On German national identity

  I remember when, in November 2013, I attended a lecture here at Cambridge University. The topic of Nazism and German history came up briefly in a class about Psychometrics. I can’t recall why the topic came up, but the posture of two German girls in class changed when it did. If I recall correctly, one of them bent their heads, and the other shifted and sunk a bit in her seat. I wondered to myself if the reaction was conscious. I wondered if they knew how their body language changed when the topic came up–how they appeared visibly uncomfortable. I felt a bit sad that they seemed to feel pain—why else would they move from being upright to sunken? Still though, I recognized that discomfort is often a necessary process to endure when confronting the pains of the past, making changes, and reaching to the state of mind where we’re convinced that some history isn’t worth being repeated. After class, I spoke to some friends about what I’d observed, and wondered openly about how some Germans might feel whenever discussions of that era resurface. My mind also shot back to a slideshow I’d prepared two years earlier, in 2011. The slideshow was part of a presentation I was making as part of a film course I was taking. We were tasked with discussing cinema and national identity, and I explored German, Indian and Caribbean (Bahamian) national identities. 

The picture is one of my slides. I’d watched the film Der Untergang and tried to understand it, analyze it, to get a sense of Nazism and its link to German nationalism both in the past and the present. I’d searched and read from articles, commentary and papers to gain a sense of the effect of Nazism on German identity, and I came away from the exercise perhaps with a bit more empathy for the process that a young German person might have to go through in coming to healthy terms with their identity as ‘German’ despite the horrors committed by their ancestors. I imagined that it’s not always a beautiful or emotionally easy process. I imagine that there is some latent sense of shame, discomfort and guilt, and I imagined that whilst young Germans aren’t responsible for the sins of their forefathers, it remains part of their history… something which has shaped Germany and Germans today, and something which they’d have to work through, and perhaps with, as they come to an understanding of why certain things are the way they are and why certain ideologies should be avoided, both for themselves as Germans, and for those who are not. The experience of reviewing that film opened my eyes, and maybe my heart, to human experiences that I’m not sure I’d ever considered before… and when I sat in that class in 2013, and I saw those two girls shift, it added a layer of reality to what previously were just words on a slide and thoughts in my mind. (How does it feel?)

I’ve since met a few German people… folks that I’d count as friends, and it has occurred to me on various occasions to ask them what they feel whenever the Holocaust, Nazism and German national identity is discussed. I wanted to ask what they feel about expressing German patriotism to foreigners. However, I’ve never quite felt it an appropriate topic to broach, or at least I really just don’t know how to ask the question. Sometimes readings don’t present as clear an understanding as simply talking to someone does, and indeed my main reading was quite old, perhaps outdated. Part of me feels that perhaps many young Germans really don’t carry any sense of shame concerning their national identity and guilt concerning their history, even if they appreciate how evil the Holocaust was…. But then again, part of me does feel that perhaps many of them do. Both sides of those experiences (identity pride or identity shame) are understandable… perhaps they’re also both real and true. 

[Quote in the slide from Brüning, N., Krumrey, H., Opitz, O., & Stock W. (2001)]

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Update: A snout moth


A few months ago I posted pictures on Facebook (scroll to the end to see), and video on Instagram of this peculiar looking moth. Perhaps it doesn’t look that strange in the grand scheme of natural things, because it actually looks like something very familiar: a leaf. Still though, it’s not often that one mistakes a moth for a torn leaf…. It’s not often that a moth’s proboscis looks like a dried, barky stem flowing from wings that mimic lush vegetation. So, as typical as leaves are, the moth is fascinating, and so I posted, and posted, and posted on it six months ago. I posted so many images of it that I felt obligated to announce that my last post was ‘my last post’ so that no-one would have to worry anymore about mothy news feeds. Unfortunately for moth haters though, the previous post is losing its title of ‘last’, as in ‘final’, because once more, I have moth news: an update!
Try as I did 6 months ago, I didn’t find out the name of the moth or any type of information on it. However, this morning I had a breakthrough moment. Professor of Evolutionary Biology at Cambridge, who specializes in butterflies and the like, Chris Jiggins, responded to my email where I asked him about the moth. He didn’t know exactly what species of moth it was, but he did know the family. He told me that it’s a type of snout moth of the Pyralidae family, and said it looked like an amazing little insect. He also linked me to some information on snout moths and I started reading a bit about them and searching to see if I could find the exact species of snout it was. I had no luck, but on another wonderful note, another zooologist from Cambridge, Dr. Henry Disney, responded to an email I had sent him concerning my moth problem. He told me that he specializes in flies though, and so couldn’t really help, but he suggested that I contact someone from the Natural History Museum in London to see if they could help me out. This brings me to the third email I sent out, to a Pyralidae family specialist of the Natural History Museum, but based in Denmark. He hasn’t yet responded, but I really hope that he does. It would be wonderful to finally be able to find out the name and the story of my (ka)leafy snout moth. 🙂
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Can Social Media work for me?

