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  • Writer's pictureKielingua

Translating race

“Yeah, that sounds wrong,” says a white friend on zoom and shakes his head. “Ugh, my skin crawls, saying it,” a colleague of colour tells me at a conference. He rubs his forearms as if to ward off a chill. I, too, don’t mention it in my interview recruitment materials and the current German government wants to erase it from the constitution. The Word That Must Not Be Named. You-know-it.* Rasse.

Rasse is the German word for race or breed, as per the dictionary. Its English iteration is at the core of critical race theory (CRT), the theory my project is built on. Broadly, CRT rejects race as biologically real but retains it as sociologically relevant; in the words of Colette Guillaumines: “race doesn’t exist, but it does kill people.” However, what to do with a term, so central to my analysis, that my interlocuters near universally reject? A shiver, a silence lost in translation: Rasse.

When I began my interviews, I was sure I had to keep it. I wanted to make skin crawl and white interviewees shudder for the sake of recording their reaction, turning discomfort into theory – including my own. As time went on, I’ve begun to trouble its translation.

Photo by Waldemar Brandt on Unsplash

The case for retaining Rasse

Rasse is a record of the cruelty the concept contains. With its echoes of Rassengesetze and the biology of breed, Rasse ties conversations on Rassismus undeniably to past, present, and future violence. Race equally echoes violence, but it is heard differently, maybe reclaimed, refashioned, retained in a way that Rasse has not (yet?) been. Evading Rasse, consequently, can entail evading engagement with what it evokes.

Leaving race evasion, race denial, colour-blindness unchallenged enables white silence on racism – enables white violence. My project seeks to trace such evasions and their impact in education. Letting Rasse go is my own evasion; me, the white researcher, giving into shared white discomfort replicates the dynamics of race talk at the core of my project. It accommodates whiteness rather than challenging it.

Replacing Rasse?

At first, my withdrawal from Rasse was practical: it’s difficult to conduct interviews with people who no longer want to. Rasse raptures rapport.

Then, I began to interrogate the discomfort. Not saying Rasse leaves white violence unsaid. The violence inherent in it is what makes it unsayable. But the German racial vocabulary is more extensive than Rasse. (Indeed, my interlocuters used a range of racialised concepts to connote difference just the same: “migration background”, nationality, ‘these names’ and ‘those neighbourhoods’, so on.) Not saying Rasse did not mean that race remained unsaid. Indeed, interlocuters and I sometimes replaced it with “race” outright.

What to do with Rasse, then? Drawing on Sara Ahmed, happiness with the term should hardly be the goal. Rasse is “evil”, my interlocuters told me. A word so saturated with death they drop it. The longer I spent in Germany, the heavier it became for me to pick back up. Of course, language is suffused with such heavy words still in use, so the specific rejection of Rasse cannot be separated from white race evasion and denial. Yet, the rejection of Rasse does not have to mean the denial of racism (Robert Miles and others have made the same argument for “race”). The shudders and shivers the word evoked also communicated a rejection of its biological truth claims. The same truth claims CRT rejects, too.

Troubeling translations

In my project, I’ve let Rasse go as a term in practice but retain it, alongside race, as a term for analysis. Rather than seeking translation, I now explore the Venn diagram of their meanings. This does not preclude that Rasse can be retained (read Cengiz Barskanmaz on why it should remain in the German constitution) – but troubles that it can be straightforwardly read as “race”.

Sarah Gerwens

The author is a doctoral student at the LSE’s European Institute researching the discursive and institutional dimension of racism in German education.

ORCID: 0000-0002-9278-5495

*Yes, this is a Harry Potter reference. J. K. Rowling is a TERF. Spend your money here instead of on her intellectual property.

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