When a marshmallow is a racial slur

I’ve wanted to write this post for a long time, ever since I learned the meaning of a sugary treat called Mohrenkopf.

A mohrenkopf is a wafer topped with a cyndrical cap of marshmallow, enrobed in chocolate. Kind of like a moon pie or a Nabisco Pinwheel cookie.

Schaumkuss-1

For an American who grew up in an era advocating political correctness and cultural sensitivity, and with a degree in anthropology, the mohrenkopf puts me in a sticky situation between wanting to gobble up anything with marshmallows and wincing when ordering them from the little old Swiss lady at the bakery.

Because mohrenkopf literally means ‘Moor’s head’. It can also be more crudely translated as the same name as the former name of former U.S. Republican Presidential candidate Rick Perry’s hunting ranch in Texas.

Yeah. That word.

So first there’s the issue of whether to get over it and enjoy the sugar high from these little treats, or avoid them in support of a society no longer living in the 1860s. So far I’ve avoided buying them. My conscience and my blood sugar levels feel good about this.

But there’s the other issue of whether to voice my opposition to this traditional Swiss treat to the people of my host country. Not just my opposition to the mohrenkopf but to racial slurs in general. There have been a few instances of acquaintances tossing around language that would not be tolerated in America. Not at all in a way meant to offend or demean anyone, but more in a, “we listen to American rap so we assume this is how everyone speaks” way. These times are awkward because it’s never really the right time to go into a sociological explanation about who in America is allowed to use slurs and toward whom. In one instance where we mentioned that in America those words are rarely used in casual conversation and are considered offensive or even aggressive, the response was along the lines of, “Oh really? Huh.”

Am I overly sensitive because of the drastically grimmer history of race relations in America? Is it not such a big deal here because there wasn’t slavery or a brutal and somewhat ongoing fight for civil rights?

Living in a country where I am welcome but am a guest nonetheless, where’s the line between accepting cultural mores as part of living abroad and standing up to outdated, discriminatory language and ideas? It seems to be somewhere in the vicinity of a chocolate-covered puff of marshmallow.

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5 Comments »

 
  • Sarah says:

    I never thought of the sweet foam inside as a marshmallow. :-)
    The name has changed from “Mohrenkopf” to “Negerkuss” (kissing the n…) to Schokokuss (chocolate kiss) or Schaumkuss (foam kiss) nowadays. We Swiss are not THAT ignorant, are we?
    I avoid bikinis for a similar reason: they were named after nuclear tests on Bikini Atoll.

    sources:
    http://www.esskultur.net/lm/negerkuss.html
    http://de.wikipedia.org/wiki/Schokokuss
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bikini

  • Kristen says:

    I’m with you on not eating these, and thanks for posting this.The fact that certain racist/sexist/other intolerant attitudes/practices are allowed to persist here, under the guise of tradition, is something that I often think about and am bothered by. For me, the sensitivity stems not so much from historical sources but from my experience of growing up in a very diverse and tolerant place.

    I think it’s not a bad thing for us “guests” to be vocal (even outspoken) about these things, because people who have grown up with them may be less able to appreciate the negative associations and impressions that they give off. If I was being unintentionally offensive to certain groups, I’d be glad if someone made me aware of it. And I also believe in trying to change the minds of people being deliberately intolerant, despite how futile this often feels.

  • Kris says:

    I have been thinking about this general issue from a perspective of a visitor in the US. I have been on many occasions confused why certain terms are considered by some inappropriate, as an example – only relatively recently I learned that implying somebody likes a watermelon may be offensive or cone-heads are seen not as a related to a science-fiction movie but to a racial slur. I learned about both terms following an uproar on a university list-server after some students used these terms – my feeling is that the students were as unaware of possible negative meaning of these words as I was and that calls by some faculty members for serious disciplinary action was a big overreaction.

    On the other hand I do find that some jokes/words are inappropriate; I feel that the language used in rap music is often very offensive regardless who is doing the music.

