Unlearning Racism: Literary and Linguistic Perspectives

The time has come to realize that the interracial drama acted out on the American continent has not only created a new black man, it has created a new white man, too. No road whatever will lead Americans back to the simplicity of this European village where white men still have the luxury of looking on me as a stranger. … This world is white no longer, and it will never be white again.

These famous words are taken from an essay by the African-American novelist James Baldwin who, in 1953, wrote about his experience of visiting Leukerbad. Given the place of their conception, these words have a special, enduring significance for us here in Switzerland. What’s more, in the wake of the worldwide Black Lives Matter protest movement, they also have a reinvigorated poignancy and relevance. We are surely reminded that, while some things may have changed, the world is still one stacked in favour of some people at the expense of others.
This lecture series is, in principle, grounded in Baldwin’s important observations; most notably, the idea that racialized and racist notions of blackness are inevitably constructed through the dominant, privileged lens of whiteness. As Sarah Ahmed (2007: 157) reiterates, however: “whiteness is invisible and unmarked, as the absent centre against which others appear only as deviants, or points of deviation.” It is for this reason that, from the allied perspectives of literature and linguistics, one key objective of this lecture is to understand how language is often used to teach white people that their/own position in the world is somehow natural, neutral and normal. In doing so, we invite students to form their own opinion on the various discourses of race/ethnicity, and to (re)consider their own commitment to unlearning racism.
Our lectures will reach across both time and space; for example, from the Middle Ages to Early Modernity, and from the USA and the UK to Switzerland. We will cover critical scholarship on, for example, biological racism, the histories of racial thinking, and the current representational politics of race/ethnicity. We will also consider how racism emerges in the language of both academia itself and everyday talk. As well as our own lectures, we have also invited several guest speakers who, collectively, will speak to the ways ethnic marginalization and racism are experienced in Switzerland and in Bern itself. Ultimately, this lecture is underpinned by an important ethic expressed by Stuart Hall (2000), one of the world’s foremost voices in race/ethnicity studies:

I’m interested in deep change, but I don’t think intellectual work should be short-changed to prove a political point. To point towards complexity, ambiguity, unexpected consequences – that’s intellectual vocation.

Required Reading: For each session, set texts will be uploaded on ILIAS. It is expected that the following three texts will have been read before the first lecture:

Ahmed, Sarah. (2007). A phenomenology of whiteness. Feminist Theory, 8(2): 149–168.

Baldwin, James. (1955 [1953]). Stranger in the village. In Notes of a Native Son (pp. 159–175). Boston, MA: Beacon Press

Hall, Stuart. (1987). Minimal selves. In Lisa Appignanesi & Homi K. Bhabha (eds), Identity: The Real Me (pp. 44–46). London: Institute of Contemporary Arts.








Literatur, Linguistik