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Who decides whether a word is racist? Does it depend on context? That's what a German state court said after a far-right AfD politician repeatedly used the N-word in a debate. The decision caused outrage — and action.
In the Duden online German dictionary, the word "Neger" (hereafter referred to as the N-word) is defined as a term for "a person of (very) dark skin." In German, it is considered today to be the equivalent of both the dated and debated English term "Negro" and also the undeniably racist term "nigger." The German word's definition also includes a warning in red describing it as "highly discriminatory" and "to be avoided."
Whether uttered in parliament or in a personal conversation, the use of the N-word in Germany to refer to black people is "always derogatory," activist Charlotte Nzimiro says. "Black people associate the term with a lot of suffering, discrimination and violence directed towards them, as well as inequality and dehumanization," adds Nzimiro.
Nzimiro was therefore angry when the State Constitutional Court of Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania, in northeast Germany, ruled in December 2019 that while the term is generally understood to be pejorative, whether it actually is depends on the context in which it is used.
The ruling came after Nikolaus Kramer, a state leader of the far-right populist Alternative for Germany (AfD) party, used the N-word several times during a debate in the Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania state parliament in November 2018. He said he did not want to be told "what is or is not offensive." When Kramer was reprimanded for his use of the term, he defended himself in court — and won.
A term of oppression
Nzimiro was on the train when she found out about the verdict. She "broke out in a sweat," she told DW. Furious, she decided to start a petition on change.org calling for the N-word to be legally recognized as racist. To date, it has been signed by nearly 100,000 people and is growing longer every day. Activists are also organizing a demonstration to be held in Hamburg on February 29, the last day of Black History Month.
The N-word hails from colonial times. "Blacks were oppressed and were given the term 'Negro.' They were incapacitated because they were not allowed to decide for themselves what they wanted to be called," Nzimiro explains.
Duden classified the term as "pejorative" in 1996; four years later this was changed to "discriminatory."
The N-word's entry is now accompanied by an information box that suggests appropriate alternative terms, such as "Afro-German," which is akin to the usage of African-American in the US.
Tahir Della of the Initiative of Black People in Germany ("Initiative Schwarze Menschen in Deutschland"), a non-profit that fights for racial justice, welcomes Duden's explanatory note because it provides "self-identifiers" similar to the designation "people of color." He rejects terms such as "black African," "dark-skinned," "colored," etc., which he considers "foreign identifiers."
"These are based on attributions, on categories that ultimately have nothing to do with the person they are applied to and have never been entirely apolitical," he says.
Duden's online entry for the N-word includes a red warning label. It describes the word as 'discriminatory' and provides alternative options, some of which are also controversial.
Controversial literary edits
Germany's book industry has grown more sensitive to the topic in recent years.
In 2009, new editions of the Pippi Longstocking series, written in the 1940s by Astrid Lindgren, did away with discriminatory terms. Pippi's father was no longer the "Negro King" but the "South Sea King." In 2013 Thienemann Verlag publishing house deleted the N-word from the best-selling children's books by author Otfried Preussler following agreements with the author.
Such changes didn't go uncriticized, however. For instance, Ulrich Greiner, a journalist for the weekly newspaper Zeit, expressed outrage over how "the humanistic intention to take the feelings of minorities into consideration" could lead to "censorship."
Racism: An everyday experience
Whereas African-American historiography has come a long way in the US, an Afro-German movement in Germany is still just getting started, if at all.
Della criticizes how, unlike in the US, most people in Germany know far too little about racism and its effects, origins and manifestations. "We're now paying for this debate that has not taken place because people are able to reproduce racist theories and views and concepts," he says.
Della, of the Initiative of Black People in Germany, is against labels based on attributive categorization
Della doesn't believe racist thought structures, which extend beyond the debate over the N-word, are grounded exclusively in the far-right of the political spectrum. Professor Karim Fereidooni agrees; he researches critical race theory in educational institutions at the Ruhr University in Bochum.
In fact, social media posts suggest a racist mentality is widespread. Afro-Germans and other minorities, including those with family histories of immigration, often share their everyday experiences of racism and discrimination by posting with the hashtag #MeTwo.
Read more: #MeTwo: To be or not to be German enough
How to deal with racism?
Over the past years, Germany has seen a rise in insulting, racist and anti-Semitic statements, physical threats and even fatal attacks. The developments have caught the attention of the country's leadership.
In his December Christmas speech, German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier asked citizens to defend one another: "You are the people who have to get up and speak up when you see someone being insulted on the bus because they look different, or when you hear racist slurs being cast in the playground or the pub. You have a voice on the internet and in social media."
Fereidooni's field of research combines critical race theory with educational institutions and training
Fereidooni says universities also struggle with how to approach racism. "I believe that critical race theory is a delicate plant. It is growing at the moment, but I still only know 10 colleagues in Germany who engage in teacher training and who do dedicated critical race work," he says. His ultimate goal is to have critical race theory become an essential part of educational professions.
Motto: 'Stop the N-word'
Nzimiro's petition is directed at the Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania state court as well as the Federal Antidiscrimination Agency. While it remains unclear when she intends to deliver it, she plans to use the interim period to continue her campaign work. Some initiatives have already joined forces. Their overarching motto is, "Stop the N-word."