In Action

It starts at home and at school. A Waldorf culture critical of racism

Heidi Käfer

The Nazi regime and the Second World War occupy a major place in upper school history lessons, not least because the aim is to explore the civil society task of an “education towards maturity”, as Theodor W Adorno calls it. Taking responsibility as a society by coming to terms with the history of the Holocaust and establishing a culture of remembrance has become firmly anchored in the German education system, and even represents a specific feature of German culture. School as an institution has the function to teach democracy, to educate growing young people politically and, according to the Federal Agency for Civic Education, takes it for granted that it has sufficient instructional tools at its disposal to counteract developments towards the right.

Well, then we can proudly and with reassurance pat ourselves on our enlightened back and close the right-wing chapter. History is so important, after all, because by looking back we learn from mistakes for the future. Or not?

The R-problem

There is still a deep-seated assumption in public perception that racism and right-wing extremism are somehow the same thing. The difference: racist structures can be found at an individual as well as an institutional level. Rahel El-Maawi and her co-authors describe racism in their book No to Racism: Grundlagen für eine rassismuskritische Schulkultur (No to Racism: Foundations for a School Culture Critical of Racism) (2022) as “not a personal or political attitude but an institutionalised system that works into social, economic, political and cultural relationships and consistently favours white people and interests”. Right-wing extremism, on the other hand, is about the organised and politicised form of racism, the forms and dangers of which for the Waldorf movement are clearly and critically referred to in this issue.

For this reason it is indispensable for dealing with right-wing extremism to deal thoroughly with the issue of racism and, above all, to always take a good look in the mirror. On the one hand, equating the terms prevents the discourse from being located in the centre of society instead of existing primarily on the right-wing fringe. On the other hand, not addressing racism promotes the status quo of discriminatory power structures.

The experts see two main reasons for this reluctance to deal with the issue: on the one hand, according to Julia Hartmann, the German culture of remembrance presents the Holocaust and National Socialism “as a momentary exception and a brief departure from the otherwise ‘civilised’ German society”. Someone scratches their ear for one second too long in a certain place at a certain time and changes the whole history of the world – that is how random and inexplicable those events seem. The connection in the historical context between National Socialism, colonialism and the invention of race is thereby ignored. That supposed confrontation with the past reflects an intolerable collective pain expressed in avoidance. Secondly, beyond the German context, white people are little practised in being confronted with their own racism. According to Alice Hasters, white people rarely “feel so attacked, misunderstood and alone as when they or their actions are called ‘racist’. The word seems like a bucket of shame, dumped on those named.”

This is therefore an imbalance that can hardly serve as an adequate basis for dealing openly with the concept of racism. The racism researcher Mark Terkessidis said, appropriately enough, in a lecture on the question of whether Germany was racist or not, “whether we think it’s nice or not, whether it can be changed or not, basically doesn’t matter. It is better for all of us if we accept it. Because only then can we deal with it.”

This brings us back to responsibility: if we do not learn to take responsibility on an individual level, that is, make ourselves aware of our thoughts, feelings and actions and reflect on them with the striving for integrity, then we will not succeed on the grand scale either. So no matter how extensive and in-depth the historical reappraisal of National Socialism in schools, the importance of which is not at all to be minimised here, racism begins in the thinking and racism in Germany is anchored in everyday life, in institutions and systemically. We learn it by being part of a racist society. Germany as an idea, as a state, as a society as we know it, is based not only on democratic ideals but also on exploitation.

People who are not affected by racism always have the choice to deal with racism or not, that is, to critically question their own thinking and actions and to intervene when others make racist statements. Those affected by racism, on the other hand, often cannot choose to escape racist social structures and actions of others that they are confronted with on a daily basis. In order to sustainably change this pronounced imbalance of power and privilege, a structural change is necessary. Selective initiatives, events and learning units in class are not enough for this. Rather, a culture that is aware of bias and sensitive to diversity must be established in schools and always actively shaped in everyday school life with the participation of all stakeholders. This means that all actors in everyday school life, especially teachers and parents, have to be willing to learn, to continue to educate themselves and to cooperate together.

