A Letter to My Academic Community © Patrick Behn, 2020

A Letter to My Academic Community

Our PhD student Bareez Majid encourages her fellow LUCAS members to partake in the worldwide movement that fights against racism and inequality. A genuine form of self-reflection is necessary, Majid argues, if our community wants to legitimize its existence and rightfully call itself inclusive.

This blogpost is inspired by contemporary social and cultural reflections on racism and microaggressions. Using Black Lives Matter and the discussion of Zwarte Piet as stepping stones, I will bring the matter closer to home and address the question of (everyday) racism within our institute.

Despite the many protests that have been voiced and organized, in different ways, since at least the 1980s, our native phenomenon of ‘Zwarte Piet’ has been turned into the symbol of an imagined Dutch national culture that would be pure and innocent. Except for some minor adjustments in the appearance of this figure, not much has changed on a fundamental level. At least, not until recently.

Following the death of George Floyd, and in the wake of the worldwide Black Lives Matter protests against (institutional) racism and police brutality, even our prime minster Mark Rutte broke his silence about Zwarte Piet. During his weekly press conference update on COVID-19, we heard him finally acknowledge the fact that Zwarte Piet is offensive to our fellow citizens of Color, and that this figure not only causes them pain but also harms them. However, being primarily an affair of the public, Rutte later added, he did not consider our elected representatives to be in a position to denounce these harmful practices. In time, Zwarte Piet will gradually change anyway, he suggested. Divorcing the domain of politics from cultural life, our prime minister in this way attempted to maintain his ‘neutral’ position as an ‘outsider’ and ‘observer’ to cultural disagreement.

Rutte’s statement, however, is undeniably weak. He recognizes the pain caused by this ‘innocent’ tradition but refuses to take action, failing to introduce and implement a policy to make sure that Zwarte Piet can be turned into a figure accepted by all Dutch citizens. At the same time, however, it is important to notice that statements like these do corrode the innocence of the figure of Zwarte Piet, little by little. More importantly, they show us that it is thanks to the fight fought by brave activists, advocating for a just world, that public opinion is starting to change.

To me, the latter observation is promising and hopeful, but also confronting. Ever since I decided to enter the academic world, I have struggled with the intersection between activism and academia. Even while writing this blog, I feel reluctant to talk about this topic, afraid I will be rejected as a ‘feminist killjoy’, to use a term aptly defined by Sara Ahmed. For the sake of change, however, I strongly believe that it is important to share some of the experiences I have had, as a female researcher with a migrant background, within our predominantly White university, exploring the above-discussed issues within the context of our university.

In 2015, I joined the Leiden University community to undertake research on a topic that I am passionate about, namely how the Kurdish-Iraqi society represents and works through its recent traumatic past. Since my research master’s thesis was granted prizes awarded byDe Volkskrant and Visions on Peace, I was approached by our university newspaper De Mare for an interview. During the interview, it became quite obvious that my interviewer was primarily focusing on the fact that I was born in the region on which I am doing research. Nonetheless, I believed and expected that the article would eventually be about my ambitious and innovative research.

Little did I know that my background and the stories of pain and suffering that I had collected during my fieldwork - which I had shared with my interviewer to provide her with a glimpse of the difficulties of doing this kind of research – would form the main focus of the article. My solid scholarly work, in other words, was presented as my way of dealing with traumas that I should have, the interviewer thought, considering my personal background. I could simply not make her understand that I did not identify with her essentialist portrayal of my person. Most importantly, I could not convince her that I did not approve of her unethical use of my data, which clearly favored a sensationalist approach to the traumas that I study over the dignity of the Kurdish people I had interviewed for my research. Notwithstanding, she based herself on the principle of journalistic freedom to portray me and Kurdish traumas in this way. Furthermore, she argued that the stories of pain and suffering that were experienced by my respondents could not be removed from the article, because people have to understand that war is not ‘rozengeur en maneschijn’ (‘all fun and games’). Her patronizing words, not mine. Only with help of others, including our former Diversity Officer, our former Head of Student Support Services and my supervisor, I was able to persuade De Mare to adjust at least some aspects in the final version of the interview.

Having this experience in the beginning of my academic career, I realized that if I wanted to be taken seriously as a researcher, I should abandon all that is ‘me’. It made me aware of the fact that if I wanted to be recognized as a ‘serious’ academic, whose ideas and work would count, I had to make sure to prevent any appearance of ‘subjectiveness’, since any reference to my background would immediately lead people to reduce my research to this background, sentimentality or sensationalism. It would not be possible, in other words, to refer to my background and the worth of my research as equally important.

