It was 2007. I was 27 years old, my son was three. My Russian friend and I had left our kids with a Ukrainian woman in Adlershof and we were now in the courtyard of a venue with poetry readings going on inside. We weren’t listening to the poetry. You know, I spent most of my twenties going to poetry readings and waiting for the poetry to be over so I could talk to people. And when I say people, I mean boys.
“Our kids go to the same kita,” I said to a German boy I was talking to. “Möhrenstraße,” I said, in my perfect German.
“You mean Mohrenstraße?”
“Like Carrot Street,” I said. “It’s an old word for carrots.”
“Actually, it’s nothing to do with carrots,” he said. “It’s an old word for black person.”
M*hrenstraße is where my son went to nursery school. Back then, it wasn’t quite as snazzy as it is now – now there’s the Mall of Berlin right near the U-Bahn station. The word “Mohr”, in German, reminds English speakers of the word moor – but I think it’s more offensive than that. I don’t know it’s more offensive than that, because I don’t have a scientific racism-o-meter. But enough black Germans have told me it’s a racist word for me to believe them. Zero black people have told me it’s not a racist word, and three white people have told me about black friends who think it’s not a racist word.
The campaign to change the station’s name – and the street it’s on – is pretty old. The station has actually been renamed many times – when the GDR still existed, it had the names Thälmannplatz and then Otto-Grotewohl-Straße. The last name change was in 1991, the day of German reunification. And ever since then, different anti-racist groups and organisations have campaigned to have the name changed again, to something less offensive.
There’s a backlash to the name change, too. I’m gonna be honest: these arguments don’t make sense. People say it’s important to keep the name for “historical” reasons, but I’m 40 years old, have lived in Berlin for 20 years and went to that station every day for five years of my life. Do you know what history lessons I learnt? None. (I actually googled the reasons for this name and found out what twenty years of free “history lessons” never taught me – apparently slaves used to live here, or possibly other black people.)
Germany has a racist colonial past we can’t be bothered to confront because everyone’s used up all their energy (or so they think) on Third Reich stuff. But I don’t see how the street or the station being called “M*hrenstraße” teaches us about German colonialism. If we cared so much, we could have a museum dedicated to German colonialism or even – controversial idea – introduce some honest history lessons about German colonialism to this thing called the history curriculum in schools.
Now the BVG have finally decided to change the name. The road will stay the same, for now, but the station’s name will be changed. Yay. I suspect that the #weilwirdichlieben PR-team told the BVG to jump on the Black Lives Matter bandwagon. I think if it was a heartfelt decision, the name would’ve been changed to the name of a black Berliner, instead of just Glinka.
“Mohrenstraße is its historical name,” my friend Jens says. “It’s just whitewashing history to change it now.”
“Is it?” I say.
“People think it will end racism, but it won’t!”
“It will end a bit of racism,” I say. “It will change that word, at that place. Isn’t that enough?”
“But at what cost?” Jens says. “So much history will be lost. Forever.”
What history will be lost, exactly? Am I dumb or crazy or is Jens literally chatting shit? Most people do not know why M*hrenstraße was named M*hrenstraße. Everyone has this vague idea that Germany used to be racist, and guesses that because of this, when M*hrenstraße was named nobody found it offensive because they thought racism was okay. If we want to find out more about German colonialism we can read a book – or go on Wikipedia! I don’t think white people feeling “sad” or nostalgic about the name actually want to find out more about German colonialism. I don’t think they care about history. To be honest, they’re just being dicks.