Month: June 2020

Race Matters & The Extractive Industry of Diversity in Dutch Academia

In the midst of the momentous Black Lives Matter protests throughout the world, including in the Netherlands, Dutch academic institutions are responding to the anti-racist demands for fundamental institutional change put forward by Black students and students of colour with diversity talk. As we have already heard this conversation before, I felt compelled to point to the archive of critical responses to this invitation to talk. On April 9th 2019, I spoke at the event Race in Science at Pakhuis de Zwijger, in Amsterdam. My intervention belongs to said archive, alongside a plethora of other interventions in and on Dutch academia throughout the years. This is what I said:

Race in Science

“I was relieved to read the title of this event, not because it is a happy subject, but simply because it is not followed by a question mark, which has been the habit in the Netherlands. Last December I was invited to speak at Erasmus University about “why race matters in the Dutch context.” The question reminded me of an infamous event at the University of Amsterdam, maybe five years ago, titled “The (ir)relevance of race.” Despite the narrative of progress on race matters in the Netherlands based on the fact that “now we can openly talk about it,” there is a striking similarity between these frames of the conversation separated by time. We have been operating in Dutch academia in the responding mode. We have been labouring for an imaginary normative subject who doubts. Even when he is not our intended audience, we have attended to his insatiable demand. And I purposefully use the he form here to refer to what Sylvia Wynter coined the Man with a capital M, who was born in 1492, with the arrival of Columbus in the Caribbean and the Christian Reconquest of the Iberian peninsula. The Man stands for the human in antagonistic relation to the Black, the Muslim, the Jew, the indigenous, to the savage.


But I wonder if this event marks a new thinking about race, if it is exceptional, or if the fact that it does not question the operation of race in science nor it wonders about its relevance, actually reflects its location, that is outside Dutch academia. With few exceptions, within the realm of higher education in the Netherlands, race is still a phantasmagoric object.


But why must we incessantly demonstrate that race matters in the Netherlands, provide new irrefutable evidence alongside the old, offer yet another account of an outrageous episode and disentangle its outrageousness? Because the Netherlands believes itself to be postracial. Race is displaced into the colonial past and into other spaces, which have a special place in the heart of Dutch postraciality (South Africa, the US). The Dutch are hegemonically portrayed as tolerant, business-like, and rational or reasonable. Racism challenges this congratulatory self-image. Therefore, any charge of racism as operative in Dutch society in general, and in Dutch academia in particular, is met with disbelief, outright rejection of message and messenger, and reprimand. As David Goldberg pointed, the Dutch are certain to be above and beyond race; and they are ferocious about this certitude.


Still, race matters in the Netherlands because race is the core principle that informs social organisation after European colonialism also in European soil. The Netherlands was one of the world’s wealthiest empires and a slave-trader. Its colonial enterprise spanned through four centuries and comprised three continents. Its national imagination is shaped in the encounter with other peoples forcefully turned into its colonial subjects. Gloria Wekker argues that the Dutch cultural archive (a term borrowed from Edward Said) is of imperial design. Race organises our capitalist economy; remember that the first stock exchange in the world was established in Amsterdam in 1602 by the Dutch East India Company, a majestic commercial monopolist, enslaver and slave-trading imperial enterprise. Race makes the categories of gender and sexuality cohere; it is at the core of political organisation and dictates electoral outcomes. Race organises knowledge production, circulation and consumption; it allocates subjects of knowledge and of alleged ignorance into space.


Three years ago, I was invited to debate diversity in the event “Night of the University: Towards a New Academia!” at the University of Groningen. In a plenary session, a head of department asked for a straightforward practical advice on how to tackle the lack of diversity in Dutch academia. I then said: “affirmative action, to start with.” My practical advise was met with eyes-rolling and a fascinating story told by one such Dutch white male heads of department, about a Black PhD student who was incapable of delivering work that met academic standards, but who had to be awarded the title … I then wondered: was he implying that the hegemonic consensus for affirmative action coerced him into enforcing it no matter what? Actually the hegemonic consensus in the Netherlands is adamantly against affirmative action…. It does not matter, what matters is race. He was calling upon the phantom of the subject of ignorance and civilisational excess, who would put in jeopardy the high standards of our white middle-class western heteronormative male able-bodied institutions of science. He was mobilising a particular economy of affects around blackness. He was dog whistling. How does it function? For instance, when you hear “the Moroccan” in the Dutch media or generally in the public sphere, a whole chain of coded-meanings is put at work: the Moroccan, the maladjusted, the Muslim, the terrorist, and certainly not “the academic”. When you hear about the Dutch splendorous boreal civilisational past, you know somehow that this is a fantasy of and for whiteness.


