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Malcolm Ohanwe, Journalist und Moderator
Image: Özgün Turgut/Kevin Koya

On decolonizing the internet and mindsets

Stefan Dege eg
June 5, 2020

The Goethe-Institut's Festival Latitude discusses the impact of colonial structures today. DW talked to Malcolm Ohanwe, a panelist of the discussion "Good Question, Next Question: Decolonize the Internet."


From June 4-6, the Goethe-Institut's digital Festival Latitude presents a program of discussions and art focussing on how colonial structures work today, and how they can be overcome. During the festival, multimedia journalist Malcolm Ohanwe will host a debate about the future of the internet. DW got in touch with him ahead of the event.

DW: Sadly, the Goethe-Institut's Latitude Festival, which addresses the consequences of colonialism, feels extremely topical due to the killing of George Floyd in the US

Malcolm Ohanwe: What is happening in the United States is the consequence of colonial structures. Colonialism is irreversible, the damage cannot be remedied overnight. You can only try to deal with it. This is comparable to a wound that leaves a scar that can look at times very ugly, and at other times less ugly. Police brutality in the United States is one those ugly faces. But it is also visible in all other western societies that have a Black minority.

Germany has been debating the return of colonial looted art for some time. The debate is also about reparations for the crimes committed by German colonialists, such as against the Herero people in what is now Namibia. Where else did the colonial era leave its mark in Germany?
We see these traces in things that are supposedly trivial, such as street names. But also in the language or imagery that surrounds us. In high school I had the Diercke World Atlas [Editor's note: a school atlas that has been used in German schools since 1883]. It spoke of "human races." Much of this race theory goes back to self-proclaimed anthropologists who scientized and pseudo-intellectualized their baseless racist ideas.

Dt. Kolonien in Afrika  Landkarten 1902
The German colonies in Africa in 1902, on maps of the Diercke World AtlasImage: picture-alliance / akg-images

This idea still prevails: There are many people in Germany who believe that there are significant genetic differences that can be recognized by the color of their skin. All of this is due to colonial structures and it has not yet been processed well enough. There is no culture of remembrance regarding biological racism. We have not yet learned why these things are wrong and dangerous and why it is so important to nip them in the bud.

What are you thinking of, for example?

It can be a little comment like "black people can dance particularly well." This is a reminder that people have been classified into different values ​​based on their phenotype [the set of observable characteristics of an individual resulting from the interaction of genes with the environment] and their skin color, which is why they have been persecuted.

As someone with dark skin, how does this affect you on a personal level?

Interesting question, because my skin color is actually not dark; I probably have the world's average skin color. I am constantly accompanied by the fact that I am marked here as dark and not as "normal." As a Black person, you are confronted with this every day.

Illustrationen des Latitude-Festival des Goethe-Instituts
A picture created for the Goethe-Institut's Latitude FestivalImage: El Boum

For the digital Latitude Festival, you are covering the topic of the internet. Where do we find colonialism online and in what form?

Interestingly enough, the George Floyd case provides another example of it. We see dynamics of appropriation and of invisibilization; through social media, many discourses and ideas have now reached the center of capitalism and the mainstream. Companies like Netflix or well-known artists have picked up the Black Lives Matter hashtag for their own purposes. It is then quickly forgotten that these clever ideas originally came from people who have been repeatedly discriminated against, such as black women. If you use such hashtags without belonging to that identity, you forget their origin.

Even with the #MeToo movement, the phrase initially came from a black woman, which is something very few people know. But if you are discriminated against from all sides, then this fight for freedom is essential for survival. This appropriation works through colonial dynamics that give priority to white people and voices.

Tarana Burke
Tarana Burke started using the phrase 'Me Too' in 2006 to empower vulnerable womenImage: picture-alliance/ZUMAPRESS.com/J. Han

And then there are different algorithms that target your skin color: Face recognition apps often don't work for people who don't have Caucasian facial features. The fact that many social media apps work with the binary categories of men and women is also a consequence of centuries of white Christian-Puritan expansion policies that have stamped out differentiated gender identities around the world. Colonization is also noticeable here.

Does the internet promote racism and discrimination?

I think the internet can favor it because people can post content anonymously. Racism can spread unhindered and form the breeding ground for terrorism. This is shown by recent attacks whose perpetrators had previously networked in internet forums and exchanged views on the ideology of white supremacism.

How can the internet be decolonized?

Languages are important, for example. Many apps are only accessible in the major colonial languages. As a result, many people have no access to information through their mother tongue. One could use artificial intelligence for translation programs, for example, so that more people could have access to education in the future. After all, the internet is a catalyst for education, and debates need to be held about it.

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