Politicising ‘Diversity’ inside the White Male Academic Powerhouse

University of Groningen - Senate Room (AWJ Creative Commons)

University of Groningen – Senate Room (AWJ Creative Commons)

I was invited to debate ‘Diversity’ at the event Night of the University: Towards a New Academia! in the University of Groningen. The panellists were asked to address the following questions in their 4-minute opening pitches:

Why is our University white and are 90% of our professors male? Can Dutch universities do more to make foreign students and female researchers to feel comfortable and respected in Academia?

And so I responded:

I believe that Dutch universities are white and male because the image and imagination of Academic proficiency is associated with the authoritative figure of the white Western man. Academia in the Netherlands carries the heavy heritage of colonialism and patriarchy. The university is then not sufficiently acting as a site of problematisation and transformation of hegemonic social trends, but as a (re)producer of them. The white male norm will only change when it is acknowledged as a problem.

Board of Directors of the University of Groningen

Board of Directors  – University of Groningen

Recognising whiteness in the universities requires understanding what it means in the Dutch context. Here, the non-white is the non-native non-Western (the niet-Westerse allochtoon) who is the primary target of exclusionary practice and policy. Exclusion and racial segregation have been the topic of heated public debate in the recent years. This debate has not managed to break into the walls of Dutch academia, not even into the discussion about the ‘democratisation’ of the university (the University of Colour being one of the shining exceptions).

‘Diversity’ is a buzzword in Dutch policy and academic circles, which has been emptied of its political meaning. By this I mean that debates on ‘diversity’ avoid the hierarchy of human difference (after Frantz Fanon) that rules institutional arrangements and sociability. Being different equals being less and having less opportunities depending on the difference you embody. ‘Diversity’ purposefully circumvented this fundamental question Instead it has focused mainly on providing the individual that embodies difference – that rarity in academic corridors – with skills and resilience to navigate the hegemonic culture. Institutions have been left largely unproblematised.

Debating ‘diversity’ requires problematising power structures in Academia. It is fundamental to gear our gaze towards the institutional culture of the reproduction of sameness (in the words of Philomena Essed and David Goldberg). The ‘habit’ of creating and cloning spaces inhabited by the hegemonic ‘type’ of subject that speaks the same academic ‘language,’ and produces the same kind of knowledge is an unchecked practice of injustice and inequality. It safeguards the homogeneity of what should be a heterogeneous and intellectually stimulating space for critical and creative thinking.

The university must indeed be a space for critical reflection on such processes AND for a practice in accordance. So far, Dutch academic institutions are spaces for the normative scholar – white, male, cisgender, heterosexual, young student, middle-aged professor, (upper) middle-class, secular, documented, healthy and abled body – to flourish through the production of knowledge for a better – then more just and equal – world. How askew is the settled practice in Dutch academia to include the other as object of inquiry while the agent of knowledge remains the normative self?

Altogether, questioning the lack of ‘diversity’ in Dutch academia requires addressing fundamental issues at two levels:

Firstly, at the level of representation, which means asking questions such as:

Is the body of students, scholars and non-academic staff normative? Can the non-normative student, scholar and non-academic staff flourish? How to change settled practices of exclusion with an eye on intersectionality? Are there affirmative policies? Are buildings accessible for differently-abled persons? Which are the policies on childcare?

The second level of issues that must be addressed is the epistemological, which means asking questions such as:

Is the curriculum white and male? Look at the body of theories taught: are they all Western? Where is the Global South in the curriculum? Look at citation practices: are theories/texts of non-white men in the reading lists and articles written?

If we are to address ‘diversity’ in Dutch academia, we must embrace the discomfort that it will cause as this query unavoidably dislodges the habits of hegemonic whiteness/sameness and upsets the hegemonic subjects of academic normativity, as it should. Otherwise, we are just making conversation.

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