Take Out the N-Word: It's Time to Remove Racism from Children's Books

By Dialika Neufeld

SPIEGEL reporter Dialika Neufeld has a German mother and a Senegalese father. In an essay, she recalls the discrimination she experienced as a child and argues it is correct for publishers to remove deeply offensive language, such as the N-word, from children's books because it perpetuates racist stereotypes.

Photo Gallery: Racism and Stereotypes in German Children's Books Photos

A few weeks ago I experienced a feeling I had almost forgotten about, but one which was familiar to me from my childhood. It's a feeling that had to do with the fact that people liked to call me a "nigger".

I was called this often as a child. That's how it was in the northern German city of Kiel in the early 1990s, when I was in elementary school. A boy at the playground might tug at his mother's sleeve, point at me and say, "Look, Mom, a nigger!" When a child had a birthday party, the parents served marshmallow-filled chocolates known as "Negerküsse," or "Nigger kisses." When I dove into the swimming pool and the water beaded off my curls, someone was bound to say, "Niggers don't even get their hair wet, do they?"

My mother is German and my father Senegalese. I looked different, and the other kids let me know it. Their treatment of me was, of course, largely a product of how they were raised. But it was in some sense also a product of the writers they read, children's book authors such as Astrid Lindgren and Otfried Preussler, who put this word in my playmates' heads. There are "Negroes" in "Pippi Longstocking," "little Negroes" in Preussler's "The Little Witch" and "woolly-headed Black-a-moors" in "Struwwelpeter," another German children's classic. Anyone reading these books would think, logically enough, that there was nothing wrong with using the same words to describe me, since I was black like the character Jim Button in "Jim Button and Luke the Engine Driver" and had frizzy hair. I read those books too, and loved the stories in them. But at the same time I hated them too.

Modernization or Censorship?

A recent statement by German Family Minister Kristina Schröder unleashed a flood of memories in the back of my mind. In an interview with Die Zeit, Schröder explained that when she reads books like "Pippi Longstocking" to her child, she leaves out discriminatory terms like "Negro king," saying she does so "to keep my child from picking up such expressions." That comment sparked a debate in Germany's newspapers, on the Internet and among publishers. Publishing house Thienemann Verlag has since announced that it will update "The Little Witch" to remove the term "little Negroes." It's about time, I say.

The critics, though, are up in arms, calling this censorship. Such critics can be divided into three categories: Those who insist on saying "Negro" or "nigger" as a matter of principle, those who deny a problem even exists and those who have honest concerns about literature.

I'm familiar with those who use the N-word as a matter of principle. There are many people like this, people who perceive political correctness as a threat and glorify the language of their childhood. "But then I won't be able to say 'Zigeunerschnitzel'* anymore either," when I order a schnitzel, they fret -- since "Zigeuner" is German for "Gypsy."

My second grade teacher fell into this category. He insisted on singing "Zehn kleine Negerlein" ("Ten Little Niggers") with us, a children's song in which one black child after another dies in a variety of amusing ways: one falls off a barn, one gets shot, one freezes to death. There were two black children in this teacher's class, my best friend and I, and we refused to sing along. But the song is still sung in Germany to this day.

People in the second category -- those who deny the problem exists -- claim that everyone nowadays knows not to use words like "Negro," "Gypsy," "Polack" or "Slit-Eyes," these terms that seem to come straight out of some handbook of discrimination. But their view holds little weight, given that I regularly find myself having to explain to adults why they shouldn't use the words "nigger" or "Negro" -- and certainly not in my presence.

Perpetuating Racist Stereotypes

Then there is the third category, people who are concerned about literature. This is a valid concern, because there is an important question at stake here: Is it acceptable to alter the original version of a text?

I say yes, when the texts in question are children's books that serve to perpetuate racist stereotypes. These books are not only read aloud to children, they are also read by children themselves, without anyone there to help them make sense of what they read. And the things children pick up from their reading, they bring with them into the classroom -- classrooms where their fellow students might have parents who come from Ghana or Pakistan. One in five children born in Germany today has some kind of immigrant background.

