Knowing one’s place

Discrimination, racialization, and transnational social movements are intricately layered within each context they manifest in — the Institute is no different.

by Benjamin Gaillard-Garrido

An opinion piece published last Tuesday by the Graduate Press singled out the US-centric and Americanized approach of racism and diversity at the Institute as an issue. In the article, the author called out what he perceived as the “irritating” grasp that the murder of George Floyd has held on social media during the past few weeks as further proof of an overwhelming US iconicity and hegemony across the world.

In this article, I would like to respond and critically reflect on the problems, dilemmas, and impasses that the piece in question ended up generating not only for me, but also for many of my peers at the Institute. As such, this article is not preoccupied in any way with the author of the piece in question, but rather with the general ideas that mediate his commentary. In this sense, this article will offer an interpretation of the piece in question. While my interpretation could be wrong, I would still like to tease out the issues that the piece’s general argument has raised both for me and for other students, because I believe that doing so could help us in eschewing false dilemmas, avoiding regressive pitfalls, and better orienting our fights.

The issue here is not that of determining the nature of the article’s intentions, but rather that of taking a critical stance towards some of its underlying ideas, its clumsy structure of argumentation, and its questionable phrasing. First of all, what seems clear is that the piece’s lack of reflexivity ends up instrumentalizing the death of peoples in Myanmar, the Mediterranean, and Burkina Faso to highlight an ongoing debate at the Institute: that of the near-absence of French. Moreover, the implications of the article’s framing, which would seem to uncritically reiterate a tired binary of French versus English rivalry playing out at the local, parochial, Graduate-Institute-level, are, as other students have pointed out, extremely problematic. As such, beyond any concern for the author’s intentionality, one gets the sense, as a reader, that there is a larger, unspoken, and surely unconscious agenda at play here.

It is therefore unsurprising that the article came to many of us students as weaponizing the death and dying of peoples across the world to promote a very petty, local, parochial agenda implicitly understood, because of its exclusive framing as Anglo versus French, as alluding to a French colonial-civilizational project. In this sense, instead of reflecting on the ways in which the nearly exclusive – and thus definitely questionable – prominence of specifically US-based processes of racialization on social media could help initiate larger debates on the dynamics of racialization, colonization, and decolonization across the globe, the article seems to fall back on a regressive French civilizational rhetoric that reinscribes the same kind of “partial” “pseudo-humanism” it purports to be decrying, albeit under its Gallic, yet just as objectionable, guise.

As such, it ends up displacing what should be the central issue – that of racism and diversity both within and beyond the Institute – and thereby undermining what we should all be focused on building: solidarity. Let’s proceed to analyzing some of the article’s issues more in detail. 

The article opens by describing the protests as America’s long awaited opportunity to finally “awaken” and denounce the “racism, incompetence, and immorality” of none other than – behold! – Donald Trump. In my opinion, this is a very reductive reading of the whole situation, precisely because it fails to grasp the extent and continuation of Black Liberation and Resistance struggles. The article then proceeds to describe how much “disgust” its author experienced when first seeing the black squares on peoples’ profiles on social media – which were meant, however performatively, to represent and stand in solidarity with George Floyd, his family, and Black people across the world. A sense of “irritation” then arises, we are told, when the author first received the Graduate Institute Students Association’s widely circulated reading list on anti-racist literature.

The author’s “disgust” and “irritation” comes, as we should surmise, from the hypocrisy of Western US-centric liberals and GISA, who would seem to perform their indignation merely selectively, calling out racism whenever a “US citizen” is murdered, but not flinching, or so it would seem, when a person dies at the Myanmar-Bangladesh border, in the Mediterranean, or in the Sahel. (On a side note, let’s not forget the problems of describing George Floyd uncritically as a “US citizen,” in a way that completely ignores the consequences of racialization on an individual’s position with regards to the “social contract” and thereby downplays racism.)

The piece is certainly correct in calling out the hypocrisy and selective indignation of Western liberals – be they Anglo- or Francophones, we should add. But to do so, one need not to unself-consciously write about George Floyd, nor to instrumentalize the deaths of peoples across the world, nor to structure an essay in a way that ends up playing in the hands of a French language uncritically understood as an imperial project beleaguered by Anglophone hegemony. But as is common in most instrumental whataboutisms, either a nihilist cynicism or a crypto-regressive standpoint generally tends to lurk behind them.