fb update
I went to an event by the Social Media Knowledge Exchange(SMKE) called “Can Social Media work for me?” The SMKE is a project focused on helping postgrad students to share their work via social media. I thought it would be interesting to hear what they had to say. They largely seemed to prefer Twitter for getting their work, opinions and research out, but I’m very much a Facebook kinda girl. Either way, the guy talking in this picture, Barney Brown, is the Head of Digital Communication at Cambridge University. He has the responsibility of managing the University of Cambridge’s social media pages. So, when you search up “University of Cambridge’ on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and the like, the person behind the posts is often him. Lots of interesting and informative things were said by all the speakers, such as that pretty pictures of Cambridge seem to be the most popular thing with followers of the University of Cambridge​ on social media— getting tons of likes, often times much more so than news and research from the Uni—so they keep on snapping pictures and uploading them. I know it’s not a surprising thing that pretty pictures get the most attention, but I think I just found it kinda weird hearing the person who posts as ‘University of Cambridge’ talk as a person rather than as an institution. I felt this weird, stupid sense of ‘You’re the ‘University of Cambridge’ and you’re not a building or some abstract collective or institution, you’re a person! People make systems run, systems don’t just do things independent of us’ Either way, they realised that people also zoned out of Cam Uni videos that they posted when they put the Cambridge logo at the start, and so they decided to take the logo out at the beginning and get to the content of the videos at once.
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On boycotting the Oscars, boycotting Cambridge University and the Hunger Games.


When I saw the video of Jada Pinkett Smith advocating boycotting the Oscars, three thoughts came to mind:
1. I agree on the basis that the Academy (Oscar board) is biased and it’s perhaps worth investing effort into developing a new institution that acknowledges and celebrates the contributions of a diverse range of people. A panel, like the Academy, that is overwhelmingly dominated by white men who identify with and understand what it means to be ‘white and male’ will probably be more empathetic toward white males… even if they try to be fair. We can try to be objective, but the truth is that we’re often not. Our experience of life shades our understanding of others, even our appreciation of them, and often we’re simply better able to empathise with and appreciate the experiences of those who we feel similar to in some way. Maybe the Academy will never change, and a boycott may help transpose effort into a different, new endeavor that is more diverse at the core; an endeavor that may build prestige and benefit more folks over time.
2. …But I disagree on the basis that a new, more diverse structure may not necessarily achieve as much widespread acclaim and power as the old. If the Academy continues to be respected as ‘fair’ by many white people, then having non-white folks simply leave will rob many white folks of the opportunity to appreciate black greatness. Further, if we only have a situation where white people see one thing as great and fair to all, but it rarely or never acknowledges non-white folks, and if we have another situation where non-white folks see another thing as great and fair to all (assuming white-privilege doesn’t exist), but it never or rarely acknowledges white folks, then we’ll effectively be creating a situation where people increasingly reward themselves, fail to see eye to eye, slip further and further away from objectivity and more and more into their insular, segregated circles. If we’re to truly appreciate each other’s merit and greatness, we need to work toward powerful, prestigious systems that include diversity in decisions and awards and is respected by everyone. Part of the process of creating that ideal can involve fixing the already widely acclaimed rather than simply tearing it down and replacing it with something which only one group might acknowledge, or might fail.
3. …and it’s because of those two, seemingly opposing thoughts, that I have sometimes struggled a bit with the idea of being a student at Cambridge University. The University of Cambridge​ is a very, very old, English, university that is dominated by ‘rich’, ‘white’ and ‘male’ in various ways. It has the prestige and reputation of being one of the world’s top educational institutions. White, black, male, female, English, Trini, all other, in-between and more respect its accreditation. However, even with all her greatness and respect, succeeding in joining her ranks isn’t simply a fair process. When you are accepted to Cambridge University, the acceptance is a mark of one’s merit, but it’s also a mark of luck and privilege. I’ve been confronted before with the idea of moving ahead in academia here, post-Ph.D., and to be quite honest, I simply have no desire to even try. I’ve seen two young, white, male friends offered positions here after completing their PhDs and it’s extremely difficult for me to imagine that even if I had all the publications and achievements that they had, that I, a young, black woman, would even be considered for the job. I’ve never had a person of African descent as a lecturer in Cambridge during my MPhil or the PhD thus far, but at the UWI, in the Caribbean, I had 5 white lecturers. I’ve been a member of two female-student dominated departments at Cambridge (Psychology and Education), but the heads of both departments are men. I’ve seen a trajectory where the majority of students are female, and the higher up the ladder one goes, the ratio starts favouring men more and more. I know that I’m participating in a system that likely unfairly excluded many others like me, and whilst I reap the benefits of its prestige, I’m failing to invest in another institution that may privilege a more diverse group of people. On the other hand, I know that Cambridge University will probably retain its prestige for hundreds of years more, and it may be a long time before anyone who invests in newer, more diverse universities, will gain the respect, repute and power to change things. I know that my presence at Cambridge is perhaps a small step toward making things fairer and making that prestige more accessible to others in the future; just as the first female student here made it possible for me and others now. I, being here, am also an example that black girls can… and I might be the only example that a few white men see and can engage with in a meaningful way. My presence offers the type of meaningful engagement that can help some develop the type of empathy and understanding to allow them to more fairly judge other black girls when they are in positions to do so. My presence offers me the opportunity and the power to push for change from within.

