"Neither here nor there": About modern racism and how to engage with it in an academic community

"Neither here nor there": About modern racism and how to engage with it in an academic community

Since the death of George Floyd and the resulting global demonstrations, discussions about racism are again ever present. What tends to be left outside of the discussion is the variety of people affected by this particular discussion.

Whilst in the beginning the spotlight was on Afro-Americans within the US, it soon became clear that this initial focus does not exclude members of other so-called racial groups. One angle, however, that tends to attract far less attention when discussing racism are people of mixed heritage(s). A prominent example would be former President Barack Obama who, according to his wife Michelle, was “light-skinned to some and dark-skinned to others” (Michelle Obama, Becoming, pg. 40).

He was neither white nor black, which sometimes caused a sense of confusion. His multiracial background obstructed many people’s “need to situate someone inside his or her ethnicity and the frustration that comes when it can’t easily be done” (Becoming, pg. 41).

Racism against mixed-race individuals

People thus tend to make categorisations based on race, skin colour, religion, or social class because they prefer to see the world in pre-defined categories. This has led to a modern-day racism that targets people of (more than) two racial backgrounds – so-called mixed-race individuals, and it is referred to as multiracial microaggressions or mono-racism. The logic therein is based on two contradictory pillars: that it is wrong to be a racist but also that races should not mix. Existing cultures and traditions are thought to be based on monoracial societies and by mixing with a member of another society one could bring disorder into the (pre-)existing order. In extreme cases this can even be viewed as traitorous behaviour to your own kind. Looking back at human history, many wars have been fought over the mixing of religious or racial groups. Nowadays, racism à la Ku Klux Klan or during the Third Reich has become a taboo, but sometimes this has been replaced by a different type of racism which is directed at anyone of mixed heritage. For instance, a white person can have non-white friends as long as they are not multiracial.

My own experience as a German-Korean academic

As someone with a German-Korean background myself growing up in one of Germany’s biggest metropolitan areas and coincidentally living in the region of Germany with the highest number of Korean immigrants and expats, I cannot recall ever being treated in a racist manner over there. If anything, I might have been the target of so-called (I am using this term very tentatively) positive racism where I was treated according to positive traits that people associated with Koreans and/or East Asians in general. Those were stereotypes catering to the idea that Koreans were always polite, tidy, good in maths, and so forth. As a child, one does not notice these things though. Some might therefore say that I was lucky to only make my first racially discriminatory experiences in my early thirties as a PhD researcher.

When doing your PhD studies at the EUI (European University Institute) in Florence, researchers tend to receive their PhD scholarships based on their citizenships, which in my case is the German one. In total, we were 17 German scholarship holders per year spread over a four-year PhD programme. Towards the end of my first year of PhD studies I was informed that another researcher – I will call him Mr X – complained about me being a receiver of a German grant because I was not pure. At first – since until then I had never been the addressee of such blunt racims – I did not understand. Because I knew that Mr X was friends with a very diverse group of people, it surprised me. Although I never confirmed whether Mr X held in fact such opinions, it is a sentiment I have – by now – come accross more often, namely that as a racial mix I do not qualify as having a certain nationality. Due to my inexperience in these matters, I admit, it took me several days before this message sank in. Once it did though, I was furious and the outrageous nature of the above sentiment about racial (im)purity has not let go of me since. It was an eye-opening experience which, nonetheless, was only a glimpse of what others might experience on a daily basis in terms of racial discrimination. Connecting the above experience with my own research in the field of Whiteness Studies, I have since realised that yet another version of racism has evolved: one that does not dislike other races as such, but is against any kind of racial mixing.

What makes it difficult to report expressions of racism

What have I learnt since? Nowadays I would be less timid and report the incident to a supervisor, ombudsman, confidential consultant, or any other kind of university official that engages with such instances. Back then, I spoke with friends about it but never made an official complaint yet alone seek to speak to Mr X. Confronting him would have been good since I apparently was not the only receiver of anti-multiracial comments. […] Furthermore, since the person in question was not a superior with power over my career, I thought it unnecessary to challenge his supposed views my making the incident official. However, down the road, such timidity can result in a person with discriminatory tendencies to remain unchallenged and thus continue with them towards other people.

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Photo by James Eades on Unsplash

How can we ensure that Leiden University is a safe place?

Since having started to teach at Leiden University in 2017, I have had the pleasure to engage with students and colleagues of numerous mono- and multi-racial backgrounds. One thing in particular that stood out to me is the high amount of Dutch-Indonesian mixes. Therefore, being at a university that is located in a country with a longstanding colonial history and resulting intercultural entanglements, the question to ask ourselves is: what can one learn from my experience as described in this blog? And how can we ensure that Leiden University is a safe place? In my opinion, there are three vital pathways to follow when dealing with discrimination: First, any university should offer its students and staff an infrastructure that can help deal with discriminatory situations even if an event in question does not involve a power relationship like between a thesis supervisor and a student. Second, the existence of such an infrastructure needs to be communicated and advertised well to the entire university community. Third, it could prove very useful to train all staff – or at least those who have direct contact with students – in matters on recognising discriminatory situations as well as how to act when witnessing them. None of the above three steps might be novel, but having them in place is the base from which we can move forward and improve where necessary.

About Diana M. Natermann

Dr Diana M. Natermann is Assistant Professor at the History Department of Leiden University and author of the book Pursuing Whiteness in the Colonies. Private Memories from the Congo Free State and German East Africa (1884-1914). She teaches in the BA International Studies and MA International Relations programmes and as a researcher her focus is on modern European-African relations and postcolonial studies. As such, Dr Natermann pays particular attention to international relations that address links between culture and politics, gender and whiteness studies, as well as current (policy) debates on the restitution of colonial heritage to countries of origin.