The Racist Symbols and The Resistance

Switzerland, 21.03.2021

Last summer in the wake of the global Black Lives Matter uprising, racist imagery at the Wylergut primary school in Bern was painted over in an act of resistance. Today, on the “International Day on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination” and during the “Aktionswoche der Stadt Bern gegen Rassismus,” we would like to express our gratitude for the remarkable activism of those who have shown the City of Bern how to deal with such racist imagery displayed in a (state sanctioned) shared space and a place of learning. The letter N, C and I no longer depict a Black person, an Asian person and a Native American person, and children -- especially children of color -- no longer have to endure these microaggressions and forms of representational violence every day.

It is through the work of anti-racist organizers who brought to light this racist violence and took action to remove this trash, that we can now celebrate. When the City Council of Bern, the Wylergut primary school and this art commission embrace racist and colonial imagery, they endorse the structural and institutional racism that affects our communities. Such racist imagery cannot be divorced from the findings of Mandy Abou Shoak and Rahel El-Maawi published in their brochure “Rassismus in Lehrmitteln” (translated: Racism in teaching materials) which observe, “Es werden vor allem Schwarze Menschen und People of Color abwertend dargestellt.” (translated: “Above all, Black people and People of Color are portrayed in a derogatory way”). Even while the Kommission für Kunst im öffentlichen Raum der Stadt Bern decided to remove this imagery from the school, they still consider it to be worth preserving in its original form.

The racist imagery, embraced by the City of Bern and in particular the Wylergut primary school, does not stand in opposition to structural racism in educational institutions—it endorses it. The heart of whiteness, which claims that Black people and people of color are infrahumans and equal to animals, is exactly what animated those who painted the racist alphabet imagery as well as those who have preserved it. Of course, the painter’s defenders view the removal of this imagery as defacement and censorship. They prefer other options which allow them the privilege to create projects “addressing'' colonial art, while ultimately benefiting themselves. Within this approach, they underestimate the symbolic violence which is enacted daily on the children who attend Wylergut primary school, particularly Black children and children of color.

The Black Lives Matter movement cannot be ignored and this past summer’s actions following George Floyd’s murder by the police were significant; millions took to the streets around the world, including tens of thousands of people across Switzerland who demonstrated and recalled the names of those murdered by the Swiss police: Mike Ben Peter, Hervé Mandundu, Lamin Fatty, amongst many others. The global uprising for Black lives, understood as a movement, not as a moment, took on many forms -- vigils, memorials, demonstrations, artistic expression, long term organising and direct action. While statues memorializing colonizers and holders of enslaved people toppled across the world in the spirit of Rhodes Must Fall, Zurich activists questioned the existence of the statue of Alfred Escher -- the founder of Credit Suisse and financer of the SBB whose family benefited from enslaved peoples’ labor on their coffee plantation in Cuba in the 19th century. In Neuchatel, thousands of people signed a petition to remove the David de Pury statue, a man whose wealth was amassed via the exploitation of enslaved Africans. Students and teachers at University of Geneva continue to resist the statue as well as the naming of a building after Carl Vogt, a 19th century German scientist, philosopher and politician whose racist and sexist views are well known. The unknown activists who removed the racist symbols at the Wylergut primary school in Bern, an educational institution, fall within this tradition of resistance.

Who considers such racist imagery is worth preserving in the public? And for whom is this racist imagery worth preserving? Statues, imagery, as well as place and street names, which preserve racist and colonial histories and present-day realities, have historically been upheld by those in positions of power. We reject not only the racist imagery in schools, but also colonial schooling. We challenge the racist status quo by taking the trash away. Those traces of a deadly past, that is not only past, must be taken away from our visible environment and stored in dedicated archives. In archives, these symbols should be contextualized in such a way that the story of the racist Swiss institutions and the resistance is made clear, instead of dehumanizing and humiliating racialized and minoritized groups in the present. Those who painted over the racist imagery used the perfect approach needed to decolonize our school system and all institutions -- as public spaces in which all groups should be present, participate, learn and thrive. School children are no longer forced to pass by that wall which promotes dehumanization and violence. Instead, they can remember the powerful resistance of people who opposed structural and educational racism.

Take down all colonial objects in public places! Topple the racist statues! Decolonize the curriculum and all institutions -- not just as lip service but as real structural change on every level! Honoring a violent past means honoring a violent present. We continue to challenge the colonial and racist status quo.

In solidarity,

Mohamed Wa Baile

Malana Rogers-Bursen

Noémi Michel

Vanessa Eileen Thompson

Suhyene Iddrisu

Mardoché Kabengele

Hamlet D'Arcy

Maneva Tafanalo Salaam

Yahya Dalib Ahmed

Iris Stricker

Dennis Schwabenland

Kanchana Chandran

Andrea Filippi

Epuka Anokwa

Timo Righetti

Brandy Butler

Armelle Ako

Keabetswe Boccomino

Vera Binswanger

Manue Zizzari

Outrage Collectif

Doreen Mende

Tatiana Desardouin

Martijn Kerkmeijer

Bibliothèque féministe La Molène

Sandra Marras

Toon Kerkhoff

ERIF (the European Race and Imagery Foundation)

Tino Plümecke

Lia Terry

Chantal Neuhaus

Dania Murad

The Racial Justice Student Collective (RJSC)

Kutayba Al Kanatri

Bel Parnell-Berry

Young Black Panthers

Tour de Lorraine 2021 - Köpfe und Herzen dekolonisieren!

Please visit our statement page to add your name to the list.