Diversity and Disparity Series Student Life

The Collective Experience of Black Students at IHEID- Part 2

Interviews collected by Aurelie Semunovic

The following interviews were collected under the same conditions described in part 1 of this series.

Interviewee: Faith Nekoye Musumba, Nairobi, Kenya, Masters in Development Studies, 2023

Date and Location: Sunday April 16th, Grand Morillon (One-on-One Interview)

What were your expectations before coming to the school?

Given the fact that it is in Geneva, a city famous for its multiculturalism and conventions on human rights, I expected that the school would be inclusive in every sense. I expected a progressive and diverse haven in which I could learn and share ideas with different people. Prior to joining the Institute, I did a little bit of research on it and I realized that Africans comprise less than 10% of the student body. Finding this out brought questions on the extent to which the Institute is multicultural and inclusive. However, I quickly laid those doubts to rest thinking, “Kofi Annan (a hero in my parents’ eyes) is an alumni of this school. How bad could it be?”. 

Would you have expected that coming from the continent part of the learning experience is to interact with students of different cultures?

Yes and that’s why I came. I wanted to interact with students and faculty from other regions in the world, but also from all over Africa. The African continent is so big and diverse that one can hardly claim to understand it fully despite being raised in it. There are 54 countries in Africa and very few of them are represented here. I believe the best way to increase your understanding of a place is to interact with its people. The Institute is rather diverse, which facilitates a lot of learning opportunities. However, I think more could be done in terms of African representation.  

Are there different aspects of the Institute that you’d like to touch on?

I’m an MDEV student and Africa makes up a lot of the programme’s subject matter. I find it strange that most of the Institute’s authorities on Africa are not African themselves. Many have hardly even lived on the continent. That’s not to say that only Africans can study and be authorities on Africa. I only want to emphasize that there are plenty of African intellectuals studying and writing about Africa. Many were born and raised in the continent and are more than familiar with the local social, cultural and political realities. I think we could benefit from more African experts on Africa. There can be a lack of sensitivity when discussing Africa and African bodies when you are not from Africa. If we had more African staff, maybe this would not be such an issue. Maybe microaggressions and other challenges faced by African students would have been brought to light sooner. Maybe the language used when discussing Africa and the Africans would be less condescending. 

You mentioned that you don’t know all of Africa, which is expected, but some professor here may know more than you about a specific region within the continent. Would you be uncomfortable learning from them?

I’m not against learning from people of non-African descent on Africa. I’m not trying to gatekeep specialization on Africa. However, I believe that my learning experience would be enriched from a more inclusive faculty at the Institute. I believe that intellectuals of African descent have unique insights on the continent that we could all benefit from. I think improvements in African representation among academic faculty is essential to decolonising the curriculum, which I hear is a major goal of the Institute. 

 Have you had any negative experiences in your academic career at the Institute that felt targeted at your race?

I have faced a number of microaggressions at the Institute. One example occurred in the Autumn 2021 Semester. A professor was explaining the importance of not making assumptions when interpreting data. In one of the examples of assumptions not to make, the professor said something along the lines of: “If unemployment is high among the youth in Africa, simply report that. Do not add unsubstantiated explanations such as ‘Youth unemployment is high in Africa because most of the youth are out in the rural areas tending to farms.’ You can only say this if you have the data to prove it.” My first thought after hearing this was “Why would you use that example?” I turned around to face other African students in class and they all had the same expression of shock and confusion on their faces.  The professor’s words in this instance reflected a stereotyping of the African youth akin to racist and condescending early 2000s media coverage on the continent.  

Did you talk to the professor? 

Often, the response to us highlighting microaggressions is extreme defensiveness. Taking this into consideration, we debated on what to do next. Ultimately, we decided not to discuss the microaggression with the professor. At that moment, we had become weary. It seemed to simply not be worth the effort to highlight the microaggression. 

How many of you were there? 

About 9 students.

All of you made the decision to not speak to them?

Some students felt strongly about bringing the issue to the professor’s attention. However, like I said, we had become weary and we all suspected that defensiveness was all we would get if we tried to highlight the issue. Although I have faced microaggressions from professors, I would say that the worst I’ve seen has been from students. 

In what ways have students impacted you? 

There’s one specific student who is very outspoken and consistently targets African students and students of color. There are three types of responses that professors have to his statements. Sometimes, they rephrase his questions, and answer the less offensive versions they have constructed. Some professors will entertain his offensive rhetoric because at least he is participating. The third type of response, which is the rarest, is condemnation of this discourse. As professors rarely condemn the student’s offensive rhetoric, the burden falls upon the victims of such rhetoric i.e. African students. As the subjects and victims of his rhetoric, our responses can seem emotional. The emotional nature of these responses is often used to invalidate them. Thus, African students have implicitly and explicitly been accused of being ‘overly emotional’ and ‘making everything about race’. However, remaining silent in the face of such blatant racism is to accept it as just. Therefore, we (African students) lose by speaking out as well as by remaining silent. If you’re not going to defend us yourself, then allow us to have a reaction. 

I’m sorry this is happening, has this had an emotional impact on you?

Yes, but the experience isn’t new.  Just as I was joining highschool, my father moved to Zambia and I soon followed him. I was enrolled  in an international school whose students at the time were mostly white South Africans. The racism I faced there was very overt and, at times, a little extreme. I know a girl whose father punched her in the face for being friends with me (she was not allowed to be friends with black people). Therefore, this experience in Geneva is not shocking to me. But I guess I feel a level of disappointment. You read about the Institute and its values online and you expect better than what you actually get. I did not expect to face the level of microaggressions and verbal assaults that I’ve faced here. Perhaps I was a tad naive…In the end, my experiences at the Institute have made me cynical. If even the Geneva Graduate Institute falls short to such an extent, is there any hope for black people? Maybe this is just the world for black people. 

It makes me less hopeful. With all the nice words of inclusivity, but actually it’s just for show and there is no progress. I’m out of this experience with cemented cynicism, which is quite sad if you think about it. I’m young. I should be zestful, full of hope and energy to create change in the world. However, I feel weary and worn down by the experiences I have had in what is supposed to be one of the most progressive higher education institutions in the world. I suppose I’m not the only one getting cynical. A city such as this one isn’t progressive or inclusive. I should be hopeful that I can change the world. 

Interviewee: Laura Izere

Date and Location: Saturday April 16th, Grand Morillon (One-on-One Interview)

What were your expectations before coming to the school?

I never really thought about it. I just wanted something better than where I was before in Turkey.

And this is better?

Yes, this is way better education wise. I’m an MIA student studying trade and finance and the courses I have taken do not feel problematic. But I’m usually the only black student in my classes. And the only black student in the trade and finance track in my cohort.

In terms of the students? 

(No need)

You’re happy here?

I’m content. Except for the capstone, they should have given me the option of picking my project. It was definitely not my 1st choice and it was my team member’s 3rd choice. I got along with my classmate but neither of us enjoyed the project. If I would have had the choice of my project, maybe we could have had a better grade. 

In the end are you happy that you did it?

No, because I wish I had the opportunity to choose a better project, maybe even from other tracks.

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