When is a story racist?

DUB is the independent news and opinion website of the university community in Utrecht. Its stories highlight recent events from a journalist point of view, and it’s a platform for debate. In its approach, DUB does not shy away from topics where emotions may run high. Whether it’s about themes like patronising behaviour at the university, or establishing a women’s quota.

DUB also published a number of articles about racism in higher education, after the worldwide protests after the death of black American George Floyd, who died from police brutality. After a general analysis of possible racism in Dutch higher education, we also wrote about Utrecht University’s statement, which called for self-reflection. “We oppose systematic exclusion and discrimination.” It refers to a message by University College dean James Kennedy to students and staff at his college, who calls for critically examining class material, and who wants to make his staff and student population more diverse.

Difficult in reality
A statement like that is very fitting. The UU has wanted to make the university more inclusive for years. But that proves difficult in reality. Is the university too white? Or is it because few non-western secondary schoolers obtain their vwo diplomas? And how do you make sure people from different cultures form one community? Do Dutch students want to live in houses with internationals? And if they do, does it go well?

To hear how non-western students and employees experience the UU environment, we interviewed four of them.

Fitting in the Black Lives Matter era, the UUers make some bold statements. Michaela Onuchukwu, student of Public International Law, talks about how she as an outsider experiences Black Pete, how she’s mostly taught by white, western teachers, and that the non-western perspective is largely missing from the course material. Edward Hubbard, teacher of media and culture, talks about how he felt excluded when he’d just arrived in Utrecht, and how strongly the Floyd video resonated with him. These are personal stories.

Forming a community
But they also show a way of viewing our society and university that shows how certain mechanisms may work. It’s good to tell these stories, because their experiences show that it’s not that easy to form a community in which everyone feels at home. Race isn’t the only variable in this, by the way – transgender people, and people from a lower socio-economic background, will face issues with being fully accepted for who they are.

The question remains when something is racism. I think nobody at the university would call themselves racist. To many Dutch people, you’re a racist when you explicitly think of say that someone from a different race is lesser or inferior. But mechanisms that ensure non-western students or employees have fewer chances, or feel excluded, are just as racist. It might not be intentional racism, but it comes from the subconscious.

Judged for the colour of their skin
Our campus columnist Keerthi Sridharan takes things a step further. She says all white students are complicit in racism, because they grew up in a society that gives preference to certain groups, and which is therefore racist. “The issue is that people see racism as a moral failing. When I call them racist, they relate it to their own character, but that’s not what it’s about.”

The reactions to the article show that people feel that’s racist. After all, they’re judged for the colour of their skin, even though it’s not something they can do anything about.

For student Job van de Broek, it’s motivation to write an opinion piece. He feels personally addressed by the four UUers. It seems, he feels that when all rules are the same for all people, there is – in principle – no distinguishing between individuals, and therefore, no racism. That’s an institutional approach that ignores the personal experiences the four UUers refer to in their stories, and the mechanisms that ensure non-western people feel excluded or have fewer chances in society and at the university. That examples in the article don’t seem to be taken into account by him. And so he responds like a student who doesn’t see himself as racist, and gets angry when others tell him he is.

Bridging the gap
His opinion, too, is then called racist by some readers. Should DUB publish these articles? Is a question the editors received. As said in the beginning of this article, DUB is a medium in which people should be able to debate about recent events and topics. Of course, there are boundaries. When a story calls for violence, or insults people personally, DUB will not publish the article. But within a medium like DUB, there should be space for every UUer to give their opinion and their own arguments. These visions make clear that there’s a gap between the way different people view a concept like racism.

DUB thinks that in this debate, it’s important to gain insight into the opinions that exist within the academic community. That’s the starting point for understanding each other and coming together. There’s already enough polarisation.