Racism, Language and Political Correctness in Germany

I am not racist, but...

Stop sign with -racism+ added
We need to reflect our use of language. Travel Images-Universal Images Group@gettyimages.de

These days one of the most heard sentences in Germany is probably: “Ich bin kein Rassist, aber…” Well, it’s not a full sentence, but it already conveys the central information. Either you hear people say it, discuss it or you read about it. It might be one of the highest trending topics in social media. It means: “I’m no racist, but…” People who use the sentence and mean it are usually in turn called exactly that: racists.

Apart from the question if saying something racist does automatically make you a racist, I think there is a more pressing issue in Germany these days. And it goes as follows: Regarding the language, where does racism actually begin? We are going to brush a few of the hot spots of the recent public discussions: The refugee crisis, the rise of the right, Pegida, political correctness and children’s books – just to give you an idea of the general issue.


Why discuss it?

First, let’s take a look at where the discussion and the “risen” use of “Ich bin kein Rassist, aber…” began. The root of the debate, if not of the underlying issues, lies in two circumstances. One being the Euro crisis, leading to elevated approval for eurosceptic parties, in Germany’s case the right-wing conservative AFD that tries to strengthen existing resentments in the population, even utilizing a language close to that used by far-right parties, such as the NPD.

The other circumstance was the establishment of the Pegida-movement. It originated in Dresden, where it still is strongest and promotes the defense of the West against “Islamization”, fearing Europe will be overrun by Muslims. A fear that seems unfounded, looking at ca. 5% of Europe’s population are Muslims.

Nevertheless, Pegida developed a strong voice, which was widely heard throughout German media. The combination of those two factors, together with the social media trolling culture, enabled what Germans call “Stammtisch-Sprache” to enter the public dialogue. A “Stammtisch” is a table of regulars in a bar or pub. A round of people you feel comfortable around. So comfortable you don’t feel the need to apply the rules of political correctness. You feel safe enough to openly voice your resentments or fears and your peers tend to agree with you.   


Political correctness: “Das wird man ja wohl noch sagen dürfen.”

Another sentence frequently used in these kinds of conversations is: “Das wird man ja wohl noch sagen dürfen.” This phrase expresses the belief, that what one just said is protected by the freedom of speech, even though one knows it was not politically correct. While the excessive use of politically correct language can be very hindering for proper communication, it is imperative for the public discourse. For one, people outside of your peer group, e.g. children, might not easily understand your specific use of language. A publicly debated case about racist language in classic children’s books could be an apt example: One of the concerned books was Otfried Preußlers “Die kleine Hexe (The little Witch).” It contained the word “Neger (Negro)”.

Therefore parts of the feuilleton discussed, whether the word should be replaced by something less offending. It was the same with an older edition of Astrid Lindgren’s “Pippi Langstrumpf (Pippi Longstocking)”, which included the word “Negerkönig (Negro King)”, that was eventually turned into “Südsee-König (South Sea King).” A prominent case was that the original language should be kept to maintain the original translation, which is in itself a work of art. Furthermore, authors holding this position did not want to see a book changed, that played an important role in their childhood. The opposing position was as follows: As it (one of the books in question) is a book made for children, one should not expose them to politically incorrect language, when they are not able to regard the book as old and the language as obsolete and unwanted.

You see the complexity of the issue and also why politically correct language has a tendency to separate the discourse of the feuilleton from the discussions in e.g. the social networks.


But in the end, language is a means of reflection. Its use can spark reflection and more reflection should lead to e.g. less racism. In the current situation in Germany, where we witness a growth in acceptance of right-wing positions and face what probably is just the beginning of a massive refugee crisis, it is highly counterproductive to discuss important matters in an unchallenged “Stammtisch”-speech. That’s why the discussion is good. But it needs to go deeper than trolling or ranting in social media. It is alarming that more and more politicians and public figures slip into “Stammtisch”-speech in talk shows or newspapers. Thus, it is only helpful that more and more users of social networks challenge sentences like “Ich bin kein Rassist, aber…” wherever they come across them. It is imperative we learn to have public discussions in a way that is reflective of language and how others perceive what we say, especially in matters as vital as racism.