Your Childhood Memories Don’t Trump Mine.

14 Jun

[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.


18 Responses to “Your Childhood Memories Don’t Trump Mine.”

  1. Jess June 17, 2012 at 2:28 pm #

    Thank you, this is probably the best posts on this recent discussion that I’ve read so far.

    I’d be interested in your opinion on how to deal with children’s literature. Is systematically banning those books the only way? I have no problem with refuseing to read books that have been wirtten in recent years and use discriminatory language — but how about classics? Some authors/editors have attempted to “clean up” their language in later editions (Mary Poppins, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory), but as far as I know that hasn’t happened with Pippi Longstocking yet. “Unfortunately”, I still think that apart from the detail you alluded to, those books are too good to stop my (future) children from reading them. Not just because of my own fond memories, but because I genuinely believe that Pippi is a brilliant character (and one of the most influential ones in children’s literature, too). But what can we do? Substitute the word by “king on a faraway island”? Still pretty colonial, I’d think…

    • accalmie June 17, 2012 at 3:18 pm #

      Hi Jess,

      Thank you for your comment! The publisher has actually changed some of the racist language in a new edition of Pippi Longstocking, which was, apparently, the reason for the recent outrage… I think you are completely right that the alternative “South Seas island king” isn’t great either and conveys a lot of old colonialism (why not North Seas island king? That would turn the whole image around… Also: “Pippi in Taka Tuka land”? Ew…), but I think it is a step in the right direction and offers more potential to talk to children about the problems of certain images and traditions; a possibility that is completely forfeit when using the most blatantly racist language of the colonial tradition that still runs through Longstocking and other books.

      Some people have proposed child-friendly “footnotes” in books that problematize the text. I personally think that footnotes aren’t a bad idea, as well as coming up with your own ideas and expressions that mix up that mono-cultural view on “Southern Seas” and people’s skin colors and talking about it with your children, and, most importantly, including children’s books that have been written by people of color or are about racism.

      • Jess June 17, 2012 at 7:41 pm #

        Oh, thank you for that link! I didn’t know that! That’s the German publishers, though – do you know how this is handled in other countries? I agree that it is a step in the right direction, and it makes me want to get a new copy of Pippi Longstocking. So well done, publishing companies, even from a mere marketing point of view. ;)

        I quite like the idea of footnotes because they might not only alert children but also less sensitive adults to the problem and provide people who are more or less sensitive but clueless as to how to react (among whom I guess I have to count myself) with ideas for dealing with that situation. However, in picture books (and there are lots of Pippi picture books nowadays), footnotes are at the very least unusual and not that easy to place. (The illustrations are, of course, a problem on their own.)

  2. Oneofakind June 17, 2012 at 4:52 pm #

    Very good article, thank you for your calm approach!

    This whole discussion has left one question open for me – maybe you can answer it: I absolutely get all the points made about the N-word. But how about the existence of such a doll itself?

    I’m asking because as a young child, I used to envy a friend of mine who possessed a large number of dolls in a great variety of skin colors: “white”, “black”, and several shades in between. The black ones weren’t caricatures in the way Sarah Kuttner described but more or less realistic depictions of humans, and I don’t remember anyone referring to them as N-dolls – that word wasn’t used in my friend’s household at all, as far as I know. I know her mother well and know that her motivation in buying those dolls was not exoticism but the hope that introducing some diversity into her daughter’s collection would get her used to the idea that people of all skin colors are equally lovable and can coexist peacefully.

    I would be interested to know whether you find these dolls problematic per se, or whether it depends on the circumstances in which they are presented and the terms by which they are referred to.

    • accalmie June 17, 2012 at 5:28 pm #

      Hi Oneofakind,

      Thanks for commenting! I am actually really happy that people increasingly have the opportunity to realize that “dolls” don’t equal “white, blonde dolls”, so I think that ethnically diverse features in dolls are great both for kids who are of color and for white kids who can experience first hand that whiteness is not the default. As a child, it was great to discover a barbie doll that wasn’t white and blonde, for example (not that I would defend Barbie dolls, but I still loved them as a child… *cough*).Problems arise only, in my opinion, when Black children, for example, are expected to play with Black dolls (or get Black dolls as the default gift), when people buy non-white dolls for their “exotic” factor or to score anti-racist points (à la: “Look, my kid has a Black doll – isn’t that doll really cute with its fuzzy hair and chocolate skin? Also, I can’t be racist now.”), and when dolls that aren’t white are either named in racialized ways (“Blacky” and other delightful things…) and/or show racist, stereotypical features that some people imagine as “typically” Black.

      • Oneofakind June 17, 2012 at 6:20 pm #

        Thank you for your answer! I’m glad to see we agree on this as well – I think it would be catastrophic if white children could only have white dolls, thereby perpetuating the idea that it is natural to hang out with people who look like you. But your response opens up a completely new field of worries that hadn’t even occurred to me before: If I had to choose a doll for a black child, that would put me in a difficult situation. Choosing a black doll might be stereotyping in the way you described; choosing a white doll might look like I was suggesting that that’s the “ideal look”. I have no idea how I would solve this. I guess I would buy a teddy bear. I prefer them to dolls anyway. :)

        • accalmie June 17, 2012 at 7:34 pm #

          Oh, I think it is fine to give a Black doll to a Black child – what I meant was that it would be troublesome, for me, if Black children were expected to only play with Black dolls and would only receive Black dolls as the default doll present (and no other dolls that are supposed to represent different ethnicities, and no teddy bears either, no matter the actual preferences of the child). It is basically about not othering children who are of color, but to treat them just as respectfully and carefully as every other kid, and to ask them what they actually want.

