Privileges and Critical Whiteness

When I heard of the (Global Learning) request of a school near Munich to deal with the topics of post-colonialism and mission in Tanzania, I was delighted and activated to walk this journey together. I was particularly motivated by reflexivity that showed itself in the dedication of the students to have their Tanzanian partner school visit them in return (as they had visited their partner school in Tanzania last summer). Through ENSA, the school exchange program of Bildung trifft Entwicklung (“education meets development”) their partner school may soon be able to visit the students in Germany.

So I responded, and collected a list of possible topics for a kick-off workshop, in which the students would further reflect and deepen their experience of their visit to Tanzania last summer. To my delight, they chose the topic of privileges and critical whiteness, which I could resonate concerning its particular importance after an extended stay in a country of the Global South, as a young person without any deeper prior knowledge to the global colonial matrix of power.

I don’t feel like an expert or anyone who has something specific to share other than her own struggles with the global inequalities and her own position, born into a context of imperialism and settler colonialism. So the workshop was a reflection of such self-understanding as vulnerable (re)-searcher, one who has voyaged through personal struggles that were triggered by becoming aware of global coloniality.

We began with image associations concerning life on the African continent (Senegal in particular), and then ventured into the use of language (White, Black, PoC ). With the walk of power, we explored privilege and intersectionality and took an extended slot of time to reflect these embodied experiences.

I was deeply impressed by the level of reflection and openness among the group. I kept on realizing that the reflections on post/de- coloniality are a lifelong process and one in which we all need each other, both cognitively/intelectually and also spiritually, emotionally and physically.

Thank you for holding this mirror up for me and relate with such openness.

“I believe in you”: Workshop with a middle school class on smartphones

Last Wednesday, I had the honor to conduct a workshop on the global implications of smartphones in the ninth grade of a middle school. After a short introduction on the new smartphone production in Rwanda (Made in Africa), we embodied the global journey of a smartphone and looked at which implications it brings at each ‘station’, and then dived into a group work on topics such as raw materials, the DRC, production, usage and disposal.

I had not thought about what it meant to deal with “middle school” classes in Germany, simply thinking that a school class is a school class. And I didn’t see a need to differentiate. How could I have forgot about the implications of structural and cultural violence, when the teacher of the class, who had requested such a workshop, told me after the workshop that these kids already are ‘filtered out’ by the school system.
I had not realized any less value when working with them than with other ‘Gymnasium’ kinds of students. On the contrary, I encountered deep compassion, I witnessed honest concern about the conditions of global smartphone production, and met a true sense of felt powerlessness, when a student said that even if he’d change his consumption behavior, nothing would change.
I responded with a personal plea for at least doing what feels right to be done, and affirming my belief in their decisions.
“I believe in you”.

Us vs Them from a privileged position.

It was kind of serendipitous to leave the political and academic setting of the Post-Development conference in Kassel for a very hands-on, relational workshop on Theater for Living. With the topic being “Us vs Them”, I took some time for reflecting my relation to this particular topic and how this may have played into my wish to participate.

My own “Us vs Them”
My “Us vs. Them” feels like it has much to do with my conscious and cautious self-positioning as a white privileged person, in a relationship with an “oppressed” (from my perspective, while he wouldn’t agree to such labeling of himself at the moment) Person of Colour and our child. It feels as if it was weaved into my wish to be “one of them” – to stand on their side to fight the right battle alongside them – in my particular personal history mostly referring to Rwandans – but seemingly prototypically for all African people. With this desire, knowing that I can never physically be one of them (if it truly is about skin colour), I feel trapped in the urge to side with them, while never really being able to leave the us – at least inside of my head, in the ways I am personally othering myself.

To explain my struggle with and the story behind this positioning, let us travel some 9 years back in time. 2010, in preparation of my voluntary year in Kigali (Rwanda), I first came in touch with the perspective of structual racism through the walk of power/privilege – and I was deeply confused, because I had never seen myself as one of the disadvantaged. In there, however, I noticed how people were advancing forward one step at a time, while I stayed somewhere in the back of the room. Comparing my own social position to those of others was awful and strange. And I felt like all of this did not even matter a single bit when I was in Rwanda shortly after. I admit, I sometimes played out the “I-am-not-as-purely-German-as-the-others-“ card when I was asked about my origin and I would rightfully say Kazakhstan. It was a complex ( )story.

