‘Who remains?’ (Part 1): Before we even start our research…

It is tedious and exhausting to identify and name mechanisms of disadvantage. To remember those anecdotes that keep coming back, although you don’t want to remember. Memories that eventually become part of your own narrative about yourself, although you might want it to be different.

When we meet to discuss work processes, we usually need twice as long as planned: one half of the time to vent and support each other emotionally, the other half to do the actual work we’re paid for. Because every time we meet, something has happened again that needs to be clarified. How did a colleague mean something they said? Did they really explain to us how academia works, as if it was our first day at university? Small moments of doubt and irritations, over and over again.

Although we are not historians, we welcome the debate on this blog and hope to contribute to it from our points of view. We experience that even supposedly progressive institutions cannot free themselves from common power relations. Therefore, it seems inevitable to apply the question of institutional racism to our own institutional structures within the field of migration, integration and racism research in Germany. Experiences, ideologies and biases of those conducting the research ultimately also influence the topics as well as the research perspectives. The results may also have implications for other disciplines, like history. That is why we respond to the first two posts with an insight into our perspective.

We are social researchers – sociologists, political scientists, anthropologists and educational scientists, working at the German Centre for Integration and Migration Research (DeZIM), an academic initiative that aims to strengthen excellent and internationally visible integration and migration research in Germany. On this basis, it provides consulting to political actors, civil society and the interested public on issues of integration and migration.

We found ourselves as a group of researchers of colour and allies, with intersectional experiences of exclusion, interested in critical racism research. We are working in the same project and quickly got closer, sharing our thoughts with each other. When the opportunity arose, we decided to conduct a pilot study on racism within the fields of integration, migration and racism research. At the centre of this study are the professional pathways of Black and PoC academics. From the outside it might seem as if we consisted of a homogeneous mass. However, the opposite is true. We are radically heterogeneous and we demand the possibility for the same. In order to realize this, we work together collectively and in collaboration. In fact, collectivity and collaboration are core aspects of our research methodology. This way we find agency to dismantle prevailing power structures and discover new ways to navigate a contentious field.

The institutions in which researchers of colour like us conduct our research are not made for us. We are expected to fit in or leave. This is why the title of our project is “Who remains?”, pointing toward this inequality. We ourselves know how it feels to feel out-of-place. We share experiences of being denied our expertise, our knowledge, our abilities, of not feeling seen or acknowledged. Those may be hard to grasp. But as they happen repeatedly and to almost all of us, they cannot be accidents. There is a system manifesting itself. Yet, these experiences cannot easily be distilled as racist and there are differences between us. While we know that racism factors in, they manifest in specific intersections of categories. Am I ignored because I am a woman, because I come from a poor family, because I am a person of colour?

The racist background of such procedures is manifold and not mono-causal. Often, the obvious questioning of competence, abilities and sometimes even qualifications are the result of racism towards people of certain religious affiliation as well as (attributed) cultural aspects. High performance is thus diametrically opposed to the often rather connoted attributes through (ascribed) connections to certain regions of origin, religion, cultural events, or, more specifically, to the biographical experience of a labour migration of parents and grandparents, which in turn has its roots in the historical racialization of class.

Entitlement and Disobedience

When we think together about why we do what we do and what we ultimately want to achieve with our work, inevitably questions arise concerning the (political) goals that can be pursued in science. Based on the assumption that all social goals are political, no uncritical or apolitical science can be carried out, despite claims of ‘neutral science’, objectivity, and rationality. Any abstention can be (mis)understood as a confirmation of the status quo. In order to act against the inequalities that play a role in our work (just like in any work), it is essential to think about our work as wage labour itself in a neoliberal academia.

Even before we could conduct our study, we encountered an attitude of entitlement towards our project. There was the criticism of our methodological approach: ‘What is the added value of this qualitative, “non-objective”, “self-selective” study?’ The message was clear: ‘It doesn’t work that way!’ Doubts were expressed about the feasibility of our project, assuming that we didn’t have enough research experience.

Strangely enough, marginalized workers are always good enough to collect data, especially if the data is only accessible through them due to their language skills or supposed access to a certain ‘community’. Yet, when we demand to analyse and interpret the data ourselves, previous collegial solidarity and confidence in our abilities turns into mistrust and paternalism.

Professional science is self-reproductive and requires the obedience of the practitioner. It also decouples knowledge production from praxis. The division of labour is clear: we are not supposed to leave our place. In addition to this non-consensual division of labour, we also face precarious conditions in our work. These pose material and existential threats to already marginalized academics. Speaking up for ourselves or others is considered undesirable. Nevertheless, at least some kind of rebellion against existing conditions is necessary to bring about changes.

What Exactly Needs to Change?

This is part of what we want to find out. Although there are many things which we know and repeatedly notice already. For instance, we notice that we are not taken seriously and we notice that we are being talked down. We notice the sometimes very subtly, sometimes overtly expressed prejudices. We also notice that we are only considered relevant if a given project requires our language, cultural and/or community ‘expertise’. We notice that the same ‘characteristics’ are used against us when we develop our independent ideas and express our research ambitions. In this case, who remains?

We can already hear the voices stating that in this country, one follows the postulate of a purported neutrality in performance assessment. So we respond: lucky are those who can go home from work feeling somewhat tied in, rather than out-of-place, unheard, or feared.

About the Authors

This blog post was co-authored by Dimitra Dermitzaki, Alina Goldbach, Nuriani Hamdan, Ali Konyali, Hanna Mai, Saboura Naqshband, and Bahar Oghalai.

It was submitted in response to the two-part blog post ‘History is Located Inside, not Outside Racial Biases’, in which we invited readers to contribute to questions of inclusion, racial equality, fairness, and a multitude of perspectives in academia.

Published by

Nuriani Hamdan

She is a sociologist with a BA and MA in Social Sciences from Humboldt University of Berlin, currently working at the German Centre for Integration and Migration Research (DeZIM).