White history: Diversity in the Humanities faculty

White history: Diversity in the Humanities faculty

Only 5% of students and 6% of staff members at the UvA have a non-western background, and only 26% of professors are women. All of this in a university that prides itself on diversity and on being internationally oriented. It’s safe to say things need to start changing for the better. Youvatoday Spoke to Ibrahim Kamara, a black student in a predominately white course who’s been actively involved in opening the conversation, so we could get his opinion on how the university can improve its diversity for the better. 

Ibrahim, originally from Sierra Leone, has lived in the Netherlands since he was a child. Twenty-one years old, he is in his second year at the UvA studying history. Ibrahim stands out within his course; this isn’t just due to the fact he’s well-spoken and charming, nor the fact he’s actively involved in classes, that he is a member of the Opleiding Commissie and a member of the student party Soof. Ibrahim stands out due to the fact that he’s black, and one of less than 10 students who don’t conform to the norm of the average history major i.e. white, heterosexual, and middle class. 

Because of the way he looks he’s been on the receiving end of prejudice from fellow students. Little things: like people thinking he’s much older than he actually is, or being surprised at his proficiency in the Dutch language. This also manifests itself in different ways, for instance, his not being allowed to enter the UB when he lost his student ID, something that has happened to all of us at some point. He’s also been mistaken for a janitor at the OMHP. At the very worst these prejudices become malicious. When he spontaneously decided to attend a Spelling Bee held by the History student Association Kleio, his grammar errors were mocked by the white members, who simultaneously made sure to emphasize how proud they were of his attendance because it “made them diverse”. 

In response to these prejudices, Ibrahim Involved Himself in a diversity panel held on the 5th of October, not just to tackle prejudices against black students like himself, but other underrepresented groups as well. Elderly students are viewed as economically self-sustaining and don’t get the help they need when it comes to defaulting on tuition payments, or when it comes to fitting their timetables around their busy lives. A lack of gender-neutral bathrooms has led to male students who menstruate having to use male bathrooms and being unable to throw away their sanitary products. There are also no rooms for religious students or students who suffer from sensory overload to go to when they are overstimulated or need to pray.  These are just a few examples he gives off problems that arise due to a lack of diversity at the UvA. 

Ibrahim agrees with a document published by the diversity committee of the UvA headed by Gloria Wekker. A sociologist specialized in gender, race, and sexuality theories that stated diversity at the UvA is severely lacking in part due to the UvA administration still sees their target student as White, male, cis, and heterosexual. This echoes a sentiment uttered by Tessa Trapp of the CSR who Youvatoday interviewed last year, who stated that: the UvA still sees itself as a Dutch university leading to problems in catering to international students. The problem seems to lie with the UvA being somewhat stuck behind the times, pretending to be a leftist inclusive institution but acting very much to the contrary. Contrast this with the VU who, despite having their roots in conservative roman-Catholicism, is the more diverse of the two Amsterdam unis. Ibrahim himself almost went for this exact reason but decided against it due to the course being in English. 

How do we increase diversity within the humanities? Ibrahim doesn’t believe a positive discrimination policy will work. He instead believes the best way to change for the better is by increasing awareness. Awareness amongst students and staff who don’t see the diversity issues and awareness amongst underrepresented communities, that an academic course is indeed a potential choice down the line for their children, and not just the ones with high employability, but the humanities, and arts courses too. 

Diversity isn’t going to change overnight, Ibrahim admits this himself, but he hopes that in a few years when he leaves the university the groundwork has been laid for an increased amount of awareness of diversity issues at the UvA. He hopes diversity officers won’t be just white people, there will be more done with the curriculum and other events. 

 to increase diverse perspectives. He also hopes the university will be committed to promoting a pluriform environment, instead of the current situation: empty virtue signaling with chosen ambassador teams and hastily put together pride floats 

Diversity develops in the long term, and perhaps by the time the UvA has succeeded in diversifying along the same lines as the VU, the University of Utrecht, or even the HvA, most of us will long since have graduated. But with initiatives led by students like Ibrahim, critical reports like the one by Wekker, and room for discourse, the future looks to be a different color than white.