What is black or white

Black and white thinking

Edition: The Language Service 6/2020

Moors Heads or Negro kisses have been called for a long time Chocolate kisses, the Gypsy sauce became the Hungarian style hot pepper sauce, Uncle Ben disappears from the rice packaging and even the Sarotti-Mohr, the brand logo of the chocolate manufacturer Sarotti for over 100 years, is given a racist interpretation. In Ulm, it was decided to remove the Three Wise Men from the manger in the cathedral for this year's Christmas because the figure of Melchior - designed about 100 years ago - is depicted in a racist manner through his thick lips. And Berlin officials are not allowed more than people who use public transport without a valid ticket Dodger - that could (regardless of discussions about a gender-equitable form) be understood as racially discriminatory.

Such and similar reports are increasing. The fact that criticism of racism is an important catchphrase in our society is nothing new, and of course a sensitive and critical handling of discriminatory and racist terms also and essentially extends to our language. The question of whether the above-mentioned incidents go too far or where a line should be drawn cannot be asked here; instead, this time-word deals with the words black and White in general, with those they denote and with the difficulties of using or not using them in today's highly sensitive debate about racism.

The adjectives black and White have a Germanic origin; black goes back to Old and Middle High German black, Germanic *swarte, White in old high German (H)wīz, Germanic * hweita-. Quite literally, these two originally mean 'dark, dirty-colored' and today 'of the darkest color', 'of very dark appearance', on the other hand originally 'bright, shiny', today 'of the lightest color', 'very bright looking'.

Two opposing perceptions have always been associated with these words. First of all, it can be proven: while black swallows up all the light, white reflects it. But also in a figurative sense black and White for two complementary opposing things, definitions, associations, so that the words have also developed numerous transferred meanings: white is light, radiant, luminous and thus stands for positive, innocent, good and pleasant. Black, on the other hand, is associated in our culture with darkness, the ominous, the evil, with the opaque and the hidden. The Brothers Grimm summarize it in their "German Dictionary" as follows: »the meaning of black in color symbolism, where it generally denotes the opposite of white, is rooted in the contrast between light and dark, their effect on people, on life and prosperity in general. black is the unholy color, the color of evil, damaging, anger and moral inferiority [...]. "White, on the other hand, is described as" the color of purity and innocence [...], of happiness and good premonition ".

To put it briefly and exaggeratedly: In our culture the color white is bright and good, it stands for the beginning, for births, weddings, occasions for joy; Black is dark and evil, it stands for the end, for death and for mourning. This symbolism is affirmed in numerous collocations and idioms. Idioms too White there are not many, but often this reflects the motive of the good, peaceful, innocent: have a clean slate in the sense of ›not being guilty of anything; to be a good, innocent person ‹or hoist the white flag with the meaning ›show willingness to negotiate and peace‹. In contrast, there are numerous negative connotations that use the adjective black include: Pass the buck on someone 'Pass something unpleasant on to someone else'; wait till you go black ›Waiting for something that won't happen‹ (black stands for the rotting of the corpse, in this sense: ›wait until you're dead‹), get angry black ›Get very angry‹. However, there are also idioms in which black stands for something good: hit the mark ›Do / say exactly the right thing with something‹, write black numbers (as opposed to red) ›be on the credit side, make profit‹.

In addition to other transferred meanings (black = ›(Politically) conservative‹, ›shaped by Catholicism‹) become the adjectives White and black ultimately also used for people's skin tones: with White is commonly associated with the skin color of people of European origin black the skin color of people from Africa. But even if there is a debate about the names black and White for the identification of skin colors and thus entire groups of people has only recently taken place, this is not an invention of our age: According to the Brothers Grimm, the name is White for fair skin color has been documented since the 17th century. That people with darker skin than black is a lot older and, according to the Grimms, can already be found in Wolfram von Eschenbach's »Parzival« (13th century) and in Notker the German (10th / 11th century).

The fact that the names are traditional does not mean, however, that they cannot and should not be reconsidered. One argument in the debate about language critical of racism is that nobody is really "black" or "white", that people are assigned to certain categories through these designations, which is often enough accompanied by an evaluation and thus a segregation, i.e. a separation into different social groups . Pointing this out and making yourself aware of this is a good way to achieve non-discriminatory language, i. H. to raise awareness of discrimination and ultimately to circumvent it.

In fact, black people now refer to themselves as follows: as black. Yes, you read that correctly, the adjective is capitalized here, because it is not about the external quality of a person, but about a social construct: All those who have experienced racism refer to themselves as Black people or People of Color (PoC). This gives the adjective black again a new, transferred meaning (we know this, for example, from Black board: This does not have to be black or actually a physical board): Bei Black people is with black So not the skin color meant, but social experiences - so who of Black speaks should be aware of this. Adjectives like dark-skinned or coloured are not affected by the self-designation of the PoC; they keep their literal meaning.

How is it to be assessed that there are no more fare dodgers in Berlin (linguistically), that also the adjective to blacken by denounce or Report should be replaced? Basically, the idea behind it is certainly good and correct: people should experience equal treatment regardless of »gender, ethnic origin and skin color, age, disability, religion, ideology and sexual identity« (see guidelines of the State Office for Equal Treatment - Against Discrimination in Berlin) . But one Dodger could theoretically also be blue, green or pink and still use public transport without a valid ticket: black only refers to the fact that someone is doing something illegal, forbidden. Presumably it is the combination with a noun agentis, i.e. the designation for an acting person, who let the Berlin Senate take this preventive measure. Will it overshoot the mark a little? We'll leave that to your judgment. We are looking forward to further developments and what will become of the buck, the black sheep and the black man, whether black humor, black tea and black currants will eventually be consumed with caution and whether there will still be black workers, black seekers and Schwarzmaler will give.

Frauke Rüdebusch

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