Within my first 24 hours on German soil, I ran into a black lawn jockey grinning at me in subservient fashion. The statue’s jarring presence at the cheesy restaurant I had been taken to in western Berlin would be my introduction to Germany’s frequently antiquated approach to racial matters.
When I pointed out to a young German woman how offensive the docile “darkie” manservant would be considered in the United States, she simply shrugged and said it never would have occurred to her that something so whimsical could be insulting to black people.
More than two decades later, racial sensitivity in this country has undoubtedly improved. But as a heated national debate about replacing racist terms in classic German children’s books shows, not nearly enough.
Depending on how it’s used, the German word Neger can range in meaning from the outdated and inappropriate term “negro” to the highly offensive insult “nigger.” But many Germans would appear to have few qualms about exposing their children to it.
German Family Minister Kristina Schröder kicked off the discussion last month by saying she cut out discriminatory terms like “Negro King” from a Pippi Longstocking story while reading to her small daughter.
But it was the decision to replace the diminutive form Negerlein in Otfried Preußler’s popular kids’ book Die kleine Hexe (“The Little Witch”) that unleashed a torrent of outrage against what some see as kowtowing to overzealous political correctness. A pundit at Der Spiegel magazine raged: What blatant censorship! And a cover story in the respected weekly Die Zeit fumed: The feelings of little black German children be damned – important literature was being defiled!
Now, I don’t condemn these people as racists, but they are guilty of willful ignorance and gross insensitivity. It’s utterly irrelevant if white, middle-aged men at leading German publications don’t find the use of Neger offensive. I’m certain they won’t mind being called a “Nazi” on their next Greek holiday, but the only people who get to decide if a term is hurtful are those having it foisted upon them. People like the defiant nine-year-old who in a justifiably angry letter to Die Zeit defended herself and her black father from the paper’s apparent contempt.
Because this isn’t about political correctness or censorship – it’s about respect, or the lack of it, for non-whites in German society.
It is simply not acceptable in the 21st century to expose very small children to discriminatory words in outdated books. If Die kleine Hexe is deemed so crucial to young Germans’ upbringing – the tale supposedly conveys the importance of questioning authority in post-Nazi Germany – it should be modernized. This is not whitewashing history, nor is it erasing the fond childhood memories of older Germans.
Books are changed all the time – few people even noticed when Pippi Longstocking’s “Negro King” became the “South Seas King” in the German edition in 2009. Literary impact? Zero. Similarly, Die kleine Hexe will not suffer an iota by dropping the word Negerlein.
In a country known for promoting pedagogical methods, teachers can easily put racist terms in books meant for older adolescent readers, like Mark Twain’s “Adventures of Huckleberry Finn,” into context.
Coming from America, I grew up reading Twain’s “nigger” references sensitized to matters of racial prejudice probably much in the way Germans are socialized early on to the horrors of the Holocaust. But the respect now largely allotted Jews in Germany often does not transfer to other minorities, as the Neger debate sadly illustrates.
Whether it’s people putting on blackface makeup for a laugh, or stubbornly still calling a popular chocolate-marshmallow confection a Negerkuss – a Negro Kiss – insensitivity is not confined to the self-proclaimed defenders of Teutonic children’s literature.
Of course, this is a nation that only recently decoupled its citizenship laws from having German blood. But sometimes it can feel like Germany lags behind the United States and Canada, or even Britain, by several decades when it comes to public attitudes on race.
Updating a popular children’s book won’t solve all the problems, but it’s a first step towards greater respect in German society. The lawn jockey stopped grinning a long time ago.