The worst thing for me as a child was being ostracized and insulted because of the color of my skin. And it wasn't just about language. This was the 1990s, when neo-Nazis set homes for asylum-seekers on fire and black people were chased through the streets by right-wing thugs. "nigger," for me, was neo-Nazi language.

My mother taught me from a young age to defend myself. My best friends were African-German children, Turks and Iranians. We went with our parents to anti-racism demonstrations and we sang "Zehn kleine Nazi-Schweine" ("Ten Little Nazi Pigs"). We became little smart alecks: "You shouldn't say that," we called after the people who had insulted us. "That's what Nazis say."

At some point, the ostracism I experienced transformed into a sense of pride. I came to see that it can be an advantage not always to be part of the crowd. The world was bigger for me than it was for other people, because I didn't know just German culture, I knew other cultures as well. I had a name other people could remember easily, and I started to like the way I looked.

But there are also children for whom constantly being labeled a "nigger" is more painful than it was for me in my own childhood. That alone is enough reason why publishers should revise their children's books and parents should stop claiming the whole thing "isn't so bad."

A few years ago, Oetinger Verlag made changes to "Pippi Longstocking," turning the "Negro king" into a "South Sea king." The text doesn't suffer for it in the least. And in Michael Ende's "The Dream Eater," the "Negro children" have been replaced with "children from all the world."

In Preussler's story "The Little Witch," the scene in question is of carnival costume festivities. It doesn't matter to the story in the least whether the child is dressed as a "Negro" or as a cook.

A fellow student at my high school wrote in my friendship book, under the heading "Things I Don't Like": "spinach and asylum-seekers." Who can say what she had been reading.

Editor's notes: In any usage, the term Neger, can be considered inappropriate and offensive in the German language, and, depending on the context, it can be translated to mean either "Negro" or "nigger".

* Zigeunerschnitzel is a schnitzel served with a so-called Zigeuner, or "gypsy" sauce.

