Diversity and Disparity Series News Student Life

The Collective Experience of Black Students at IHEID

Interviews collected by Aurelie Semunovic 

There are no sure ways to count how many black students are enrolled at IHEID. You can attempt to get a rough estimate by looking at the statistics on citizenship provided by the IHEID website. However, 6% of students being from Africa would not be an accurate number to go by, considering the African diaspora stretches across the world and that the African continent also has non-black people. Founded by Diandra Dillon in 2020, Black Conversations (BC) was “born out of a desire to foster a space where individuals of African descent could be at the forefront of conversations discussing their unique experiences”. The following interviews represent the lived-experiences of active members of Black Conversations at the Geneva Graduate Institute as of the year 2022. 

 The respondents were initially contacted by Whatsapp, through the BC group chat. All 10 interviews were mostly conducted in-person, and in one-on-one interactions. On one occasion, a group interview took place. None of the interviewees were primed, and each one of them were informed that their statements would be published in the IHEID Graduate Press on behalf of Black Conversations. Each interviewee was also given the opportunity to make slight adjustments and edit their responses over a google doc over a period of 24-48 hours. This is also where their consent was collected. A total of 10 interview responses were then shared with the Graduate Press for grammatical editing, and eventual publishing. Each interview began with the same question, but did not necessarily follow a structured script to encourage nuanced responses. Some questions were deliberately basic while others were more critical. All responses are direct quotes and do not include any paraphrasing, interpretation, or analysis. Each interview lasted approximately 20 minutes. To encourage reproducibility, and to contribute to a greater historical context, the content of these interviews will be submitted to the Archive Contestataires, where it will be saved amongst other social movement works in Switzerland. 

Finally, I want to convey my deepest gratitude to each of the interviewees for their time, but most importantly their courage and candor in expressing themselves. On numerous occasions I found myself finishing each interview with great emotional weight and desolation. Recording your thoughts, and typing your words was a great honor. I am certain these responses will only trigger the most professional, and kindest institutional reactions by our peers, administrators, and faculty members. Additionally, by the end of this semester, an annual report on institutional (anti-black) racism with specific incidents will be sent to the appropriate administrators. Thank you to the members of BC for your commitment in continuing this ‘conversation’. 

Aurelie Semunovic 

President of Black Conversations, 2021-2022

Interviewee: Ikran Ali, Kenya, MDEV, 2023

Date and Location: Friday April 15th, Grand Morillon (Group Interview)

What were your expectations before coming to the school?

I expected the courses to be more oriented towards the South in terms of the academic readings, especially from African scholars, Indian scholars, and South American scholars. 

How about students?

Non African students have their own perspective, which may be different from our lived experiences. When you call-out some things said in class, it’s brushed away. There is a change of discussion into “neutral mode”. 

What is neutral mode?

Professors should be moderators and encourage debate on issues because that is the whole point of universities. 

Do you think students would debate if they were given the opportunity to?

Yes, which would be good for learning about different cultures and perspectives.

Don’t you think if there was more debate you would face more micro-aggression? 

No, I think it would encourage healthy debate and knowledge creation. It is a sort of microaggression when you feel like you are not allowed to say what you want to say. “She/he raised something uncomfortable, let’s move on”. But this is a development, IR school, and we are from the Global South, if you don’t listen to us, who are you going to listen to? 

Why have you not spoken out?

I have spoken to other people who are afraid because they have a scholarship with the school. But for me, I thought “what’s going to happen”? But I hope that things will change.

Interviewee: Abdoulie Wilson, The Gambia : 1st year Interdisciplinary International Law student – 2023

Date and Location: Friday April 15th, Grand Morillon (Group Interview)

What were your expectations before coming to the school?

I did a lot of research and I thought when I saw Black Conversations that the school would be progressive. The impression before coming was that the black students would not be so marginalized, especially in classes. I thought students would be more academically aware, but instead they say things like, “there’s no racism in the US”, or that “if Africa was not colonized we wouldn’t have had any development.” 

