Avoiding racism: the struggle to use the right words | Afro.Germany | DW | 10.03.2017
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Avoiding racism: the struggle to use the right words

Who would openly call themselves racist today? Still, racism echoes through even the seemingly most benign words. Literary scholar Susan Arndt has taken a closer look at how racism permeates language and society.

Is it racist to touch black people's hair? Whose skin is actually called "skin-colored"? How can I recognize which words are racist? Literary scholar and Africa specialist Susan Arndt has tackled such questions. In her book "Racism: The 101 Most Important Questions," she offers insights into the past, present and future of racism and scrutinizes our current speech habits and behavior.

Arndt is a professor of English literary studies and Anglophone literatures at the University of Bayreuth. In an interview with Deutsche Welle, she explained the roots of racism and what we should be on the lookout for in the way we speak and write.

DW: In your book, "Racism: The 101 Most Important Questions," even in the brief summary of its content, one is confronted with the question: "Was Friday happy to be Crusoe's slave?" - referring, of course, to the novel "Robinson Crusoe" by Daniel Defoe, which is set in colonial times. When did you pose yourself this question for the first time? 

Susan Arndt (Susan Arndt)

Literary scholar Susan Arndt scrutinizes language for signs of racism

Susan Arndt: I read "Robinson Crusoe" as a child and, like every other child, found it really compelling. Only later did I realize that I hadn't read Defoe's original, but a retelling designed for kids. When I started taking a look at racism, I developed a completely different view of the novel. "Robinson Crusoe" is actually a handbook of how Europeans could efficiently colonize territories in Africa and the Americas, and exploit both the resources and the working people there. 

How is that evident in the novel?

Robinson leaves London to escape his middle-class family life. But along the way, his ship is wrecked and he is enslaved. However, he manages to escape along with two "People of color." During the escape, though, he throws one of them overboard to survive, and hands over the other to the Portuguese when they are rescued as a kind of gratitude.

That shows that for the first-person narrator Robinson, with no critical distancing on the part of the author Daniel Defoe, it is normal and legal for whites to enslave black people, but not white people.

Robinson Crusoe generally connotes the castaway stranded on a deserted island, who eventually discovers and befriends a Black man named Friday. But you also just brought up a bit of the background to the story. Most people probably don't know that the novel has three parts, but only the last one is so famous. 

Yes. Beforehand, Robinson Crusoe establishes his own plantation in America with enslaved Blacks being forced into laboring for him. To get more enslaved labor for himself and his white neighbors, he sets sail to Africa. Yet his ship wrecks and he ends up on this famous island. It's only in the third part, and more than two decades later in the narrative, that he encounters Friday, by "saving his life."

Friday comes up to him immediately, lies down on the ground and places Robinson's foot on his own head. For Robinson Crusoe, it's a sign that Friday wants to serve him as a slave. But the narrative perspective isn't concerned with what Friday thinks or fears himself. 

I also find it key how Robinson treats him from the very beginning - calling him Friday, after the day of the week on which he discovers him. From the outset, he considers Friday as his very own property and acts as though Friday has never had a language, a religion, a history, or a family of his own.

And yet, the novel was written at the beginning of the Enlightenment.

There is no contradiction there. On the contrary, philosophers such as Immanuel Kant and David Hume advocated slavery and provided the theoretical framework for justifying the ideology that accompanies it, namely, racism.

One sees the racist stereotypes in the novel that have been developed in Europe from antiquity onward and happen to have been theorized during the Enlightenment. In essence, it was argued that only white people were human beings and were therefore authorized to enslave others - which was then deemed their "rescue" or later, "civilization" - and that black people had no notion of freedom.

Daniel Defoe (picture-alliance/Bianchetti/Leemage)

English novelist Daniel Defoe was likely influenced by his own culture when writing "Robinson Crusoe"

Contrary to some of his other contemporaries, Defoe was quite aligned with this view. He himself owned stock in various companies which enslaved people and thus profited from slavery.

This system of violence of enslavement is not only belittled in Defoe's novel, as well as in essays that claimed that there were "human races" during the Enlightenment, but endorsed. The philosopher Georg Hegel would later say "we have to enslave them in order for them to understand what freedom means and it is then that we can end slavery." 

Why do racist stereotypes and images from colonialism still impact society today?

It's important to me that people understand that racism has nothing to do with intending to spread racism because of being a "wicked person." We have internalized many, many images and we need to unlearn them. Racism has become a European master narrative that translates Christian color symbolism that connotes white as positive and black, as negative into reading cultures. A great variety of terms convey such images.