After reading the article’s last paragraph, I was struck by the impression that French is the “real” harbinger of “diversity” at an institute subdued by the “partial” “pseudo-humanism” of GISA and Americanization. But by pitting French against English as caught in an inescapable imperialistic binary and portraying French as the “true” representative of “diversity” at IHEID, the article ends up doing a disservice to those it was perhaps most fundamentally meant to advocate for. Those are the very students, Francophones or not, seeking to obtain a decent amount of courses in French – and hopefully in Frenches! – at an institution that prides itself in being “bilingual” while simultaneously offering a meager 2% of its courses in what is supposed to be its “second” language.

But instead of un-reflexively pitting a language against another in a tired iteration of a well-known and worn-out colonial revanchist complex, a better strategy to foment real linguistic diversity at the Institute – of which French(es) are undoubtedly an essential part – might consist of showing solidarity with people of color and in fighting to establish links between the international student body and the Swiss nationals who attend IHEID, regardless of mother tongue(s). In other words, a better strategy might be that of building, not burning, bridges across linguistic, national, and religious lines. Moreover, we should do so keeping in mind that both French and English are not first languages for most people, that both are historically constructed abstractions with painful colonial roots, and that both have been imposed within and outside their countries of “origin” through coercion and hegemony.

Let’s be clear here: neither Anglo-Saxons nor their petty French cousins are the “real” representatives of “diversity” and “universality,” whether here at the Institute or anywhere else around the world. We, students who are dedicated to anti-racism, denounce both US-centric liberal imperialism and its pale French-centric variant as two examples of the same white racist patriarchal humanism that has plagued so much of our modern world. We know since Aimé Césaire that both are morally and spiritually indefensible. We also know since Léon Gontran-Damas and Zora Neale Hurston that both French and English can nonetheless be inflected, that both languages can be bent so that they might tell our experiences, that both can be forced to accommodate and carry the depth, beauty and resilience of our lives, and, in this sense, that both can be decolonized. As such, instead of reiterating colonial tropes that tend to foreclose any opportunity for productive student debate, we might begin by engaging in creative ways of decolonizing our curriculum, a point which has been at the center of student initiatives such as Black Conversations, LANI, and the CTRG and which is all the more important at an institution with a heavy imperialistic past (and present) as the Graduate Institute (see Busino 1990, Solchany 2014Solchany 2015, and Slobodian 2018.) And, particularly at a time like this, we will again stress the need for centering global processes of racialization in our debates and conversations.

In this regard, the fact that the article reduces the scope of the debate that has been going on at the Institute to GISA’s reading list is rather unfortunate, to say the least. The piece fails to mention the efforts led by student initiatives such as Black Conversations and the Afrique Students Association, who have actually been the drivers of the solidarity movement at IHEID in collaboration with GISA, or by LANI, which has not only extended the original reading list to include Spanish and Portuguese language literature, but which, as we speak, is also organizing a series and a conference on police brutality in Latin America. This is without mentioning last semester’s events, such as the panel on “Diversity, Land, and Rights of Indigenous Peoples in Brazil,” organized by LANI in collaboration with Brazil’s Indigenous People Articulation and the Colectivo Grito, and the conference on Kashmir organized by the Understanding Kashmir Initiative. And we should still mention the panel organized by the CTRG, the Chaire Yves Oltramare, and the International History Department, which tackled, precisely, the issues of racialization in historical, sociological, and philosophical perspective both within and beyond the “West.” All these efforts, the article chose to ignore.

Instead of instrumentalizing the suffering, death, and dying of peoples across the world to speak on a crudely parochial Graduate-Institute-level issue, we might begin by disentangling what must be disentangled. At a time like this, we might begin instead by reflecting on the situation African-Americans are facing at home to inquire into the dynamics of racialization at a more global level. After all, both US- and non-US-based processes of racialization have been, and still are, deeply intertwined, as the Emory Douglas poster, which opens up this response, made clear more than fifty years ago. But anyone who has remained attentive and committed to these issues need not wait on the US’s prominence in social media, nor on any cable television’s exclusive latest coverage to take a stand.

We might also begin to ponder on the extremely grave question of why nonwhite peoples generally emerge in the narrow political horizon as death-bound peoples whose perception as living human beings aspiring towards ends in the world is made impossible by white violence. And we should definitely self-reflect on our own particular role and place in this larger dehumanizing system. But to do so, we must begin by remembering that solidarity is always – always – unfinished and that, to have concrete effects, it must be collectively reimagined and recreated.

Benjamin is a second-year student of International History. You can write to him at benjamin.gaillard@graduateinstitute.ch.

2 comments on “Knowing one’s place

  1. Pingback: An (Unofficial) Graduate Press Guide to IHEID – The Graduate Press

  2. Pingback: The Graduate Press Wrapped – A year in review – The Graduate Press

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