More than six years have passed with a condition of trying to make myself pay for a collective legacy of guilt and Eurocentrism. I felt like I was given the only taste of healing through pregnancy and giving birth to our son – who was neither ‘us’ nor ‘them’. I felt this sense of him being the impersonification of all my desires for re-humanization and decoloniality – and still, over time, I realized that my and my partner’s positionalities put our child in a very tense and difficult situation, because he can never fully be “us” here, and never fully be “them” there – no matter from which place and position you voice this, it might be holding true (in a very pessimistic sense).

Theatre for Living
Back to Hamburg, September 2019. I entered the workshop of Theater for Living with this  lived heaviness of “us vs them”, the desire of being with “them”, not really expecting too much about the topic as such, but much more excited to learn about the technique which I haven’t experienced myself yet.

The academic journeying into the post-development conference in Kassel, has left me with sense of powerlessness that usually haunts me after deep reflections on the world and its future/systematic change. Still, it has poured some drops on a seed of agency that lies buried in my head (or heart?). With Theater for Living, I felt like the soil has been watered, fed and exposed to the sunlight, because of a sense of agency that was created in concrete theater exercises, derived from lived and felt experiences of the people in the room.

Theater for Living is based on Augusto Boal’s Theater of the Oppressed, and it transcends it through a systemic understanding of oppression (and all other social phenomena). It aims not just to storytell at them (the oppressors), but rather with them, acknowledging that the oppressors and their violences are not just something out there, but are weaved into and have grown out of the community as such.

And it did take courage. David used to say “making theatre (or anything) about people we want to help does not take as much courage as making theatre about us”. The Eurocentric way of thinking and doing politics/development/peace has been perfecting the judgement calls on people over there, while rarely looking itself in the mirror and thereby acknowledging the entanglement of histories across the globe. David’s observation that communities are hungry for storytelling resonated in my cells and fueled my desire to listen to the stories we share collectively. 

Offering, adding to and transforming stories became collective therapeutic practice inside the living organism of the group. It was miraculous.

For the first time ever since I started to read and learn about coloniality and racism, capitalism and modernity, I could feel a true sense of agency in the small stories that were present in the room. It chills me to the bones even as I write these lines. David repeatedly said: Specifity creates Universality, and it became alive through the experiences I was given in this workshop. I realized that what might seem as mundane stories in my own life mirror larger stories of global interconnectedness and the big pictures that I often seemed to feel powerless about.

Back to my “us and them”. Eventually, through the practice of techniques and methods from Theater for Living, I understood through my body what has been cognitively clear to me ever since I dived into peace studies, namely that the illusion of seperation is at the root of conflict. There is no us and them, and where there is, it arises from a conglomerate of needs and fears which want to be heard. My personal story of “us and them”, along with my desire of being with them, is eventually not a story about taking position on either side of the oppression or the violence. It now feels more like Ndlovu-Gatsheni calls it – choosing “the will to live” as a decolonial attitude against the “the will to power” which is at the base of coloniality. Hence, I find myself at precisely the crossroads that David identified when he said that we might need to change the tactic: Instead of merely protesting against something we don’t want, let us rather creating change that we do want.
The systems theoretical approach that lies at the foundation of Theater for Living provides it with powerful and transformative qualities of personal and collective agency. With deep and heartfelt thanks, I remain activated by these insights.

Thank you David.

Further Reading

Diamond, David. 2007. Theatre for Living. the art and science of community-based dialogue.

Finding the trans-rational in post-development.

On Tuesday and Wednesday, I was honoured with the chance to attend the post-development conference in Kassel. Although post-development has not been so visible on my radar yet, in search for ways to support the decolonial vision, the conference theme “decolonial alternatives to development” convinced me to inscribe to participate.

When thinking about alternatives to develpment, my starting point is the critique of development as such, which I understand as continuation of coloniality of power, knowledge and being (Quijano 2007).

