My friend Karl leans back comfortably in his seat, grinning triumphantly.
“The word ‘Neger‘ comes from the Latin word for black, Jacinta!” he says, eyeing me with delight and total anticipation.
I am, literally, gobsmacked. I had no idea that the word “Neger” could possibly have etymological roots, like other words do – the word “stool”, for example, comes from the Old English word “Stol” or even from the Proto-Germanic “*Stolaz”, the word “like” comes from the Old English word “gelic” or even the Proto-Germanic”*Galika” and thus has the same root, interestingly, as the German word “Leiche“, the word “chav” comes from an old gypsy word for boy. But the word “Neger“, I’d always assumed, was born out of nowhere: suddenly, fully-formed, fully-clothed, even, born always as a racial slur – perfect, intact, whole, kind of like the clones in that Scarlett Johansson movie.
I look at Karl and make my eyes go wide open with shock.
“Really?” I say. “Oh! If it comes from the Latin for black, we better carry on saying it forever then. Until the end of time.”
I am, incidentally, being sarcastic. Karl, who I genuinely think isn’t the stupidest person in the world, doesn’t realize this. He smiles triumphantly, like he’s just said the cleverest thing a human being’s ever said. I’m slightly puzzled. Is he actually a bit stupider than I think? Or is he being deliberately obtuse?
Words come from other words. They come from other words. Then they change their meaning. The word ‘cunt’ used to “revere the wisdom of women, in particular the wisdom of her genitals” which is nice. Coz it certainly doesn’t anymore. Now it’s the worst word in the English language. I’m a huge fan of the word, yet I’ve never said it in front of my son, and only once in front of my mother, by accident. It’s a bad word. We don’t say it in front of kids.
The N-word – the German N-word has also BECOME a swear word. We don’t want kids to say it, so we don’t say it in front of them. This is why it is a good idea to take the words out of the new version of children’s books which will be read by and out loud to very young children.
Later on – aged 10, 11 or 12, say, these kids can learn about racism. They can even learn about German colonialism. I’m all for it. I think it would be fantastic for German school kids to learn about colonialism. I think a lot of the defensiveness about blackfacing, etc. comes from ignorance about Germany’s colonial past mixed with the inevitable tiredness that comes with Holocaust guilt. It’s like screaming: “We’ve done the Holocaust – we’ll admit to that – but you’re not pinning this on us too! We’ve already giving up the Judenwitze – let us smear a bit of shoe polish in our faces! We didn’t DO any colonialism!” Well, I think it would be FANTASTIC for Germans to learn about colonialism in general and German colonialism in particular. Meinetwegen, when they’re learning about racism, they can also learn that the N-word comes from the Latin for black. The right place for these brilliant racism lessons would be in history or German, for kids aged 10, 11 or 12. And NOT in the Vorlesestunde in the kindergarten or in the erste or zweite Klasse.
“I expect you’ll want to take the word ‘nigger’ out of Django Unchained next!” says Karl.
Now, Karl, this might surprise you: I don’t actually want to take the word “nigger” out of Django Unchained. I also don’t want my nine-year-old to watch it. I’m pretty permissive with my son’s viewing – he’s seen Star Wars, Home Alone, Back to the Future, even Little Miss Sunshine (we fast-forwarded the bit where Opa‘s snorting heroin). I have no intention whatsoever of allowing him to watch Django Unchained. It’s INAPPROPRIATE. It’s not APPROPRIATE for his age. Can you see the distinction between Die Kleine Hexe and Django Unchained?
I actually think Germans should watch Django Unchained more often. Adult Germans. Adult Germans who aren’t, and I mean this as non-ableist as possible, lernbehindert but still think the fact that the word “Neger” comes from the Latin for black is relevant or interesting or original or comforting. They should watch Django Unchained again and again and AGAIN until that triumphierender Blick gets wiped off their smug little faces. Yes, we live in a racist world. We have to accept that. Yes, it used to be even more racist. And yes, black people have to accept that the world we live in is racist. Black people have to accept that every single day of their lives. But you know what, Karl? There’s nothing to be triumphant about. There’s nothing to be proud about here. There’s nothing to be proud about afuckingtall. The word “Neger” comes from the Latin for black. But that doesn’t make racism any more bearable. It’s just a linguistic fact.
Book Recommendation: Das Wort, das Bauchschmerzen macht, by Nancy J. Della, published by Edition Assemblage tells story from the other side of the Kinderbuchdebatte – from the school kids themselves.