Why not really make room for minorities?

Masterclass about diversity: masterful examples of privilege

vier vinkjes, pixabay

The newsletter sent by the Equality, Diversity & Inclusion office (EDI) on September 28th contained an enthusiastic announcement: “As part of the UU broad leadership programme, all UU executives can attend the Masterclass on Diversity on November 3. The speaker at this Masterclass is none other than Joris Luyendijk. Joris is an anthropologist and journalist and shares with us his view on diversity, which caused a stir last year.”

A stir, indeed. In his book, De zeven Vinkjes – Hoe mannen zoals ik de baas spelen ("The Seven Check Marks  – How men like me play boss", Ed), Joris Luyendijk argues that it is high time that privileged people like him make room for people with fewer privileges. By "people like me", he means male (check), white (check), straight (check), who has at least one parent born in the Netherlands, at least one highly educated parent earning good money, a certain social status or cultural capital, and a university degree (check, check, check, check). People with seven check marks should make room for the ones who are not always given the benefit of the doubt because they are seen as the Other.

In an interview with Volkskrant Magazine in February (available in Dutch only, Ed), Luyendijk was asked whether he would be uncomfortable if his book became a bestseller and he made lots of money from it. "No", he answered. In fact, he would be "very happy. I’m just a human being who craves recognition”. The book was covered by some of the biggest news media in the Netherlands, including De Volkskrant, NRC and Buitenhof, and spent several months on the list of best-selling books. Luyendijk can spend the near future giving lectures and speaking in master classes until he is overloaded with check marks. In sum, he is pleading for more space for the less privileged, as long as it doesn’t hurt his wallet.

UU's choice of a keynote speaker is being criticised because Luyendijk doesn’t actually make room for underprivileged people. Besides, his list of check marks is incomplete. His book fails to mention several privileges that significantly affect a person’s opportunities and position. For instance:

   8. Being cisgender

   9. Being able-bodied and without chronic illnesses

  10. Having no discernable religion

People with seven check marks who are transgender, use a wheelchair, can’t work for more than five hours a day or always wear a yarmulke will still have fewer opportunities to "play boss".

Making room
The idea of intersecting and mutually reinforcing axes of inequality isn't new. It has been around since 1989, when it was introduced by Professor Kimberlé Crenshaw, an African-American feminist and lawyer. She calls this phenomenon "intersectionality".

That term is nowhere to be found in Luyendijk’s book (aside from a statement in which he says he has consciously avoided such "jargon") and Crenshaw is not credited for her work. UU Emeritus Professor Gloria Wekker and her book White Innocence - Paradoxes of Colonialism and Race do get several mentions in the book, but Wekker herself has mixed feelings about it. Alongside Nancy Jouwe, she wryly reflects (text available in Dutch only, Ed) that, instead of writing about the women of color that came up with the concept of intersectionality, Luyendijk has appropriated their work.

Even important researchers, essayists, journalists, writers and activists such as Audre Lorde, Philomena Essed, bell hooks, Angela Davis, Anousha Nzume, Seada Nourhussen, Clarice Gargard, Dalilla Hermans, Reni Eddo-Lodge, Alice Wong, Imani Barbarin, Ijeoma Oluo, Afua Hirsch, Ta-Nehisi Coates, Roxane Gay, Jens van Tricht, Rudy O. Asibey, and Layla Saad are missing from his book. All these people have been researching intersectionality, privileges and discrimination for decades, and they speak and write about these topics often. Luyendijk stands on their shoulders, without recognising them.

“Joris Luyendijk will soon explain at an event that people like him, with seven check marks, should not be invited as often. Instead, they should be inviting people like the politician Jeanette Chedda. And the audience will nod approvingly…”, writes the columnist, writer and theatre producer Johan Fretz on Twitter. To me, that remark sounds like a very accurate prediction of what the masterclass at UU is going to look like. After all, we have all grown up with very pervasive societal prejudices. So pervasive, that we’re often not aware of them.

I’m almost certain that the managers in that lecture hall do not consider themselves racist. They think that they oppose sexism and that they don’t care with whom their fellow humans like to have sex. They will probably also be against ableism, once the concept has been explained to them. So, they will nod, but that is not a guarantee that anything will change...

None other than Joris Luyendijk will explain why underprivileged people are not invited by companies to give lectures in their headquarters. In his interview to Volkskrant Magazine, he said: “When I do readings in corporate settings, people often ask me to write things down because now that I am saying it, they finally get the message.” That was exactly the answer I received when I asked the organisers of the masterclass why they hadn't chosen to spend the budget of the leadership programme on an expert with fewer privileges. Basically, the organisers expect that UU's managers will relate to him. They argue that it is effective when someone who is privileged calls for reflection and change. I was also led to believe that there will be a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow: the organisers say they hope the Masterclass will “start a change”. It looks like HR is carefully suggesting that they intend to make room for underprivileged people someday but that's as far as they will go right now.

If Luyendijk took his own words more seriously, and if UU really wanted managers to see what "making room" for others actually looks like, Luyendijk would start the masterclass and, after five minutes, he'd announce the actual (and of course competitively compensated) speaker, which could be Jeanette Chedda, Eline Pollaert, Xandra Koster, Sarita Bajnath, Laura te Hennepe, Olave Nduwanje, Nancy Jouwe… The list goes on and on! In doing so, UU would do justice to the motto of the disability justice movement, which has since been adopted by other marginalised communities: "If it is not with us then it is not about us".

None other than Joris Luyendijk would of course wholeheartedly applaud the initiative.