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.

Passover in Amsterdam: Matza, the invisible Jew and “our Jewish-Christian tradition”

Last Friday I went out with my son, looking for Matza meal for a couple of recipes for the Seder, the Passover dinner (ritual feast). We live in a lively neighbourhood in Amsterdam, plenty with shops. It used to be a Jewish neighbourhood. We have been to several shops but found Matza meal nowhere. We were puzzled with the experience. How comes that a neighbourhood once crowded with Jews has no traces of Jewish shops, nor Jewish produce? I mean, we know that Amsterdam sent 80% of “its” 80,000 Jews to their death, but it is still quite unsettling to walk in such a space and meet only signs of the annihilation of Jewish lives (see Gunter Demnin’s important project “stumbling stones”).


We decided to settle for Matza instead and just smash it into flour. Usually Dutch supermarkets do have Matza but we went to supermarket after supermarket to find it sold out everywhere. Finally we were lucky to get our hands in the last Matza packages in a neighbourhood supermarket. But we were also confused about the fact that despite no sign of Jewish life or Jewish traditions, Matzos were sold out! In fact the public space is saturated with Easter. But then a friend of my daughter explained to us that Dutch Christians eat Matzos with Easter. This is exactly what we found in the Matza package; nothing though about the fact that this is a Jewish tradition and that we commemorate Passover in this very period of the year…


We were left with a very strange feeling, as if we were sleep walking as invisible presences alongside a long tradition of presences and histories made to disappear. This made me think about the ubiquitous expression “our Jewish Christian tradition” which became shorthand in Dutch public and political discourse to affirm the non-belongingness of Muslims to “our [Dutch] culture”. It is a cleverly perverse way to instrumentalise Jews and an alleged inclusion of “Jewish tradition” into Dutch hegemonic culture with the end of excluding yet other Others. Let’s say that Jews are as included into hegemonic Dutchness as Matza in Easter, according to the package: made following a traditional recipe…

The order of things: politics and economics of (public) scholarship in the Netherlands


The anthropologist and curator Nuno Porto conceives the museum as a mechanism of cultural contact, where “cultural contact is neither more nor less then to fight for the order of things.” The public sphere is the arena that hosts institutions such as museums but also academia and the media where, artefacts, be them a film, an academic essay, a theatre play, a photograph, enter this fight for the order of things. Doing and reflecting about scholarship (but also about art) is therefore a political act that entails considering the order instituted by particular power arrangements and the terms of the fight; the order which we inhabit.


Who is entitled to represent and who is the represented? Who has access to resources to fight in the public arena? Who speaks and who is spoken about?


Not running the risk of subsuming scholarship to politics, it is fundamental to self-reflect the place of the academic and the intellectual in the public sphere and to negotiate this position critically. This requires awareness towards the economy of knowledge. It is often engaged scholarly practices that overlook the economy of privilege running through society. Engagement demands vigilance and intervention on the distribution of credits around the artefact of knowledge (a talk, an essay, a book, a research).


Who is paid and who is not, who is credited and who is not, who gains social capital, perspective of jobs and grants, public exposure and accolades, and who does not?


In the Netherlands, there is a systematic and recurrent unequal distribution of resources to enter the public sphere and an unequal entitlement to shape it, and to fashion institutions, which are white and autochthonous. Power, both symbolic (i.e. prestige) and material (i.e. money) is concentrated in white hands. Our government is white, our media bosses are white, our professors are white, our boards of directors are white. As New Urban Collective recently tweeted: “40% of law students has a ‘non-Western’ background but the judiciary is 98% white.”


In the article Cloning cultures: the social injustices of sameness, Philomena Essed and David Goldberg posit that the “habit” of creating and cloning spaces inhabited by the hegemonic “type” of subject that speaks the same “language,” and produces the same kind of knowledge is an unchecked practice of injustice and inequality. It safeguards institutional homogeneity, whiteness in Academia.


In the Netherlands the non-white is the niet-Westers allochtoon (non-native non-Western). The racial conundrum embodied 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 continent, relegating Muslims, African diaporic subjects and non-Westerners to the margins of society and the fringes of institutions. Fatima El-Tayeb posits that there is “racialized understanding of proper Europeanness” which externalizes “Europeans possessing the (visual) markers of Otherness” from contemporary Europe, rendering them to the permanent condition of “aliens from elsewhere.”


