Alienation in Higher Education: Lived Experiences of Racial and Class Based Inequality in Film and Drama School

by Onur Suzan Kömürcü Nobrega

Over the past five years, cultural diversity in the arts has gained increasing attention and artists of colour more visibility in Germany’s arts and cultural institutions. A commitment to cultural diversity in the arts, however, requires changes not only in state-funded and private arts and cultural institutions but in the arts school sector of higher education, too. Arts schools as key institutions in which young artists are trained, need to develop and implement cultural diversity strategies in view of an ever more transnational arts scene and an increasingly racially and ethnically diverse student body enrolled in degree programmes. Transnational, postcolonial and cross-cultural curricula beyond the Western arts canon and the employment of faculty members of colour that reflect the demographics of today’s arts scene, however, are still largely missing.

Using in-depth interviews with Turkish and Kurdish German artists, whose theatre productions are affiliated with the most prominent flagship of Berlin’s culturally diverse institutions, the theatre Ballhaus Naunynstraße in Kreuzberg, this article draws attention to the largely unexamined field of racial and class based inequality in German arts schools. It provides an account of how encounters between artists of colour, white peers, faculty and staff members are shaped by race and class based inequality and explores how these artists experienced some encounters as sources of encouragement and support and others as sources of uncertainty and alienation during their years at film and drama school.

Formative Experiences: Encouragement and Alienation

The majority of the artists whom I interviewed for my ethnographic study about race, precarity and artistic labour in Berlin have been brought up in Turkish or Kurdish working class families and have experienced class-based discrimination and institutional racism in the education system. In contrast to common assumptions, most of the artists replied that they did not experience a lack of family support for their educational and artistic aspirations. Film and theatre director Mıraz Bezar - whose award-winning feature film “Min Dit” (The Children of Diyarbakir) was also nominated for the German Film Awards in 2011 - recalls his early memories of his family’s migration to Germany, his years at school, his working class mother’s constant reminders of why he had to succeed in school and his initial inspiration for embarking on an artistic career:

Not knowing German I had to be taken one class down, but I was lucky that my older sister was there who helped me a lot. So, I had not that many difficulties. I went to a normal primary school and then I went to secondary school and did my A-levels. It was all quite straightforward, because of that syndrome of my mother that “you HAVE to become something”. My mother, of course, was constantly saying “I am working for you all day”. When we came back to Germany, my mother started to work as a tailor. At the beginning she was working at some place and then she had her own place, where she worked, I don’t know, I guess from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. My sister in a way was my mother at the time because my mother was working a lot. So it was a difficult time, but school was okay, I was one of the better students. I did experience racism, but as a kid, I didn’t care. It didn’t affect me that much. But at school you also had other people that let you understand that you are “foreign” or “not German”. I do remember at that time I was once called a dirty foreigner [laughing] by another guy from school when we were playing football (Mıraz Bezar, personal interview, 17.05.2011).

Bezar’s experiences correspond with those of many of my interviewees at the Ballhaus Naunynstraße as well as my own lived experiences, as our working class parents worked long hours and shifts to provide a better future for their children. As many other interviewees also state, coincidental encounters with supportive teachers or friends who recognised one’s talents and directed them towards an engagement with the arts, led to their career choices.

I also had a good teacher for example and my school was really great. Bremen is a left wing town and one of my teachers was a left wing guy. He was in fact somebody who would really tell me to go and watch a particular film. So I went and I saw Der Tee im Harem des Archimedes, I think the English title is “Tea in the Harem”, made by Mehdi Charef in 1985. It’s a very good film. That was a kind of awakening, to experience what film is capable of. It’s a story of a young Arab migrant living in the suburbs and having a French friend, he tries to build a life. I thought; “okay, that’s my story”. How can it be that a guy, the director was of Algerian descent, how could it be that someone in France could make my story, that is kind of like my world and my emotions? And that was a first awakening. Therefore I thank my teacher a lot, because I knew that he understood my potential in a way. But it was not like telling me “do this or do that”, just giving me love and saying “okay, you are someone special”. I was lucky (Mıraz Bezar, personal interview, 17.05.2011).

Often it is a French, British or American movie or theatre play, a sense of belonging to youth subcultures, such as hiphop or punk, or an early interest in politics due to family affiliations that all, in their own ways, address the experiences of migration and marginalisation. Mıraz Bezar tells me that his resilience towards the experience of racism had been strong, particularly in his youth. However, by the time he moved to Berlin in 1994, where he was accepted into the film directing programme at the prestigious ‘Deutsche Film- und Fernsehakademie Berlin’ (German Film and Television Academy Berlin), things started to change. Whilst at film school, he made several short films, such as “Berivan” (1995), which is about his sister and “Fern” (Afar, 1997), a film about gender-based violence in migrant families. During his years of study at the film academy, he felt that race and ethnicity mattered in different ways, which made him feel alienated, mistreated and misdirected.

