In old children’s books you often find words which would have been used by many people back then, but are today regarded as offensive or racist terms. Examples are the “n****” word in the book “The little witch” or “g****” in “Pipi Langstrumpf”. About a year ago, there was a huge discussion in Germany as to whether publishers should change these expressions, such as re-naming Pipi’s father to “King of the South Seas”. Many people, including journalists, argued against it, as these terms were “normal” during the times when these books were written and not perceived as racist back then. The newspaper “Die Zeit” even printed the “N****” Word in capital and bold letters on the front page. A nine-year-old girl wrote a furious letter to the editors. Ishema’s father came from Senegal and the color of her skin, as she described it, was “milk-coffee-brown”. She wrote: “You cannot imagine how it feels for me, when I read this word or must hear it. This is just really, really terrible. My dad is no “N****” and neither am either. The same applies for all Africans!”

If you don’t look like what many people imagine a German girl should look, or if you have a name, where people can’t work out where it comes from, then you might know it feels. Somebody asks you where you come from and you answer “Hannover”, the answer is sometimes “No, I wanted to know where you are originally from?” Or someone praises you because you speak good German, although you were born and raised in Germany. Somebody touches your hair, without asking, because they always wanted to know, how “Afro” hair feels like. All these situations you experience as racist, but in all these situations the other person strongly believes they haven’t been racist at all. 

This illustrates that nearly everyone believes that they know what racism is and what racism is not. But it appears it’s not that easy or simple. What’s certain is that it is racist to discriminate against people on the basis of their appearance, origin, language, lifestyle or religion.

So far so good. But this is not all. To understand how racism has functioned until the present, it is important to look at how it evolved, as it has not always existed. Although humankind has been fighting and suppressing each other, has forced many into slavery and insulted their enemies, racism is relatively new. It has only come into existence these last few hundred years, since the beginning of colonialism. It was back in the time when the European seafarers, such as Columbus, started exploring the world (e.g. Columbus). There – in the Americas, Africa or Asia – they encountered people who looked different and lived a totally different way of life to the Europeans. During these times, European scholars started to develop the absurd idea, that not only plants and animals can be separated into different races, but humans as well. These “races” were given different assumed values. The Europeans saw themselves as being the most valuable race, as white people were, by nature, seen as civilized, hardworking and intelligent. In contrast, the other “races” were attributed to be wild, lazy and stupid. The derogatory expression “N****” originated during this period.  In this context, Europeans justified their wide-ranging forms of cruelty against inhabitants of other continents - they were suppressed, sent into slavery, often killed - while Europeans made their fortunes from exploiting these peoples and their lands. The most extreme and also deadliest form of racism is genocide. One such example is the killing of the Herero and Nama people by the German colonists between 1904 and 1908 in what is now Namibia. However, the “best known” example is the persecution and killing of millions of people in Germany by the Nazis (National Socialists) - just because they were Jews. It’s only been 70 years since this happened.
Today, it is an acknowledged fact that the cruelest of crimes were committed during the colonialist and national socialist period. The term “race” is hardly used in Germany anymore, as scientists have long agreed that there is no such thing as the “human races”. Many people therefore think that racism rarely exists anymore.

Unfortunately, this is a misconception. In essence, racism is the separation of human beings into various groups, which are attributed different characteristics and, in particular, different values. This is still happening today across the globe. In the USA, Afro-Americans have far worse chances of achieving a high school diploma and finding a decent job than white Americans. All Muslims are assumed to be violent, backward and contemptuous of women. In internet forums, there are posts stating that all Jews are rich and rule the world. Last but not least, refugees are often treated as second-rate citizens in Germany.

As with the example of old children’s books, it’s often hotly debated about what racism actually is and what it is not. One thing is clear: Just because the term “race” is rarely used anymore, it definitely does not mean that racism has disappeared. As the story and the letter about Ishema shows: What racism is, can only be decided by the people who are affected by it.

If you feel that you are being racially insulted it does not matter if the other person thinks you are exaggerating or that they “did not mean it like that”. If you feel hurt or degraded, you have the right to defend yourself.

N* refers to the word “Negro”. We do not wish to use this word as it is hurtful.
G* refers to the word “Gypsy”. We also don’t want to use this expression as it is a term from the Nazi period, which evokes negative feelings and is offensive