JOVD (Young VVD) has recently invited me to join them for an evening to talk about (or, as they put it, ‘enter into a discussion on’) diversity at the university. At pretty much the same time, the university invited me to join in a debate on diversity in which the chairman of JOVD would be another participant. Perhaps I should remind the reader here that JOVD recently called on the university’s Executive Board in a petition to ‘ignore’ the letter pleading for a serious diversity policy drawn up by several employees of this university.
In this way, JOVD very explicitly sought to thwart a ‘conversation’ at the university, and in my response to JOVD’s petition I stated that the youth movement of a political party should not get involved in a discussion whose participants and audience form an academic community. Therefore, the gist of my response was that JOVD should not be part of conversations, discussions or dialogues or anything else at the university.
For this reason, JOVD’s invitation to me to come and talk things over gives off a slightly thick impression. Let me get this straight – I told you I don’t want to talk to you, and you respond by asking me to come and talk to you? This response shows something you will often see when diversity is at stake, which is a fight being reduced to a ‘debate’, ‘conversation’ or even ‘dialogue’. This is of course very much a liberal thing to do – let’s sit down and discuss it. On the other hand, it was not very liberal to call for a letter advocating greater diversity to be ignored.
However, turning something into a ‘debate’ can also take the sting out of it, because the resulting ‘diversity debate’ (which is literally what JOVD calls it) will no longer be about the dominant structures that are the cause of a lack of diversity. It is extremely convenient for a dominant order to ‘discuss’ things and to ‘get all parties involved in the conversation’. After all, this is the best way not to be faced with a truly radical change.
It is also the best way to make everyone partially responsible for the status quo. A dialogue presupposes equality between the audiences involved, but the point of diversity policies is precisely that there is no such equality. Let’s have a dialogue once the diversity problem has been resolved, shall we?
In short, reducing a problem to a ‘dialogue’ or ‘conversation’ is a typically Dutch liberal way to never really have to implement changes. Maybe this is also why, previously, the JOVD members’ reading comprehension proved so poor: they saw something in the letter calling for greater diversity that was not actually in it, i.e. a plea for quotas. As they mentioned in their reply, they were able to ‘read between the lines’.
Allow me to dispense some free advice: when reading texts, it is generally better to read the actual lines than to read between the lines. But the fact that JOVD ‘read between the lines’ shows something important: they caught a glimpse of quotas and panicked. Why? Because quotas would not constitute a conversation, but rather a putting-into-practice.
If quotas were to be implemented, people would no longer be able to continue talking, thus extending the current situation, i.e. inequality. And although the letter calling for greater diversity did not mention quotas in any way, shape or form, its gist was: let’s stop talking and actually do something now.
Once that was put into so many words, JOVD responded by calling for the letter to be ignored. But when I criticised them for that, I was suddenly invited to come and enter into a debate with them! Does the university now consider JOVD a legitimate partner in dialogue when it comes to diversity at this university? What other political parties does it consider legitimate partners in dialogue? And could the university not become a public without any involvement from political parties serving their own agendas?
This tendency to reduce diversity to a ‘debate’ is too easy, and for the time being, only one side of the political spectrum is engaging in it. And that is the model we can see in action here: first they accept a situation of gross inequality, of which at present they are saying that there is none because everyone has been emancipated and has his or her own responsibility, and then they will invite you to come and have a chat about it, on the basis of this inequality, which must be kept intact.
So what is diversity? As far as I’m concerned, it is a fight for positions of power and scant resources – a fight for access to organisations for those who are not granted access due to institutional sexism and institutional racism, or for those who are granted access but are subsequently kept in subordinate positions. In other words, we are not talking about a ‘debate’ or ‘conversation’: we are talking about a fight.
I am not claiming that it is primarily my fight. However, I do claim that it is a fight that affects me too, since I operate within a structure of institutional sexism and racism, and since I feel that there should be as little of that as possible. And a fight is not a ‘debate’. Moreover, we have spent enough time chatting about diversity, which was precisely the message the letter calling for greater diversity that led to this exchange (no, it is not a ‘dialogue’) sought to get across.
So, just so that we are clear on this, and just in case the members of JOVD were unable to read this between the lines: no, thanks, I will not come and join you for a debate!
Dear Professor Schinkel,
I fully agree that a debate between a white Dutch professor and representatives of the JOVD would not be productive and – as a discussion among persons of privilege – would legitimise what Professor Gloria Wekker refers to as “white innocence”.
However, to dismiss wholesale the suggestion that discussing such matters is “a liberal thing to do” is both unfortunate and misleading, particularly within the context of an institution of higher learning.
There hasn’t been nearly enough discussion about this crucial topic, particularly involving communities who experience widespread, structural discrimination. Indeed, this is precisely why Professor Wekker has translated her marvelous book into Dutch and is engaging with communities across the country, waking people up to their racial and gendered privilege, and their misplaced “innocence”.
Accordingly, I also fully agree with your definition of diversity and that recognising power differentials is crucial, but why would it not be possible to hold a critical and respectful debate that did take these matters into account?
Why is the only strategic alternative to stick one’s heels in the sand? This doesn’t take the matter further at all and reaffirms white innocence. And it deepens polarisation.
Change MUST happen, for sure. It is totally unsustainable that academia be predominantly the preserve of white men and that debates be predominantly discussions among white men (which is so often the norm at conferences and meetings).
As white men, we must check our privilege and support a critical and respectful dialogue within our University and broader community that takes into account both power and a diversity of opinions, provided such opinions are open to a critical dialogue, which JOVD has made abundantly clear it is not.