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1.
ballymichael2 01/25/2013
Yes, I recall being rather shocked to hear the word "Neger" the first time. "But it doesn't have the same connotations, as in english!" protested my german acquaintance fiercely, when I queried it. "Hmm". I thought. I think minor changes to texts are unobjectionable, yes.
2. I don't agree.
innese 01/25/2013
I am afraid I can't agree with the author's opinions, though I have sympathy with her sentiments and experiences. All literature has a place in history and needs to be read in context. It should not be altered to suit the sensitivities of the day. The author of this piece clearly took racial slights (yes, I chose that word, they were not racist) to heart. In reality they were just slights and she was sensitive to them. I suspect that being a rare sight in Kiel as a child meant she was a novelty and more likely to attract comment. That is just human nature. I suspect that being of first generation mixed blood she would have become aware of, and affected by, her parent's defensiveness too. Sadly around the Western world, it is people like her who have led the charge and (ironically on racial grounds) been given the moral authority to introduce a retrospective censorship that is not compatible with the freedoms we have otherwise fought hard over many centuries to achieve. However, it should be noted that not all children of colour are bothered by them. I grew up in the reverse of her situation and being referred to in a local language by a word that can be taken as 'white scum' or 'white b@stard'. It was just a word and I knew it's common use was 'white person'. I accepted that 99% of the people who used the word meant it only as that . . . And here is the thing; that is the same way 'nigger' and 'negro' were originally used. The element of insult was an association that came later. When I was old enough to be the target of the word as an insult, even then I was still able to accept and ignore the regular use of the term by people who did not mean it as a slur. To this day it is still in use. I have been in the UK long enough to see the word "Paki" be classified as a racist word and it's use can now result in a criminal conviction. As a cricket lover, I grew up referring to the various other cricket-playing nations as Aussies, Kiwis, Pakis, Poms and Windies. Thanks to loutish Poms (when will that word become unacceptable, I wonder) insulting the South Asians who typically run the corner store on many a nasty British housing estate, the word was sullied to the point of it's rejection as an acceptable term when referring to Pakistanis. The cricketing world still uses the other terms . . . for now. It saddens me that people are raised to be so overly sensitive about race, because in hyper-sensitising children we create the current mess and in attempting to sort that mess to appease people with hurt feelings, we trample on literary and cultural history. But then why be unfair and stop at race? There will be stories, expressions and observations that are extremely hurtful to fat people, to ginger-haired people, etc. Do those need to be removed from the wider world by some some dark censorship body? I have an electronic book reader and was thrilled to discover that I could download hundreds of free books that are available rights-free due to their age. I didn't fancy "The Art of War", I was bored stiff by "The Divine Comedy" and I would sooner have root canal work than read "Northanger Abbey " . . . so what did I find? Mark Twain's Huckleberry Finn. What a great read. It had been years since I read the book as a child and it, then, never occurred to me to start calling black people 'nigger' or 'negro'. It was a good story that was made so wonderfully atmospheric and powerful by Twain's Mississippi vernacular. What would Ms Neufeld propose doing with Twain's books . . or the bible . . or the Qu'ran . . or the Torah? How do contemporary writers ever give their work an authentic historic flavour if they cannot use language in a historical context? Would Tarantino's scripts be as good if they were neutered with bland politically-correct words? Actually perhaps while we are tidying up racial terms, we should just clean up the swear-words too. No? Read things as they were written and if they are no longer acceptable or compatible with our advancement as a society, then their rejection will come naturally. We don't need racialised, politicised guardians of the words we or our children might read. For those who belong to it, a culture is something to be proud of. When a minority with a questionable claim to it, or with a split loyalty, claim the moral high-ground and brow-beat the indifferent majority and their anxious-to-appease liberal guardians into retrospective change, it is a Phyrric victory in my view.
3. Oh yeah, let's blame the books...
j03f0 01/26/2013
I think the political climate of the 1990s the author describes, explains why she experienced racism. "What has she been reading"? Don't know, I don't remember Pippi Longstockings father applying for asylum and don't think "The Little Witch" features asylum-seekers... I guess the right question would be: What has she been taught at home? I read lots of old books as a child that were completely out of date in terms of e.g. gender roles but also terminology, yet I understood that this was a) FICTION and b) outdated. Why? Because the world around me was different and people's attitudes were different. It doesn't matter what children read in stories, what counts is what they hear at the dinner table; what they see their parents and teachers say and do. What's wrong with leaving those terms in? If children are being brought up non-racist they will either know that the terms are wrong and insulting or they will ask their parents: "What is a nigger/negro/indian/whatever?" because they will not have heard the word before and be curious to learn. If the words are 'corrected', they don't have the chance to learn.
4. Is this the right way?
props_cv 01/26/2013
I don't agree with the author. I mean, I cannot sympathize with the author because I have no immigrant background. But is this the right way to block everything away that we've problems with? And what I think is also not okay, to edit the intellectual property of people that are dead. Is Astrid L. a Nazi because she used the word "Negro"? (I know that wasn't said, but one can easily interpret that.) A question for the author and other people: "Is it right to call people 'Nazi' because the have bad thoughts against other cultures?" I know this is very controversial and someone maybe think - is the person a Nazi, because its writes this? In comprehension I understand that people with immigrant background don't always want to fight for their right don't called like that. In my opinion one of the best ways is to educate our children and ourselves for a greater society and don't just erase what we don't like, because this would be the most easiest way. One thing to add: Please don't listen to/read anything Mrs. Schröter says or write. This woman is so not sophisticated!
5. It goes without saying...
Trojan Horace 01/26/2013
I'm surprised this is even still being discussed... clearly this needs to be addressed. The more worrying question is what are you going to do about the racist language you hear in normal day to day business dealings with people? A bright young German graduate recently in Germany took great pride in announcing to me, as if it were a badge of honour, that he had been accused of "jewing down" a colleague in a business deal and he didn't seem to even understand the offence he was causing. In both the real world and the world of fiction a great deal more could be done to remedy such jaw-dropping racism
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