History is Located Inside, not Outside Racial Biases – Can Historians in Germany Break the Silence after Black Lives Matter? (Part 2)

In last week’s blog post, we addressed recent calls for equity and structural change in historical disciplines by looking inwards, in a moment of self-reflection. But what practical steps can we take to transform our field into a more inclusive environment—one in which not only scholars with privileged backgrounds can pursue a career? How can we address discrimination, diversity, and inclusion beyond tokenistic statements and designated research areas? What would a commitment to anti-racism look like if we were to spell out a concrete action plan, as colleagues have done in the UK?

Arguably, social access and exclusion start much earlier, at the latest in primary education. We also know that social background —in which migration and ethnicity play a decisive role—is a crucial factor for a successful career in higher education in Germany. Yet there is little awareness of race-related privileges in German academia. How does Whiteness help in career progression, and what happens to colleagues who do not share this privilege?

Biases and White Privilege

Whiteness is a significant privilege held by the majority of historians in Germany. But Whiteness, as we will state in an editorial in the forthcoming German Historical Institute London Bulletin, issue 2020/2, is not neutral. As professional historians, we are not innocent in a system that still largely caters to White, middle-class students. As Jan-Martin Wiada recently asked in Tagesspiegel: to what extent are our careers reliant on privilege, as opposed to qualifications and skills? There are mechanisms we can introduce to combat inequality. Working towards equality would entail broader reflection on the privileges we hold, and how they prevent others from excelling. It would entail education on conscious and unconscious biases, and pathways to good allyship.

Unconscious bias training can sometimes be ineffective and problematic in addressing racial inequality in academia; yet it offers an initial pathway to self-reflection. Unconscious biases affect the topics we study, the contents of curricula, and the fields and topics that lend themselves to successful careers. Given the longstanding presence of Black people in Germany, critics argue that Black studies (for example) should have been established long ago in German scholarship, yet it is still at the margins of historical research. The same goes for the history of migration and racism. Centring such research fields through designated chairs and funding opportunities would result in innovation, and initiate a shift in both student demographics and improved diversity of academic staff.

Data Collection

The reasons for the lack of ethnic diversity—which are themselves a result of inequality—have scarcely been discussed in German academia, where a historically rooted reluctance towards data collection remains a problem. Yet this gives institutions an easy way out and, worse still, leaves under-represented minorities without agency. The problem with institutional racism in Germany, in other words, is visibility: nobody wants to have seen or been guilty of it, and so it apparently ‘does not exist’. On the other hand, many people who experience discrimination would be willing to share certain data if it resulted in improved access, recognition, and safety. The new German Afrozensus provides a good example of how such a survey could in theory be conducted, while the fact sheet issued by the Black and People of Colour, and migrant network Neue Deutsche Organisationen also explains the importance of data collection in overcoming discrimination and gives practical guidance.

Data collection is a key factor in equality work, as statistics on gender have shown in the past. A 2018 report based on data collected by the Royal Historical Society highlighted considerable racial and ethnic inequalities in the teaching and practice of history in the UK, concluding ‘with tailored advice and guidance’ for change. The report drew ‘attention to the underrepresentation of “Black and Minority Ethnic” (BME) students and staff in university History programmes, the substantial levels of racial bias and discrimination experienced by BME historians in UK universities, and the negative impact of narrow school and university curriculums on diversity and inclusion.’ The figures in the report were stark, but came as no surprise to many. Among UK-national staff, 96.1% of university historians were White, a figure higher than in other subjects. Under-representation was particularly significant for Black historians, who currently make up less than 1 per cent of history teaching and research staff in UK universities. Similar numbers could most likely be found amongst German historians and their respective diaspora communities if ethnicity-related data collection could be used there as a tool to fight discrimination. The hashtag #BlackInTheIvory may have gained little attention in Germany precisely because so few scholars there are Black or of Colour—but how would we be able to generate evidence? Finally, we lack not just data, but also research and precise terminology to give a more accurate idea of the discrimination specific groups of Black Scholars and Scholars of Colour in German academia experience.


History is not the past, and when it comes to racism, the past is now. How can we conduct historical research into the construction of race, migration, and colonialism when these topics are fundamentally related to present-day institutional structures? Sociologist Sebastian Garbe argues that colonial structures are perpetuated in our own university system through discrimination and teaching, and demands urgent reform of both hiring policies and curricula. The dearth of People of Colour among permanent academic staff is stark. At the same time, there is a prevailing assumption that the European tradition is the authoritative source of legitimate knowledge-making. Other parts of the world—especially those in the ‘Global South’—remain the object of study rather than equal partners in knowledge production. Racial inequality enables and sustains the hierarchical systems that Garbe identifies as colonial legacies. ‘Race’, however, is itself a product of our own institutional history, having been invented and developed in the name of ‘race science’ since the late nineteenth-century at European universities, including German institutions.

German academia is marked by this development—from scientific fieldwork in former colonies, such as the experiments conducted by Robert Koch, to ‘research’ in local laboratories based on museum collections. Recently, for example, the FU Berlin’s department of archaeology of the ‘Near East’—a region now more critically referred to as West Asia—released a statement listing major figures in the field along with their troubling history of involvement in racial theory and imperial expansion in Germany both before and after the Second World War. Unfortunately, the statement is (currently) no longer available online. These histories, and the terminology and taxonomies that come with them, must be challenged in order to create more equity in academic disciplines.

