Humboldtians In Private

In the USA, nobody asks where I come from

I was born and grew up in Cameroon. I have been living in Germany since 2011. If someone here asks me where I come from, it may indicate a genuine interest. But this innocent question, when driven by stereotypes or the fact that I look different, may imply that I do not belong in this country and that hurts my feelings, especially my feelings of integration and sense of belonging.

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  • Recorded by Serge Fobofou
DIVERSITÄT ALS SELBSTVERSTÄNDLICHKEIT: Serge Fobofou inmitten seiner Kolleg*innen an der Harvard Medical School auf einem Bootsausflug in Boston
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DR SERGE ALAIN FOBOFOU TANEMOSSU earned his doctorate in chemistry at the Leibniz Institute of Plant Biochemistry in Halle and Martin Luther University Halle-Wittenberg, Germany. He was a Feodor Lynen Research Fellow at Harvard Medical School, USA. He is now the head of a research group in the Institute of Pharmaceutical Biology at TU Braunschweig, Germany.

In 2018, I went to Harvard in the United States on a Feodor Lynen Fellowship. Top-class research and innovative start-ups cooperate very closely there. Ethnic and national origins play no role at all; diversity and internationalisation are taken for granted. In Germany, I still find it surprising that there are so few professors who come from abroad. At the grassroots, amongst students, it is a different matter and there is some diversity. But at the top level, the vast majority are native German professors. In the USA you have to state how you will contribute to the culture of diversity and inclusion when applying for a job at a university. And people will not ask me where I come from or they will do so only if I myself have previously stated that I am not American. Because of the high level of integration and diversity it is already in the minds of people that an American can be any kind of colour. Nevertheless, not everything is perfect in the USA and there is structural racism against which the Black Lives Matter movement is now making a stand.

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By the way: in my opinion, categorising people by the colour of their skin poses a problem. Even as a sign of diversity. For example, describing skin colour as “black” or “white” is inaccurate, because there is really nobody that is white like a sheet of paper or black like ink. There are just different pigmentations of our skin. That should not be an issue at all.

I have to say that many people do not realise that “black” is associated with negative cultural attributes. For instance, in movies angels are always white while the devil is usually black. Such attributions have an impact on reality, too. We should use alternative terms which are closer to reality. In the USA, people usually say, “Caucasian” or “European” descent, “African-American” or “African”, “Asian”, “Latino” etc.

We are blessed with a multicultural and diverse world. Integrating this diversity in all aspects of our society and abandoning racial stereotypes and discrimination can really foster the advancement of science and can even to some extent promote peace.

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