The Dutch national claim of ignorance about racism associated with historical amnesia about the empire are resilient, within a context of neoliberalism and neocolonialism. The self-congratulatory myth of tolerance still holds strong despite society’s diagnosis that multiculturalism failed (and the desire to “bring us back to the time before it has been created by the Labour Party”). The Dutch public sphere is domesticated by a taboo on racism surrounded by the demand of its unspeakability, which legitimizes the violence met by those denouncing it.


Whiteness is a position of structural advantage, privilege and power. In the Netherlands, racism is still perceived as excessive, that means an aberration to an otherwise postracial order, as an interruption, rather than a historical continuity and institutional practice. It is to its institutional dimension and its history that the scholar must attend.


Since the antiracism movement broke the public silence/silencing on racism in Dutch society, much has been spoken about privilege, however hardly ever is this query geared towards the progressive academic self. In his 1993 Reith lecture, Edward Said had already discussed the requirement of de-alignment on the part of the intellectual vis-à-vis her/his institutional affiliation (the “task of not committing”). However, nobody wants to be a feminist killjoy (the very apt term of Sara Ahmed) and jeopardise her/his place at home and in the social order. Still with Said, homeliness is not the place of the intellectual, but exile, which is never only self-imposed but forced upon undesirable subjects. I wonder, then, if unhomeliness can be the epistemological stance of subjects comfortably at home in academia. I wonder whether the hegemonic subject can practise the kind of critical scholarship that is self-reflexive.


Dutch institutions have been reluctant to problematize their whiteness. Diversity rather is the preferred agenda. However, debates on “diversity” often avoid the hierarchy of human difference (after Frantz Fanon) that rules institutional arrangements and sociability. Being different equals being less and having less choice and opportunities depending on the difference you embody. “Diversity” purposefully circumvents this fundamental difference. It has focused mainly on providing the individual that embodies difference – that rarity in Dutch academic corridors – with skills and resilience to navigate the hegemonic culture. Institutions have been left largely unproblematized. According to Sara Ahmed, diversity policy is a neoliberal technique of management whereby political differences and historically contingent processes can be depoliticised. Minelle Mahtani accurately pointed out that multicultural policy is no substitute for antiracist legislation, which takes into account the economic and political roots of systemic racism. Racial and social justice require social change.


So far, Dutch academia is a space for the normative subject of whiteness to flourish through the production of high-impact 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? Scholars are doing their scholarly business as usual. Following the risky public confrontation waged by antiracist activists, the question of racism flourished in Dutch academia, where non-whites figured as object to ethnographic research in metropolitan territory. Again, as before, research about, however without them. Curiously or symptomatically, institutional racism did not make the agenda of the movement The New University. A narrow agenda of democratisation without decolonisation makes the role of the student movement of the University of Colour the more important, and of equal importance is the far-reaching Commission of the University of Amsterdam, disguised under the title of Diversity, under the lead of Gloria Wekker. The game has to be changed.


Scholarly engagement must confront the very position of scholarship in the entanglement with others, with the non-white. Europe and its institutions are implicated with others and have a role in the regime that otherises and exercises violence upon non-white subjects. The scholar must problematize this regime, turning the gaze to Europe and Europeans as anthropological objects of inquiry. The autochtoon scholar, for her/his privileged position, must speak truth to power. However, the subject of the scrutiny of European institutions and hegemonic Europeanness, the author of this investigation, cannot possibly be solely the white European.


There are histories, plenty of stories, and other heroes ignored by Academia and unknown to Dutch society, as they have been unauthorised and actively silenced. It is of fundamental importance to give credit, room and resources to work on these invisible presences in Dutch history and society by silenced non-white voices, such as work on the archive of anti-colonial and anti-racist Black, Migrant and Refugee women’s resistance, carried out outside Dutch Academia by Egbert Alejandro Martina, and by Chandra Frank outside of the Netherlands.


Engaged scholarship will not give one rewards or the sympathy of the institutions of the European establishment. It will most certainly blemish your curriculum and cost you grants and appointments. It is not a story of happiness in laureates but a story of meaningfulness, joy and hurt, and of social relevance.


It is the role and responsibility of the public scholar to embrace the discomfort caused as her/his critical and creative practise unavoidably dislodges the habits of hegemonic whiteness/sameness and upsets the hegemonic subjects of institutional normativity, as it should. Returning to Nuno Porto, we need to support a fight for a new order of things


This was a talk I gave at the event Camera Interactiva Creativity Lab, a collaboration between the Centre for the Humanities (Utrecht University) and the Netherlands Film Festival, on September 23, 2016. I was invited to discuss “the social responsibility of academics and the role of the public intellectual” with special attention to race and migration, and so I did.