  3. Oneofakind June 17, 2012 at 9:32 pm #

    Thanks for the clarification! I’ll stick with the teddy bear, though. :)

  4. Sab June 18, 2012 at 8:49 am #

    Thank you for your wonderful article and statement! And it is true it’s so deeply ingrained in the so called nostalgic “childhood” memories of most white people that they turn into children themselves (shouting, denying, refusing) when it comes to analyze what childhood means regarding exclusion on racist grounds and when it tastes like racism “playing” “Wer hat Angst vom Schwarzen Mann?” since childhood is supposed to be innocent memories not trauma for PoCs or/and racist uprising/education/literature/games.

  5. jgoschler June 18, 2012 at 4:25 pm #

    Thanks for this article. It makes very clear what is wrong with the “But I loved my N* kisses/dolls/whatever”-argument.
    But I do have a serious, though maybe naive, question about the Sarah Kuttner-incident. Kuttner actually said that the doll she was talking about was racist. However, she used the term “n* doll” in order to describe what she meant and maybe also in order to illustrate how people talked back in her childhood, apparently without realizing that this kind of meta-use could also be offensive. Would that have been okay if she had warned people before? Or is there more wrong with what she did and said? I really tried to think of possible implied offenses, but since I am missing the experience of being the target of racist comments, maybe I just can’t tell.

  6. Samia June 18, 2012 at 6:59 pm #

    @accalmie I was hoping you’d cover this (could that be strange/wrong?) – thanks for putting things into context and proving once again that science and personal experience are mutually beneficial, not exclusive.

    @Sab Please familiarize yourself with the concepts of ageism and adultism. This kind of metaphor is not helpful.

    @jgoschler Actually, the article already answers all of that. I tried to find a suitable quote and realized I would have to quote the whole thing. No, it’s never okay for white people to say it.

  7. accalmie June 18, 2012 at 7:12 pm #

    @Sab: thank you. i think that the reaction you are describing is actually a very adult one, too and can be observed in a multitude of adult interactions. actually, i think that all in all, adult people seem to have worse reactions than any kid ever could, because some of them just outright refuse to show a tiny bit of empathy or willingness to learn because many of them have been racists for decades and just throw a fit when you point that out because it seems to counter their self-perception on such a fundamental level, I suppose; and all the indignation and anger you rightly describe is usually the best sign for being caught in the act and being challenged for adhering to a belief of white universality.

    @jgoschler: thanks. actually, i tried to answer that in the post and many of the posts that i have linked go in the same direction (Der Braune Mob has a whole page on it, for example). a clear answer on racist language is also halfjill’s reaction at Afrika Wissen Schaft..

    @samia: thank you, and no problem ;)… actually, i really tried not to say anything this time, because i feel like i’m repeating myself every week, and the anti-racism posts are usually the ones that are the most exhausting – both in having to go through all the bullshit one has to read for commenting on it, and the reactions one gets (although i have to say: people seem to have shouted so much crap on the internet already, that i have surprisingly few troll comments this time!). but, like i said in the post, people just can’t stop repeating the same racism (… i was truly astonished, although i should not have been, by the “discussion” on holy fruit salad’s post, the only one about kuttner i entered at all), and they seem to be popping up everywhere and always get away with it and feel extremely superior, so i just wanted to publicly say: nope, you’re not.

  8. Cluisanna June 21, 2012 at 1:04 am #

    Learning about the subtleties of racism has surely “ruined” some once beloved books for me – then again, is it really ruined when actually the book wasn’t good at all, but I was naive? People who get upset about others calling things they like racist seem to me to be too attached to an infallible picture of themselves.
    I find it interesting that you mention “Who is afraid of the black man?” I remember playing this as a child and imagining the “black man” as literally a dark, ‘slender man’-like figure out of a nightmare and not really made a connection to actual black people. Of course, I can’t say whether the other kids I played with saw it the same way, and even then, that really doesn’t excuse the game if it makes people uncomfortable and/or marginalizes them.

    • accalmie June 21, 2012 at 2:59 pm #

      Thank you, Cluisanna! I remember being told that the “Black man” was supposed to be a chimneysweeper (dressed in black and having a “Black face” (…) thanks to all the soot – “nice”…) when little-I was, well, a bit bemused; I not only highly doubt that, but, as you’ve said, it doesn’t matter: the image conveys racism, and a very unsubtle one at that (since you have to run for your life, basically).

      • zweisatz June 22, 2012 at 6:14 pm #

        I also considered “him” a white man dressed entirely in black. But apart from the fact that I can’t tell what the other children thought, there is this black=evil “metaphor” that’s just shitty. (Uhm, sorry, I am not really adding anything -.-)

  9. Jolene June 30, 2012 at 7:10 pm #

    I just stumbled across another nice article ;)

  10. zahlenzauberin July 8, 2012 at 5:27 pm #

    thank you, this is a brilliant article. (by the way, I was told the black man is “the plague” which was often depicted as a skeleton wearing a black cloak)


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