The M-word in the classroom

By Mohammed Johari, December 2022

We are all called upon daily to listen sensitively into ourselves as to whether we feel or think in a racist way. And whether the language we use might be racist, even if we do not actually want it to be. This also applies to Waldorf education, where teachers are called upon to explain loaded terms in their historical context. This text by a Waldorf father is about the word “blackamoor” [German: “Mohr”], which is written out here only once and subsequently called the “M-word”.

In our 15-year-old daughter’s German class, Friedrich Schiller’s Sturm und Drang (Storm and Stress) drama The Robbers was recently read. In the first scene of the first act, Franz Moor complains about his own ugliness and asks in his monologue “Why did she (nature, editor’s note) have to burden me with such ugliness? Why me? As if she had used remnants when I was born? Why for me of all people the Laplander’s nose? For me of all people, this M-mouth? These Hottentot eyes? Truly, I think she threw the most hideous parts of all types of people into one pile and baked me from it.” When this passage was discussed in class, there was no reference to the racist and colonialist connotations of the M-word and the other terms that discriminate and exoticise. Yet the Duden dictionary notes about the M-word that it is “archaic, today discriminatory”.

Whether there is an opportunity or obligation to address the history of exclusion and oppression of black people is for the readers to decide at the end of this appeal.

With the Stuttgart Declaration, the German Association of Waldorf Schools has shown in an exemplary way how institutions can correctly deal with denigrating or racist words or statements by a historical person. The Stuttgart Declaration: Waldorf Schools against Discrimination states: “Neither in the practice of the schools nor in the training of teachers will racist or discriminatory tendencies be tolerated”. The authors of the declaration also admit that isolated formulations in Rudolf Steiner’s complete works do not correspond to this basic direction according to today’s understanding and have a discriminatory effect.

The publisher Rudolf Steiner Verlag, which publishes Rudolf Steiner’s complete works, has also been critically annotating the statements in question for some years. This practice is in the spirit of the founder of anthroposophy, who corrected his own misleading statements and also wrote for, among others, the Association for the Defence against Anti-Semitism.

I would also like to see this approach as standard in Waldorf school lessons when German and other classics are dealt with. Anti-racism and anti-discrimination must also be actively practised in everyday life, including in school lessons. Passivity and a supposed neutrality, on the other hand, support prevailing racist norms and the language that goes with them.

Friedrich Schiller is still on the curriculum of German lessons in many places, even though there seems to be a certain turning away from the classics nationwide. His drama The Robbers from his early years, where the M-word is used, can exemplify the racist and colonialist attitudes of the educated classes in the eighteenth century.

Back to anti-racism in action: the M-word is the oldest German term for black people and has a negative connotation in its linguistic origin as well as in its historical development, because besides the Latin maurus (“dark”, “African”), the Greek moros, meaning foolish, simple-minded, stupid and godless, is also the origin for this term.

“The term M. was used by white people in the seventeenth, eighteenth, nineteenth and twentieth centuries to refer to people who lived predominantly as slaves of the German nobility and increasingly also of the bourgeoisie in the German states.” (Hamann, p.146) The word spread during the colonial expansion of European countries. In the context of colonialism, black people were murdered, raped, enslaved and abducted. The racist term “M.” has been used uncritically in this context until today. It therefore reproduces the racism of the brutal crimes that occurred in this context without distancing itself from them; and uses the racist practice of framing the alien other.

On the one hand, the M-word was used in a racist context in that it was applied from a Christian perspective in distinction to light-skinned non-Christians, and on the other hand it was also utilised in a way hostile to Muslims because it was used synonymously for Muslims. Muslims – who are often framed today as the alien other by constructing the opposition between Europe on the one hand and Islam on the other (for example, by talking about the “Judaeo-Christian West”) in a way that contrasts with history and denies reality (just think of the millions of Balkan Muslims).

The standard work Siedler Geschichte Europas: Christen, Juden, Muselmanen. Die Erben der Antike und der Aufstieg des Abendlandes 300 bis 1400 n. Chr. (Settler History of Europe: Christians, Jews, Muslims. The Heirs of Antiquity and the Rise of the West 300 to 1400 AD) already bears a rejection of this construction in its title. 

Now what could still stand in the way of taking up the themes of racism and colonialism on such occasions as the use of the M-word in a literary text in the classroom? Adequate (not only for growing young people) would be alternative ways of writing, written sensitive comments and educational anti-racist detours. This is the right way to prepare ourselves and our children for a world where racist norms and their associated language are waiting to be deconstructed. That would actually be a nice conclusion to this text.

If there weren’t deep, partly subconsciously rooted emotional barriers in some of us that interfere, for example, with a critical examination of our own (family) history. The realisation, too, of having grown up as a white, autochthonous German person with privileges can be painful and shameful, where others had to grow up and live with a lot of discrimination and everyday racism – and still do.

It can be shocking to admit that you have actively contributed to this suffering. Unfortunately, my own memories include, for example, verbally racist remarks against Blacks, Turks and Sinti and Roma as a child, adolescent and even as an adult. But it must also be upsetting to have enabled a system of oppression and thus psychological injuries through indifference and passivity alone.

In this respect a self-critical examination of ourselves and the willingness to change our own thinking, words and actions are elementary building blocks of an anti-racist attitude and action. Both my autochthonous-German and my (white) US-Southern strand have struggled extremely with critical reflection on family involvement and entanglement in crimes against humanity, and still do today – and at the same time were/are “of course never racist”...

“So what do we think about anti-racism?” is consequently more than a litmus test and rather a question of self-exploration and a systemic question.

Further reading:

  • Antje Hornscheidt und Susan Arndt: Das M.-Wort. Auszug aus: Afrika und die deutsche Sprache. Münster, 2004.
  • Ibram X. Kendi: How to Be an Antiracist. Munich, 2019
  • Members’ meeting of the German Association of Waldorf Schools: Stuttgarter Erklärung des Bundes der Freien Waldorfschulen: Waldorfschulen gegen Diskriminierung. Stuttgart 2007
  • Ramon Brüll and Jens Heisterkamp: Frankfurter Memorandum. Frankfurt 2008
  • Tupoka Ogette: Exit Racism. Rassismuskritisch denken lernen, Münster, 2019.
  • Hamann (2010): Das M-Wort. In: Nduka-Agwu/Lann Hornscheidt (Eds): Rassismus auf gut Deutsch. Ein kritisches Nachschlagewerk zu rassistischen Sprachhandlungen, p. 146-156.

Mohammed Johari, born 1980 in Frankfurt, completed five humanities degrees and works as a consultant. As imam of a German-speaking congregation, he supports interreligious dialogue throughout Germany. Two children attend a Waldorf school. Due to his family biography with Polish, German, American and Indian roots, he has spent a lifetime exploring issues of discrimination and colonialism.

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