Open Access Journal

ISSN: 2183-2803

Article | Open Access

Unpacking Silencing to Make Black Lives Matter: Ethnographies of Racism in Public Space

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Abstract:  This article focuses on the debates surrounding decolonisation and antiracism in the wake of the Black Lives Matter (BLM) protests in Switzerland. They sparked new discussions within Swiss institutions, particularly city governments, about racism, colonialism, and physical changes to the material environment for which activists have advocated. Based on an empirical example in Zurich, the article examines the dynamics of (un)silencing when city governments respond to demands by local antiracist groups who ask for the removal of racist street names in public spaces. We draw on postcolonial and subaltern studies to examine practices of silencing and being heard, combining it with Rancière’s understanding of depoliticisation. The empirical case study shows that the actions and voices of people directly affected by racism were key in advocating for institutional change as well as addressing colonial remnants in urban spaces. This case shows how the demands of social movements can amplify marginalised voices and how they can also lead to new forms of silencing. This article explores the complexity of silencing practices that disregard the plurality of voices, and political movements focusing on the depoliticising of interpretations of antiracism in public debates while simultaneously neglecting the diversity of voices affected by racism. It contributes to debates on how racism is voiced and silenced in progressive and liberal urban institutions.

Keywords:  antiracism; cities; city governments; coloniality; colonialism; public space; racism; silencing; social movement; Switzerland



© Claudia Wilopo, Claske Dijkema. This is an open access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 license (, which permits any use, distribution, and reproduction of the work without further permission provided the original author(s) and source are credited.