    There are other cultural things that I find offensive; e.g. an address:

    Mr. & Mrs. John Smith rather than Mr. & Mrs. Mary and John Smith or Mr. & Mrs. Smith

    the fact that most people do not even see a problem with such an address shows that in this case we are still thinking about women as second class and that she is supposed to loose her identity after marriage.

  • Martin says:

    Sometimes, and more often recently, I am repeatedly surprised and thoroughly disappointed how extremely misleading and mislead some of you US-Americans can be.

    There is history. And you cannot deny it (well, some try to do it). And history sometimes, and for some areas too often, tells not nice things about your ancestors. Not nice things, or even extremely disgusting aspects you have thorough trouble to understand how the descendants can live with this burden. A prototypical example about this is Germany. But Germany is also an example that makes me smile. I do not know every foreign nation that thoroughly as I do the German ones. And the way how they constantly treat and handle their heavy historical burden, how aware it is to every single German, how present it is in their daily life, let me relax more than you could expect, especially as one of their neighbours. I think they behave in a way and especially developed a wide-spread communal awareness about their history, I do not hesitate to call it a role model. The almost totally violent-free way how the wall felt in 1989 is just one, but an explanatory aspect what I am talking about.
    But at the same moment, at least for the younger Germans, they are at the same time aware of their history (and its moral implications), but also aware that it is passé (and should never happen again). That’s one way how to treat a bad history. Keep it alive in the common awareness, but head for a much better story now, especially regarding the moral string.
    Undoubtedly, the vast majority of Germans made AND are making their homework.

    I am not so sure about US-Americans. … just in order to pronounce it extremely softened.

    Just to follow your racist issue: Yes, there are these governmental rules of “Affirmitiv Action”, the societal rule of “political correctness”, nevertheless how misleading its name and how two-faced its usage and the societal pressure not to criticise in public (and its even worse implications on daily political issues) however can be. Etc., etc., I am sure you can list up a huge list of comparable rules and acts and laws.

    But, I rather love to judge the current outcome than any eventually helpful rules, I am much more interested in the real thinking and attitudes of a nation than their supposed how-to-be!

    May I ask you a rhetorical question: Which nation, which society has probably overcome their historical burden in a better, more relaxed and more improved way:
    A. A nation/society full of explicit rules and governmental acts/laws which has to assure that equality, fairness, and support of all inhabitants may be applied, …. but only if you have enough money to proof your “rights”, … or
    B. A nation/society in which you will not find that many explicit stated rules about equality and fairness among all and equal support to any of their different racial tribes and/or social classes, but it happens, more silently, but nevertheless more effective, almost intuitively.

    Well the answer is obvious. And is also absolutely obvious, that USA is much more an A. nation, than Germany is, or Switzerland for the sake of argument.

    Or how would you explain to me:

    1. There are 13% Afro-Americans in USA. But I hardly ever see any black tourist in Switzerland, only caucasians, probably one out of 1000 (0.1%).
    2. When I was in Palo Alto, why did my hosts urge me not to drive through the East Palo Alto neighbourhood, otherwise I could almost certainly get shot there. Of course, almost only Afro-Americans and Hispanics live there on a totally questionable standard of living. How did that happen!?
    3. You have an Afro-American president now!? Wow, how impressive. On the surface only. It is just packaging. Since, why did he not yet close Guantanamo, where torture is still in practice (how human, in fact!), as promised 4 years ago? I know, it is not solely his own fault. Even in USA, a president cannot act against societal wide-spread attitudes. But this is my point: I rather judge by the outcome, I insist to see improvements in real attitudes than hypocritical statements.
    4. Why does the public USA not discuss the by several independent NGOs proven fact that US troops killed between 110-190 thousands (!) CIVIL (!) people during the Iraq war. A war initiated on false saying and public lairs and only conducted to enforce their access to oil. Just do not mind to start to talk about any moral intentions, mind you!! Actually, I cannot imagine how Hypocrisy can be more strongly expressed.

