Last Updated on January 14, 2021 by Nina Ahmedow
Several rankings list Vienna as the world’s most livable city. But the racist street names in Vienna make you wonder: for whom?!
As you know I always strive to be honest on this blog, and I care deeply about social and political issues. So I can’t ignore how angry I got on my recent trip to Austria’s capital at some of the street names I saw. They bore the names of known antisemites or involved racist terms.
Pointing this out might bother some Austrian readers, but it’s simple: these street names are racist and antisemitic and must be changed. I will provide a brief introduction as to why in this post.
Sadly, it’s no surprise that there is still a debate about this in 2019. Certain terms are racist. Streets should not bear the names of antisemites. There is nothing normal about such street names. Don’t you agree?
By now you know that I write about more than merely the fun sides of travel. And I hope that’s one of the reasons you read my blog.
I write posts like this one to broaden your perspective and inspire you to look beyond the pretty images that travel writers often post.
So please share this post, especially if you have friends in Austria.
The Issue of Racist Street Names in Vienna
There has been a lot of debate about racist street names in Vienna. But of course, some people are not willing to listen to those who are actually affected by racism. There are always those who believe that anything that is part of history is forever acceptable. They see any attempt to change things as an assault on their culture. Some even go as far as saying that if you consider a word racist you are the real racist.
They say words are entirely harmless and it all depends on the intention of the one who uses them. But I beg to differ, and this is why:
Why Words Can Be Racist
Note that I am not talking merely about the n-word here, but also the German word “Mohr” (“moor” in English). While it’s becoming common knowledge that the n-word is unacceptable, many are still reluctant to accept the same truth with regards to similar words. So let’s take a closer look at the m-word.
Etymologically the word comes from the Ancient Greek word μαυρός which means “dark,” but also “weak” (this is also the origin of the word μαύρος which means “black” in Modern Greek), and “weak” clearly doesn’t have a positive connotation.
In Old High German the word “mōr” was a synonym for the devil (I believe that’s pretty negative as well).
Yes, language evolves, and some words change their meaning. But that doesn’t alter the fact that in this specific case we’re talking about a word that has always had negative connotations.
And even if people were to say they don’t mean any harm by using certain terms what truly matters is the opinion of the people others label with these terms. Black people have said over and over again that they feel insulted by these words.
And while the actual term “Mohr” is hardly ever used in the German language (except in a literary context), whenever it is used it goes hand in hand with a stereotypical description of African people.
I would ask those who say “words are harmless” if they felt the same way if people called them assholes. After all, that’s only a word. But “intention” hardly matters, and whether someone says it in a soft voice or not, everyone will see it as an insult.
So, with that said, how can people seriously argue about racist terms?
At the end of the day, it’s fairly simple: If you use a particular term for a group of people and it offends them erase that word from your vocabulary.
But that would require people to confront the history of the word and the racism of the society they grew up in.
It would also mean having to own up to the fact that they may use racist terms themselves.
Antisemites Should Not Be Honored
And then there are street names in Vienna honoring known antisemites. A commission of historians found these street names to be “historically loaded.” What did the City of Vienna do? Well, they didn’t change the street names. They only added explanatory plaques to a small percentage of them.
We are talking about streets that bear the names of members of the Nazi party. People who created “art” as a form of antisemitic propaganda.
National pride is dangerous. People feel like everyone who criticizes people or traditions they are “proud” of is attacking them. When somebody comes along and openly voices their opinion on these matters people become defensive. Because it’s difficult to let go of things you are used to. There are many people that become outright aggressive when you address these things. All while saying that those who criticize street names are being irrational.
I wrote this post to introduce the issue to an English-speaking audience. And because in Europe we have a tendency to downplay non-American racism (but sadly, it’s equally alive over here). Please use this as a starting point for more research on racism and antisemitism in Austria. Because the racist street names in Vienna are only one aspect of the problem. An unsurprisingly, there are similar issues in Berlin.
Were you aware of this issue? What do you think? Should these racist street names in Vienna be changed? Or do you believe non-Austrians shouldn’t discuss this issue?