They tried to break me. This is what I experienced. I was wondering, as my film school was so international, why I was the second person from Turkey. I mean I am Kurdish, but there are so many migrants from Turkey living in Germany. But in 1994 I was only the second film student. There were people from all around the world but nobody from here, just like us. I asked the question in school and they said: “you cannot say that we exclude the Turkish community”. I think it might be something unconscious. Later in 1999, I had the experience of not being allowed to do a film that was set in Istanbul. The producer at our school said “no, our camera does not go to Turkey” and when I asked why, he said: “it can be stolen there”. I said: “yeah but this camera is right now in Finland. Why can it be stolen in Istanbul and not in Finland? That was the first time I was openly confronted with prejudice and when I went to the director of the school, he also just said: “no, you are not going to shoot it there”. You know, you cannot argue with them. Also later, when I needed funding for my final film, I didn’t get any support. By the time I graduated in 2004 I felt so frustrated I said to myself that I want to leave Germany (Mıraz Bezar, personal interview, 17.05.2011).

The quote from our conversation speaks – to borrow from Schwalbe et al. (2000) – to “what happens in face-to-face interaction, such that a form of inequality is the result” (Schwalbe et al., 2000: 421) as well as to “how symbols and meaning are created and used to sustain the patterns of interaction that lead to inequality” and “how inequality itself is perceived, experienced, and reacted to, such that it is either reproduced or resisted” (ibid).

Indeed, it was no coincidence that from the mid 1990s onwards a new wave of Turkish German filmmakers entered the market. This young mid 1990’s generation of Turkish and Kurdish German filmmakers, most prominent among them Fatih Akın, Mıraz Bezar and Ayşe Polat, influenced substantially how we think about German film in the context of migration today. As Tunçay Kulaoğlu, who works in film and theatre, tells me:

These filmmakers were people who studied in film academies and learnt things properly. There are also autodidacts such as Neco Çelik for example, who still made their movies, but nobody would deny that it’s definitely an advantage to study film to learn the craft and to reflect on your practice by learning theories (Tunçay Kulaoğlu, personal interview, 25.02.2010).

Yet, as Mıraz Bezar’s experiences outlined above show, the continuation and successful completion of his arts training was complicated as he experienced discrimination and alienation. Another artist, Turkish German theatre director Nurkan Erpulat, who studied as the first Turkish theatre directing student at the famous East Berliner Ernst Busch Academy of Dramatic Art in the 2000s, told me a similar story. Erpulat describes his years of study as follows: “It was horrible! After several racist incidents in school, my self-confidence was completely gone and I thought for a while, that I could not continue with my studies until Shermin Langhoff asked me ‘do you want to direct a play at the Beyond Belonging festival’ and I was like ‘wow, of course I want to’” (Nurkan Erpulat, personal interview, 13.11.2008). Whilst the Ballhaus Naunynstraße, which was founded as a postmigrant theatre by Shermin Langhoff, is experienced as a safe space by the majority of artists, it is also important to note here that ‘feeling safe’ followed previous and present experiences of racism in school, art school, in the workplace and in everyday life.

Art Schools as Institutional Social Spaces and the Reproduction of Racial and Class Based Privilege and Inequality

Those artists who also work in the film industry and who began to produce theatre plays concurrent with the emergence of the postmigrant theatre scene, such as Mıraz Bezar, Neco Çelik and Tunçay Kulaoğlu - to which they considerably contributed - emphasise that social class is a major issue in their career development. This is especially the case in terms of the class privileges that middle and upper class arts school students and artists enjoy and the limited access to education for aspiring artists with a migrant working class background. In relation to the latter, Tunçay Kulaoğlu points out that: “these artists come from educationally disadvantaged working class backgrounds with parents who certainly aren’t academics. That’s the reason for why it took so long, until the early and mid 1990s, that people went to art schools and began to make films” (Tunçay Kulaoğlu, personal interview, 25.02.2010). Mıraz Bezar’s personal experience confirms Tunçay Kulaoğlu’s observation. During our conversation in his flat, Mıraz Bezar told me in more detail how he experienced the issue of class privilege and disadvantage during his years at the film academy and in the wider film industry:

In film school the people were kind of an elite. For me, there were social differences. I had the feeling that people who had middle and upper class families, had it easier. I couldn’t prove it, but that was my feeling. Their privileges were just self-evident. Of course they can present and sell themselves better, that’s not the thing, but they also speak the same language as the people in charge. There is a general selection of people coming from the middle and upper classes and this is the reason for why there are not that many working class films made in Germany. I mean, most of the guys working in film do not come from the underclass and the world that they describe is a totally different one, that of middle and upper class people. And if they do films about working class people, it is mostly art house cinema. It took me ten years to get my degree and I didn’t find funding for my final movie, but another guy who made several mediocre short films, which were never accepted at any film festival, but who was from a very rich family, finished his degree for example really quickly, got funding from television, found a producer and all that (Mıraz Bezar, personal interview, 17.05.2011).