When I think about certain racist terms, which I usually don't even want to say out loud, such as "Indian" and close my eyes, then I immediately conjure up images of colonialism.

I think it is important to become aware of and reconsider that. These images are also reproduced in the media, in school books, and in children's books. It is not about blaming someone. Rather, what is necessary is taking responsibility and refraining from using terms with colonialistic connotations.

Can one narrow down what racism even is?

The term "racism" is often used in an inflationary way. For me, racism means the belief that there are "races" - and the power to embed that kind of ideology in structures and discourse, in order to claim white supremacy.

The invention of the "races" is a pan-European project that began in the Humanism of the 15th and 16th centuries, and can even be traced back to antiquity. This belief was connected from the very beginning to the notion that the "white race" was superior to all others and thus had the right to privilege and the conviction that power and violence could be wielded over non-whites.

That means that during colonialism, African people were placed in a framework outside of culture and of being human beings. In this way, basic rights, which humanism and the Enlightenment had assigned to human beings, did not have to be applied in the European enslavement of Africans.

In the history of racism, is there one feature that has remained steadfast throughout all eras?

I think it is "skin color." It is a fundamental building block in the invention of biological differences due to racism. Racism has taught us to see "skin color." White was, according to the Christian color symbolism just mentioned, automatically good and black was evil.

In the 17th and 18th centuries, theorists of "race" endeavored to find other characteristics for their claims. They first measured parts of the body, like the skull or genitals. When criticism of this method became stronger, sciences whose names became more and more absurd delved deeper into the body, ultimately trying to verify "race" in the blood and the genes. But biologists have long since disproved the theory that people can be classified into "races" by way of genes.

Rather than throwing the notion that there are "races" overboard, now there is a real backlash to "but skin color, that's something you can see..." Within the realm of current anti-Muslim racism, other external characteristics like beards and headscarves are applied, too.

In that context, the question "Where are you from?" directed toward Black people here in Germany takes on a whole new meaning.

Yes, because it's not a question posed to someone out of random curiosity. Instead, it's an experience that white people cast upon Black Germans, or rather, Afro-Germans, on a nearly daily basis.

And when that happens so repeatedly, there is another message that accompanies it. It's not a question of where someone comes from, but of "You don't look German at all." There is a notion connected with that of what being German is supposed to be, and being Black is not part of it. That is racism.

Book Cover Susan Arndt: Rassismus (C.H.Beck)

Racism: the 101 most important questions are explored in Susan Arndt's book

This brings us to discuss the unconscious use of language. You devoted a whole chapter to it and to racist terminology in your book.

On the one hand, there are clearly racist terms, which also developed in the context of colonialism. We shouldn't have to say much about that, but we do because there are plenty of people who continue to want to use the "N" word, for example. 

And then there are words that reproduce racism on a different level, based on the notion that being white is the reputed norm. Berlin-based psychologist Ursula Wachendorfer calls it the "invisibly prevailing normality of being white." The term "skin-colored" is part of that - such as in the realm of cosmetic products or orthopedic stockings, by which "skin-colored" actually means only the complexion of white people. 

How can one avoid such discrimination in language?

I always say we have to get away from biologistic categorizations and move toward designations of social positions which we may not sweep under the carpet. "People of Color" is such a political phrase, which is very established in English-speaking countries and communities as a way of naming everyone excluded racistically from being white - yet in Germany still widely unknown. As such, People of Color is an antonym to "colored."

Whereas the latter is a racist term that says being white is normal, "People of Color" in turn addresses the racism that positions people outside of whiteness and resists the alleged normality thereof. In doing so, it refers to all people discriminated against against by racism as opposed to Black as marker for an  African heritage. 

We have called our project "Afro.Germany." Is that correct?

I think I would probably like it better if there were an underscore. It's important to part with the notion that there's a contradiction between Afro and Germany. Afro-Germans are part of Germany. But your period between the two words may surely make that point, too.

We must not ignore the fact that Afro-Germans are confronted with racism in their everyday lives and that must be pointed out and discussed by way of expressions like "Black Germans" or "Afro-Germans." Calling Afro-Germans only "Germans" wouldn't suffice because it would leave out the powerful presence of racism.

Susan Arndt's book "Rassismus: Die 101 wichtigsten Fragen" (Racism: The 101 Most Important Questions) was published by Munich-based C.H. Beck-Verlag.


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