We need to talk about racism

Diversity and inclusion? Leiden has a long way to go

Racism is a regular and frequent feature of campus life in Leiden, writes a scholar who wishes to remain  anonymous. ‘Ask yourself, how many visible minorities sit on senior academic boards?’

Despite its claims to promote diversity, inclusion, and safe workplace environment, my experiences at Leiden University in the last years have been very unpleasant, marred by regular racist episodes directed at myself by Leiden staff and students alike, and frequent maligning of my cultural background, religious commitment, and racial belonging. The situation is serious and beginning to have some detriment to my mental health. Every moment I spend at Leiden can be characterised as an anxiety-inducing ordeal.

Colleagues are often unsettled when they learn of my being on the receiving end of racism and discrimination by other white colleagues and students on campus. Some dismiss my experiences outright, others nod politely in the midst of conversation, while some remain indifferent. But the most irritating are those privileged, upper-middle class, and white academics who retort with ill-considered statements such as, “But I can’t see the racism you’re referring to, everyone at Leiden is polite.”

Here lies the problem, of course. In my experiences the worst of racists and frequent bigotry offenders are those white academics who hide behind the veneer of civility and cosmetic pretences of tolerance; sometimes they will even claim to support such righteous causes as LGBT Rights and gender equality, but behind the faux liberalism and seeming acceptance of pluralism, I, a visible ethnic minority with palpable religious identity, have experienced something different altogether.

In the private conversations (read: bullying sessions) with senior and not-so-senior white academics at Leiden these enlightened papier-mâché social justice warriors can lapse into derogatory parlance suffused with brittle European triumphalism and racist diction that surpasses the right-wing tropes of today. History has shown us that being enlightened and holding profoundly racist views is quite typically the hallmark of European thinkers of yesteryear. The idea that sapient societies (read: white societies) who fostered philosophical learning were racially superior to uncouth savages beguiled by irrational mysticism and occult practices is standard leitmotif in the medieval historical writings of authors later identified as Europeans. Such contemptuous imaginations of the other on the part of “western” writers continued unabated well into the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

“For years, I have kept records of the racist and discriminatory incidents I personally witnessed”

Today, I continue to hear and bear witness to shamefully racist remarks by Leiden academics, administrators, and students; they come in the form of vile drivels that range from direct insults to Islam and (sometimes) Judaism to ridicule and mockery of Muslim praxis and religious clothing (not least of which is the fascination of white European men with veiled Muslim women whom they see as exotic objects in need of white savours). For years, I have kept records of the racist and discriminatory incidents I personally witnessed at Leiden.

Once in my presence, a learned Leiden professor described Islam as a “brutal religion”. In another incident, a highly respected white male professor asked me whether a prospective academic guest speaker from the Middle East (whom he hadn’t known or heard of) could be anti-Semitic, presumably because everyone of the 254 million residents of the Middle East must necessarily be anti-Semitic (it would be equally ridiculous and racist to assume that all Germans are somehow sympathetic to Nazism). I have also had to respond to students calling for Muslim extermination, others who describe the Middle East as a “terrorist hell hole”, and gentler types that continue to inquire about the precise verses in the Quran that “teach you how to blow yourself up”. While academics, especially instructors in Middle Eastern studies, view Middle Eastern societies with the kind of disdain and grandstanding mentalities one finds in the old pages of their Orientalist predecessors. For them the Middle East and its people have a troubled past. It is a place of roaming brown savages, predisposed towards violence, and obsessed with irrational religion. Only the white Leiden academic is capable of grasping the history, philosophy, religion, and culture of the Middle East. Muslim academics, to quote a senior Leiden professor of high repute, “are incapable of objective scholarship”.

Now, I can imagine some readers shaking their head and thinking, “surely these are isolated incidents that do not reflect the prevailing minorities-friendly mood at Leiden”. The problem with such seemingly innocent ripostes can be summarised in two words: white privilege (or, white fragility). How many of my dear white readers have experienced verbal assault because of their skin colour? How many have experienced discrimination because they belong to a faith community? How many have been wrongly associated with vile terrorists and murders simply because they share a religion? How many have had their mother spat at because of her religious clothing? How many have been refused a job promotion because of their cultural background?

But more importantly: how many of you have spoken to minorities on Leiden campuses to inquire about their experiences in an overwhelmingly white-dominated university? How many of you have woken up to the fact that racism is more than discrete acts committed by individual people but a complex interconnected system at the heart of power structures?

In regular conversations with other minorities at Leiden, be it Muslims, Jews, homosexuals, blacks, etc., an important but missed, or ignored, fact reveals itself: racism, bigotry, and intolerance is a regular and frequent feature of campus life in Leiden. I have spoken to brown professors who told me they were refused a job promotion because of their Middle Eastern heritage, I have spoken to black students who feel underrepresented (and sometimes on the receiving end of scorn when they object the ubiquitous display of the racist tradition that is zwarte piet), I have spoken to veiled Muslim students who feel marginalised and excluded by larger student collectives irked by their religiosity, and I have spoken to Jewish academics who feel unsafe on campus and afraid to address the growing waves of anti-Semitism.

Ask yourself, how many visible minorities sit on senior academic boards at Leiden? How many institute directors belong to minority status? How many black professors teach at Leiden? How about the upper echelons of Leiden management and executive committees: why do they remain a whites-only club? And why, for instance, is the entire steering committees of African or Islamic studies centres made up of white academics?

Leiden has a long way to go. But a proviso is in order. Leiden deserves top marks for its equality policy and upholding of inclusiveness in relation to its hiring of cleaning staff: among them we find white, brown, black, veiled, old, and young.

Kudos, Leiden!

The author whose identity is known to Mare wrote this article anonymously because of concerns about reprisals and safety on campus.

‘A deeply internalized sense of superiority’

“White people in North America live in a society that is deeply separate and unequal by race, and white people are the beneficiaries of that separation and inequality. As a result, we are insulated from racial stress, at the same time that we come to feel entitled to and deserving of our advantage. Given how seldom we experience racial discomfort in a society we dominate, we haven’t had to build our racial stamina. Socialized into a deeply internalized sense of superiority that we either are unaware of or can never admit to ourselves, we become highly fragile in conversations about race. We consider a challenge to our racial worldviews as a challenge to our very identities as good, moral people. Thus, we perceive any attempt to connect us to the system of racism as an unsettling and unfair moral offense. The smallest amount of racial stress is intolerable—the mere suggestion that being white has meaning often triggers a range of defensive responses.”

Robin DiAngelo, White Fragility: Why it’s so Hard for White People to Talk about Racism

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