Why the word “fair” is problematic

Für die DEUTSCHE VERSION dieses Videos und Transkripts klick die kleine Flagge links im Menü.





To all of you who are thinking “WHOA there goes the political correctness police trying to prohibit yet another word” – well, first of all, nobody can prohibit a word, ok? You just wanna be a jerk and say all kinds of hurtful things and then feel oppressed when you get negative reactions? No. I’m not even talking to you.


I’m talking to you: People who do not want to use hurtful language.


What’s wrong with the word “Fair”? We use it to point out what is desirable. Fair means equal rights, equal participation, equality and justice. Right? What could be wrong with that?


Nothing is wrong with all of the things I just mentioned. In fact they’re great concepts. The only thing that’s wrong is to equate all those great concepts with the word “fair”.


But Why?


Because the original meaning of “Fair” is light skinned.


“Definition of FAIR 4 : not dark – fair skin – a person of fair complexion 5: pleasing to the eye or mind especially becuse of fresh, charming, or flawless quality – The innkeeper had tow fair daughters.” © Merriam-Webster


In colonial times it was custom in Europe to equate everything light with good and dark with bad, for reasons of practical colonial propaganda: if people could be made to believe that dark skin equals evil character, then they wouldn’t object so much to colonial invasions and enslavement. At some point, the church even used “Aethiops” as synonym for “Devil”.


– -But that kind of propaganda was long ago.

Actually no.


[Image of skin whitening product named “fair and lovely”]


Watch any action movie that has been produced before 2005 or so, and you’ll still see that the good guys are light skinned and the bad guys dark. Like, Lord of the Rings Part 1, Spider Man 3, and so on. Dark = bad was normal when I grew up. And it still is. To the extent that even little children find dark skinned dolls undesirable, because the kids understood the message our societies taught them: blonde and light skinned is overall better. I highly recommend you watch the heartbreaking short documentary “a girl like me” by Kiri Davis.


To sum it up:


Using “Fair” synonymous with “desirable and of excellent character” perpetuates an anti-Black tradition.

Especially projects that are intended to fight racism, should not fall into that trap.


I made it a habit to simply replace the word “fair” with what I actually mean in that situation, for example helping create justice, or equitable (well, ok, I’m not really using that word), or in sports: “wow this is a great game. no penalties!”.


You get what I’m saying. You’re creative. You’ll figure something out.

Thanks for listening.





Lexika: oxforddictionaries.com, merriam-webster.com

“Aethiops” as Devil/demon: JOHN HARVEY, The Story of Black, Reaktion Books, 2013, pg. 72 ff

Basic knowledge: “Deutschland Schwarz Weiß”, http://www.noahsow.de/ebook

Fair & Lovely Image: https://livewithstyle19.wordpress.com/2016/10/14/fairness-products-are-creating-racism-in-indian-society/


  • Lars_M


    in dem von Ihnen mit herausgegebenen Buch “(K)erben des Kolonialismus im Wissensarchiv deutsche Sprache” ist unter dem Eintrag Hautfarbe auf Seite 335 die “fairness beschrieben. Nur mal als kleine Ergänzung.

    27. December 2017 at 23:40
  • Lars_M

    Hallo Frau Sow,

    sorry, ich bin einem Missverständnis erlegen. Ich nahm an, dass alle Autor_innen des Buches als Herausgeber_innen fungieren. Immerhin sind an der Erstellung dieses Lexikons nicht nur die auf dem Cover genannten Menschen beteiligt. Ansonsten gefallen mir Ihre Beiträge in dem Band sehr. Ihr Stil spricht mich an.

    Zum Aspekt des Dazulernens: Ich habe von Deutschland Schwarz Weiß die Printausgabe und die aktuelle E-book Version. An den beiden Versionen kann ich sehr gut nachvollziehen, was Sie mit dazulernen meinen.

    3. January 2018 at 00:00
  • Jens Vogel

    Gibt es einen Vorschlag, wie mit „fair trade“ umzugehen ist?


    27. November 2018 at 20:19
  • Jens Vogel

    Klar, hätte ich auch selbst drauf kommen können.

    6. December 2018 at 15:24

Post a Comment