Race informs the different position of subjects in relation to normative conceptions of Dutchness on one side, and blackness on the opposite side; and it organises the political economy of scholarship. In the Netherlands, the non-white is the niet-Westers allochtoon (non-native non-Western). The racial conundrum contained in this term mixes geographic provenance -standing for national and cultural allegiance and religious affiliation- with a bodily marker of race. This resilient formula of otherness is in dialogue with similar recipes of alterity in the rest of Europe, relegating Muslims, African diasporic subjects and other subjects of the global South to the margins of society and the fringes of institutions. Addressing race in Dutch academia entails posing questions about the precarity of those persons that embody diversity in the student population, academic and non-academic staff. Beware, however that we are not all equals in our difference to the norm.


The “debate” on diversity must take into consideration this very entanglement between racialisation and economic precarity, which materializes, for instance, in the fact that allochtoon students and staff have an astronomically greater chance than the Western white subject to find themselves without grants, secure jobs, and voice. Unfortunately, circles that problematise academic precarity refuse to include race into the conversation. In the meantime, predatory capitalism has free play in the Netherlands and academics and students are fair game in the neoliberal university. Dutch labour legislation is slowly and steadily being shredded and people of colour are the first to be hit by the precarisation of work.


Curiously, at the same time that the neoliberal university rejects the abject raced subject, it desires diversity or, rather, Black and brown bodies for display (and the echoes of colonial fetish do not go unnoticed here). Diversity has value, but no worth. In the Netherlands, debates on “diversity” systematically avoid what Frantz Fanon termed the hierarchy of human difference, that governs institutional arrangements and sociability. Being different signifies being less and having less choice and opportunities depending on the difference you embody. “Diversity” purposefully circumvents this fundamental difference. As a rule it focuses on providing the individual that embodies difference – that rarity in the high echelons of Dutch academia – with skills and resilience to navigate the hegemonic culture. It also offers students and staff insight into one’s unconscious bias so that amends can be made through individual action. Institutions and the asymmetrical distribution of power within, and in society at large, are left unproblematised. According to Sara Ahmed, diversity policy is a neoliberal technique of management whereby political differences and historically contingent processes can be depoliticised.


But before policy there is prolific talk. The Dutch extractive industry of dialogue on diversity is a political economy whereby precarious students and staff (of colour) receive an endless number of kind institutional invitations to educate white people, for free, so that white people can do the jobs they are paid to do. The affective economy of this industry centres on white benevolence and the expectation of gratitude on the part of precarious people (of colour) towards white professionals for receiving such kind invitations to “have a voice” in the “dialogue.” Typically, diversity work in Dutch academia is depoliticised and extractive; it is coloniality at work.


We have been labouring in the field of diversity that does not perform. In the eyes of the institution, the very recurrent act of talking about diversity stands for doing a good job, while it does not deliver institutional change. To borrow again from Sara Ahmed, diversity work is non-performative because diversity “does not do what it says.” The act of declaring (racism/a lack of diversity) “a bad practice” is already considered “a good practice;” it is deemed performative. However there are “no conditions at place” to make this act into an antiracist intervention. Through this “fantasy of transcendence” through declaration, the racial regime is kept running and white moral authority is reassured. Diversity calls upon dialogue sessions, meetings, minutes, workshops, reports and compilations of past reports, which, having done the non-performative work, can be properly archived, for later compilation. The injustice of a homogeneous and normative student and staff population, the location and precariousness of people of colour (think, also, of cleaners under temporary contracts), the hegemony of Western epistemologies, the hierarchy of knowledges and of subjects of knowledge remain undisturbed. While this verbosity is presented as evidence of diversity working, racism is left unchallenged, and it is so by design.


An associated critical problem with the corporate diversity branding is the legitimation of the university as a place where a variety of ideas, no matter how ethically questionable or dehumanising of some bodies, is granted authority and a platform. Within the realm of this politically naïve and normatively white fantasy, racist, misogynistic, homophobic and transphobic, ableist and classist narratives gain ground in Dutch academia – mirroring their normalisation in the public sphere through political and media rhetoric. Under the banner of fostering freedom of expression, academia concedes institutional authorisation and credit to notoriously problematic pundits to participate in the open debate, the free market of ideas, where racism is just a slippage, at best, or just an opinion, at worst. Dutch academia threatens the intellectual freedom and the integrity of raced and other minoritised subjects. While the Netherlands believes itself to be singular and exceptional, its fresh kliklijn for teachers and academics follows a global trend closely; see the persecution of progressive academics in Brazil, the official banning of gender studies in Hungary, the watchlist of left leaning professors in the US, only to name a few.


Diversity in academia is a political business. It is about addressing the askew distribution of power in the institution of science. It calls for a resolute antiracist stance. It requires confronting the operation of race in its epistemological and material manifestations, today and right where we are.”


What I said then, what I say now.