How does it make you feel to share an institute with students who don’t understand? 

I feel like my African experience is dismissed, as if we are not supposed to talk about colonization anymore. I think they do understand, but they choose to be willfully ignorant. 

In class you mentioned that you feel marginalized? How?

The readings are so whitewashed.

What is whitewashed?

Everything is from a white lens, we look at things from a white perspective. 

How different would the perspective be?

If you are doing Intl law which I am doing, you have to go out of the way to learn from outside the class readings.

 I thought there would be activism but when you come here and this is what you find. Everything is passive; for instance, if it was another school, the SSSM students would have gotten more support from the whole school. The whole school would have risen hell at the Director’s email. 

Isn’t it cancel culture though?

Yes I am here for cancel culture. 

Cancel Culture has a negative connotation to it though?

Think about R.Kelly, or J.K Rowling, who is a transphobe. Why would I support their current work?

Tell me about an incident that has happened to you with students?

Student’s touching black people’s hair. There was a white student  who touched my hair and  said I should put conditioner to make it softer. All my white friends didn’t say anything to her until she left. They said they saw my face but that didn’t translate in them saying anything. One other time, I was wearing a Khaftan outfit, it’s the most regular outfit you can have, but a  professor asked me to explain it to the white students at a dinner. 

If you had to communicate something with the rest of the school, what would it be? 

They need to hire more black professors, and for the professors to use more black readings. 

Interviewee: Laila Muhammad Saidu

Date and Location: Friday April 15th, Grand Morillon (Group Interview)

What were your expectations before coming to the school?

I expected to be surrounded by students who are open minded and willing to learn from others especially regarding development. Some students are, but I have found that many others are insensitive and close-minded. They expect policies from the Global North to work on the Global South. I believe that’s a colonizing mindset and it’s scary because a lot of them aspire to work in developing countries. I don’t know how that can change. Another thing is that the Institute sells this idea that this school is a sort of community, but actually there’s no sense of community except with initiatives like ASA and BC. With regards to racism, the Institute can be very performative because they hold talks and events but when it comes to structures, there’s nothing. You don’t even have anyone to report incidents of racism to. I also expected to find black women professors, but it is discouraging when we don’t see any teaching. So how can we feel encouraged to work for organizations and be in positions of power as black women? We need more African professors who specialize in the region. We need diversity in the academic staff as we have diverse students. 

Why haven’t you talked/written about this?

It’s hard to talk about this because you don’t know how much change you can get in our short time here. These are things we should fight but we’re just here for two years. 

Don’t think that the collective lack of action from students who face this racism contributes to the way the Global North treats the Global South?

Well that’s the purpose of this interview. That’s why you are here, Aurelie, no? To amplify student voices if they don’t know where or how to. 

Photo by James Eades from unsplash.com

4 comments on “The Collective Experience of Black Students at IHEID

  1. Pingback: The Collective Experience of Black Students at IHEID- Part 2 – The Graduate Press

  2. Pingback: The Collective Experience of Black Students at IHEID – Part 3 – The Graduate Press

  3. Pingback: The Collective Experience of Black Students at IHEID – Part 4 – The Graduate Press

  4. Sangeeta

    I read all the interviews! Congratulations. Many. I concur, empathise and identify with many things that have been said here. Especially on the readings.
    I am amazed that I have been prescribed at least a hundred readings so far in all courses combined. I don’t remember even a single from an Indian author. It sets me thinking. Is Indian scholarship so pathetic that it does not merit anyone reading it in this International School? I then actually start believing it. Maybe it is.
    I believe there was a Masters thesis on this very same topic.
    More power to you Black Conversations. It is very courageous of you! Not all communities have this understanding or the will to call out these ‘things’. If we here in Geneva are not talking about euro-washing, I don’t know who will.

    Liked by 1 person

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