The German zoologist and evolutionary biologist Ernst Haeckel, dubbed the ‘German Darwin’, also played a fundamental part in ‘race science’. As the Friedrich Schiller University Jena recently explained: ‘With his supposedly scientific classification of human “races” into a “family tree”, Ernst Haeckel, the founder of phylogenetics, made a fateful contribution to a form of racism that was seemingly based on science.’ People of Colour experience the consequences of these fatal wrongdoings to this day, as the term ‘race’ is still frequently used to construct human difference—even though it has never had any biological basis. Furthermore, ‘race science’, as Angela Saini argues in her latest book Superior: The Return of Race Science, is once again on the rise. As the Jena Declaration explains: ‘The concept of race is the result of racism, not its prerequisite’.

An honest debate would acknowledge the wrongdoings of both the past and the present. Even though no biological human races exist, we must recognize that institutional racism still does. As historians, we can no longer treat colonialism and the invention of ‘race science’ solely as matters of the past. If, as historians, we decide to address the countless injustices that history has often failed to tell, we must also overcome the false idea that racial thinking and colonial structures are no longer deeply ingrained in our institutional frameworks today. In other words, having been complicit in inventing race at an age of European colonialism, universities have a duty to actively undo false ideologies of human difference, and to engage with their legacies.

Decolonizing our Curriculum

Such actions should go hand in hand with deeper discussion about our curriculum, which has marginalized the history of Black Germans, migration, and colonialism. Since a more diverse curriculum will also lead to a more diverse studentship, now is the time to engage with global demands for the decolonization of historical teaching. The international movement ‘Why is my curriculum white?’ noted that while ‘Universities love to highlight their inclusivity and diversity, be it in the student body or the range [of] courses taught’, many students felt this was not reflected in actual curricula. Moving further away from White and male narratives is a necessary shift in a field with an increasingly global outlook. In short, decolonization of the curriculum must go hand in hand with diversification of teaching and academic staff. Whiteness and diversity are increasingly a subject of discussion in the German humanities, although the conversation has only just begun. Historical disciplines should be leading, not following such debates.


Change can only happen if leadership is no longer placed in the hands of a small, homogenous group of senior academics. An article published 2017 in Area by colleagues in the discipline of geography argued that the ‘pursuit of critical consciousness via decolonial thinking could do more harm than good … The emphasis on decolonizing … knowledges rather than structures, institutions and praxis reproduces coloniality, because it recentres non‐Indigenous, white and otherwise privileged groups in the global architecture of knowledge production.’ The terms on which discussions of decolonization and decoloniality are initiated must therefore, as these colleagues argue, be ‘determined by those racialised as Indigenous and non‐white by coloniality.’

In other words, diversification must also take place at a senior level. Journals, professional societies, and funding bodies need to diversify their review panels and fellows or members, train them to recognize bias, and design and fund formats and fellowships that proactively seek to shift authority, leadership, and expertise towards hitherto marginalized voices—especially (but not only) when it comes to studying extra-European topics. Data on awards should include information on under-represented groups, and affirmative action should be taken where disparities are apparent. This could include specific criteria for post and grants to advance racial equality. Committees should be formed and led by people with first-hand experience of these issues, or with expertise in anti-racist practice, in order to work through the deeper structures that prevent discrimination and improve diversification. A lot of training, self-reflection, and catching up is needed.

Who gets to speak?

Historical research is a mirror of society, which in today’s Germany is one troubled by colonialization and genocide, but also enriched by a long and diverse history of migration. As Germany faces up to the wrongdoings of its colonial past, for example, it is no longer acceptable to do so merely from a European point of view, as Natasha Kelly argued, and to exclude those whose ancestors suffered under colonial rule, or who immigrated as a consequence of Western imperialism. Equally, however, the task cannot be left solely to academics working on global aspects of historical research or the history of migration. Equity must be of concern to the entire discipline, irrespective of its research focus.

Angela Davis’s reminder that ‘In a racist society, it is not enough to be non-racist, we must be antiracist’ was echoed by Bundespräsident Frank-Walter Steinmeier this year. While universities are part of the problem, they are also the solution. It is education that will enable Black People and People of Colour to pursue careers in fields that will in turn give them a voice and empower them within society. It is our responsibility to ensure that everyone has access to education and a right to be heard, and that they feel safe in our environment. In a country with one of the largest pro-rata populations of immigrants in the world, the success of historical disciplines depends on inclusion, racial equality, fairness, and a multitude of perspectives. The difficult past is now, but a more inclusive history is also the future.


These blog posts were developed in conversation with Patrice Poutrus and incorporated his thoughts and input. The author would like to thank him and Christina Morina, who has published (with Norbert Frei) an essay on racism, history and academia on the L.I.S.A. blog.

Feedback and Contributions

Would you like to contribute to this dialogue? On this occasion we invite contributions from external authors in the form of blog posts of no more than 1,500 words relating to race, racism, and (German) academia. Please contact the editor for further details or to submit a proposal.

Cite this blog post
Mirjam Brusius (2020, September 29). History is Located Inside, not Outside Racial Biases – Can Historians in Germany Break the Silence after Black Lives Matter? (Part 2). German Historical Institute London Blog. Retrieved June 18, 2024, from https://doi.org/10.58079/p1pj

One thought on “History is Located Inside, not Outside Racial Biases – Can Historians in Germany Break the Silence after Black Lives Matter? (Part 2)”

Comments are closed.

Search OpenEdition Search

You will be redirected to OpenEdition Search