One of the major topics that I took home (or: on the road; because my journey from Kassel took me further North to the Theater for Living – Us vs Them Workshop with David Diamond) with me were the commonalities I perceived between the trans-rational peace philosophy on the one hand (Dietrich 2012; 2013; 2015) and the search for decolonial alternatives to development on the other. In some of the panels I followed, I noticed an overwhelming commonsense to look for such alternatives in indigenous, spiritual, or what trans-rational peace philosophy would term energetic, cosmovisions and practices.

Energetic practices are understood as holistic, perceiving “all existence as a fabric interrelating nature, society and divinities (cosmos). The individual is never separate, but always part and parcel of the larger relationality that, in turn, is ultimately a temporary manifestation of the primal energetic Oneness of all beings” (Echavarrìa 2014, 61). Examples for such cosmovisions can be found across history and cultures. My professor Wolfgang Dietrich has dedicated much of his life to gather and reflect on such cosmovisions in Interpretations of Peace in History and Culture (2012).

Through the discussions and exchanges that happened in and between the panels, I also noticed the urgency of addressing the systemic, epistemic crisis that Ndlovu-Gatsheni is elaborating in Epistemic Freedom in Africa (Ndlovu-Gatsheni 2018). While the three concepts coloniality of being, coloniality of knowledge and coloniality of power (Quijano 2007) are useful terms to understand the colonial matrix that underlies the world system, they need to be thought together. Still, we have to start somewhere. And when Ndlovu-Gatsheni speaks of epistemological decolonization as a primary necessity, it is a direct result of the coloniality of being, because “[d]enial of being automatically denies epistemic virtue” (2018, 80). Many of the aspects and ideas I heard fluctuating in the conference have spoken or and about such approach of epistemiological decolonization, while also intertwining with re-humanization as the practice of resistance to coloniality of being.

When I think of the dimensions of epistemic decolonization that Ndlovu-Gatsheni lays out in Epistemic Freedom in Africa (2018, 80/81), most of the conference topics circled around democratizing knowledge and fostering a plurality of ecologies of knowledge:

“opening up the academy to a plurality of knowledges including the subjugated ones as part of achievement of cognitive justice (Santos 2014). This opening up to ecologies of knowledge is meant to produce ‘convivial scholarship’ whic ‘confronts and humbles the challenge of over-prescription, over-standardization, over-routinization and over-prediction’ (Nyamnjoh 2017, 5)” (Ndlovu Gatsheni 2018, 81).

In the spirit of such democratization, keynote speaker Ashish Kothari spoke about his vision of a non-hierarchical and non-patriarchal pluriverse that constitute transformative, systemic alternatives, consisting of (at least?) three aspects:

  1. Resistance to dominant structures
    In Eco-Swaraj: a radical ecological democracy that Ashish Kothari spells out, such resistance is manifest through indigenous self-rule, taking control of the production process economically, and decision-making processes politically.
  2. Transformations:
    When we think of such transformations, they may be located on multiple layers, for example- and this speaks directly to the epistemic crisis – within spheres of learning and education. I heard multiple alternative (institutional) concepts to the idea of the university, such as multi-/plurversities, silent university / off university and communiversity. Still, and this is a question that was brought up in another panel, we need to reconsider our idea of transformation itself. In a modern mindset/cosmovision, transformation is likely to be located in a place in the future, which corresponds to a linear understanding of time and space, whereas energetic cosmovisions often entail a circular understanding of time and space, such as the past that lies before us (Lederach 2005), which leads very different implications for the location of transformation.
  3. Utopias are the third aspect that Ashish Kothari elaborates for the above mentioned systemic alternatives. In the context of the conference, it appears to me that these utopias are largely visions of the future, still inspired by the past (energetic frameworks). I also noticed that – while the little word peace that means so much to me has been only mentioned in a little indented text bullet, my understanding of utopias are certain understandings of peace.

He then raised the legitimate and practical question of who will catalyze the transformation? 

