After the storm

Migration scholars offer another perspective on DIE ZEIT’s N-word debate.

As fellows of the ZEIT Foundation’s PhD programme in Migration Studies, we have been following the current media controversy regarding the removal of racist language in children’s books with great concern. We are migration scholars from a range of countries and academic disciplines. We all live in countries characterised by migration. Our biographies are interwoven with various forms of migration, often spanning several generations and countries. Some of us are from Germany or have lived there for some time. In solidarity, and with one voice, we speak here. All of us have an interest in this controversy, because it involves the question of how issues of race and diversity should be presented and how racialised and marginalised individuals and groups should be given a voice within public debates. Given that we experience, research and discuss these things on a daily basis, we thought we might offer another perspective that could be of interest to you and your readers.

Germany has recognised that it is a country of immigration given its post-war migration history and the fact that it is the largest racially and ethnically diverse country in Europe. Highly diverse societies such as Germany require negotiation in the public sphere, which involves how public institutions and members of a society address and engage with racial and ethnic diversity and equality. As we all know, media institutions, including newspapers and publishing houses, are an important part of the social fabric of a society as they shape public opinion. It is in this context that we celebrate the success of a progressive initiative launched by Mekonnen Mesghena, Department Head Migration and Diversity at the Heinrich Böll Foundation, children’s book author Otfried Preussler and the decision of German publishing house Thienemann to remove racist language from the children’s book classic “The Little Witch”.

Our welcome for this development, however, has been overshadowed by the news that Mekonnen Mesghena receives routine letters and calls containing racist hate speech and threats after news of his agreement with the Thienemann publishing house reached the mainstream media. We believe that it is not only the responsibility of a publishing house, but also of a leading newspaper such as DIE ZEIT, to mediate debate around race and ethnic relations in a sensitive and well-informed way. The editorial staff of DIE ZEIT, however, failed in this specific responsibility in January 2013. The publication of a cover story (17.01.2013) with racist images and patronising language as in “Children, these are no Neger!” (a term which translates into English as both versions of the N-word) followed by a subheading stating “Our most favourite children’s books will be rewritten political correctly – is that progress?” alone testifies to a populist conservatism, which we consider to be obstructive and inappropriate given Germany’s actual multiracial and multiethnic present and future. Two (out of three) articles in DIE ZEIT’s dossier published on the 17.01.2013 are particularly problematic contributions to the debate about the removal of racist language: Namely, Axel Hacke’s “Wumbaba’s Legacy” and Ulrich Greiner’s “The Little Witch Hunt”.

Axel Hacke’s choice to use a mocking tone to write about his experiences of being criticized by the anti-racist media watch organisation “Der braune Mob” and the black and migrant lesbian organisation “LesMigras,” displays nothing else than his self-image as a “rational white man”. He makes use of a racial narrative that places a positive judgement on white male behaviour (rational, relaxed, non-judgmental, surprised by another white man’s critique) and a negative judgment on migrant and anti-racist activists and their behaviour (irrational, violent, judgmental). Hacke’s lack of historical knowledge and critical reflexivity towards his imaginary white Wumbaba’s colonial legacy are more disturbing than illuminating. The words “Neger”, “negro” or “nigger” were and are not innocent terms, they are signifiers of colonialism and its eugenic policies that sought to oppress, exploit, exterminate or enslave those addressed as such. If one denies an engagement with Germany’s colonial and fascist history and multiracial present, how can one understand the complexities of Wumbaba’s legacy? One cannot. One flees. One controls. One tries to protect his self-image and, alas, DIE ZEIT promotes it.

Ulrich Greiner’s contribution to the debate consists of twisted arguments reaching from accusations of censorship albeit Preussler’s and Thienemann’s voluntary decision to amend the future editions of “The Little Witch” to linking the term “political correctness” and Orwell’s critique of totalitarianism in his novel “1984” clearly to the wrong historical and contemporary figures: the anti-racist political left. Furthermore, we would like to recommend Ulrich Greiner and also Hartmut Kasten, professor of psychology at the University Hamburg (interview with Tanja Stelzer, DIE ZEIT, 24.01.2013) to read the studies of internationally renowned development and social psychologists published in the “Handbook of Race, Racism, and the Developing Child” (Wiley & Sons, 2008) to understand the processes and effects of racial socialisation. The consultation of scientific research, which clearly shows that racial socialisation takes place at a young age and affects not only the racial and ethnic identity formation of an individual child but also inter-group relations in multiracial societies would have been beneficial in this debate. We also recommend that instead of publishing opinion pieces, DIE ZEIT could invite scientific experts, such as Maisha Eggers, professor of diversity studies at the University Magdeburg-Stendal or Grada Kilomba, professor of gender studies at the Humboldt University Berlin, to name only two academics based in Germany to contribute to the debate in a much more well-informed way.

None of the countries we reside in are free of racism. Racism and tensions between racial groups exist throughout the world. The question is not whether racism exists. The question is rather how it is dealt with by those in positions of power that matters. We ask one thing of the media and cultural institutions in Germany and of the editors of DIE ZEIT in particular. Please bear in mind that unbalanced debates around these issues – discussions which deny Germans with a migration background an equal, respectful voice – perpetuate inequalities, alienate large parts of your readership, burden relationships among producers and audiences, and negatively affect racial and ethnic minorities’ belief in the progress that this society as a whole is making as a country of immigration.

 

Authors: Onur Suzan Kömürcü Nobrega and Anna Boucher

Signatories:

Anna Boucher – Department of Government and International Relations, University of Sydney (Australia)

Ahmed Dailami – Faculty of Oriental Studies, St Antony’s College, Oxford (United Kingdom)

Onur Suzan Kömürcü Nobrega – Department of Media and Communications, Goldsmiths College, University of London (Germany/United Kingdom)

Maike Koschorreck – Bremen International Graduate School of Social Sciences, Universität Bremen (Germany)

Noora Lori – Department of Political Science, Johns Hopkins University (United States of America)

Muhammad Arafat Bin Mohamad – Department of Anthropology, Harvard University (United States of America)

Sanjeev Routray – Department of Sociology, University of British Columbia (Canada)

Stephen Ruszczyk – Graduate Center, City University of New York (United States of America)

Nazgül Tajibaeva – Bielefeld Graduate School in History and Sociology, Universität Bielefeld (Germany)

Emrah Yildiz – Department of Anthropology, Harvard University (United States of America)