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What grade to give a xenophobic student? Racism at a Czech college

8.7.2015 5:10
The Memorial to Europe's Holocaust Victims in Berlin. (PHOTO: Zdeněk Ryšavý)
The Memorial to Europe's Holocaust Victims in Berlin. (PHOTO: Zdeněk Ryšavý)

This story is about how easy it is to talk about racism in the academic community when one is standing up at the blackboard and how hard it is to handle it inside the community itself. The author does not want to identify the school where this scandal took place, and the names of the author and student have been changed to protect their identities.

College students in the Czech Republic focus a lot on the topic of racism. If you were to do an online search, you would find 853 final theses including the word "racism" in their titles in just one university's catalog.  

You can imagine how many Bachelor's theses and diploma theses there are focused on related topics, such as inclusion and refugees, throughout the entire Czech Republic. From the outside, the academic community looks like a fortress of tolerance, and the students seem firm guardians of multiculturalism.

It's one thing to write about racism, though, and another to take action against it when it comes from an instructor or student. The openly xenophobic statements made by one student in the first year of the Bachelor's program at a college in Prague recently startled both instructors and management.  

We have been following the developments in this scandal for two months. We wanted to understand how a specific school responds to the unpleasant challenge of racism within.

Student:  Stereotypes are valid - "All Jews steal"

At the end of the semester, the topic of ideology was reviewed in one class. To illustrate the power of ideology, the instructor chose the example of the postwar wave of purges of members from the leadership of the Polish Communist Party on the basis of their Jewish origin.

"Despite the markedly anti-Semitic line of the party, the exclusion of these members was still faithful to Stalinist ideology," the instructor said. Anna, a student, then raised her hand and commented that Stalin had had to get rid of Jews from the party leadership because they were controlling the Polish economy.

"After the war, Jews did not represent a strong economic unit because their assets had been stolen and the vast majority of them perished during the war," responded the instructor, who did not have enough time to analyze the information further. This Pandora's box was reopened during the next session when Anna continued her remarks by saying "All Jews steal" and "Jews always want to dominate the organizations or structures where they are, and Russian history is evidence of that."  

Anna said her source for these notions was the existence of stereotypes about Jews and discussions she had had with her mother, who is an historian. Here it is necessary to add that Anna comes from an immigrant family from Russia who have been living in Prague for some time.  

According to Anna, stereotypes do not arise without reason. She gave the example of the stereotype of Russians' love of alcohol.

The shocked instructor attempted to be ironic and asked whether she, as a Russian, also has a problem with alcohol. She answered that she had had problems with alcohol in the past, so she believes that stereotypes are valid.

"The students in the class did not respond much to her statements, they weren't interested. Two students argued that she was spouting nonsense," the instructor said.

He explained the students' passivity by saying the exchange took place during the final class and the break immediately following it, so there had not been much time in which to respond. "Part of my family lives in the United State,s and I must say that they would not understand Anna at all there," the instructor said.

"Similar stereotypes about Jews and money are not widespread across the ocean," the instructor said. "There, for example, the very strong stereotype is about Jewish mothers who overdo their care for their children."

What grade does one give for defending the Nazis and Stalin?

Along with the problem of these racist statements, there was a need to address what grade to give Anna. Other colleagues contacted the instructor and said she had made similar statements during their classes as well.

During one class Anna had explained the "rationality" of the Holocaust by saying the Nazis had attacked the Jewish population because it had "destroyed" the German economy. In another, she had commented on Stalinist repression by saying that "a leader must take action during difficult times."

This mixture of remarks was far beyond the borders of the "customary framework" of xenophobia and seemed to indicate some kind of moral deviancy. There were no rules in the establishing documents of the school, however, that discussed accountability for xenophobic behavior.  

Anna was the first case of such open xenophobia the instructors and management could recall at the school. They therefore decided to set up an ad hoc disciplinary commission including the Prorector, representatives of the Academic Senate, and the Dean of a different department in the college.

