BERLIN - “I think it totally sucks that you think that word should be left in children’s books. You can’t imagine how it makes me feel to hear or read that word. It’s really really terrible. My Dad is not a ‘negro’ and neither am I.”
That was written by nine-year-old Ishema Kane in her reader’s letter to the German newspaper Die Zeit. In last week’s edition, journalist Ulrich Greiner asked the rhetorical question: “What do you call it when a book publisher announces that it plans to neutralize any terms in its books ‘that could be felt as hurtful’ by readers – if that’s not censorship, what is?”
Ishema’s mother read the article and told her daughter what it said. "Ishema reacted very emotionally; she started to cry," says Katharina Lobeck Kane. The next day, Lobeck Kane says, she told her daughter about ways to express one’s own opinion. Ishema picked up a pen and paper and wrote a letter. “[...] I am very angry at you,” she writes at the beginning. “Why shouldn’t it be forbidden to write ‘negro’ in children’s books? You also have to consider other people.” In German the word “neger” connotes both “negro” and the even more offensive N-word.
"Ishema wrote the letter by herself," Lobeck Kane says, asking for advice only when it came to the salutation: Should she say “Stupid editors” or “Dear editors.” According to the mother she advised the latter, then scanned the letter, e-mailed it to Die Zeit and posted it on Facebook where it's now been shared thousands of times.
“White people talking about racism among themselves”
The Zeit article is part of an ongoing and often heated debate about the issue in Germany, with many sharing – and not sharing – journalist Greiner’s view. In the Tagesspiegel, journalist Simone Dede Ayivi argues that the debate amounts to white people talking about racism among themselves. "Black people aren’t included," she writes. She recalls reading about the “’negro’ king” in a 1986 edition of Pippi Longstocking, the children’s book by Astrid Lindgren, and concluding that “black people are worth less than white people.” Her solution is simple: “The word ‘negro’ was racist back then and it’s racist now. Get rid of it!”
Ishema Kane’s letter and the reactions it has unleashed show two things. The first is that when a nine-year-old weighs in against a journalist, you know where the public’s sympathies will lie, so in that sense the cards are stacked against Greiner’s article. But secondly, when a child – whose perceptions and values are to some extent formed by just such books – speaks up about them, might it not just possibly be a good idea to listen?
Meanwhile Die Zeit editor Ijoma Mangold sent the following letter to Ishema:
“Thank you very much for your letter. Our paper will of course get back to you and probably also publish your letter. But I didn’t want to let the opportunity pass to answer you directly because an article I just published in Die Zeit shared, it seems to me, something of your opinion. Not exactly the same opinion, but a similar one – so you see that the paper has looked at the issue from various positions.
You write that your skin is the color of coffee with milk in it. So is mine, so I know what it feels like when somebody uses the n-word. […] But I also think it makes a difference if the word ‘negro’ is used in an old book or not.
Many other readers also reacted to the article you wrote in about, and having read the many starkly contrasting views I want to give this issue a lot more thought. I now also feel that I can understand the point of view you expressed in your letter a lot better.”