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November 2009 – FU Berlin

26. Februar 2010

Documentation of a Racist Incident

Date of incident:

November 30, 2009 and December 7, 2010

Name of University:

Freie Universität Berlin

Name of the class or course in which the incident occurrred:

Sozialstruktur und Wirtschaft (Social Structures and Economies, Cultural and Social Anthropology)

Name of the teacher or professor:

*Reported by (political/social position, for example: white, Black, Person of Color)

white female student

    1. Description of the Incident

*What happened?

On November 30 the professor used the word „Häuptling“ (an offensive and patronizing word in German for leader) in reference to a political position in Africa. A student of Color responded immediately after the use of the word and said that she found the word offensive and colonial. She then asked the professor why she chose to use that word. The professor responded by saying „oh that old debate, yeah, I’m aware of it“ (original in German, translation my own) she continued to explain that she uses the word despite its colonial connotations because in her opinion there is no other word she could use that describes exactly what she means. That evening, the protesting student sent an article via email written by Susan Arndt in which the H word among others, is deconstructed and its colonial connotations explained to everyone in the class. Link here: http://www.bpb.de/themen/2IQNTS.html (article in German)

The lecture the following week was held by the other professor. He repeatedly used the “H word” in the same context as outlined above. No students other than myself (detailed below) came out against the use of the word, despite having all recieved the article about the word the previous week.

How did you feel?

While listening to both professors, I felt angry and exasperated that they couldn’t take the minimal amount of time and effort to think of a different, less hurtful word to use. I was especially angry and embarrassed that the email with the article from a fellow student (a Woman of Color) was, for all practical purposes, entirely ignored by the professors and the other students. In a field such as Anthropology, which has an ugly and colonial past, it is imperative that we, white students and professors, critically examine the work that we do for its racist and colonial tendencies. The complete and utter absence of self reflection in both the professors‘ and my fellow students‘ actions shocked and appalled me. As a white student I was embarrassed to sit among my peers and participate in the perpetuation of colonial white knowledge. While speaking out, I felt very alone, unsupported and attacked.

Did you speak out against the incident?

  • If so, how? What reaction did you get from the perpetrators or other witnesses?

After the “H-Word” was used several times by the professor, I asked him why he continued to use it, and requested that he substitute it for a less offensive one. He responded similarly to the other professor, insisting that changing his habit of using the word would be too difficult. Another white student turned to me and said that I was being annoying, and that if I have a problem with the language used in Anthropology I should address it in my academic papers, but not in the seminar because it was disturbing the class. At this point I felt personally attacked, very upset and startled by the backlash against the criticism, so I left the room. When I returned to class, the professor offered to spend half of the next lecture discussing the incident. He then asked me to prepare a short presentation detailing “my side” of the incident and why the word is offensive.

2. Consequences of the incident

Did an intervention follow the incident?

If so, how did it go?

The Student of Color who spoke out against the use of the word the first time and I prepared a short powerpoint presentation in which we discussed:

-why it is important to discuss racism in the (anthropology) classroom and why we all are personally responsible for critical self-reflection

-White derailing tactics (see: www.derailingfordummies.com)

-Anthropology’s colonial history and why language is important

The theoretical aspect of the presentation which was presented by me, a white woman, was positively  received, but many students became aggressive and angry when called upon to reflect on their own role and privileges as white students. Many students shouted and verbally attacked my fellow presenter. The professor disappointingly pulled himself entirely out of the discussion and failed to moderate at all or position himself in regards to his use of the word.

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