Why are Africans commonly called blacks

African diaspora in Germany

Dr. Susan Arndt

To person

Dr. Susan Arndt, studied English, German and African studies in Berlin and London. She works at the Center for Literary Research in Berlin and is currently preparing her habilitation thesis on the subject of "Constructions of whiteness in literature from and about Africa".

Critical considerations of German African terminology

In order to morally "legitimize" the political concept of slavery and colonialism, Europe invented its own Africa. The continent is the homogeneous and inferior "other" and therefore needs "civilization". Language was an important criterion in this process.

The colonialist discourse and German Africa terminology

When slavery and colonialism, economic exploitation and the political oppression of Africa required moral (sham) legitimacy, not only racism emerged as an ideology of justification. Building on this, Europe invented its Africa. Africa was constructed to negate what Western Europe imagined or wished to be. In this process, language was an important medium for producing and conveying the legitimation myth that Africa was the homogeneous and inferior "other" and therefore needed "civilization" by Europe.

This approach manifests itself in colonial naming practice. Basically, the tendency to describe the fact that African names were ignored should first be described. But since Africa was constructed as "the other", the European occupants refused at the same time to transfer terms that are valid for contemporary European societies to the African context.

Alternatively, whites often invented and established new terms based on their hegemony. For example, the term "chief" was introduced across the board for the multitude of self-names for rulers in African societies. The term is made up of the root word "main" and the suffix "-ling", which has a diminutive ("examinee", "apprentice"), but mostly a derogatory connotation (coward, libertine, etc.). "Chief" is also a derogatory term. Among other things, it suggests "primitiveness", which can also be deduced from common visual associations with the word. Since the word is only associated with men, the exercise of power by women in the context of African societies remains hidden. Such neologisms often negate social realities. "Bushmen" and "Hottentots", for example, do not exist. In an arbitrary process, various societies in southern Africa were subsumed under these terms according to questionable criteria. "Hottentots" refers to some, but by no means all, companies in whose language "clicks" occur. The word represents the attempt by Europeans to imitate this mode of articulation, which is alien to them.

Other neologisms build on the outdated assumption that people can be divided into "races". These include terms such as "Negro", "Black Africa", "Mulatto" and "Mischling". A black German, but not a child from a white French-German relationship, is called a "half-breed". "Black Africa" ​​follows the colonial division of Africa into a "white" north, to which the West grants a certain amount of culture and history, and a sub-Saharan Africa devoid of any history or culture. This demarcation, which is legitimized with racial theories, lacks any basis. The outsourcing of North Africa also inadmissibly pretends that the rest of Africa is a homogeneous unit.

If the terms used for the European context were used, on the one hand they were exclusively designations that are used disparagingly with regard to this. These include, on the one hand, terms that have experienced a shift in meaning: "Bastard", for example, originally functioned as a designation for an "illegitimate child" from a "non-professional liaison" (nobleman - maid). In the colonial context, the term was transferred to children from relationships between blacks and whites. Among other things, connotations such as "inappropriate" and "illegitimate" were also transmitted. In addition, an associative reference to the animal and plant kingdom was established, where "bastard" can be associated with sterility.

On the other hand, terms were also used that are only used in German with reference to past times and have connotations of "primitivity" and "barbarism". For example, based on the historicizing term "Germanic tribes", white people generally referred to forms of organization in Africa as "tribes". In this way, societies in Africa were made comparable, if at all, to an earlier epoch in European history. They also negated the diversity of societies in Africa. The Ogoni, who now number around 800,000 people, have little in common with the Islamic Hausa society, which was monarchical until the founding of Nigeria and today (across national borders) comprises more than 50 million people. In addition, by operating with the term "tribe" one acts as if clear geographical and cultural boundaries can be drawn between individual African societies. Finally, the term implies a judgmental comparison between "naturally" growing "tribes" and the "state" based on a political treaty as a higher level of human evolution. This negates the fact that societies that are not organized by the state are also based on complex political structures.