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Fighting Racism with Umlaut Restoration

A way to de-center "white centering"...

 

With a group of extended family members, all white, I’m in a book study group focused on “Me and White Racism” by Layla Saad. Together we’re reflecting on the ways we are personally implicated. It’s not a wallow in white guilt, but rather a bracing, clarifying look at what is, so that we can begin to see what could be.

Saad points out that white people in America have a hard time seeing that they have a culture at all. They are like fish who have no concept of water, because for them, it’s a given – surrounding them inside and out. So white people treat their own culture as the default expectation for everyone else to follow. Saad calls it “white centering”. If white people were more conscious of their culture, they’d be more likely to see its effects on others – a step ahead in the struggle to end racism in its implicit as well as explicit forms.

To that end, I propose a new movement in America: ÜR. Umlaut Restoration.

My great-great-great grandfather, Johann Būchloh, left Germany for America in the 1850’s, and with very many of his compatriots, settled in the Mid-West. He was a farmer, semi-literate at best. During the Civil War he served in the Union Army and marched with General Sherman in the bloody campaign through Georgia. At war’s end, the Union Army clerk asked his name when writing his discharge papers. “John Būchloh,” he answered. “John Burklo”, wrote the clerk on what became my ancestor’s primary identity document, performing the involuntary umlautomy that befell countless German-Americans in the 19th century.

World War I accelerated the erasure of German identity in this country. German-ness went underground with German beer: German-Americans dominated the swill industry, and American propaganda against the Kaiser contributed greatly to the success of the Prohibition movement after the war. World War II certainly didn’t restore pride in German identity. My mother, whose father was “Pennsylvania Dutch” – a euphemism for Deutsch, 100% German – wanted to explore her mother’s roots in England, but refused to visit Germany. “I’m sorry, but I hate them for what they did in the war,” she told me in the 1970’s.

The only reference to German culture I ever experienced in my upbringing was when my mother used the phrase “hinkle-pinkle” to indicate a waste of time. (Upon further research, I discovered it has obscene connotations in German, which I’m sure Mom knew nothing about.)

At least half of my family tree branches from Germany, so I deserve at least one dot over the “u” in my surname. The food I ate, the assumptions I was trained to make about the world, the religion and culture that surrounded me as a child – all trace back across the pond to Northern European peasantry.  So I propose a new movement in America: ÜR – Umlaut Restoration. We German-Americans may not be able to get the dots back over the vowels in our names, but we can reclaim their memory. Not for ethnic pridefulness, but for awareness that we do have a culture, and others have other cultures, and good as ours is, it should not be Über Alles.

It is easier in my time to be good with my German-ness than it was for Mom in her day. The breathtaking transformation of Germany, and of Germans, since World War II is a testament to the power of confession, restitution, and reconciliation that America so badly needs. Toward that end, I embrace my identity as a German-American as a means of getting more deeply in touch with just how white I am. ÜR can help me and tens of millions of other German-Americans come to terms with how very far white people have to go in coming to terms with the racism we have allowed to continue against Black people and others of color.

Rev. Jim Burklo, Associate Dean of Religious Life, USC
Website: Musings

Follow on twitter: @jtburklo
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Associate Dean of Religious Life, University of Southern California

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