Van Dijk who has spent the majority of his career at the EUR School of Economics and who is affiliated with ISS but has never taught here, nor has co-published with any students from the ISS, responded by saying that his “words were taken out of context”. In discussions with him we have tried to point out that the meaning of those words in that particular order would not change given a different context. In no context would those words be acceptable. If, on the other hand he had said ‘I work with PhD students and not all of them are brilliant’, that would be an entirely different case all together.
This incident has brought to the fore two important debates within academia: that of knowledge production and its dissemination, and racism and diversity – separate yet intimately interwoven.
Who is allowed to know
First, let’s look at knowledge production within academia. By equating intelligence to geographical locations, his statements are a throwback to pre-World War II racist, biological-pseudoscience rhetoric, which was the justification for colonialism, slavery and Nazi occupation. To say this sort of thinking has been debunked is tautological.
What this points to, are larger debates within academia regarding who is allowed to know. That is, certain kinds of people are perceived as capable of knowing and thinking (fully rational), while others are perceived only as the object of study (ignorant, backward); this insinuates that humanity (rationality, knowledge) is not afforded to everyone.
‘Knowledge production in academia is not innocent’
That knowledge can only enter the academy (or should we say the ‘Champions League’) if it is digested first and regurgitated later by authorised-representatives embodied as privileged-white-male-professors is not an innocent idea. As Gloria Wekker (emeritus professor at Utrecht University) points out knowledge production in academia is not innocent.
Denial of racism
Interestingly enough, in the Netherlands where tolerance is presumed to be the prevailing ethos, white people with higher education seem to be the first to deny racism (Essed, 1991).
Teun A. van Dijk who has spent 30-years of his career researching the relationship between discourse and racism, highlights the role of elites in perpetuating racism. He argues that politicians, corporations, academics, educators and the media play a primary role in reproducing racism by using their positions and its associated power to legitimate and reinforce the dominance of whiteness in the popular culture of Western societies. Indeed, whilst most racism is understood to operate in the popular domain, it is often elites who propagate the initial seeds, through prejudiced ideas.
‘Politicians, corporations, academics, educators and the media play a primary role in reproducing racism’
If we use the article on predatory journals as an example we start to see Teun A. van Dijk’s point, where comments made by an academic, that perpetuates racist stereotypes, is emphasised and given leading space in the media (Erasmus Magazine).
The fact that this particular statement was selected as a visual pull-quote for the article demonstrates the active, rather than passive-objective role of the journalist. Whilst EM’s response stating ‘that the opinion we publish does not necessarily reflect EM’s opinion’ does not absolve them of responsibility, as this response would only be warranted to an opinion piece, not an article which was written and presumably fact checked by their own journalist. What this shows is the ease at which racism is reproduced by elites and disseminated into society.
Understanding Everyday Racism
Yet, to isolate this incident or to reduce it to the ‘one-bad-apple’ model would be a deplorable oversight. This leads to the second point, racism and diversity.
Dutch scholar Philomena Essed (1991) in her book Understanding Everyday Racism has cautioned against individualising racism, which only serves to simplify the problem. Rather, those individuals should be seen as actors within power structures and it is this power, exercised through practices and institutions that reproduce racism. Similarly this power can also be used to fight racism.
White-washing racism under the banner of diversity
However, this power has been used instead to white-wash racism under the banner of diversity. In the push for internationalisation Dutch academic institutions maximise on the wealth and public relations mileage brought in by international students and staff. Yet, when incidents of racism are reported they are quick to respond with feverish commitments to diversity and inclusion. In this way, diversity at its best becomes an exercise in public relations and at its worst a mechanism that protects the status quo/whiteness.
‘Academic institutions are notorious for silencing those who speak out against racism’
Whilst pointing to institutional racism in academia may be seen as the first step, as the point above demonstrates, academic institutions are notorious for silencing those who speak out against racism, accusing them of disloyalty and labelling them as ‘noise’ (Ahmed, 2012). Similarly, by honing in on institutional racism we also run the risk of personalising the institution as the one with the problem, and the one that needs fixing, thus disavowing any personal responsibility as actors within academic institutions.
What the preceding argument shows is the multi-layered and complex nature of racism, but to deny its existence is to stick your head in the sand and pretend that everything is okay. At a time when European alt-right political parties are looking to unite in the upcoming EU elections, and Trump has reignited the torches of the KKK – that’s just not a viable option anymore.
ISS PhD Community
**The ISS PhD community has had follow-up discussions with the ISS administration and is now working closely with the ISS Diversity and Inclusion Team to further the discussion on diversity beyond public relations through trainings, workshops and seminars.
References and further reading
Ahmed, S. 2012. On Being Included: Racism and Diversity in Institutional Life, Durham: Duke University Press
Essed, P. 1991. Understanding Everyday Racism. California: Sage
van Dijk, T.A. 1993. Elite Discourse and Racism. California: Sage
Wekker, G. White Innocence. Paradoxes of Colonialism and Race. London: Duke University Press