[TW: racist language used as illustration]
“Ew, it stinks of Negro in here.” / “Iih, hier stinkt’s nach Neger.”
This is what I heard in the school yard, while you played with your allegedly beloved Black doll, which was called a Negro doll or simply “Blacky” back in the 1970s and 1980s, and you still think is fine to call exactly that in 2012.
I have tried to ignore the majority of german white people’s reactions to Sarah Kuttner and to not even get into the whole thing, but the sheer amount of either posts or comments on posts, be it on “Chinese/Negro dolls” (…the best/worst examples in a long time…) or “Childhood literature” or the reactions to pieces trying to explain again why it is racism to insist on the use of racist terms, kind of makes this impossible to not write a short statement.
Language changes for a reason. And while people love to stifle this discussion by stating that this is merely a post-modern or post-structuralist or Foucauldian concept that ignores material circumstances, I say that language is an expression of material circumstances (what else would it be?), and even if you don’t believe that language can (re)produce the latter, the mere fact that you express racism with certain chosen words should probably give you pause.
The change of certain language and descriptions and concomitant ideas about certain people was and is the hard-fought result of actual struggles of said people, which you ridicule and negate by deciding you don’t care about it. The discrimination of people of color by constant verbal othering, by the employment of historically loaded and systematically degrading words, and by the complete ignorance displayed towards the multitude of descriptive alternatives that have been self-chosen as empowering self-descriptions by people of color is the verbal expression of ingrained belief systems that devalue the importance of both the voice and presence of people of color.
You loved your Black doll? Good for you! You liked the “Sarotti Moor” because you liked chocolate and his head was shaking so delightfully? Wow… You have eaten “Negro kisses” which are now commonly referred to as what they actually are, namely “Chocolate kisses” during your childhood and thought they were delicious? So did I. But you thinking all of this was a sign of early anti-racism? Pretty much the stupidest thing you could say. The exoticization of people of color is racism. The association of people of color with chocolate and entertainment and docility is racism (and very old school slavery racism, I might add…). The culinary staging of Black people as something that is to be consumed, as a dehumanized object to literally be eaten (FGM-cake, anyone?) is racism. You enjoyed it as a child – well, that doesn’t mean it’s not racist. Because while you liked playing “Who’s afraid of the Black man?”, singing “Ten Little Negros”, reading about Pippi Langstrumpf (whom I loved too, except for, well…) and her dad, the white “Negro king”, and eating all the “Negro kisses” you could, I was the kid to actually be ridiculed with the help of your childhood fun.
It sucks to have childhood memories tainted, I get that. But your childhood memories are only the childhood memories of white, german kids. Most importantly, now that you have grown up, you probably have learned a thing or two. You are capable of realizing that not everything you thought was awesome during your childhood really was awesome, and that not everyone can join in the fond memories you have of certain things.
While N* is a word you associate with fun times, it is a word I associate with discriminating and humiliating experiences. While N* is a word you think is only racist if those racists use it, I know that it is a very unsubtle sign of persisting structural racism and continuing racist thought processes that so clearly show when white people implicitly argue that they’re the ones to decide what is racist and what isn’t. While N* is something you just do not want to give up, despite the fact that you have a whole number of different expressions to pick, I know that what you really lament is losing a little chip of your white privilege armor, namely the privilege to single-handedly decide who is not like you and who has to endure your categorization. While you think that using N* is totally fine when reading an old book to your kids because you don’t want to spoil the original 1980s vibe (or the 2012 vibe in certain books, for that matter), I know that it perpetuates a naming and classification system that nullifies the actions and wishes and pleas and feelings of people of color.
You loved your N*doll. You think that calling people N* is no big deal.
I was wondering why people say I am an N*. And why that means I smell bad.
[Update]: …and here we go again: authors and editors plan to finally listen to decades worth of anti-racist campaigning and alter racist expressions such as “Neger” in children’s books, and people completely lose their shit.