This question made me hesitate and ask myself whether this really was a question at all. All change begins and reverberates in me as it does in the outer world, despite my feelings of powerlessness to superstructures such as coloniality and all of its stifling aspects of capitalim, racism and modernity, among others. I cannot advance the decolonial cause through pointing the finger and writing academic texts, I need to live the change, and not just in one sphere of my life but in all the layers of my being and relating. Simply as it sounds, I have to be the change I want to see in the world.

This brings me to another aspect I have thankfully encountered at the conference: introspection and self-reflexivity. Sally Matthews spoke about the umcomfortable position of post-development theorists, who are hunted by the rejection of development (theoretically and/or conceptually) while at the same time living a lifestyle that benefits from development. She suggests three ways of “moving forward” through the discomfort:

  1. Recognizing and acknowledging the desirability of development. At least in terms of the logic of our modern world system, ”development” promises access and chances for people all around the world. We should avoid falling into a trap of arrogance when we assume that just because we have come to “understand the truth” that ‘development’ is a ‘bad’ concept which should be replaced, that the rest of the world is supposed to – again – follow our lead. It is a more complex thing.
    Acknowledging the desirability of development might then also mean – even if we don’t agree with it – facilitating other people’s access to ‘development’.
  2. Treading carefully when promoting alternatives. This second aspect of moving through the discomfort speaks directly to much of the alternatives that have been spelled out at the conference, always carrying the danger of romantizing about an imagined energetic/ancient/indigenous cosmovision that is free of conflict. We need to be aware of this danger and the pitfalls that accompany romantisizing the lives of those who live at the margins of ‘development’.
    Carefulness also tackles the difficult questions of representation (of the marginalized/oppressed). How can we advance the cause of such alternatives without speaking for them — thereby reproducing epistemic violence? How can we collectively build platforms that amplify their voices?
  3. Critiqueing development at home (e.g. Degrowth). One of the facets of coloniality is the constant tendency to look for problems elsewhere, particularly in the Global South, and needing to ‘help’ them, which always happens from a privileged, Euro-American-centric perspective. The structure of development aid being accused of coloniality by its very nature, we remain with the question: How then can we foster solidarity and work together on global issues, such as the climate crisis, racism and/or coloniality?
    A possible answer to this dilemma lies in developing solutions “at home”, thereby acknolwedging the interconnectedness of all being and action. Global solidarity and the struggle for humanization and epistemic freedom / justice begins locally and hopefully organically begins creating global networks.

All of these insights and reflections that were activated within me during and after the Post-development conference in Kassel have echoed within myself as a feeling of agency. Within the trans-rational framework, I find orientation to such quest for decolonial alternatives, sometimes under different labels and concepts, but intuitively I sense that we mean the same things.

This leaves me with the impression that the “post” in post-development might be pointing towards the trans-rational.

Transrationality shares “the postmodern commitment to plurality, but also reintegrate[s] the spiritual component. Trans-rational implies having passed through the rational, but without clinging to its purely materialistic perspective. Reason is acknowledged as one possible mode of perception, among others (…) Their descriptions of reality differ and the spiritual might as well be expressed in terms of a systemic approach, of deep-ecology, as transpersonal or yet again the holistic” (Echavarrìa 2014, 63).



Further Reading / References

Dietrich, Wolfgang. 2012. Interpretations of Peace in History and Culture. Many Peaces Series. London: Palgrave Macmillan.
———2013. Elicitive Conflict Transformation and the Transrational Shift in Peace Politics. Many Peaces Series. London: Palgrave Macmillan.
———2016. Elicitive Conflict Transformation. Lecture in the Winter Term 2015/201
———2018. Elicitive Conflict Mapping. Many Peaces Series. London: Palgrave Macmillan.

Echavarría Álvarez, Josefina (2014). “Elicitive Conflict Mapping: A Practical Tool for Peacework”. Journal of Conflictology . Vol. 5, Iss. 2, pp. 58-71. Campus for Peace, UOC. DOI:

Lederach, John Paul. 2005. The Moral Imagination. The Art and Soul of Building Peace. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Ndlovu-Gatsheni, Sabelo. 2018. Epistemic Freedom in Africa : Deprovincialization and Decolonization. London: Taylor & Francis Ltd.

