Content warning: explicit examples of anti-Black racism and transphobia.
VISIBILITY CAMPAIGN: an Action from I.D.A.
I.D.A (Intersectionality.Diversity.Antidiscrimination) is an autonomous student initiative focusing on anti-discriminatory work. We as I.D.A try to create an easily accessible student network and engage with university policy processes. I.D.A is a safe space for students with different backgrounds and various discrimination experiences to come together, share, listen, and discuss. Outside of strictly political or institutional work, I.D.A also works on an intellectual and emotional level, using an inclusive understanding of belonging, better representation, and visibility.
During Winter Semester 2021/22, I.D.A embarked on a visibility campaign by collecting anonymous reports of discrimination experiences and later sharing selected ones on Instagram. By doing so, we wanted to highlight the invisibility of students’ struggles at UdK, in a system that is fraught with oppression, social injustice, and power imbalances. We wanted to create a project reflecting our need for change and responding to the frustration that builds up from a gap between individual discrimination situations and the invisibility of these topics in our art university, which is often inaccurately perceived as a very inclusive space.
In the end, dozens of diverse experiences were shared with I.D.A regarding distinct forms of racist, misogynistic, sexist, xenophobic, antisemitic, Islamophobic, homophobic, transphobic, and classist discrimination. All of them make one thing clear: our university is not a safe space, and the most vulnerable are structurally marginalised people. Reading these experiences made a big impact on us I.D.A members, and truly showed the scale of the problem. After posting selected experiences on I.D.A’s Instagram account, we also observed the reaction of people in the comments section and their expressions of disbelief, sadness, anger, and empathy. However, we realised that giving space for comments opens as much room for hatred and further marginalisation as for empathy and understanding. Instead of making the students feel seen and understood by others, some comments were disputing these experiences. We decided that the shared discriminatory events were factual, personal, and non-negotiable, and they shouldn’t be a matter for debate, so we turned off the comments.
We then decided to partner with eigenart to write this article series. The goal of the series is to be an expression of compassion and empathy to all those students who shared their vulnerable experiences. Our aim is to publicly acknowledge these experiences, raise student awareness of what discrimination looks like, unravelling who should be held accountable, and how to make change.
As a student who has experienced discrimination myself, I want to show my sympathy and solidarity; as a white student, I want to hold myself and other white students accountable to actively participate in undoing oppressive structures at our university, systems we all contribute to in various ways. With such an attempt we will probably go places that make us uncomfortable, but we believe that true change can happen only if we accept the discomfort. Addressing the elephant in the room, however messy and imperfect, is more valuable than hiding from it and letting the scale of the problem go rampant.
In a seminar we discussed the bias of algorithms and that GoogleLens could not distinguish black people from gorillas. I (a Black queer person) said that this was because an algorithm is only as smart as its creator and can therefore be as racist. A white cis-het* fellow student replied that it was because there is an undeniable similarity between gorillas and Black people. I had to discuss this with him alone, no one helped me and even the prof just stood there looking like a sheep, no one said anything. Afterwards the fellow student told me that I had misunderstood him. That was exactly 3 years ago, until today I haven’t managed to confront my professor about it….Fakultät Gestaltung
Racism, white privilege, white supremacy, dehumanisation, insensitivity, and emotional disconnect—those are the first words coming to my mind while reading this person’s experience. As with many racist or discriminatory situations, we don’t expect them, but at the same time, we’re not surprised. The dismal state of our system shows that many people still perceive whiteness as default and any perspectives from Black people or People of Colour being shared are often met with white fragility, defensiveness, and defiance. This story contains blatant dehumanisation of Black people used as an argument, where no-one except the discriminated student tried to pinpoint that it’s not valid and is based on implicit white-supremacist bias. In the end, this attempt at a discussion represented exactly the problem which the discriminated student previously mentioned: I would reframe it as “an argument is only as smart as its creator and can therefore be as racist”. The denial of human diversity and the constant perception of whiteness as the norm essentially represents colonial, white-supremacist views and there is not much room left for an actual discussion, especially since the comment was an attack on the identity of a Black student.
The more people witnessing discrimination without acting, the more amplified an effect it can have on the affected person. If people show resistance and call out the discriminatory behaviour, the harm can be minimised or at least the affected person may feel supported. However, in this case, the silence and inaction of everyone made the student face the racism themselves, making them feel even more alone. The work of Ibram X. Kendi revolves around the point that there’s no space between doing something racist or antiracist and that inaction is a racist behaviour. With that in mind, we as I.D.A have to say that in this moment, the other students and the professor through their inaction behaved in a discriminating way themselves.