The commission met a month and a half after the lessons described. Prior to the commission meeting, the academics' opinions differed significantly, as follows:

1. Most instructors wanted to give the student a "first warning". They wanted to require her to write an essay over the summer after reading a list of 10-15 books on the rise of anti-Semitism and stereotypes. On the basis of that essay, they would give her a grade for the course. They emphasized the task of the school attempting to "open Anna's eyes", to understand the error of her notions with the aid of scholarly arguments. The instructors admitted that Anna's behavior meant the school was failing in that it was not sufficiently explaining to its students what approaches should be taken when researching society, and was instead letting them carrying on living in their own received dogmas.  

2.  Another set of instructors wanted to expel Anna, because a person with such opinions does not belong at a university. This group warned that if the school were to facilitate her continuing her studies, it could be seen as giving her an alibi or even result in the identification of the school with Anna's opinions.

3.  A third group was of the opinion that the school should not get involved at all and that the entire stituation was not a matter for a disciplinary commission, but for the Police of the Czech Republic. The student had violated Articles 198, 355 and 356 of the Criminal Code. In her case, academic freedom was not an issue, because justification of mass murder is not accepted. Moreover, the police has experts who are ready to work with such cases. That was confirmed by the Jewish Community as well, whom the school contacted in the first days of the scandal. "It seems to me that this is a psychopath who likes to provoke people with her remarks and manipulate those around her," said one instructor. "No literature will convince her, she is an adult. It might have an influence if she were 15, but not now. Psychopaths understand only strict rules, in other words - laws. The school must clearly make it known that what she did is illegal."    

And if she had talked this way about Roma?

On the day of her hearing, Anna was nervous. She said she no longer remembered exactly what she had said in class.

She defended herself by saying that if she had made such remarks, it was as a result of her language barrier. She explained that her aim had been to describe for her classmates how the communists and the Nazis saw the world and that this certainly was not an expression of her personal opinions.

Anna said she has Jewish friends and that part of her family even lives in Israel. She also said she considered everything that had transpired to have been an unfortunate misunderstanding due to her language skills.

She was very willing to apologize. One interesting finding during the hearing was that she sees society as divided among ethnic groups, not individual people.

She spoke constantly in terms of "how Russians think" or "how Jews cooperate". She did her best to convince the commission that her childhood in Russia was partially to blame for her remarks, because, in her view, no one would be surprised by such stereotypes there.  

It also came to light that basically, for her, there is no other way to perceive the world than that of "categorizing" people by their origins. It could also be sensed that she could not separate the concept of patriotism from that of xenophobia.

The commission decided that Anna must send an open letter of apology not just to the instructor, but to all of her fellow students. In the fall she will be required to take an additional course on the issue of racism at her department.  

The commission also warned Anna that next time, should the situation repeat itself, the school will contact the police straight away. Her grade for the course was given according to her results for the semester and the scandal had no bearing on it.

The commission recommended the school revise its code of rules, saying it should be clearly written that the college does not accept xenophobic behavior from its instructors or students. The Academic Senate will discuss the proposal in the fall.  

"Czech education is not sensitive enough to racist invective from instructors or students. Frequently such a matter is never reviewed by any commission, because the response to people's stupidity is just to dismiss it out of hand," the Prorector of the school told the members of the commission. 

The Prorector said he would be glad if cases of racist behavior or commentaries committed at the school would be taken just as seriously when they were about Jews, Roma, or any other nationality, and members of the commission agreed that there is a certain disproportion regarding society's emotional insensitivity when it comes to the Roma. In closing, the Prorector asked the members of the commission to seriously reflect on whether a similar commission would have been convened at the behest of either an instructor or a student of someone had said similar things about the Roma or any other nationality and not about the sensitive topic of the Holocaust.   

Pavla B., translated by Gwendolyn Albert
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