Children’s Book Debate

A heated debate on children’s books has been raging in Germany for a few weeks now: By discussing what we want to read to our children, the discussion is about what image of the world and of oneself should be conveyed. Leading media like DIE ZEIT demonstrate effectively and with racist imagery: The white majority society should continue to have the power of definition over which stories are told and with which words they should be told.
The debate about the use of the N-word is a very central one, not least because it makes the mainstream’s current understanding of racism clear and, at least to some extent, open to question. Unfortunately, in most cases this happens through reproduction and thus stabilization of racism.

For decades, black people in particular have been campaigning for the N-word to no longer be used, and there is also no shortage of reference works critical of racism and convincing argumentation aids, especially for journalists. The current debate was triggered by Mekonnen Mesghena, who wrote a letter to Ottfried Preußler and Thienemann Verlag convincing them to replace the N-word. In public, however, it is often presented as if the debate was not initiated by activists or academics critical of racism, but by an interview with Minister Kristina Schröder in DIE ZEIT. In it, she explained that when she reads Pippi Longstocking to her children, she replaces discriminatory terms like “N-king” with “South Sea king.” This illustrates how social power relations produce different speaker positions that are heard, quoted, and received very unequally. While Axel Hacke is very prominently given the opportunity to present himself as a victim of anti-racist critics in the ZEIT’s thematic focus, there is no counter-position that is presented objectively, as in the petition against the title and cover of his books. By contrast, astute contributions to the debate can be found in an open letter by the Initiative Schwarzer Deutscher, the “probably best letter to the editor ever written in Germany” by 9-year-old Ishema, and the article by Simone Dede Ayivi in the Tagesspiegel. After the first reproductions, Der Spiegel then changes its content, but fails to establish the term “N-word” and instead continues to reproduce vigorously like most other media. One of the most frightening contributions to the debate came from ARD, in which racism was massively reproduced not only in terms of content, but also through the choice of blackface. That this was done quite deliberately is clear from ARD’s statement: without so much as a hint that an intense blackface debate was going on up and down the country in 2012.

In our pedagogical work, we often analyze together with the participants on the basis of children’s books how racism as a social power relation shapes the socialization and knowledge formation of children. In doing so, it is always a matter of concern to us to reveal, beyond terminology, how the books shape constructions of “own” and “other” and which view of the world is suggested. Unfortunately, the current children’s book debate mostly stops at the level of terminology. There is no question that it is important to get the N-word off the books. But a book does not become anti-racist merely by exchanging discriminatory and hurtful terms. Thus, although Pippi’s father has now been renamed “South Sea King,” the colonial history behind it remains unnamed, somehow also with a certain self-evidence. For example, Pippi’s wealth in the form of gold pieces goes back to her father’s colonial rule. Maisha Maureen Eggers further proves with quotations how racialized ideas run like a thread through the Pippi books. Thus, despite the substitution of individual violent terms, white supremacy is not questioned but maintained.

In our seminars, we often find that white participants find it easier to analyze advertising posters or media contributions in a racism-critical way, whereas the analysis of children’s books and films is often associated with strong resistance of their own. Children’s books evoke fond feelings and memories in many adults that are not readily touched. When children’s books or children’s films are up for disposition, it seems to quickly get down to the nitty gritty, because children’s books create identities. Thus, the White majority society’s attempt to preserve the books in their original form, including all racist and discriminatory passages, reads as a great fear of loss. The fear of losing a self-created positive self-image as well as the fear of having to question the centuries-long power to define oneself and “others”.

There are many wonderful books and films that are non-discriminatory and empower all children as potential readers. In this context, racism is only one of many social power relations that must be taken into account. For inspiration, GLADT and Kinderwelten, for example, have compiled a positive list for the German-speaking world, while the brown mob collects books with discriminatory content and expressions in a list that is welcome to be added to. Instead of spreading and reading racist children’s books, it would be time to train parents, educators and teachers in power- and racism-critical analysis of children’s books (and other media) to enable other identities for the next generations.