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Carnival party in Bavaria sparks racism debate

Rebecca Staudenmaier
February 23, 2017

A charity ball in a Bavarian village has launched a debate in Germany over the use of a derogatory term for black people. Locals have defended it as "a normal term" in Bavaria's dialect, while critics say it's offensive.

Deutschland Karnevalsbeginn in Köln
Image: picture-alliance/dpa/H. Kaiser

Carnival celebrations in Germany are not without their controversies - whether they are the political messages of parade floats or revelers' use of blackface and stereotypical Native American costumes.

This year, a charity ball in the Bavarian village of Raindorf that donates its proceeds to development projects in African countries inadvertently caused outrage online.

The problem - the annual event is called the "Negerball," a term that translates to "negro ball" or "nigger ball". Although the term in German has a slightly less negative connotation than the English word, it is offensive to many people.

This year's ball may have finished on Saturday, but the controversy over the party's name continues to rage on social media.

When it was first started 36 years ago, the Carnival party was called "young people dance for Africa," explained event organizers, the parish group "KiRiKi," in a post on Facebook following the event.

With time, the party's attendees gave the event a new name and it came to be known as "Negerball," which the organizers defended by saying it remained a term commonly used "without prejudice" in Bavaria's highly idiosyncratic dialect.

Traditions don't change easily in Germany, least of all in "Bayern." So when "KiRiKi" created a Facebook event for the first time this year to publicize its charity ball, the name stayed.

A user reported the event for its racist language and Facebook shut down the event's page - sparking a debate on social media and in local media.

Karte Raindorf Bayern ENG

Intention vs. impact

In response to the criticism the event and its organizers received, this year's charity ball was slightly renamed to "Negaball." Organizers told local media that the name was now representative of their local Bavarian dialect.

On the event's Facebook site, however, one user pointed out the first four letters were intended to be an acronym for "Niederbayerische Entwicklungshilfe zu Gunsten Afrikas" or "Lower Bavarian development aid to benefit Africa."

Facebook users, the majority of whom appeared to be white in their profile pictures, praised the name change and said they supported the ball as a simple charity event.

"The person who thinks the term is discriminatory is perhaps too insensitive to distinguish between racism and willingness to help," wrote one male user, referring to the original name of the ball.

Another noted: "Since when is the word not correct? The word 'Neger' exists. It's even in Duden!"

The word can, indeed, be found in the main German dictionary "Duden." The entry, however, comes with a hefty note that accompanies the definition, explaining that the term is "regarded as highly discriminatory" and says its use is to be avoided. The dictionary also offers several other options, including terms that black people in Germany prefer to be called.

Despite disagreeing with the criticism they received online, "KiRiKi" said that they would come up with a completely different name for the charity event next year.

Concerns 'not taken seriously'

Tahir Della, spokesman for the Initiative for Black People in Germany (ISD), said the Raindorf case was "problematic" to say the least.

"Those who are affected are not taken seriously," Della told DW.

Many of the Facebook users who came to the celebration's defense justified the use of the term by arguing that the event's title couldn't be racist because the people who used it didn't intend for it to be racist. It was simply how people in Bavaria talked, they argued.

Tahir Della
Tahir Della of the Initiative for Black People in GermanyImage: ISD/Tahir Della

"The word 'Neger' is no longer up-to-date or politically correct according to High German, but in the Bavarian dialect, it is still used by many people without prejudice," "KiRiKi" wrote in their Facebook post. They said that the word was still used in Bavaria today to "simply describe people with black skin" without intending to discriminate.

A term can still be racist even if the person using the term does not intend any harm, Della explains, adding that this point is sometimes difficult for some to understand in Germany.

He also noted that these discussions in Germany tend to "go round in circles" without bringing society further towards using "non-discriminatory language."

Della places some of the blame with the German education system, saying that an understanding of German colonialism is lacking in both schools and universities. He believes that acquiring a historical understanding of such terms could help as well as building empathy with German people of color.

Della says the ISD reached out to the Bavarian event's organizers in an effort to open up a channel of dialogue.

"They didn't respond," he said.

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