This then brings me to the final point of the conundrum: should we abandon the old and start afresh, whilst knowing that there is a chance that the fresh will fail too or may not succeed quickly enough to ensure that everyone benefits from the change OR should we stick with trying to improve the tried and tested old, whilst knowing that in sticking with it there is a chance that our efforts to fix it and make it fairer might fail or may not succeed quickly enough to benefit everyone? Well, at the end of the day, I don’t really have an answer, except that I see benefit in both approaches… but I also see risk. In some ways it reminds me vaguely of the Hunger Games and the Capital, which admittedly is a bit of a drastic comparison: Katniss was able to inspire change outside, and change things and hearts from within because of her involvement with people in the Capital and the merit she earned from going to compete. Similarly, some folks were able to change things by leaving the Capital and/or sticking their fingers up at it. In the end, they worked together and created something new both by dismantling some of the old, and keeping some of it. Whether we fix the broken, or create something new, we’ll have to contend with the fact that there is a chance the system might fail, or that we’ll endure growing pains…and so perhaps, maybe it’s simply good enough to choose the avenue we personally think is the one we have a better chance of bringing about victory for all through.
[btw, the illustration is of my college at Cambridge Uni- Corpus Christi]
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What I ‘should’ write about

joel graingerThis is a sketch of a violinist I saw opposite the Cambridge Market​. It’s a spot that many people tend to come and perform at at various points in time. There is an interesting piece of sculpture in the area, with some mice walking around a black and white pole and a cat standing atop looking down. Across the street, fruits, veggies and a range of other market type things are sold, and many people often frequent the area. I imagine that that’s why so many performers choose the spot (because it’s busy) though I like to imagine that the mice and the white cat also have something to do with it. ^_^ The violinist’s name is Joel Grainger​… the name was written down on a sign in front of his performance area. I stood there for a while listening to him, enjoying the performance and being a bit jealous that I couldn’t play a violin myself. I figured that I’d draw the moment, because I quite enjoyed it and I thought it would be nice to share it.
After thinking some time on writing about it though, I began to feel a strange sense of insecurity; quite unrelated from anything to do with playing violins, but related instead to what I ‘should’ be writing about. Often enough, I come on Facebook and see folks, educated folks, talking about the recession, the economy, education, politics… serious stuff. I write about serious things from time to time too, though most times, if ever I write about a serious thing, it mostly centers around ‘identity’. I thought to myself, “Kalifa, you’re supposed to be an academic, an intellectual, a smart person who’s critically engaged with serious stuff; where are your posts offering opinion and critique of all the current events and news stories? Instead, you’re thinking about writing about violins, cats, feelings and random experiences.” It’s true, I quite enjoy writing and thinking about random, ‘light’ experiences. I like sharing them, drawing them, and I do feel some sense of guilt surrounding that; because I sometimes feel like maybe I should be more like other folks and comment on all the serious current events going on in T&T and around the world.
I’d like to think though that there is a place for me in the sea of opinion and experience that is social media. Perhaps I’m not quite the best at social, economic and political commentary, but I do think that I do a fair job at just documenting little joys and sorrows of life. 🙂
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