Swirling Singles

Swiring and the International N-Word…Burning Questions on Race and Relationships in Deutschland.

by: Ieishah Clelland

A German publisher decides to remove a few negers from a beloved children’s tale, and volks are acting like there’s new Führer in town, herding whites into ovens or something.

Okay. That was mean.

In “The Little Witch and a Big Problem,” Lucian Kim, an American journalist based in Berlin, explains what’s happening over here with a much cooler head.

“When publisher Klaus Willberg announced earlier this month that the next edition of the children’s classic “Die Kleine Hexe” (“The Little Witch”) would appear without outdated, racist terms, he was met with an unexpected storm of protest.”

Hundreds of angry e-mails poured into his Stuttgart-based publishing house, Thienemann, the online peanut gallery went berserk and even the stodgy weekly Die Zeit ran on its cover alongside black characters from various children’s books a headline that could be translated as: “Kids, these aren’t Negroes!””

You’d think someone was depriving Germans of a basic human right; that someone was taking away universal healthcare. Or Christmas. Or schnitzel. Kim goes on to play Neutrality Man, making the argument that the word ‘neger’ was common (read: innocent) German usage when “The Little Witch” was written in 1957. Furthermore, he’d read the story as a child, and couldn’t imagine what people were objecting to at first. German newspaper, Die Zeit, subsequently published an editorial criticizing Thienemann for cleaning up the book’s language, as well as the Minister of Family for supporting the decision, saying she’d long since omitted the word when reading stories containing it to her own children. Ishema Kane, a 9 year old mixed German girl, fired back at Die Zeit with an angry missive–

“You cannot imagine how I feel when I have to read or hear that word. It is simply very, very terrible. My father is not a ‘Neger’ [lightning bolt sign] nor am I. This is also true for all other Africans. Right. That was my opinion. This word should be deleted from children’s books.”

Note to my unborn child: This is how you fight.

And still, many Germans go on as though removing the word from children’s stories (CHILDREN’S STORIES!) is an attack on German culture itself. As though children like Kane are not German, and don’t deserve to grow up in a more respectful nation than existed in the wake of World War II. It’s such a peculiar mutation of racism that you end up explaining, even to a man with 3 mixed race children, why this thinking is warped. His advice to his sons, who are ready to fight anyone who calls them anything other than the names their mama gave them? Relax!

“What’s the big deal?”, he says to me over barbecued chicken and red wine. “Neger just means black.”

He can defend the fatherland all he wants. His sons are listening, and they need to know they are not the problem here.

“But you have a word for “black”,” I remind him. “It’s schwarze. How about you not be a dick, and use that? How about you have your sons’ backs when they feel disrespected?”

“But my sons are German, just like me!”

That’s when the little one, barely six, taps is father on the hand to get his attention, then rubs his own little colored arm and shakes his head. “We’re not the same. I’m brown”. If little Miss Kane, and little Mr. “I’m Brown”, here, are any indication, the next generation of Afro Germans isn’t going to be very easy to silence.

For the mother’s part, a black Canadian who has lived in Germany for more than a decade, leans in and whispers, “These are the conversations you need to have before you get married.”

My German boyfriend, Honey, and I had never not had “these conversations”. We’re in love, and infatuated, and in awe of it all…but no so much so that we don’t talk differences and fault lines. We argue race. A lot. Because I need to know that if our future son or daughter wants to write a letter to Die Zeit, he’ll proofread it and pay for the stamp. Not tell him/her to “relax”. We don’t always agree, but at least we know how the other thinks about these matters. It’s a grueling process sometimes. But if you can navigate these sensitive waters as a couple, your relationship never get caught in the undertow.


Months later, at a brunch thrown by another black American woman here in Berlin, I end up surrounded by a small group of Black and mixed race women, talking relationships.

“I just got out of a relationship. With a white guy,” a petite German-born Cameroonian woman with eyes wide and dimples deep says, her face contorted in disgust.

“Okay. Bad break up?”, I venture.

“Ugh! No more white guys! I’m looking for a nice black guy now!”

I’ve heard this before. I have a black British friend in Barcelona who declared she was also no longer dating white men. I advised her to go back to London, where good black men were aplenty. In the end, she ignored my advice and found her unicorn right there in Barcelona, standing in front of a high end men’s clothing shop, where he worked as a buyer. They are now the perfect little wedding-cake-top chocolate couple. I wasn’t going to knock Dimples for her choices, especially when I’ve seen it work. Still, there are so few prospects here when it comes to black men…I challenge her. For her own good.

“Well, what was the problem?”

“He just didn’t understand me! Like, you know how you see a black man in the streets and you say, “Hi”, or nod? It’s normal!! But he would always say it was racist. Why couldn’t I just say hi to everyone…things like that he just didn’t get. It was the worst!”

Dimples had simply had enough of explaining. Enough of breaking down her brand of black. She didn’t want this type of negotiating to be part of her work in a relationship.

Honey and I have always been on the same page when it comes to the N word, and until one morning over coffee and race talk, I thought we were cool on the nodding at random black folks thing. I do it. It’s not so easy being black in Germany. I try to acknowledge that by acknowledging “us”. A nod, a “Wassup”, something. At least, I used to.

So one morning over coffee and race talk, the subject of Homie resurfaced. You know, That Awkward Moment When Honey’s Black and IRR Married Friend Hit on Me? I don’t remember how we got on the subject, but I realized that I had never really talked him through Homie’s thought process.

“Babe, to him, you are the outsider. Even though he’s known you longer, he thinks that because he and I share a skin color, we share some intimacy that goes beyond what you and I share. And he fully believed that I wouldn’t tell you, that I’d protect him, and my loyalty would be with him. He may even have expected me to prove my loyalty to the race by accepting his advances.”

It was an “aha” moment for Honey. He even said, “Aha!”. Then he took it somewhere I didn’t expect.

“Do you see now why some white guys wouldn’t like their girlfriend greeting every black man they see in the street? It could be misinterpreted.”

And that was my “aha” moment. Dimples was only thinking about herself, her feelings, and every random black guy in the street’s feelings, making her boyfriend, essentially, the outsider. She thinks it’s a just a nod, but in the end, it signals some sort of predetermined intimacy between you and a stranger, a strange man, at that, that your actual intimate partner isn’t allowed in on. And I was doing exactly the same.

She (and until that morning over coffee, I, too) could not look past the language her white ex-boyfriend may have used, to what was actually being said. It isn’t that greeting every black man in the street is racist, (wrong choice of words) it’s that it invites idiocy like what I experienced with Homie. If I’d had a history of shutting down Honey’s race thinking, we’d never have gotten there.

And since we often require that white people simply shut up and listen when it comes to race, even our partners often don’t learn how to communicate in a way that doesn’t push our buttons, trigger ancestral memories, and generally piss us off. But you can’t shut down lines of communication in relationships for any reason, or they’re doomed to fail.

Do you talk about race with your significant other, or men you date of a different race? Do you think MAJOR differences in racial politics is a deal breaker?

Lastly, is there any way in this wondrous universe to explain–in a way I can understand–why the hell so many people think removing the N-word from a children’s story is an attack on culture? Honey’s no help here. He doesn’t really get it either.

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