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Germany

Twitter campaign tackles racism on German campuses

"That’s a funny name, where do you come from?" For many students that's often a reaction to Arabic or Asian sounding names. Time for that to change, think the initiators of the #CampusRassismus campaign.

"Ah... from Cologne," the headscarf-wearing student posted in answer to a Twitter user's question about where she came from and whether she wanted to say something about "Islamic State?" Such experiences, shared under the hashtag #CampusRassismus ("campus racism"), reflect an everyday racism that is often so insidious it makes those affected feel powerless. It's difficult to prove - but it's there all the same.

Not just personal sensitivities

That's just what the initiators of the Twitter campaign want to draw people's attention to in college groups in Mainz and Frankfurt. "We, as those students concerned, have noticed that we have similar experiences and these can be articulated," said Emine Aslan, one of the founders of the Mainz group in an interview with DW. "They affect a large part of everyday life on the campus. They are directly responsible for whether we are successful in our studies - whether we write about specific themes in our Bachelor thesis or not, whether we can later research certain themes or not."

Those affected seldom report everyday racism, said the 25-year-old sociology student. "You can't really do much against something that is hardly articulated," she explains. That's why participants use the online campaign to collect their experiences, in order to speak with one voice and to show that it's not about personal sensitivities, rather about a structural problem in society.

The university sometimes fails to fulfil its role as a public area where people can exchange thoughts - ideally, in contact with people of different religions and skin colors.

Overstepping borders

Emine Aslan

Emine Aslan - one of the founders of the Twitter campaign

In the online campaign #CampusRassismus, Emine Aslan also speaks about her own experiences with a sociology professor she visited in a seminar on gender. Racism is "when he talked about polygamy and sexual inequality and inevitably relates it to Islam and your headscarf." Or when looking at the headscarf in a private conversation he declares, "You should maybe rethink a career in science."

It is situations like this, unreflected questions and remarks, that shape Emine Aslan's daily life. It means that "one is more approachable, having less privacy than other students."

At the work place, in the park, in a café

Why is it that many people lack the necessary sensibility when they are in contact with people who are hardly different than themselves? Emine Aslan thinks that in Germany there is a lack of awareness about everyday racism. "When we talk about racism, the responsibility and the complex of problems often shift to the right wing of society." One looks at the extremities of the problem. What is often forgotten is that racism can be found everywhere - at the work place, in the park, in the café, shopping and in school.

The campus is no exception, she argues. "The university is also just a part of society. There are different people and lecturers who have different viewpoints or perspectives." As a sociology student she knows that: people who are not confronted with specific lifestyles do not perceive them. That leads to the fact that students in seminars are often at a loss and their experiences banalized.

What am I supposed to do at the foreigners' office?

For Aslan, that their problems are not treated seriously enough is also demonstrated by the fact that universities often have no independent contact point for students affected by racism - as there are for women, people with disability, gays and lesbians. "When there is a problem, and that happens often, then there is incomprehension and one is referred to the international office or the foreigners' office. This prompts the question: why should the foreigners' office be responsible for a person who is born in Germany?"

For her it is clear: the online campaign #CampusRassismus can only be the first step. The next thing is for the debate to be continued "offline" so that "those students affected by racism can get involved in debates, especially relating to policy on higher education." So the reply "I come from Cologne" no longer leaves questions open.

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