    Etc. etc. … I mean you cannot really expect that these typical US-American attitudes are really welcome.

    But let’s come back to your so immanent issue about racism in Switzerland. I do not deny that it cannot happen. And I am not happy about it. And show me a place, where there are not some part of the public acting like this. – Of course, you cannot show me your country, we know that.

    And let’s come back to your “Mohrenkopf” case. I can say the following about it:

    1. We all know it. Every child, every grown-up knows about its former bad and unmoral implication. It is true. And it is history. Definitely. We know it, and we do not have to hide it, because it does not mean anything that way anymore! We know it. Or rather: It keeps reminding us that this once was the case. I do not like to compare this “minor” issue to Germany’s history, because this would not be politically (in its real meaning) correct, but you get the point.

    2. On 6 November 2012 there was an ‘Club’ broadcasted on Swiss television. A political/societal discussion broadcasting (I do not like the word ‘show’, it is too related to ‘show-business’) regularly happening on Tuesdays evening 22:20 on SF1 (for the case you are interested in Swiss issues). The issue on this show was: “Amerika – geliebt und gehasst”. I do not want to talk about its general subject, but I just like to repeat one statement by Urs Althaus, a Swiss member of this discussion group (besides the constantly smiling USA ambassador in Switzerland).
    Urs Althaus, an actor and male model, had an Nigerian father, supposedly world’s first black male model (well, at least according to his wiki page). So obviously he has a black skin. He grew up in Switzerland, born 1956, and during the broadcasting discussion he made about the following statement (I remember it by heart, so please excuse any minor imperfection, you can watch it online, if you like) : “When I became a male model, I also started to work in the USA. This was the first time I really learned what it means to be black (among a white community), I learned what prejudice based on your race can look like. I was totally unprepared for this.”. http://www.videoportal.sf.tv/video?id=ba226876-0330-4f60-bcc0-feb45cd79601 (Attention: I think it will only be available online for 30 days).

    There is no doubt, segregation is still in practice, in many US-american heads. And you wanna talk about racism in Switzerland while referring to your home country? Pardon-Me! :-|

  • Martin says:

    *sligthly imprived:*

    Sometimes, and more often recently, I am repeatedly surprised and thoroughly disappointed how extremely misleading and mislead some of you US-Americans can be.

    There is history. And you cannot deny it (well, some try to do it). And history sometimes, and for some areas too often, tells not nice things about your ancestors. Not nice things, or even extremely disgusting aspects you have thorough trouble to understand how the descendants can live with this burden. A prototypical example about this is Germany. But Germany is also an example that makes me smile. I do not know every foreign nation that thoroughly as I do the German ones. And the way how they constantly treat and handle their heavy historical burden, how aware it is to every single German, how present it is in their daily life, let me relax more than you could expect, especially as one of their neighbours. I think they behave in a way and especially developed a wide-spread communal awareness about their history, I do not hesitate to call it a role model. The almost totally violent-free way how the wall went down in 1989 is just one, but an explanatory aspect what I am talking about.
    But at the same moment, at least for the younger Germans, they are at the same time aware of their history (and its moral implications), but also aware that it is passé (and should never happen again). That’s one way how to treat a bad history. Keep it alive in the common awareness, but head for a much better story now, especially regarding the moral string.
    Undoubtedly, the vast majority of Germans made AND are making their homework.

    I am not so sure about US-Americans. … just in order to pronounce it extremely softened.

    Just to follow your racist issue: Yes, there are these governmental rules of “Affirmitiv Action”, the societal rule of “political correctness”, regardless how misleading its name and how two-faced its usage and the societal pressure not to criticise in public (and its even worse implications on daily political issues) however can be. Etc., etc., I am sure you can list up a huge list of comparable rules and acts and laws.

    But, I rather love to judge the current outcome than any eventually helpful rules, I am much more interested in the real thinking and attitudes of a nation than their supposed how-to-be!