Quijano, Aníbal. 2007. Coloniality and Modernity/Rationality. In: Cultural Studies 21 (2), p. 168-178.

Children of Imperialism

Kazakhstan, the vastness of your miraculous steppe does something with me; responds to the calling of my soul, lingering ‘home’. Vastness, freedom, where borders neither exist nor claim their control.

Kazakhstan, place I was born into. Where my mother and my father have grown up, were educated and socialized. It did not take me long to understand that I am a child of imperialism. I hear the colonial legacy in comments such as “Kazakh people are not able to work properly” or “You cannot trust them, they have these (makes a face to mimic ‘Asian’ facial features) eyes”. Something within me calls for dropping this legacy, while I know that I can’t ever rid myself of the entanglements of my ancestors’ histories and the paths that my being-in-this-world paves for my descendants and their generations. Between moral and energetic (holistic) reasonings, I swirl back and forth between differentiating myself from the imperialist mindset of Russian (Soviet) settlers and integrating myself into the wholeness of what happened here.

Kazakhstan, land of the wanderers. Coinciding with the brutal scars that have been left upon you by forced deportation, starvation and cultural epistemicides. While walking through the national military museum, I can’t help myself but assuming that all these paintings decorating the giant walls (which have no creation dates) depict processes of mimicry of the Western ideology that sets what counts as ‘culture’ – a certain type of fine arts, a certain way of exposing objects, a certain… kind of ‘civilization’.

I do not know whether and how the global colonial matrix includes the imperial relation between the former Soviet Union and the regions and peoples it swallowed. Yet, I did read that the governmentally-induced famines of the 1920 and 1930s decimated the native Kazakh population to become a national minority, constituting a dramatic, yet forgotten genocide.

No, I cannot shake this legacy off, when I am amidst the German-Russian part of my family who push the memories of Kazakhstan and Soviet times to the edges of their being-in-this-world. When I touch a sense of transgenerational traumatization that is being relativized by reminders of rational reasoning, economic welfare in the present and a desire for development in the future. No, I can neither shake this legacy off when I visit the Russian-Ukrainian part of my family in Kazakhstan, where latent downgrading of Kazakh natives accompany everyday life. Where holding on to an idea of Soviet-Russian civilization, culture and groupness constitutes a sense of belonging, which constantly represses its own shadows.

But this legacy has called me, whispering songs of its longing for truth, integration, acknowledgement. And has sparked in my heart a fire of a decolonial attitude, which silently screams for reconstitution of love and shared humanity as foundation of being-in-this world.

As a child of imperialism, my soul longs to unite with a harmony that has never fully gone lost. I am also a child of the world.

Kazakhstan Calling

In family conversations, it often seemed to me that Kazakhstan is associated with the past, something backward, which needed to be left behind and overcome. With my choice of working through transgenerational traumatization of German-Russians in the former Soviet Union, I now perceive this association as a symptom of precisely this need to forget, deny, ‘move on’ that comes with diverse forms of trauma.

For my father, however, Kazakhstan was present, more than was the newly built life in Germany back in the 1990s. This has led to changes in the original constellation of my family, when Kazakhstan has kept on pulling him and took him back eventually.
While I have embraced other presents, too, an occasional calling that emanates from Kazakhstan remains with me. It lies within my comfort to hear people speaking the Russian language (which, nevertheless, is still an imperialist language for native Kazakhs). When someone would ask me, however, if I speak Russian, I reply “Я не говорю по русски. Я только понимаю немного” and shake off the possibility of re-connecting to a language that coloured and brought to life my early childhood.
It lies within a deeply rooted melancholy of listening to songs that embody a longing for the East, the tears that run down and clean my face when I grasp its lyrical poetry, its harmonical and rhythmic familiarity, and stand face to face with the void such music evokes within me.