A couple of days ago, however, one of my supervisors – a young and brilliant scholar – pointed out to me that she missed a reflection on my positionality in my writings. Your background has become the elephant in the room, she said. From a critical scholarly perspective, she continued, that aspect is extremely relevant to incorporate and address.

After years of denying this, I admitted that I agree. I know that my deep and thorough understanding of the worlds that I am embedded in – the academic world of theory, the context of The Netherlands, and the cultural context to which I apply my theories – is my strength. It is because of a merging of these worlds, for example, that I am able to identify why and how theoretical frameworks mainly developed in Western academia fall short when applied to non-Western contexts, of which the Kurdish-Iraqi society forms an example. Furthermore, because of my intimate knowledge of this latter society, this merging of worlds enables me to be critical of the political and ideological frameworks that permeate Kurdish approaches to trauma. Be that as it may, bringing back the ‘I’ in my scholarly work still seems terrifying.

This seems to be only a theoretical matter. But the reality is that I, throughout the years, have also been made aware of the fact that it is almost impossible to gain full membership of the academic world at our university. At two out of three borrels and other gatherings organized by our institute, there is at least one person who asks me where I, or where my name is, originally from. One time, my answer ‘Den Haag, and now Utrecht’, was not sufficient to one of our professors, and I was forced to come forward with a truth that would define my essence. Another professor complimented me on my perfect Dutch after a whole evening of conversing. The only legitimate reaction to remarks like these seems to be a fake smile and the conviction that they are not worth being upset about.

The PhD community is different, I hoped. After all, this group consists of like-minded people who I consider my peers, and who, I believe, are far more critical than previous generations. During one of our PhD lunches, however, we were talking about a simple thing: the experience of Halloween in our childhood. Just when I started reminiscing about childhood memories of something similar to this festivity, by describing how we as kids knocked on our neighbors’ doors, I was interrupted by one of my fellows who said: ‘that happens indeed when you do not have any food’. Around the table, some people laughed uncomfortably, some raised their eyebrows, and some showed solidarity with me later. At the moment itself, however, no one said a word. Playing the feminist killjoy, it had to be me to tell her that her remark was racist. Coming from a different country and having a refugee background does not make one a beggar. But maybe that is the image that comes to mind when people (even critical scholars?) think of people like me? Either way, I ruined the peaceful and gezellige lunch, as it was all a ‘just a joke’. Eventually, I was the one left to believe that I was too emotional, too sensitive, and not in a ‘right’ position to understand that it was meant as such. A similar thing happened when one of my fellows referred to my hair as ‘witch hair’ and told me to take it as a compliment.

I don’t want you to read my testimony as a personal indictment of those who might recognize themselves in my story. This is not about them. It is about their remarks, which I provide here as examples of microaggressions towards those who are perceived as ‘different’. Being repeated continually by different people, remarks like these shape a community of which only the White elite is considered a full member. Consequently, our institute remains a bastion of White privileged scholars, where scholars of Color are still underrepresented.

My story, unfortunately, is not unique. The fact is that moments in which racism is disguised – and justified – with the statement that it is just an innocent joke or a naïve remark, are not rare. Since most of our politicians fail to point out how similar mechanisms are used to defend ‘innocent’ and ‘pure’ cultural practices, rejecting critique as voiced by people who ‘cannot take a joke’ or ‘don’t understand the tradition anyway’, it is more urgent than ever to admit that even our seemingly critical academic community is not devoid of everyday racism. Racism happens on a daily basis in our institute, before your eyes and mine.

So here I am, standing before you, supported by my fellow activists, raising my voice. I turn to you, my dear White colleagues, to let you know that your words have implications. I urge you to see that it is not enough to be critical in your scholarly work, without practicing what you preach in your personal interactions. Respect our differences! Your words reflect who you are as a person and who you aspire to be.

Now I will go back working on my fascinating research, in which I rock!

The editorial board of the Leiden Arts in Society Blog, the LUCAS PhD Council, as well as the LUCAS Management Team, support and want to facilitate a dialogue on racism within our academic community. We invite all our members to share their stories and reflections about this topic, either on this platform or during a round-table conversation to be organized on the initiative of the LUCAS Institute Council in the coming weeks.

Please send your contribution to this dialogue to the following email address: leidenartsinsocietyblog@hum.leidenuniv.nl.

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© Bareez Majid and Leiden Arts in Society Blog, 2020. Unauthorised use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this site’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Bareez Majid and Leiden Arts in Society Blog with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

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