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Anti-racist language: black is not a color

Language shapes awareness: “Black” and “white” are anti-racist terms that speak about power, not about skin color.

Three Mississippi women fight to be allowed to enter the Washington Capitol in 1965 Photo: Dick Strobel / ap / picture alliance

People who are affected by or feel affected by racism often refer to themselves as Person of Color (PoC).

The term comes from the Anglo-American area and comes from the colonial times. According to the Oxford Dictionary, first uses are documented for the end of the 18th century. The term may refer to the French gens de couleur libres (about "free people of color") and referred to people in European colonies who, in contrast to enslaved black people (black people) had limited freedoms. The US civil rights movement changed the historical term to in the late 1960s people of color um, as an alternative to the derogatory terms used by white US society to speak of African Americans. Martin Luther King used the term citizens ("Citizen") of color.

There is currently no German translation for the term PoC. Direct translations into German are often associated with racist history. They are based on the assumption that there are biological human races and therefore have negative connotations. As a self-designation, Person of Color is becoming more and more common in German, or in the plural People of Color, both in short PoC.

In the meantime, a distinction is usually made between the terms PoC and black in order to take into account the different experiences of racism among black people and other non-white people. There is no agreement on whether the PoC implicitly includes black people. In North and South America in particular, the extended abbreviations BPoC (Black and People of Color) and BIPoC (Black, Indigenous and People of Color) have been added, which combine group-specific experiences of racism among black people, indigenous and formerly colonized or enslaved groups - and recognize the respective specifics at the same time.

PoC not yet common in Germany

By the way, neither PoC nor black - written with a capital S - refer to skin colors. Nor do they mean an ethnic affiliation or ancestry, such as Afro-American, but rather they stand for a bond through similar experiences of racism. Due to the protests against racism and police brutality after the violent death of the black American George Floyd, the terms are used more and more frequently, also in Germany.

In this country, a lot of people identify as a PoC. However, the name has not yet become common in Germany due to its different historical and social starting point. Although over a quarter of the German population has a so-called migration background or an immigration history and discrimination based on ethnic, cultural, linguistic or religious differences shape the lives of many.

However, PoC is not to be equated with a migration background. It does not necessarily emphasize a history of immigration, but rather criticizes the structural dominance of whiteness in politics and everyday life. But there are interactions. People with an East-Central or Eastern European background or of Polish, Russian or Balkan origin have racist experiences in Germany even if they are White could apply. A language that is assumed to be Eastern European and perceived as “un-German” is often sufficient to trigger racist reservations. The context of the particular society is crucial.

Also White does not mark any skin color. The term is written in lowercase and often italicized to denote its character as ideology rather than physical fact. It aims at the socio-political position of the so-called: belonging to the majority, exercising power, normative within the framework of racial ideas. To name your own membership in a privileged group, White also be a self-designation.

No consensus on the definition of whiteness

In contrast to black or PoC, this is less common. The information and documentation center for anti-racism work (IDA) writes in its glossary, the name White serve to "make this generally unmarked positioning of white people - with their usually invisible consequences - visible".

However, there is no consensus on a generally applicable definition for whiteness. It does not automatically mean to be racist, but to be at the top of a racist hierarchy. Even if you personally position yourself against racism, you benefit from white privileges.

Knowledge is power

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Explained from the beginning

In this series, entitled “Back to the basics”, an explanatory text on one or more terms from the field of feminism and anti-racism will be published every week from now on. Next week follows: "Black, white, PoC, BPoC" - anti-racist terms and their background.

Neither does being white mean automatically being on top in every situation. Other categories of power are also at work, such as class, and they are intertwined with racism. White proletarians, for example, are not privileged per se, but they are privileged compared to black proletarians because of their whiteness.

The complexity of racism can be seen in the fact that people affected by racism also discriminate against other people on a racist basis. Just because someone is racist does not mean that that person does not think, speak or act in a racist way. An example would be anti-Semitism among groups of people with Arab and Turkish roots who fight against “hatred of the Turks” or hostility towards Muslims and are insulted as “Kanaks”.

Historical legacy with no personal fault

Many Jews would not refer to themselves as PoC according to the definition developed above, but they are affected by racism, which in this case is not only nourished by the idea of ​​"race", but also by other ideologies and myths, such as conspiracy theories about supposedly disproportionate ones Power and influence of this group. The term PoC therefore does not always unite everyone who is affected by racism. It is contextual and may need to be understood slightly differently in each society.

There is another aspect to consider: debt entanglement. More suitable for sensitization than the terms imported from the US context up to now are those of the - also US American - "memory studies", the memory sciences. Their terms try to go beyond the post-colonial criticism of rule and to draw attention to universal responsibility.

The Holocaust researcher and literary historian Michael Rothberg in particular introduced a linguistic way of thinking with his book “The Implicated Subject” (2019) that expressly wants to point beyond individual or group identities. Rothberg points to the “shared responsibility for things that we have not done”. He speaks of "entanglement": "Entangled" are all who live in the power relationships into which they were born.

Even if they did not create or help shape these conditions themselves, they still benefit from them and contribute to maintaining the conditions through their behavior without being individually guilty. Europeans and North Americans in particular are taking on a historical legacy without bearing personal or legal guilt.