so furious that a short while later my phone was ringing. Within a few hours Amani had drummed up lots of anti-racist authors – experts on the decolonisation of language and therefore the antithesis of Thomas Gottschalk – and made her own programme: Die beste Instanz (The best instance).
 
When my phone rang I was out and about in Berlin, and – wearing a casual burgundy hoodie – I spontaneously jumped on the last train to Frankfurt am Main, where Enissa Amani’s show was going to be recorded. The next morning I was sitting in front of the camera, underdressed in my hoodie, and we were discussing how racist language threatens the lives of vulnerable minorities.

“Racist language is just the first step and the perpetuation of a deadly othering towards vulnerable minorities. So it’s a survival strategy, talking about this linguistically cemented colonial perspective.”

The author Gianni Jovanovic described how the National Socialists tattooed the letter Z on the Sinti and Roma people and then sent them into the concentration camps to be killed. And this is precisely the undoing of debates about affected minorities: it’s not a matter of affected minorities strolling through the city without injury, down the supermarket aisles – because of that particular paprika sauce of highly questionable taste that Thomas Gottschalk insists on calling Z-sauce – or on social media. Racist language is just the first step and the perpetuation of a deadly othering towards vulnerable minorities. So it’s a survival strategy, talking about this linguistically cemented colonial perspective.
 
Whilst some white guests at the rather embarrassing episode of Die letzte Instanz meekly apologised and WDR experienced a public relations disaster, hundreds of thousands of people in Germany watched Die beste Instanz. Enissa Amani received the Grimme Online Award for her show and her commitment to the cause. That’s how far we’ve come now: people impacted by racism perform educational work and receive prizes for it. Yes, things have started to happen in the past few years.

Good old Germany

And then again there hasn’t been much progress after all, I often say to myself. It doesn’t matter which day you turn on the TV – you’ll see some sort of last instance scenario. You open the Twitter or Instagram app and racist terms are trending in the hashtag charts. The newsstand is filled with row upon row of newspaper headlines predicting the supposed demise of the Western world. Right-wing authors ranging from conservative to extremist take to the soap boxes and spout their expertise – which consists of insulting minorities from a racist or anti-Semitic perspective. And the renaming of places that continue to glorify colonialism stirs up more than just a discursive backlash. I recently researched a news story in Berlin’s Wedding district. There, activists told me how they are attacked verbally and physically because they are campaigning for the decolonisation of the German language and the public space.