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Political Terms and (Un)just Social Structures: An Interview with the Producers of “Erklär mir mal…” (Explain it to me)

As part of our macht.sprache. project, we’re seeking out input from various experts who deal with language, translation or artificial intelligence. Maja Bogojević and Victoria Jeffries are the producers of the Instagram channel “Erklär mir mal…” (Explain it to me). Together with 14 other people, they explain terms and concepts from (post-)migrant and queer perspectives in an accessible way. Their goal: to break down barriers and create linguistic foundations for political change.

What motivated you to start “Erklär mir mal…” (Explain it to me)?

Maja: As people with non-academic family backgrounds, we have often experienced that participation in political discussions requires a certain vocabulary. We find that problematic and classist. That’s why “Erkär mir mal…” wants to bring together all the knowledge that already exists in different communities – based on our own experiences, what we’ve learned in trainings, through reading and talking to each other – to make a digital glossary of terms. We understand ourselves as (post-)migrant and queer and all of us have different backgrounds in activism, science, or care work. That is, we have a lot of different expertise and interests that come together.

It is always important for us to acknowledge that we can only do this work because others – like ADEFRA, Gladt or Migrationsrat in Berlin – have paved the way for us.

A glossary of political terms on Instagram to make knowledge accessible

Whom do you want to reach with your content? And what do you hope to achieve with your work?

Vicky: When we do this work, we think of people like us. So I think of my 16-year-old self, for example, because I grew up as an isolated Black person in Bavaria. I noticed mechanisms that affected me differently than others, but I couldn’t name them or really grasp them. Through my studies, I was able to acquire knowledge about concepts and terms that we address on “Erklär mir mal…”. But what about the people who don’t study and still live in a reality similar to mine? Our followers are people who are starting to get politicized, who want to engage with political concepts. But our channel is ultimately open to anyone who has an interest – so both those affected and allies.

Thanks to “Erklär mir mal…”, we were able to learn that people here in Germany oftentimes simply lack access to certain knowledge. The fact that “Erklär mir mal…” has gained so many followers so quickly shows that people are interested in the knowledge that we present. They are interested in our perspectives.

I imagine it’s difficult to explain complex concepts and terms in an accessible way.

Vicky: Yes! “Erklär mir mal…” is work in progress. We do not only educate the community, we’re all continuing to educate ourselves. We tried a lot of things from the beginning and then asked the community for feedback. For example, in the first season, one feedback was that the videos were too long. Now we make sure to be as precise and to the point as possible. Additionally, everyone on the team looks over the texts before anything is published. When everyone brings their expertise to the texts, we approach issues in a much more intersectional way.

Maja: “Erklär mir mal…” is a constant effort for us. We deliberately chose German because we want to influence the German context, because we live and learn in the German-speaking world.

Challenges in political work with language

In German, English terms are often used for politically sensitive expressions – on your channel, for example, you discuss the English terms coming out, othering, safe space, and empowerment. Why do you think English terms are used and what are the consequences of their use? Have you ever come across suitable, creative, German alternative terms?

Maja: Many of the discourses come from the English-speaking world. Othering has been addressed elsewhere for much longer, e.g. in the USA, and in Germany we are just starting to talk about it. Some use “jemanden andern”, but this expression is still relatively unknown compared to othering. That’s why the weekly themes sometimes have an English title, but everything around them is in German. Nevertheless, we recognize that language skills can be a barrier.

Vicky: We map the existing discourse and do not create the discourse ourselves. That’s why we work with the existing terms. If you know German terms, feel free to get in touch and we’ll include them in the glossary. But we don’t decide from on high about the interpretation in and of these discourses. Just because there is no good German term for Bi_POC, doesn’t mean we’re going to make up our own. We don’t feel entitled to do that.

What challenges do you face in your work with political terms and concepts?

Maja: The content is less of a problem, it’s rather the problematic structures behind it. One challenge is definitely the algorithm. Instagram wants users to stay on the platform as long as possible, and people who post more are rewarded by the algorithm. At the same time, it happens that political content does not achieve as much reach as beach pictures of norm-beautiful people. There is also a disparity within political issues: Feminist topics have more reach than posts about racist murders.

Also, we can’t control hate speech on Instagram. We’ve already had some experience with right-wing shitstorms.

Vicky: That is one of the reasons why we have developed netiquette for our channel. However, we face a dilemma: On the one hand, we want to be a learning platform, and on the other, we want to be able to protect people who experience the -isms that we talk about, in our comment threads. And we also want to protect ourselves. First and foremost, “Erklär mir mal…” is a channel from us for us. We wish our comment threads were a safer space, but it doesn’t work that way. We block people who make discriminatory comments. But sometimes it is difficult for us to understand the comments correctly and to classify whether a question is asked to express interest in learning or simply to provoke.

Structures need to change

What would make your work easier?

Vicky: I would like to have structural and financial security so that we can do our work sustainably. The energy and time we invest in the project should guarantee us the financial security we need. And having an office would be great! A place where we can meet with the team.

Maja: We would wish for mutual error-friendliness, i.e. we want to normalize that people are understood as learners. This is especially important because political discourses are contradictory and complex.

Do you think that once certain political terms and concepts have arrived in the German mainstream, society will become better and more just?

Maja: We can say outright: No. We think that an understanding of political terms and concepts is a necessary basis, but it is not enough when it comes to people’s political practice. Even if individuals use gender-conscious language, it doesn’t mean that they’re meaningfully considering non-binary people or that they’re pushing for equal rights for all genders. Living feminism and gendering your language don’t necessarily correlate. But it is a start.

Vicky: We want to help make sure that we can clearly name discriminatory everyday structures, because otherwise we can’t even talk about them. But either way, simply establishing new terms is not the solution. We need structural changes.