The Collective Experience of Black Students at IHEID – Part 3

Interviews collected by Aurelie Semunovic

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

Interviewee: Osione Oseni-Elamah, Edo, Nigeria, LLM International Law 2022

Date and Location: Friday April 22th, Online (One-on-One Interview)

What were your expectations before coming to the school?

Generally, I was thinking that this is the Graduate Institute, it’s Geneva. It’s the pinnacle of international law and affairs, and the school has advertised itself as multicultural, and I’m going to feel like a big part of the community of the world rather than an outsider. 

What makes you feel like an outsider here?

Although I’m black, African, Nigerian, I went to school in the UK. I was exposed to many cultures, but at the Institute I don’t feel very welcomed and I feel like an outsider. 

I mix with the majority of the student body but the African students and continent as an academic subject feels put to the side. 

How do you feel here in comparison to the UK?

I would say that it feels the same, but in the UK, it’s a big uni. I didn’t expect a lot of diversity and I studied international law. I put a lot more expectations on how the Institute would feel since it portrays itself as more diverse and cosmopolitan. Because of the outlook the Institute gives itself, the drop off from my expectations is greater. 

Has this impacted you in any way?

I don’t think it has as much because the African students have felt like a real community and a greater support system. So it doesn’t feel as bad. In terms of classes, the LLM is very different from other programs, so I haven’t felt this way. We have had more black/African professors, and their qualifications have been felt since they’ve brought things to the forefront. But I can feel this marginalization from the Institute. 

If you had a message to communicate to your peers, or the administrators, or the professors, what would it be?

Looking at the LLM, I believe  there are only 2 students who identify as Africans, and I think it is too easy to overgeneralize all of Africa through a Eurocentric narrative. I thought there would be more done to combat eurocentrism in international law. However, because of the school’s reputation as one training the future leaders in the international sphere,  I am really worried that students study like this and they will repeat the same Eurocentric  mindset that have led us to where we are today. Instead, students should understand that there isn’t a heterogeneous view of Africa rather than a homogeneous one. Law is so much and is shaped by so much more. The students that graduate from here are supposed to be successful and powerful, and they ought to know  that Nigeria cannot be compared to Kenya. Things are more nuanced and these countries have different identities. 

If this school is mostly shaped by Eurocentric ideologies how do you personally fit into this?

I might unconsciously embody a Eurocentric mindset, I might perceive the world in that way. Being someone, being African, being Nigerian sometimes I feel stifled about my opinion, but thankful my supervisor is African. But if you are not supervised by an African professor, how much will I get to talk about the things that I truly care to talk about? 

Interviewee: Anonymous

The Graduate Press has verified that the identity of this individual is an IHEID student and that their identity was not repeated throughout the series, including as an interviewer.

Date and Location: Friday April 23th, Grand Morillon (One-on-One Interview)

What were your expectations before coming to the school?

I had high expectations. One of them was in terms of the quality of education which I received. I had high expectations because of the way the Institute puts it out. You have professors who have high profiles, you get a good capstone and there’s no way you’re going to be struggling on the job aspect. You get a great network in Geneva. I thought the Institute would be helpful in creating those networks they talk about. I think the only one they’ve tried to facilitate is the capstone. 

You mentioned network, wouldn’t you say that a kind of network is our peers?

When I say network, I thought it would be from IOs since the students around us can’t get us a job. I expected to have access to the people who are already within these organizations. From there, it would be on us and our responsibility to develop it. Within the African students, we are very supportive of each other. We share opportunities and, even before BC wanted to do a mentorship program. My friend OB always sends opportunities for us to use. 

Why are you, the African students, so close?

There aren’t a lot of us, there aren’t a lot of black students. We have to help each other out in this predominantly white space. 

What about a predominantly white space makes you need the help?

The first person that you’re going to ask for help is from your community. I think it’s normal that we turn to each other for support, even emotional support. I’m really thankful for it.  People have bad experiences even within the school and outside of the Institute. 

You mentioned bad experiences?

Personally, I haven’t experienced blatant acts of racism. I think it has to do with the fact that I’m a man and people would think twice before saying something racist to me. But in class, like in the State Building Class, we were 6 Africans in that class. It’s the most African students I’ve had in a class. This student said to the professor, “you mentioned that maybe colonized societies would have thrived if colonization would not have taken place but based on the current state of the continent, I disagree”. 

What was your reaction?

I laughed out of shock, and the other black students just looked at each other in shock. Some of us are scared to react or say things in defense. You’re scared of calling things racist because you might get reported by fellow students, or get the response “you make everything about race”. You don’t know how the Institute positions itself and is going to interpret it. You have to teach students without any emotions. It’s another thing that comes with being at the Institute and being black, you have to agree to teach others. As an African, you are always looked at to provide certain experiences or people look at you for validation and sometimes I don’t want to do that. Even professors sometimes turn to me to see my reaction, and it’s tough to have that role. Even if it’s done out of care, there’s an expectation that you ought to approve. At the beginning you think it’s about hearing your opinion, but I don’t have to always validate someone else’s opinion. 

Is there something you would like to communicate to either the administrators, the faculty, or students?

