Eradicating racism from German children’s books

Should Germany expunge racist terms from classic children's books? The Local's Marc Young comments on the country's often exasperating attitudes on race.

Eradicating racism from German children's books
Photo: DPA

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Depending on how it’s used, the German word Neger can range in meaning from the outdated and inappropriate term “negro” to the highly offensive insult “nigger.”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.

Marc Young

[email protected]

Member comments

Log in here to leave a comment.
Become a Member to leave a comment.


Black people in Germany face ‘widespread’ racism, survey finds

In the Afrocensus, a first-of-its-kind survey charting the lived experiences of black people in Germany, the vast majority revealed they experienced 'extensive' discrimination in almost all aspects of public life.

Dr Karamba Diaby
Dr Karamba Diaby, an SPD politician and anti-racism advocate, carries out voluntary work in his constituency of Halle, Saxony-Anhalt. Photo: picture alliance/dpa/dpa-Zentralbild | Hendrik Schmidt

“The results of the Afrocensus indicate that anti-Black racism is widespread in Germany and anchored in institutions,” the authors of the new report said in a press release on Tuesday. “There is no area of life in which discrimination and racism are not extensive problems.”

Though the overwhelming majority of respondents said they had experienced discrimination at least ‘sometimes’ in almost all areas of life, housing was the area where they said they were discriminated against most often.

Just two percent of respondents to the Afrocensus said they had ‘rarely’ or ‘never’ experienced racism in the housing market, compared to more than 90 percent who said they had experienced it ‘often’ or ‘very often’.

READ ALSO: ‘Black lives need to matter in Germany’ New project to uncover racism in everyday life

Experiences with police and security personnel also counted among areas of life where racism was particularly prevalent: 88 percent of respondents had experienced discrimination from security staff ‘often’ or ‘very often’, while around 85 percent had had the same experience with police.

More than 85 percent had also experienced racism in their education or in the workplace ‘often’ or ‘very often’ in Germany. One in seven had lost their job during the Covid crisis. 

According to the report, 90 percent of respondents had also experienced having their hair grabbed, while more than half (56 percent) had been stopped by the police or asked for drugs by strangers.

Meanwhile, 80 percent said people had made comments about the colour of their skin or sexualised comments about their race on dating apps. A vast majority – 90 percent – also revealed they hadn’t been believed when they’d spoken out about racism in the past, or that people had said they were “too sensitive”. 

READ ALSO: OPINION: My experiences of everyday racism in Germany

In spite of widespread discrimination, almost half (47 percent) of the respondents were engaged and active in their community – mostly carrying out some form of social or voluntary work.

First of its kind

Based on wide-ranging data, the findings paint a vivid and concerning picture of what life is like for the one million or so black people living in Germany today.

To produce the report, researchers from Berlin-based Black community group Each One Teach One and Citizens for Europe conducted an extended survey of 6,000 black people from the Africans and Afrodiasporic community to try and discover more about on the everyday lives and experiences of this group. The survey was carried out between July and September 2020. 

It represents one of the first attempts to gather a wealth of quantitative data on this subject, and as such offers some of the first truly scientific insights into anti-Black racism in modern Germany.

“With the Afrocensus, we have succeeded in doing exactly what has long been demanded within the black community for a long time: making the realities of our lives visible within the framework of qualitative, but above all quantitative research,” Dr. Pierrette Herzberger-Fofana und Dr. Karamba Diaby wrote in a foreword to the report. 

Diaby, a high-profile politician within the centre-left SPD party, was one of only two Afro-German politicians in parliament when he first took his seat in 2013. He has since become known for promoting political engagement and empowerment within the migrant and black community. 

In January 2020, an unknown gunman fired shots through the window of his constituency office in Halle, Saxony-Anhalt, in a suspected racially motivated attack. 

READ ALSO: How people with migrant backgrounds remain underrepresented in German politics

Since the Second World War, Germany has avoided gathering data that allows people to be traced by ethnicity as a means of protecting persecuted groups.

However, critics say this approach only works to make the issues faced by these groups invisible. 

Writing on Twitter, Daniel Gyamerah, Division Lead at Citizens For Europe, called for an “action plan for tackling anti-Black racism and for empowering black, African and Afrodiasporic people” and the establishment of advice centres for people facing racism and discrimination.

More research into the intersectional experience of black people in Germany is needed, he added.