    May I ask you a rhetorical question: Which nation, which society has probably overcome their historical burden in a better, more relaxed and more improved way:
    A. A nation/society full of explicit rules and governmental acts/laws which has to assure that equality, fairness, and support of all inhabitants may be applied, …. but only if you have enough money to proof your “rights”, … or
    B. A nation/society in which you will not find that many explicitly stated rules about equality and fairness among all and equal support to any of their different racial tribes and/or social classes, but it happens, more silently, but nevertheless more effective, almost intuitively.

    Well the answer is obvious. And is also absolutely obvious, that USA is much more an A. nation, than Germany is, or Switzerland for the sake of argument.

    Or how would you explain to me:

    1. There are 13% Afro-Americans in USA. But I hardly ever see any black tourist in Switzerland, only caucasians, probably one out of 1000 (0.1%).
    2. When I was in Palo Alto, why did my hosts urge me not to drive through the East Palo Alto neighbourhood, otherwise I could almost certainly get shot there. Of course, almost only Afro-Americans and Hispanics live there on a totally questionable standard of living. How did that happen!?
    3. You have an Afro-American president now!? Wow, how impressive. On the surface only. It is just packaging. Since, why did he not yet close Guantanamo, where torture is still in practice (how human, in fact!), as promised 4 years ago? I know, it is not solely his own fault. Even in USA, a president cannot act against societal wide-spread attitudes. But this is my point: I rather judge by the outcome, I insist to see improvements in real attitudes than hypocritical statements.
    4. Why does the public USA not discuss the by several independent NGOs proven fact that US troops killed between 110-190 thousands (!) CIVIL (!) people during the Iraq war. A war initiated on false saying and public lairs and only conducted to enforce their access to oil. Just do not mind to start to talk about any moral intentions, mind you!! Actually, I cannot imagine how Hypocrisy can be more strongly expressed.

    Etc. etc. … I mean you cannot really expect that these typical US-American attitudes are really welcome.

    But let’s come back to your so immanent issue about racism in Switzerland. I do not deny that it can happen. And I am certainly not happy about it. And show me a place, where there is not some part of the public acting like this. – Of course, you cannot show me your country, we know that.

    And let’s come back to your “Mohrenkopf” case. I can say the following about it:

    1. We all know it. Every child, every grown-up knows about its former bad and unmoral implication. It is true. And it is history. Definitely. We know it, and we do not have to hide it, because it does not mean anything that way anymore! We know it. Or rather: It keeps reminding us that this once was the case. I do not like to compare this “minor” issue to Germany’s history, because this would not be politically (in its real meaning) correct, but you get the point.

    2. On 6 November 2012 there was an ‘Club’ broadcasted on Swiss television. A political/societal discussion broadcasting (I do not like the word ‘show’, it is too strongly related to ‘show-business’) regularly happening on Tuesdays evening 22:20 on SF1 (for the case you are interested in Swiss issues). The issue on this show was: “Amerika – geliebt und gehasst”. I do not want to talk about its general subject, but I just like to repeat one statement by Urs Althaus, a Swiss member of this discussion group (besides the constantly smiling USA ambassador in Switzerland).
    Urs Althaus, an actor and male model, had an Nigerian father, supposedly world’s first black male model (well, at least according to his wiki page). So obviously he has a black skin. He grew up in Switzerland, born 1956, and during the broadcasting discussion he made about the following statement (I remember it by heart, so please excuse any minor imperfection, you can watch it online, if you like) : “When I became a male model, I also started to work in the USA. This was the first time I really learned what it means to be black (among a white community), I learned what prejudice based on your race can look like. I was totally unprepared for this.”. http://www.videoportal.sf.tv/video?id=ba226876-0330-4f60-bcc0-feb45cd79601 (Attention: I think it will only be available online for 30 days).

    There is no doubt, segregation is still in practice, in many US-american heads. And you wanna talk about racism in Switzerland while referring to your home country? Pardon-Me! :-|

 

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