My message would be to the students. First, please don’t expect us to know everything about black people in general. Please know that sometimes we just don’t want to talk. Also don’t invalidate our experiences because you went to Uganda for some time. But one thing that I really hate is when I am told I shouldn’t take it personally. Don’t tell me that I shouldn’t take racism personally, racism is personal. 

Interviewee: Deja Petty, Alexandria, Virginia, USA, IRPS 2022

Date and Location: Saturday April 23th, Grand Morillon (One-on-One Interview)

What were your expectations before coming to the school?

I expected to come into a place where I am clearly taught why Geneva was the birth place of  some IR concepts and any type of international conventions such as on genocides, or crimes against humanity. This is what I understood from looking at the Institute. I expected it to be made more apparent. In terms of a racial lens, I lowered my expectations because I came from a historically black college or university (HBCU, Go Hampton!). However, I wasn’t expecting for gender and race to be such an afterthought. The International Security course for example, had only one week on gender, and that is no time to cover the relevance gender has in international security. Of course we didn’t have race as a topic at all, which is completely absurd considering how race plays such an important role in international security. Look at how the pandemic was racialized in the name of security. People were going after Asians all over the world. Race should have been approached consistently the entire semester every week. It was done really poorly. When I spoke up in that course, one of the professors came at it from a Westernized point of view and seemed to want to shame me about my argument. This professor’s opinion was always present in the course, which created a space where students no longer shared their opinion, especially Black or students of color. My bar was already low, but I realized I should have lowered it more.

Would you say that the IRPS program catered to a racial lens ?

No, I would say that they barely cater to outside the Western lens. I understand that most IR authors come from the US, Canada, Germany, ect… But the program does not allow us to be critical of those theories. Race, gender, ethinicty, all of those lenses are treated as afterthoughts, and when they are addressed, it’s typically in a negative way: terrorism, radical Islam, ‘struggling’ Africa, etc… When the continent (not country, as many like to treat it as) of Africa is struggling we alway look at how, but never ask why? Why is Mali still in this war? What is France doing in Mali? It’s always what can European countries do to ‘fix’ Africa, never what they have done to destroy it. But for those discussions I guess you’d have to declare a minor maybe, as it is not going to be in the compulsory curriculum. 

If race is an afterthought in IRPS, is the program saying that race doesn’t matter? 

Racism is supposed to be reflected in IR and not be considered a root cause. When we look at the Holocaust, Yugoslavia… Basically we look at race as a historical event. I think it’s just lazy. 

Why do you think race is not looked at as a root cause?

I think it’s a tale as old as time; it makes people feel uncomfortable. You have to look at yourself and those institutions and what they do. I think they don’t want to make students uncomfortable. They make it seem like there’s always another more likely explanation. “State actors are rational beings, and rational beings can’t be racist” and I think this clashes with people’s ideologies. I think this causes people to feel uncomfortable and it would mean being too critical and people do not want to do it. 

Is this what is often referred to as white fragility?

In this space [the Institute] people of color can be discriminative. The majority of languages have a way to say the N word. Every culture has a way to insult black people. Even in the International History of Racism course we saw people getting confused with racism and discrimination. They thought that because they were getting discriminated against they faced racism, which isn’t the same. The reality is, you are either black or you’re not, because you will never face this level of racism. White fragility is the issue, but so is a lack of acknowledgement that everyone who is not Black is capable of practicing anti-Black racism.

Do you think this avoidance of race in the academic field of IR has had an impact on you personally?

Yes, because it’s been an eye-opener as you see why the world is in the state that it is. You see why things don’t work. I think it’s because academia teaches it in the wrong way. I just think that IR is trying to be too woke. The majority of academia is led by white people. But they’re not interpreting it in the right way. But white people shouldn’t be teaching racism, honestly. All they’re doing is echoing what they’ve heard. You can’t talk about racism while also making it a safe, or comfortable space. If a class is ending and the only uncomfortable people are black people, it was taught backwards. They try to teach it too gently and you can’t be gentle. 

You say that racism should not be taught by white people, but the majority of the current IHEID staff is white, would it be better not to teach race at all?

I think the professors should strive to at least find guest speakers, especially since we can be online. I think if a white person is going to teach it, they should be more open to a discussion-based setting as opposed to a lecture-based one. I feel like the way a white professor teaches here is to attempt a certain level of neutrality to hear all sides, and I don’t think this is how you should teach racism. The Mobilities course, for example, made it clear that sometimes the “sides” or ideas that you are supposed to be “open minded” about and explore are actually really racist. The professor was emphatic that if something is wrong, if something is racist, you don’t need to hear it. Racism is wrong and that should be said from the beginning. This is not a court of law. As silly as it sounds, some professors need to acknowledge that racism is bad, instead of studying it like it’s some kind of lion in the wild. I guess if we don’t have a choice on who teaches on racism, and if more black professors won’t be hired, white professors need to take on that responsibility, without trying to claim to be woke, or an activist. Racism is happening today, and there are plenty of examples over the past year. We are treating it like its distant past, like its history. Racism is historical, yes, but it is very much a part of the present and future. Teach it as such. No more “post-racial” approach.

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