How to rid the German language of offensive words | Culture and lifestyle in Germany and Europe | DW

Words can be like tiny doses of arsenic: they are swallowed imperceptibly, and the poisoning effect occurs only after some time, the German philologist and researcher of the language of Nazi Germany, Victor Klemperer, noted in 1947 in his Notebook. These words are quoted in the preface to Susan Arndt’s new book, The Racist Legacy, which deals with the problem of the colonial past and its influence on modern German.

Arndt wrote her book after years of studying the problem of racism in Germany. “A lot of racist beliefs are expressed in very specific ways through words,” she tells DW. “Of course, if you do without these words, racism will not disappear, but we can better understand this problem by analyzing them.”

Where did racism come from

Literary scholar and culturologist Arndt sees the roots of racism in 1492, when Queen Isabella I of Castile and her husband Ferdinand V conquered the kingdom of Granada, the last stronghold of the Muslim Moors in Spain. “After this conquest, Jews and Muslims were persecuted, their property was confiscated, special taxes were levied on them on the grounds that Christianity is fundamentally superior to other religions,” explains Arndt. The money thus obtained was used to finance the expedition of Christopher Columbus, who discovered the New World.

Columbus was followed by Spanish conquerors and European settlers. As Arndt points out in his book, they were committing genocide in the new territories, while humanist ideals were propagated in Europe. Since this was contrary to European principles, ways had to be found to legitimize something that did not really have legitimacy. To justify colonial practices, the concept of “race” was used, according to which Christians belonged to the highest, dominant category. People were divided into “races” depending on the color of their skin, and then certain qualities were attributed to them. “It all came down to the idea that white people are the only ones who are capable of progress, have reason and culture,” Arndt emphasizes. Proximity to civilization was valued more than proximity to nature. This served as an excuse for Europeans to “colonize nature and colonize the people who lived in it,” explains Arndt.

Back to Spain, Columbus brought several indigenous people, as he thought, India

Back to Spain, Columbus brought several indigenous people, as he thought, India

This concept was later used to justify enslavement people from Africa. In the late 19th – early 20th century, it also formed the basis of the pseudoscientific theory of social Darwinism, which assumed the survival of the fittest in sociology, economics and politics. During the period of National Socialism, another pseudoscience was promoted – eugenics, or racial hygiene, which suggested that “race” could be further optimized. In addition to six million Jews, the Nazis systematically and massively exterminated people with disabilities, homosexuals, Sinti and Roma, and other victims labeled as “racially inferior”.

After the Second World War, racial theories were rarely used, as the author of the book notes, but, of course, racism did not disappear. And while the principles of equality were promoted, “the global political and financial balance of power, which colonialism has fostered for centuries, has not been significantly affected,” writes Arndt.

Ways to deal with racism in the language

Since neither discourses nor moral values ​​are possible without language, it is important to combat linguistic discrimination, emphasizes the culturologist. In Germany, political correctness is given great attention – last year the Berlin theater even canceled screenings of The Nutcracker. And in order to avoid the racist designation of a person with a dark skin color, the Germans abandoned some conceptsfor example, “ride in a black way”, that is, a hare, or use new terms, in particular, it is found in the media “N-Wort”.

Book cover by Susan Arndt

Book cover by Susan Arndt

But in order for racist language to be less and less in everyday life, people must consciously decide which words they leave in their active store. It is important to learn to recognize it. To do this, Arndt suggests asking yourself the following questions. When did the expression originate, does it come from the colonial era, and has its original meaning changed? Does this expression mean that there are “human races”, that the person being addressed is “close to nature” and “far from civilization”? Does this expression go back to colonial clichés like “half-naked man with feathers”? In what context is the term used and does it exclude people from the “white norm”?

Arndt gives examples from German such as “Indians”, “Bushmen”, “Eskimos”, as well as other inappropriate terms with racist connotations, such as “diaspora”, “people of color” or BIPoC (abbreviation for people of non-white skin color). ). The culturologist advocates for the identification of such expressions in everyday language, but not for their prohibition: “I do not believe in language prohibitions. This does not help us at all, because even if the expressions are not pronounced, people do not reflect on them and do not change the images they have absorbed. In the end, this will not lead to a change in power relations.” The author of the book points out the importance of people not being embarrassed to talk about racist words and terms so that there is more understanding in society, and ideally distance themselves from their use.

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