But there is no neutrality in the racism struggle… One either allows racial inequities to persevere, as a racist, or confronts racial inequities, as an antiracist. There is not an in between safe space of ‘not racist.’ The claim of ‘not racist’ neutrality is a mask for racism.How to Be an Antiracist, by Ibram X. Kendi (One World, 2019). My Racist Introduction.
Both the discriminating student and the professor should be confronted and held accountable, but we fully understand why the affected student didn’t do that and that it wasn’t their responsibility. Experiencing discrimination in a social context and not having any support from bystanders already signals the indifference and emotional disconnect from them. Finding energy to confront them or having faith that something will change afterwards seem in such a situation almost impossible.
In individual sessions in which I try to talk about the development of a short film script featuring a trans woman, I repeatedly have to justify writing about queer people. In one session, I am finally asked what these ‘queer people’ actually have to do with me and thus virtually forced to come out. I was asked several times about the genitals of the trans woman. Uncritically and repeatedly, the lecturer suggested to me as a good plot idea that one of the characters finds queer people fundamentally annoying and that it would be an exciting moment when a character would deny the trans woman her womanhood. Of course, she didn‘t suggest this as her attitude but as a possible attitude of a character.Fakultät Darstellende Kunst
The discrimination experience of this student involves trans- and queerphobia, a forced coming out, and many layers of crossing personal boundaries. The consecutive acts of discrimination and microagressions in the whole story make me feel restless, mad, agitated, and wakes up the frustration that builds up so often in situations with people who think they mean no harm but through their unawareness, ignorance, and not understanding boundaries do exactly so. As I.D.A has queer members including myself, reading this story reminds us of many other personal experiences we’ve had involving intrusive questions, unsolicited comments, or all these conversations starting with “I’m not homophobic but…”, “I’m not an expert but…”, etc. Sadly, this story is much more complex, hurtful, and utterly problematic.
First of all, what directly looms up is the persistent interrogating of the reasons why the student chose queer people as characters for the script. Questions like that may seem reasonable to some, since it’s a short film class. However, the relentlessness of it that follows by asking what it has to do with the student themselves is a first boundary that is not respected, ending up in the student’s forced coming out. It also implies that it is abnormal to write a script with trans characters, and that ‘normal’ characters are straight and cisgender. It seems crass and disrespectful to imagine someone persisting on a topic that is clearly being skirted by the student to the point of forcing them to come out in class.
Further violence of boundaries appears when the lecturer asks consistently about the genitals of the trans woman character and suggests that it would be exciting if she would be denied her womanhood by another character. Not only can it be triggering for the student, but also it signals a typical transphobic insensitivity. A story about a character being denied their identity is the least exciting and most overused trope in telling queer stories. If anything, we need more stories of queer and trans characters thriving and being affirmed.
Although, as the student writes, it was “just a suggestion for the script” and not the viewpoint of the professor herself, there’s a difference between suggesting an idea and improper, overbearing, possibly harmful questions, especially when the student doesn’t seem to be engaging in these ideas and the direction of script doesn’t seem to involve trans violence or queer suffering.
A basic understanding of boundaries, a sense of empathy or sensitivity, and a basic knowledge on queer and trans topics are truly missing in the way the lecturer is behaving. The emotional bravery that the student had to engage with to create work involving queer characters in a heteronormative university is an effort in itself. Treating their reality or identity as a fun debate or an idea to play with without their green light is unacceptable.
We would like to thank all the students that sent their discrimination experiences reports, for being vulnerable with us, and for finding the strength and courage to share such personal and hurtful experiences. By increasing awareness we hope that other students at our university will be able to better recognise discriminatory behaviour, will speak up, and call it out. It is not solely the task of marginalised people to fight oppression but also the most powerful, privileged ones to improve systems that allow others to have true sense of belonging.
If you are a student who has experienced discrimination at the UdK, we see you, we have solidarity with you, and want to help change the structures of our school to prevent discrimination here. Please get in touch with I.D.A for support: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Text and illustration by Krzysztof Łakomiec from I.D.A.
I.D.A is student initiative that determines university policy processes in the context of intersectionality, diversity, and anti-discrimination and organises educational offers in the form of seminars and workshops e.g. on anti-racism, LGBTQIA+**, and BIPoC***empowerment. Our goal is to establish a space and infrastructure for mutual support between students of the UdK Berlin. So far, the core group consisted of regular students, people from Intercultural Mentoring (IKM), the AStA’s anti-discrimination representative, and support from Interflugs. I.D.A is always open for new members.
*cis-het is a shortening of cisgender heterosexual. Cisgender means someone who identifies with the gender they were assigned at birth and is the opposite of transgender.
**LGBTQIA+ means lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, intersex, asexual, and is an umbrella term for more non-conforming gender and sexual identities.
*** BIPoC means Black people, Indigenous people, and People of Colour.