Young Academy concludes:

Collecting data on ethnicity might be a 'necessary evil'

Poppetjes op een rij die meisjes met verschillende etnische achtergronden verbeelden
Photo: Emmapatsie / Flickr

According to The Young Academy, a group of young and prominent scientists affiliated with the Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences (best known as its Dutch acronym, KNAW), there is no data available on the “migration background, ethnicity or racialisation” of those working for Dutch universities. When it comes to students, only their "migration background" is known.

In the Netherland, the idea of collecting this type of data is often met with a lot of resistance. Last year, for example, the proposal to introduce a so-called "cultural diversity barometer" at some universities sparked a heated discussion. UU ended up pulling out of the project altogether.

But, in the view of the Young Academy, data of this kind can be useful “to identify, understand, and combat ethnic discrimination and racism”, according to one of the two reports the group has written on the subject. The young researchers believe the cause to be worthwile.

The reports are based on only sixteen interviews, so the authors are reluctant to draw strict conclusions. Nevertheless, the interviews help identify a few "areas of concern", such as the fact that some people are annoyed by the collection of such data. As an example, a Master’s student in Environmental Issues from Wageningen University & Research (WUR) mentions white men who have a hard time believing the testimonies of people of colour. “They often ask for evidence.” Another student, who serves as the president of an Afro-Dutch student association, argues that the collection of such data is necessary to “legitimise the experiences of people of colour at educational institutions in the Netherlands”.

So, what kind of data should be collected, after all? Before you know it, you are putting people into boxes they have not chosen for themselves, which evokes resistance. Based on the interviews, The Young Academy suggests self-identification.

The respondents called themselves Afro-Surinamese, Hagenees (the Dutch name given to those born and raised in The Hague), Moroccan, New Dutch, Dutch-Turkish or non-white, to name but a few. In sum, the options are endless. Either way, it’s important that students and staff of colour have a say in how they are categorised.

Furthermore, it is crucial that their data is in safe hands – and not everyone has enough trust in universities in that regard. Considering how the tax authorities in the Netherlands dealt with ethnicity-related data, many respondents wonder whether an educational institution would be any different. “Collecting this type of information increases the risk of discrimination and racism because you don’t know who’s behind the screen,” argues one black student.

But most respondents, as well as the authors, ultimately seem to prefer collecting such data over not doing it, as long as it is done well. But a minority of respondents are still fundamentally opposed to it. Amade M’charek, professor of Anthropology at the University of Amsterdam, believes that databases place too much emphasis on ethnic differences: “Putting them into a database makes them seem like very natural, universal criteria.” Moreover, she says, you run the risk of overlooking differences within such groups.

Preliminary exploration
The two reports, which complement each other and are essentially about the same topic, are intended to enrich the discussion on diversity policy and anti-racism by pointing up areas of concern. They need to be viewed as “a preliminary exploration” and not as a representative sample of the opinions held by staff and students of colour, notes the Young Academy.