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Open Letter about Racist Incidents during Philosophy Lectures at FU Berlin in Summer Semester 2014

AfricAvenir supports the initiative of AK Uniwatch to denounce the all too common use of racist terms and concepts in society at large, and here especially at a reputed German university.

To all the FU Berlin staff,

We, AK Uniwatch, are a student anti-racism group which works to combat racism in Berlin universities. With this open letter we would like to inform you of the following racist incidents which occurred at the FU and to express our outrage regarding them.

In the summer semester 2014, during an FU Philosophy Institute lecture, there were multiple racist incidents in the form of the use of racist speech. During said lecture, the white lecturer made use of the N-word multiple times. This word is violent and traumatizing (see Grada Kilomba) and has a direct relationship to colonialism and racist constructions.

The N-word is a hierarchical attribution, which underlines past (and contemporary) racist power structures. It is very closely bound with white concepts and estimations of black people (e.g. "primitiveness" and "inferiority"). Black people and People of Color are, according to this white conception, marked as "the other". In this way, white people are construed as the "normal", "neutral" or "objective", upon which black "otherness" is projected. In white academic spaces, ostensible objectivity or academic rigor is the highest rule—everything is allowed in the name of academia. 

Racist, sexist, ableist, and classist language are all used and tolerated in the name of "academia," as long as the white meanings dominate: the white academy decides what is useable and what isn't. This gives the white academia the power of definition, which coincides with the historical strategy of oppression of marginalized people, and serves as a sign of the hegemonic paradigm of the university. Language is not separate from this oppressive reality, and indeed language functions as a representation thereof (see Stuart Hall). The repetition of racist words such as the N-word in the name of academia leads to the naturalization and normalization of the word and its reproductions functions as legitimation.

The lecturer gave students position statements as learning material which had racist terms and reproduced racist speech acts and "jokes". Instead of critically engaging with harmful language, which was allegedly what the course was about, there were repeated instances of racist content which were normalized, accepted, and/or ignored. It is not necessary to use and reproduce hurtful language when discussing and analyzing their effect and power.

Moreover, it is crucial to reflect on the positions of the speakers and the spoken to in this context. This did not occur in the course, in fact, the opposite is the case. Everyday racism was not focused on in an appropriate and informed manner but rather perpetuated. It is also apparent that the white professor was unaware and/or unwilling to reflect on the important fields of critical race theory and critical whiteness, which are essential for dealing with racist mechanisms and racist language.

No coping with criticism and a defensive stance against responsibility

As an anti-racist student group we decided to react to these numerous incidents and handed out flyers to the participants of the course. In our flyer we stated that the use of the N-word by white people is a racist act and elaborated on why that is the case (we included the text written in the Flyer above, between the dashes). The white lecturer as well as the majority of the white participants chose to react in a very defensive and aggressive way instead of dealing with our criticism and intervention constructively. The white lecturer made clear that they controlled the power of definition and also controlled which words could be used and reproduced, by whom, and how.

In addition, the lecturer attempted to present our criticism as baseless and badly informed. Some white students accused us of being defamers and agitators as well as racist ourselves. This allegation is based on the unreflective assumption that power relations and racism can simply be reversed and echoes a white defense mechanism that is commonly used by those that discriminate to deny their own discriminating behavior and responsibility. There is no reverse racism against white people because racism is based on hegemonic power relations and a centuries’ long history of the systemic oppression of Black people and People of Color (see Toni Morrison).

We demand, that lecturers at the philosophical Institute of the FU desist using the N-word in their classes in the future.

In order to avoid racist incidents and defense strategies (like what occurred in the incident above) we demand that individual lecturers as well as the philosophical Institute as a whole deal with Critical Whiteness.

AK Uniwatch ––– akuniwatch.wordpress.com

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