Let’s work on our sensitivity to bias!

In Germany, there are countless networks, initiatives, associations and multipliers who do great and necessary work that is sensitive to diversity and publish practical materials that support this process towards such a bias-conscious school culture. One approach that was developed in the USA in the 1980s by Louise Derman-Sparks and Carol Brunson-Phillips for the field of early childhood education and is now very often used in anti-racism work is the anti-bias approach. It arose from criticism of approaches that often reproduce stereotypes or suggest so-called colour blindness. As an intersectional approach, it includes different forms of discrimination, that is, it also takes into account exclusion in terms of gender, different family forms, sexual lifestyle, social affiliation, physical or mental health. It aims to make power imbalances visible, bring them into balance and thus reduce discrimination on an individual and societal level. A central starting point of anti-bias work is the assumption that every human being carries prejudices within themselves that have been learned since early childhood and which influence perception, thinking and action. When combined with power, prejudice can lead to discrimination and can operate at different levels. The work intends to consciously deal with prejudices on the basis of the recognition of the equal value of all people in their diversity and thus strives for a society in which all people have equal opportunities for acceptance, participation and development. Schools as an institution, especially Waldorf schools, where these values are firmly anchored, represent one of the most influential frameworks in which a culture which is aware of bias must be learned and practised.

How can we create classrooms that are sensitive to racism?

As teachers, it is not possible to make our own class critical of racism just like that without critically examining our own prejudices and experiences. This also applies to all other areas of life. This discussion helps in everyday school life to be able to assess and change certain situations appropriately. And importantly, mistakes are allowed to happen. It is about dealing with them in a humanistic way.

How am I shaped?

Teachers and parents should reflect on their own identity and privileges as well as on their own sphere of influence and ask themselves: what relationships of power am I involved in? How do I see other pupils, colleagues and parents? What experiences shape me? If we define our own position, we can help to ensure that otherness is not the only topic and that therefore whiteness is not always reproduced as the norm. This is a significant step towards taking responsibility. Children and young people affected by racism are thus perceived as people with certain experiences instead of as the Other.

Detecting and changing discriminatory tendencies

There is a need to review current school practices with the entire faculty for exclusionary practices. In order to detect discriminatory tendencies, the entire teaching, staff and school development must be examined. This requires clear leadership action aimed at eliminating discriminatory practices from the school culture. According to the Anti-Bias Network, this process is especially successful when as many fields of action as possible are taken into account, such as interaction, lesson development, the design of inclusive spaces, cooperation with parents and colleagues, etc.

Design of inclusive spaces

Inclusive spaces should be designed, and not only in schools. In inclusive spaces, all children and young people are represented and addressed. The choice of materials is essential for this – on the one hand by avoiding teaching materials with discriminatory terms and content, and on the other hand by using materials that normalise diversity, are more representative of those affected by racism or are written by otherwise underrepresented authors. When designing such a space, we should ask ourselves: who or what and which norms are specifically represented by it? Furthermore, this includes intervention as a common practice when someone is stereotyped or discriminated against.

Work that is conscious of bias and critical of racism is painful, can bring moments of discomfort and must always be actively renewed. This work is nevertheless urgently needed and marks the path towards authentic educational justice in Waldorf schools – the Waldorf school as a valuable environment and lifelong learning incubator for the critique of power and empathy.

To successful learning!

Further reading:

Hans Gerd Jaschke (2012): “Die Rolle der Schule bei der Bekämpfung von Rechtsextremismus”. In: APuZ Aus Politik und Zeitgeschichte. Federal Agency for Civic Education, Berlin.

Heidi Käfer, born 1990, ethnologist (MA), editor at Erziehungskunst, artist and dancer. She has worked for many years in the fields of intercultural education and refugee and human rights work.


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