Sunday, 1 September 2013

A Letter to the Village

Published in The African Courier (August/September 2013 issue, printed version) 

Dear Elders,

You may already know that I am legally required to send my sons to school because we live in Germany and home education is not permitted here. In this country, all children are taught a curriculum designed with only white children in mind. A quick flick through most standard school atlases will reveal stereotypical images of “Africans,” many science books still teach that “Menschenrassen” or biological human races do exist. Those rare examples of German texts which do portray Black people will use degrading imagery and vocabulary to describe them - as if the sheer absence of images of healthy, happy Black children, women and men was not insult enough.

In a lesson about evolution, one of my sons had to endure being teased by his classmates: the prehistoric woman looked “just like his mum!” Another of my children informed me that his teacher had used the word “Negerkuss” several days in a row. She took away his mobile phone, accusing him of calling me during the school day to inform me, when I wrote her an email about it. One of children’s friends was called “nigger” by his teaching assistant. The man first denied it, but eventually – only after many children came forward as witnesses – apologised for the “misunderstanding.”

Every day I send my children to school knowing that if a white teacher uses a racist word in their lesson my sons will be on their own. If my children speak up, the teacher will call them “sensitive” or “stubborn”. The teacher will almost always call upon their impressive collection of Black friends as proof that they cannot possibly be accused of such a terrible crime. Colleagues will always give the teacher their full support. The white classmates watch and learn the most important lesson of all: how to ignore and belittle Black children’s concerns.

I have tried. Like the time when one of my son’s classmates put an eraser to my son’s skin, in an attempt to rub it out, while at the same time another classmate told him “Black is the colour of the devil.” That time I visited the school with a white mother and talked calmly about stereotypes and children’s stories with positive Black characters. I worked with the school “Diversity committee” to bring the Black German exhibition “Homestory Deutschland” to Berlin. It stood on the school premises for 5 weeks. I have written letters; I have attended school conferences; I have taken advice from an anti-discrimination office; I have emailed my written protests to like-minded community members and encouraged them to also write to the school; I have been silent. So far, none of these strategies have worked.

I am ashamed and angry that I am unable to protect my children from being insulted and bullied, even in a school which is named for one of the most celebrated African man to have ever lived and prides itself on being a “Schule ohne Rassismus” (school without racism).  Still I cannot give up. There are other Black children at this school as well as in schools across Germany, they may be even more isolated than my sons. All over Germany, children find their strategies to resist against the - sometimes subtle, sometimes overt, but always violent – combination of racism and adultism that they experience.

Our children are stronger than we realise. They survive their own experiences of discrimination. They survive being labelled as the aggressors when they stand up for themselves. They survive the experience of seeing their parents suffer and fail to protect them. And still, every morning at 8am, they are expected to be in the institution and perform. This is what our society expects them to do.

“It takes a village to raise a child” is not an empty motto of ours. I am writing to you all to ask you – to beg you – please don’t leave the raising of our children in the hands of the German school system alone. Please support families of Black children to teach them about our African diaspora: our history, our peoples, our economies, our achievements, our struggles.  Let us teach them using our own education materials which feature Black people - historical figures, contemporary personalities, as well as fictional characters. Please support our Black children to be proud of themselves. Let them know that we have their backs.

Wherever negative images of Black people are being presented, we have a duty to continue to raise our voices. We must not leave the mainstream in the hands of the mainstream: although most of us as adults can choose to spend our time in safe and empowering spaces if we want to, our children are forced to be in white institutions. As an activist I have learnt that activism does not only mean fighting for something, or fighting against something, but also fighting alongside those who are already fighting for themselves.

Dear Elders, let us support our children’s resistance.

Sincerely yours,
Sharon Dodua Otoo


Anonymous said...

Hello. Dear Ms Otoo,

I have just recently started to work as a teacher in a town near Berlin. I have got one black girl in one of my classes. I hope I will be fair and will not make an error. Just with the white kids. As far as I know there are no racist stereotypes in our books. I teach all sciences subjects.
How shall I teach evolution? We are all Africans, Europeans just lost some melanin in that process.
Most of my colleagues are really nice. So far I have not seen any problem and I hope it remains so.

Sharon Dodua Otoo said...

Hello, dear teacher :-)

First of all, many thanks for being the first person to leave a comment on my blog. And thank you for your question.

(Sadly) I am no expert on evolution and without seeing them I am in no position judge whether the teaching materials used in your school contain racist stereotypes or not. Therefore I would like to make another suggestion. Please consider the following three key words when evaluating your teaching:

Diversity - Diversität
Difference - Differenz
Dominance - Dominanz

With full credit to Prof. Dr. Maureen Maisha Eggers.

What does this mean?

Simply put, certain images are dominant (for example the representation of "family" in the media is usually of a white heterosexual couple with two children) and these mean that other images are simply not seen and are therefore not part of the "norm". In order to be fully inclusive it is worth asking yourself:

- in what way will my lesson promote diversity?
- in what way will it show difference?
- in what way will it replace dominant images?

So for example, because our society is heteronormative: how about showing single parent families? Same-sex parents?
Children who care for disabled parents? Children who live with grandparents? Families with one white parent and one Black parent?

Most Black parents and children would like the focus to be on continuously improving teaching materials and methods in order for them to be ever more inclusive rather than just simply banning one or two words or images.

For more information I recommend looking into the teachings of Prof. Eggers. Here are some useful links to begin with:

I)Diversity Matters. Thematisierung von Gleichheit und Differenz in der rassismuskritischen Bildungs- und soziale Arbeit.

II)Gleichheit und Differenz in der frühkindlichen Bildung. Was kann Diversität leisten?

III)Keynote Presentation at Black German Heritage and Research Association 2013 Convention (in English)

Good luck!

Sharon Dodua Otoo said...

And one more link:

"Rassismus in deutschen Schulbüchern
am Beispiel von Afrikabildern" von Elina Marmer


Anonymous said...

I dont understand whey you say it is wrong to teache mostly german and european history in a german school. Everyone who lives hear shout have knowledge of his or her surrounding, thats not a matter of color.
And about teaching that there are human races: there are! The only thing that is wrong is to assume that one is better than the other.

When i was a kid, i often whishte not to be german, and it toke me a long time to came clear wis my heritage and to find some sing positiv in it.

Not everithing is ok here, there is a lot of to do about tolerance and acceptance, but please don't blame us for teaching our own culture to kids who wants to live hear!

Sharon Dodua Otoo said...

Dear Anon,

Thank you for your comment.
You might want to read my letter again - it sounds like you might have misunderstood it.

I do think it is good to teach German and European history in German schools. What I disagree with is the fact that diversity plays such a minor role in it.

German history is not exclusively white (or male, or straight, or non-disabled, or cis-gendered. Even lessons on the Shoah tend to be taught as if all the children in the class were non-Jewish.
How would a lesson (or history book) look that was sensitive to the fact that some of the children in the class might be German-Jewish, and might have had grandparents who had been systematically murdered by Nazis?

There is nothing wrong with teaching German culture. There is something very wrong in teaching that only one perspective counts.

Finally, you say: "And about teaching that there are human races: there are!"

Sorry, you are simply wrong. Please do some research.