Illustration by Leyla Baxman
My name is George Hofstetter. I am the founder and CEO of GHTech Inc, an organisation that is committed to uplifting marginalised communities of colour through technology. I first started coding when I was 13 at a Qeyno hackathon (a tech incubator founded by Kalimah Priforce) in downtown Oakland, California, where I was first introduced to the concept of ‘hacktivism.’ Since then, I’ve immersed myself in the universe of technology, with the belief that the intersection of technology and social justice can change the world. I’ve built various systems/networks to connect Black and Brown students across the United States, an app that combats police brutality, and curriculums for youth of colour to use technology as an alternative tool for transformative education in computer science and entrepreneurship.
I decided to study in a summer program at two of the oldest institutions in the world, Oxford and Cambridge, not because of their reputations, but because of the amount of consolidated knowledge these two institutions hold in contrast to American higher education institutions. The tutorial system practised here also provides a more personal, informal style of learning that I have undoubtedly come to love.
‘Oxbridge’ (as the two universities are often collectively referred to) has a deep history of racism, slavery, imperialism, and colonialism. These universities were seen as the ‘ivory tower’ of scholarship, which closely regulated who was allowed into their hallowed halls. It’s important to acknowledge this history if one is to truly ‘decolonise’ the ivory tower. As put in the initial report from the University of Cambridge’s advisory group on the legacies of enslavement: “Cambridge, like many other major UK and North American institutions, benefited both directly and indirectly from enslavement, the slave trade, and imperialism more broadly, so an understanding of that involvement should be central to the University’s efforts to address some of the structural inequalities that are a legacy of enslavement,..”
Just this past March, The Times reported on one of Oxford’s most prestigious colleges, Balliol, and how research had found them accepting cash donations from the slave trade for at least 300 years. The Times reported: “Dame Helen Ghosh, master of Balliol, said its research showed the college had accepted 39 contributions worth £2 million in today’s money from benefactors with links to the slave trade between 1600 and 1919. This was equal to one in ten of all donations received over that period.” Some of the donations had come from different slave plantation owners and those who owned ships that transported slaves. Dame Helen Ghosh issued an apology on behalf of Balliol college following the report.
During my time at Oxbridge this summer, I can safely say that the lasting legacies of colonialism and slavery are tangible in both Universities. From the continued display of statues of British colonists and avid white supremacists like Cecil Rhodes in Oxford’s Oriel College – despite repeated calls to bring it down in the Rhodes Must Fall movement – to the anthropological museums, Pitts Rivers Museum in Oxford and the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge which collectively exhibit more than one million African and Indigenous artefacts stolen during the era of British colonialism. While the museums are intentionally working on “decolonising” their collections by returning select items, the process of decolonisation is not only limited to returning stolen goods.
I want to encourage people to decolonise their thinking. Decolonisation is not just a metaphor, it is reflected in practice. Decolonisation is the process of removing a capitalist-imperialist colonial power, and the once colonised people, are now completely independent from colonial rule. This means that the land is now free from imperialist occupation, and the sovereignty of the indigenous is now in practice. Research groups and diversity inclusion committees are not enough; there needs to be further intentional organisation led by African/Indigenous members of the community. Imagine how uncomfortable a student of African/Indigenous descent feels seeing Cecil Rhodes every day by simply walking to breakfast or to a nearby seminar. The message that this sends to the communities that are a part of the African/Indigenous diaspora that attend both universities is remarkably insulting and dehumanising. It sends a sneering reminder that they were never supposed to be at these institutions which remain a refuge for their historic oppressors. It also serves as a reminder of the hierarchies the ivory tower protects—whom it deems worth protecting and preserving, and who they’re just tolerating. Naturally, I am very much interested in encouraging the decolonisation of these spaces.
I do not like, nor agree, with the structure of American education as I believe it’s inherently violent to and dismissive of communities of colour. This is why I decided to try something new, especially after reading about James Baldwin’s travels in Europe throughout the 1960s and his famous debate at the Cambridge Union where he won –arguing that the ‘American dream; was achieved at the expense of the American Negro’ in a room full of [white]-Europeans. To be an openly queer Black man in the 1960s, living alone in post-war Europe, Baldwin’s courage gave me motivation. It made me feel like I could do anything in today’s world, especially given my privilege living as a straight-cis male in a hetero-normative society. I can only imagine the level of resistance and oppression he endured during that time. Watching the recording of him winning that debate in 1965 encouraged me to step out of my comfort zone and challenge myself academically outside of the United States. Baldwin inspired me to step into the heart of European colonial imperial infrastructure with an eye to observe, and in hopes to help deconstruct, decolonise, and provide steps toward organisation of Black and Brown minds around the world towards our collective liberation from white supremacist capitalist patriarchy.
After studying a sociology and cultural anthropology course at Worcester College in Oxford, I had just moved into Hughes Hall, Cambridge where the rest of my summer program was being held. Here, I attended a formal dinner on Friday, July 15th, 2022. About 30-40 minutes into the dinner, I and all other students in attendance received an anonymous AirDrop with a photo of George Floyd and a caption that read “I hate ni**as”. You can read more about the incident here.
