The Collective Experience of Black Students at IHEID – Part 4

Interviews collected by Aurelie Semunovic

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

Interviewee: Ramata Franklin

Date and Location: Monday April 25th, Grand Morillon (One-on-One Interview)

What were your expectations before coming to the school?

I didn’t really have concrete expectations because I never studied in a European context. I came here for the World Health Assembly a couple of years ago, so I knew I would benefit from a multidisciplinary and moreso international perspective. I think I overestimated that- I thought I would experience more in-depth and critical discussions about certain global structural issues, but I haven’t had that too much with regards to certain issues. 

You mentioned that you thought you’d experience more criticalness?

I thought I would experience conversations that have more nuance and depth in terms of issues that have to do with international relations, politics, global health, development, and etc… Coming from an American institution, I thought I would be more exposed to a certain eclectic discourse from IHEID’s very international student body…. Very different from what I have experienced before. Yes it is different and I get interesting perspectives, but it’s not so different in terms of the level of criticality that students engage in… 

How does this vary from your experience in a US institution? 

I went to University of Southern California so it depends on where you are from in the US. I think there is a more in depth understanding of the international systems here at the Institute, due to the location and speciality. However, on a daily-basis, I didn’t expect to be so shocked by the microaggressions and the way some professors navigate racism. At my previous school, there would be some professors that would at least discuss systemic and structural issues because this isn’t divorceable from the international system or academia in general. The legacies of historical oppressions and marginalizations of certain peoples, and the implications of those realities on the world and how we make sense of it aren’t discussed much here at the Institute. 

How does the lack of engagement in systemic issues affect you as a student here at the Institute? 

I would say that there isn’t a lack of engagement on all systemic issues but there is on gender and racism. One thing that stood out to me is the fact that access to menstrual products had to be fought for by students, or how ill-received the Institute students of the Feminist Collective were when they tried to make visible the stories of students going through sexual harrassment as gendered bodies. I think also as a racialized individual, you feel like you have to overcompensate for this lack of engagement on issues of systemic and institutional oppressions because you’re always the one who is in some ways burdened to discuss it. The burden of having to educate one about their implicit bias towards certain people and how it is racist or hurtful is always carried by the racialized individuals. ……It’s tiring I would say. 

 Why are the oppressed individuals always the ones to have to consistently combat the systems that oppress them? The Institute should tackle real structural issues… It’s hard for me to understand why they don’t even want to talk about them. 

You say it’s tiring, could you describe that feeling?

It’s draining, in some ways you are always a little bit anxious. Even when you tell yourself that you are not going to talk about it. You worry about who is going to talk about it in the classroom, and it’s extra work. If you don’t speak about it, then the misunderstandings continue and the silence can be overwhelming. You are also left worrying about the delivery. You have to worry about offending others and taking in some people’s feelings while the same courtesy isn’t always extended to you. It is a little hurtful when someone doesn’t take into account the work that it takes. Having heard the racism that my close friends experience also impacts me because if it happens to them, it happens to me. 

What do you hope for by being part of this interview? 

I just hope that the stories of my close friends and peers are made more visible for students that are going through this. In this day and age, we need to be cognizant of our environments and listen to people’s stories and how they are experiencing life differently from us. I think the racism that exists here, in Geneva, is being invisibilized and made to look like it doesn’t exist and, because of this, it’s easier to internalize. Some of the only outlets we have are each other. It also isn’t good for our mental health. When we don’t address systemic racism, we [the racialized] internalize it and it can cause a certain level of self hate that is scary for everyone.

Interviewee: Isabella Roberts, Indianapolis, USA, International Relations-Political Science, 2022

Date and Location: Wednesday April 20th, Paris (One-on-One Interview)

What were your expectations before coming to the school?

I thought that I would have more opportunities to interact with the UN and the international world around us, but in reality they only facilitate certain networks. I expected it to be more interwoven in the Institute but then it’s not. I didn’t have any expectations in terms of community because it’s grad school, but I would have liked to be wrong about that. For a place that claims to be international, there really is a lack of understanding of other cultures. It’s so aggressively Westernized. I think I was hoping that the professors and the student body would have more intercultural competence. 

In what ways would you have liked to be wrong about community?

If the student body feels isolated, the emotional impact radiates on everything that they do. 

 Allowing for community building increases the potential for success. It’s caring whether or not students are having a good time at the Institute. I have experience being a resident assistant and I think community is so important and crucial to success. Coming to a new place, being an international student, and not having a community to fall back on is heartbreaking. 

Do you feel like you have a community to fall back on?

No, I feel like I know 3 people and that’s it. There’s just so little community building at the Institute and whatever once existed was lost during the pandemic. 

This interview is being done through the initiative of Black Conversations  and so we cater to a racial lens, do you think that your race has impacted your time here? 

I do, in the way that it impacts me everywhere I go. I think my race limits my ability to connect with certain people. I think there are some students and faculty that have said such problematic things, that I know I could not turn to them, or consider them as being part of my community. But it’s one thing for our peers to express racial bias and another for our professors who facilitate opportunity and grade your work. When professors show their racial bias, it makes you wonder if you can turn to them for help. I was talking about imposter syndrome with someone, and it puts the responsibility on the person as opposed to the lack of inclusive environment. There are some networks at the Institute that I am quite certain I cannot access because of my race. 

This inequality of access to certain networks here at the Institute, how do you imagine this contributes to greater societal inequality? 

I think you were the one telling me that 80% of jobs are found through networks and if people are unable to access those networks then particularly people of color are unable to access those opportunities, even if they are perfectly qualified. I think it’s just another mechanism within this racialized socioeconomic system that oppresses people, especially black and indigenous folks, in lower economic classes. 

Why do you think the Institute doesn’t cater equitable internal access to opportunities?

I think it’s the same reason so many institutions don’t cater to equity. Racism is baked into their structures. The Institute’s history is racist and they still cater to the white students who are going to bring about neoliberal policies, and they don’t think there are other students who don’t want to do that. Yet, these are the kind of global students they are producing and anyone who doesn’t cater to do that doesn’t fit into this idealized role. “We’re going to create this global citizen that caters to these neoliberal policies,” but if the Institute can’t broaden their concepts of who they are teaching and what they are teaching, things are going to stay the same. The Institute is an extension of various IOs, and contributes to the international order, which is racist. 

How do you fit into all this taking into account that you first mentioned a lack of relationship with IOs? 

I came to the Institute already critical of the UN and other IOs, but nonetheless I wanted to understand them a little bit better and have the opportunity to see how they function and maybe work within one. In terms of the way the school interacts with them, they both avoid being critical about them, and they do not facilitate an insider look. We talk about them as sights of development and what they’re doing for the developing world, but I feel like in my classes any critical aspect of it has come from students, and specifically students of color. I think it’s a weird limbo existence; where we are here to learn and are paying the school to get the education but, as a student of color, you are also left with the burden of educating. You are essentially doing the work for them. I came to the school more as an observer, and it’s given me the opportunity to watch what is happening to the people around me. 

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