Tag Archives: marginalization

Discussing Stereotypes

The biggest issue for me,  on this day and in the whole training, was the introduction to an input on “The West and the Rest”. I appreciated the input and the attempt to show how categories like “East”, “West”, “European”, and “Oriental” can be deconstructed by looking at the time and place of their creation, and at politically motivated instrumentalization.

What made me feel very uncomfortable was to see this important topic being introduced with the attempt to reproduce stereotypes about “East” and “West” and they way this was conducted:
Refusals to play along were repeatedly rejected and disencouraged by the moderator as well as by parts of the group, which I find to be a disastrous way of dealing with stereotypes. This does not mean that I deny the existence of stereotypes, of course they exist, and are stuck in everybody’s heads, as one person pointed out. In order to make them productive though, it has to be allowed to openly reject them, and express inability to reproduce them (especially when placing random adjectives in either “West” or “East”, without those being further defined. Eastern Germany? Eastern Europe? Eastern Romania? The “global” East?). Otherwise, if the mere fact of their existence defies every attempt at deconstruction, why mention them at all?
It has to be possible to have a proper discussion about both result of the method and the method itself, both of which did only happen in a small circle after the session when lunch was already being served.
I am aware that most people had no problem with this activity though, and that it is probably my “academic bias”, which dreads nothing so much as oversimplification. It is also clear that the group was so mixed that it was difficult to reach and satisfy everyone. Yet, this is place for reflection and further thoughts – so here it goes.

This whole thing left me pondering the question of how to deal with (national) stereotypes in education: Is it okay to invoke them, especially in a multi-national group? How to deal with people who actively reject them? For me, these issues are as central and deserve the same attention as the handling of gender stereotypes. Dealing with them insensitively might cause a lot of damage within a (multi-national) group and cause individuals to feel uncomfortable voicing their opinion.
Furthermore, if we accept the potentially harmful nature of this kind of stereotypes, why not try and act against them? Why not explicitly open a discussion about what makes them so persistent, and about the different functions they have on an individual, social, and political level? I did not attend the Anti-Bias-Workshop, but am generally fond of the idea of creating awareness about personal prejudice and patterns of thinking. Why not create a space in which national or ethnic stereotypes, when they come up, are either immediately discussed or at least made visible, not to shun the individual person but to be able to recognize biases?

During the last feedback round, one participant stated that for her it was rewarding, to meet so many people from Romania, because in the country she comes from, the stereotypical Romanian is a beggar. While this statement is of course potentially hurtful, it also allows many important questions to be reflected upon by everyone in the group individually: Do I feel personally offended by this statement (or not), and why (not)? Do I feel the same as this participant? Did I realize I felt the same before she said it? Would I have dared to say it? Did I suspect that’s what people in this participants country think?
And then, on a more general level: What are the reasons she had this stereotype? In which political/cultural/social/… context was it constructed? And so the deconstruction goes…

To sum it up, this day certainly gave me food for thought. And it convinced me even further that national stereotypes, as well as old tropes about “The West and the Rest”, are still among the most pressing issues to deal with on a European as well as on a global scale.

Realities and Truths

On this day we discussed museums in Warsaw, Prague, Berlin, Eisenhüttenstadt, and Vilnius, which all deal with the history between 1945 and 1989. I liked the way this activity was organized, working in small groups was productive and we got a good overview about the five museums and a sixth one presented by the moderator.

While I understood the frustration of one of the participants, after every single museum (except one) had been heavily criticized for their approaches, I felt like there was also an important lesson to be learned from this frustration:
That there cannot be one true interpretation of history, which can claim to represent the reality of a given historical moment in space and time. This also means that a museum aspiring to present a neatly worked out master narrative of the period referred to as “Communism” is most likely to have a distinct ideological agenda, and neither willing nor able to include multiple, contradicting perspectives.
Similar problems occurred when we started discussing words, such as “communism” and “genocide” (“freedom” could inspire similar discussions). While being neatly defined in dictionaries, these words remain abstractions. Using them to represent real-life phenomena makes it extremely difficult to talk about historical events, without stepping into ideological traps and constantly missing each other’s points.

For me, these discussions showed the importance of working with as little abstraction as possible. By this I mean “doing” (as in, researching, studying, teaching) history “from below”, starting for example with an individual person and their experiences. Or with a certain place, a building, monument, or a city. Or with an object, as it is often done in museums nowadays.
Approaches like this, in my opinion, have the advantage of raising interest by their immediate accessibility, by being tangible and material. Literally everything, everywhere, can become a point of interest from which to start. When studying history on this “ethnographic” level, there are always material objects, concrete places, special individuals to hold on to, making it harder to be distracted and confused by abstract ideologies, political and social changes, and propaganda(s).

It was great to have the extra-hour for free discussion! Perhaps one hour “open space” every day would have been useful?

Speaking about Speaking Out

Speaking of marginalized and dominant discourses, the latter being (naturally) overwhelmingly present on Sunday, on Monday we got a presentation of a theater project which aims at giving a voice to those who were excluded from the national euphoria in the early ’90s.

There is a good chance that Nai Wen’s perspective as someone who came to Germany as an adult helped her to ask the questions and get the answers which the performance project she presented is based on. Working with techniques of the Theatre of the Oppressed, and Brechtian alienation effects, on the site of the well-established memorial site Bernauer Straße, her original project combines multiple dimensions of a de-colonial, subversive approach to history:

By generating a script from interviews with contemporary witnesses, people from the margins of German society are given the opportunity to speak out, and a sense of authenticity is generated.
By using the, sometimes graphic, overacting and alienation techniques, this sense is smashed to pieces, and the individual experience is genera
lized.
By acting on-site, starting off with the traditional format of a guided tour around an official memorial site, official discourse is at the same time challenged and
interacted with.
By leaving it to visitors themselves to figure out who and what is part of the play, individual involvement is encouraged.

For me, this performance project stands out as an example of creative, dynamic, and engaging approaches to deal with history. Especially when dealing with people who are neither very fond of “traditional” ways of learning about history, e.g. books and museums, nor represented in official discourses, I imagine projects like this are potential “gateways” to generate interest in historic events in general.

Nai Wen’s presentation was, unfortunately, very disappointing. Some short clips, and then a workshop in Theatre of the Oppressed, or just more room for questions, might have allowed (me) a deeper understanding of her work, and prevented exhaustion!