The initial anonymity of the message is something I’d like to highlight here. One of the dangers of technology is the false sense of security someone can feel by spreading hate and hiding behind a screen. In this case, the student who sent it genuinely thought there was no way for him to be held accountable because he changed his device’s name when the message was sent out. I imagine many others may have a similar mentality around embracing their ability to say whatever they want online and not be held accountable. This is a false sense of security that most technology perpetuates. Digital footprints are real and, in some cases, relatively easy to track depending on the hacker’s skillset.
After a few minutes of students’ whispering around in shock, and some students laughing, I not only realised I was the only Black man in the room, but also that no one was going to speak up. I then stood up, asked for everyone’s attention, and asked if everyone received the same AirDrop as myself. I turned toward the course director and instructors and explained what had just occurred.
The course directors gathered every student with an iPhone in hopes of narrowing down the device that sent the AirDrop. As they scrambled to gather devices from the students, I stood up again and requested everyone’s attention. I shared some of my background in computer science and that the reason I started programming was to fight racism through technology. I proceeded to let everyone know that I was going to let the instructors try and find the student responsible, but that they had 30 minutes to do so. Within that 30 minutes, the student also had the opportunity to come forward and take accountability. If they failed to do so, I was going to get my laptop from my room, hack into the network, and trace the image back to the exact device the student used. After 30 minutes, the instructors narrowed it down to a select few devices and, from there, was stuck.
I stood up and gave everyone a last chance before proceeding to get my laptop. When I got back I sat down in a corner and got to work on my laptop. After checking the network I started to think about the picture, and how all images on an iPhone have properties attached to them. By cross-referencing the image properties of the suspected devices, my own phone, and the devices of two other students, I found the student who was responsible. All in under 10 minutes.
From this point, I ask him to stand at the front of both tables with me and I go into lecture mode. First I had the student apologise to everyone in attendance and I think it’s very important to note his apology was egregiously condescending to the point where I eventually told him that was enough and it was time for me to speak. I stopped him at “you know I really didn’t think George would figure out it was me, so good job to him.” At this moment, I noticeably felt myself seething with anger. I glance down at my fist beginning to clench and notice my tattoos all the way down my arm that are reminders of the values I want to uphold. From ‘By any means necessary – Malcolm’, to my wrist that says ‘FREE,’ to the ink on my fingers that says ‘LOVE’ along with African (Ghanaian) adinkra symbols that represent, child of God, fortitude and excellence, and trust in God. I take a breath, and start speaking.
I began to ask what he knows about the George Floyd murder specifically and ask if he is from America (he is not.) I explained the murder and exemplify that this student has no grounds to comment whatsoever as he is not aware of the debilitating socio-economic conditions Black Americans are under and the systemic oppression we face in the United States.
I explained how actively violent his message was to me at that moment. Being the only Black student in the program, and (including but not limited to) George Floyd sharing the same first name as myself. It is extremely hard to say this was not targeted. I shared how I’m used to this racism in the States, and how I started a tech company more than five years ago to fight systemic oppression in technology development. I explained his incredible lack of self-awareness and how he feels inherently superior to communities of colour and how disgustingly dangerous that is.
I shared more of my education growing up in Oakland, CA, the history of the Black Panther Party from the 1960s, how I’ve learned to handle these attacks, and now I teach these hacktivism skills in a workshop series at Stanford University and in other mentorship opportunities we offer youth of colour at GHTech. I shared how lucky he is that I have the background that I do, otherwise the situation would’ve been handled in a very different manner.
I ended the speech by encouraging others to learn how to fight racism in its many different forms and to take this experience as a moment of empowerment as I was. Rather than only feeling sad and frustrated, I celebrated that moment of Black Power by squashing the perpetuation of white supremist rhetoric just two miles away from where James Baldwin won the historic debate in the Cambridge Union that the ‘American dream; was achieved at the expense of the American Negro.
As mentioned earlier, I am committed to working towards the decolonisation of the land and these colonial institutions. In many ways what happened to me was over 400 years in the making, as Europe is responsible for the genocidal slave trade and capitalist imperialism. This incident, while it was done to me, does not affect me alone. There are so many students that have endured much worse but may not have been exposed to how powerful technology can be when viewing it through a lens of social justice. What I haven’t shared until now is that, serendipitously, the day before the incident occurred, I had the opportunity to visit the Cambridge Union where Baldwin spoke over 50 years ago. I was able to walk into the debate hall and just sit and marvel at the Black history and strength Baldwin planted in that space.
Now so many years later, my peers and I are fighting the same systems he was, and in today’s world, those same systems are arguably even stronger. This incident has motivated me more than ever to provide more programs through GHTech Inc. on how to fight racism through technology and build more resources for African and Indigenous communities around the world to use technology to design for their liberation. One of the few things that need to happen, at least in Oxbridge, is the increased organisation of the communities towards Black/African liberation from European neo-colonial control. This includes, but is not limited to: redesigning the universities’ curricula to specifically cover antiracist methodology and how the legacies of slavery and white supremist rhetoric have physically manifested into institutional action and in my case, (in)action. A complete re-evaluation of its infrastructure is also needed, such as how, for example, one statue can perpetuate violence towards African and Indigenous students. I am hopeful and I am eager to continue this work and to collaborate with anyone that is similarly passionate.
James Baldwin once said “The power of the white world is threatened whenever a black man refuses to accept the white world’s definitions“, and we have a lot more redefining to do.