Feeling that there is a lack of evidence (as in “I couldn’t prove it”), hesitation and insecurity to name race and class based discrimination and simultaneously the reassurance that one’s experience is valid (as in “but that is what I felt”) is a reoccurring expression that my interviewees use with regards to their experiences in institutional contexts. The artists’ experiences in white, middle class dominated institutions correspond with what Ruth Frankenberg, in her analysis of the reproductive power of whiteness, calls the power of “discursive repertoires” to “reinforce, contradict, conceal, explain, or ‘explain away’ the materiality of social inequality” (Frankenberg, 1993: 2). Mıraz Bezar’s account of both racial (as in the earlier quote above) and class privilege and disadvantage is insightful as of yet there is no research conducted on how race and class affect access to and throughout institutions of higher education, and in particular regarding arts school access and attendance for students of colour in Germany. Most German studies that engage with institutional racism in the German education system focus on schools, rather than institutions of higher education (see Gomolla and Radtke, 2009). Maike Koschorreck (2011) points out that while institutional racism’s “outcomes are rather easy to document (cf. Gomolla/Radtke 2009: 53), the mechanisms of institutional discrimination are indeed more difficult to detect” (Koschorreck, 2011: 5). In view of the responses that I received from my interviewees it is easy to agree with Koschorreck’s assertion that in the German context, “there is still a need for empirical studies, which take up this difficult task of analysing how institutional discrimination in the German education system (re)develops and subsists” (Koschorreck, 2011: 5).

Moreover, Bezar’s account speaks about the materiality of social inequality as a lived experience that is relational and depends on who is encountering whom. As Miraz emphasises, privileged access is about the use of a shared language that includes some and excludes others from material and immaterial resources that are required for the development in any, and particularly, an artistic occupation, that relies heavily on informal networks. Jenny Stuber in her article “Class Dismissed? The Social-Class Worldviews of Privileged College Students” (2010) emphasises the significance of language in the reproduction of social inequalities. Drawing on the work of social interactionists such as Herbert Blumer, she emphasises “the importance of language in the social construction of reality, arguing that symbolic understandings are important because it is on the basis of these understandings that people act” (Blumer, 1969, quoted in Stuber, 2010: 132). But it is not only the use of a shared language that opens up or restricts access to resources. It is also, as Sara Ahmed points out, about the “desire for a shared social space”, which “restricts to whom an institutional space is open” (Ahmed, 2012: 39). Hence, in Mıraz Bezar’s account, the invitation to share institutional social space is mainly extended to those bodies that are most similar to those who are in decision-making positions.

The question of how German institutions of higher education and in particular arts schools become shared institutional social spaces for the training of future generations of artists of Colour from working class background needs to be addressed in the context of fostering cultural diversity in the arts. Racial and class based inequality, as this article has shown, negatively affects the experiences of artists of colour during their studies at art schools. Those advocating the development of diversity and equality measures in the arts, in cultural and in educational institutions such as art schools, thus, need to be attentive to the experiences of young artists of colour of working class background not only for appropriate training opportunities, but also for the sustainability of cultural diversity in the arts.


  • Ahmed, Sara (2012) On Being Included: Racism and Diversity in Institutional Life. Durham and London: Duke University Press.
  • Blumer, Herbert (1969) Symbolic Interactionism: Perspective and Method. Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey: Prentice Hall.
  • Frankenberg, Ruth (1993) White Women, Race Matters: The Social Construction of Whiteness. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.
  • Gomolla, Mechthild and Radtke, Frank-Olaf (2009) Institutionelle Diskriminierung: Die Herstellung ethnischer Differenz in der Schule. Wiesbaden: VS Verlag für Sozialwissenschaften.
  • Koschorreck, Maike (2011) “Institutional Discrimination in the German Education System: A Discourse Analytical Perspective”. Unpublished paper presented at ZEIT-Stiftung Ebelin and Gerd Bucerius “Settling Into Motion “ PhD Student Conference, Hamburg, 28.- 30.04.2011.
  • Schwalbe, Michael; Godwin, Sandra; Holden, Daphne; Schrock, Douglas; Thompson, Shealy; Wokomir, Michele (2000) “Generic Processes in the Reproduction of Inequality: An Interactionist Analysis”. In: Social Forces, December 2000, 79 (2). University of North Carolina Press, pp. 419-452.
  • Stuber, Jenny M. (2010) “Class Dismissed? The Social-Class Worldviews of Privileged College Students”. In: Howard, Adam and Rubén A. Gaztambide-Fernández (2010) Educating Elites: Class Privilege and Educational Advantage. Plymouth: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, pp. 131-152.


    Onur Suzan Kömürcü Nobrega works at the Department of Media and Communications, Goldsmiths College, University of London, where she teaches Intellectual Foundations of Social Theory. Her PhD thesis, an ethnographic study entitled "The Lure of Diversity: Race, Precarity and Artistic Labour in Berlin" examines the emergence and labour conditions of a new wave of Turkish German artists based at the postmigrant theatre Ballhaus Naunynstrasse in Berlin Kreuzberg. She is a fellow of the ZEIT Foundation's PhD programme in Migration Studies.


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    Onur Suzan Kömürcü Nobrega works at the Department of Media and Communications, Goldsmiths College in London. Her PhD thesis examines the emergence and labour conditions of a new wave of Turkish German artists based at Ballhaus Naunynstrasse in Berlin.