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.