On the first glance, there is not much that still connects me to Kazakhstan, besides being born and being emigrated from there. Yet, in the wake my 9 month-engagement with German-Russian family histories in the former Soviet Union, Kazakhstan in particular, I have begun seeing a broader picture. One that goes beyond my personal biography, or that of my parents. Or that of my grandparents. Or that of my great-grandparents. I carry parts of these legacies within myself, many as ghosts that I wouldn’t dare to face, others as sweet or sour reminders of a past that lies before, but also a future that lies behind us. And so Kazakhstan has been calling me anew, ever since I had begun and more so since I finished working on my Master thesis (from March 2018 to December 2018).

Tomorrow, I am embarking on a journey to respond to this call, for a journey to Kazakhstan, my motherland, my fatherland, and not my land at all (for the histories it took).

Our Mobile Phones and their Origins

In the past weeks, I have conducted a series of three workshop days with a school in Bad Tölz in the context of the program “Bildung trifft Entwicklung” (education meets development).
With head, heart and hand, we explored the different stages in the life cycle of a smartphone, tackling global interconnectedness in the raw material extraction, production, trading, usage and recycling processes.
On the first workshop day, the focus was on working conditions and global inequalities within the chain of mobile phone production. Through a “privilege check” – roleplay, the participants could phyiscally experience the (social justice) gaps between different actors involved in the production chain of a mobile phone.
The second day started off with a world map game, in which population, GDP and mobile phone usage was explored through positioning on a large world map. In a second step, a thread helped to locate different [geographical] stages in the life cycle of a mobile phone around the world. We then concretized the entanglements by focusing on Coltan extraction in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
On the final workshop day, we focused on usage and proper disposal of the mobile phones, reflected upon our agency and possible actions we can take as small parts of a wider (postcolonial and neoliberal) structure with an inherent logic of cosumption. As a result, the following cluster has emerged, pointing towards roads for possible action within our limited frame of innersystemic options.

Von Menschen und Büchern

Manchmal führt uns das Leben, ohne dass wir es ahnen. Manchmal gibt es uns schon vorher Zeichen, die wir in dem Moment, in dem sie geschehen, nicht als solche wahrnehmen, aber rückblickend verbinden und aus ihnen Sinn ablesen können.

Als ich eines Tages im Frühjahr 2013 für mein Praktikum bei “Genocide Watch” im Büro saß, und Artikel über den Kongo überflog, rief Greg uns für ein spontanes Meeting in den Konferenzsaal – wir hatten Besuch bekommen. Zachary Kaufmann war gekommen, und Greg wollte uns die Gelegenheit geben, mit einem renommierten Forscher im Bereich der Transitional Justice zu tratschen – über unsere professionelle Zukunft, seinen Berufs- und Bildungsweg, und über Mut. Ich erinnere mich noch daran, dass wir über Forschung in Ruanda sprachen, als er mich fragte, ob ich schonmal die öffentliche Bücherei in Kacyiru besucht hatte. Ich verneinte.

Er empfiel mir, mal vorbeizuschauen, denn die Bücherei war vom Rotary Club finanziert und von ihm mit-initiiert und mit Wissen (i.e. Büchern) gefüllt worden.

Flash Forward. Frühjahr 2015. Da sitze ich nun, in der Bücherei, deren Atmosphäre mich ein wenig an die Uni-Bib erinnert – fast alle Arbeitsplätze sind besetzt, junge SchülerInnen und StudentInnen  arbeiten, lesen, eine angenehme Stille herrscht – und Bücher, von denen ich nur träumen könnte, dass sie hier in der öffentlichen Bücherei in Kigali verfügbar seien. Ich schreibe meine Bachelorarbeit, der letzte Schritt hin zum Abschluss.

Und ich schmunzele, weil ich die letzten Tage in Passau noch alle möglichen Bücher eingescannt habe, aus Furcht davor, in Kigali keinen Zugriff zu Literatur zu haben. Eine Gruppe von Erstklässern besucht die Bücherei. Für einige Minuten wird es unruhig, die Kleinen stampfen die Treppe hinauf und werden durch die verschiedenen Abteilungen geführt. Sie wirken aufgeregt und hungrig nach Wissen. Für einen kurzen Moment denke ich zurück an Zachary und wie er mir vor zwei Jahren davon erzählt hat, was er für Herzblut in das Projekt “Bücher für alle” gesteckt hat. Danke.images