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Joost Augusteijn: The challenges of Inclusivity

The end of the semester and the dawning of a new year tend to inspire a certain level of contemplation. So far there has not been much time for that partly as a result of the unrest that has recently erupted around Zwarte Piet. In that context I would like to share some thoughts with you.

As a programme we pride ourselves in having students and staff originating in many different countries. One of the main benefits I have always emphasised as chair is the fact we are all exposed to many different perspectives. And exploring different perspectives, whether disciplinary or otherwise, is what International Studies is about. In the continuous process of self-evaluation we have also come to realise over the last year that not everyone in the programme feels all perspectives are valued.

As one anonymous student of ours puts it in a recently published university booklet on making an inclusive classroom:

Unfortunately, I feel that I can’t speak freely about certain topics, such as race, gender and feminism. Sometimes a lecturer gives his opinion on one of these topics, setting the standard for the discussion. Although I do not agree with him and would like to have a discussion with him, I don’t dare to say anything.

In response to this realisation, we initiated a project last September, exploring the way we can host an inclusive environment in all aspects of our teaching. If anything the recent online discussion here in The Hague surrounding Zwarte Piet has shown that this is a much needed exercise. Posts on Facebook and Twitter also showed that it is difficult to have a constructive dialogue about issues in which opinions are diametrically opposed. As for instance the Brexit discussions in Britain have shown, discussing an issue on which there are mutually exclusive points of view does not bring out the best in those participating. In a very recent contribution (unfortunately in Dutch, find link the here) philosopher Elselijn Kingma analysed the debate in linguistic terms, concluding that a debate on the meaning of Zwarte Piet is essentially fruitless. Zwarte Piet is both racist and non-racist that is a direct consequence of how humans assign meaning. Recognising that other people can give opposing meanings to the same phenomenon is the only way forward away from polarisation towards inclusivity.

On the edge of the discussions, things have been said which are either illegal or transgress the university codes of conduct. It is good to make clear that in such cases appropriate measures will, and in this as in earlier cases, have been taken, but that is not a public process.

Fortunately, the online debate within the International Studies community remained relatively free of this even though insensitive and exclusionary things were written. The question facing us now is how we move forward and ensure together that we nurture an inclusive environment in which all of us feel at home.

Part of this is recognising that many of us do experience forms of exclusion. There are indeed many ways of making people feel unaccepted. For those of colour this can range from ethnic profiling to what is called innocent racism and beyond. A good example of how this can affect those involved was shown recently in a documentary on Dutch television (again in Dutch I am afraid: find the link here). One conclusion I draw from it is that it is impossible for many of us to isolate an experience of exclusion, as every incident is one that can fit into a sometimes life-long series of acts of exclusion.

It also has to be acknowledged that everyone of us including, myself and you, have implicit biases, and that as a result some of us are more and in different ways unfairly excluded or not recognised. In the context of our programme it is important to acknowledge that experiencing exclusionary practices affect those concerned and their study success detrimentally.  

This recognition is not an expression of political correctness as some would argue, but of appreciating the diverse experience of all of us. It also does not mean that those experiencing acts of exclusion are exempted from making every effort to remedy this like we all have to do. The danger is that those who are excluded feel powerless to aid in making change possible and resign themselves to what they consider the inevitable and become passive in the fight against exclusionary practices. This is something which I am strongly committed to avoid in our exploration of the question how to ensure a truly inclusive approach in our programme, our teaching materials, and our general demeanour.

So how do we move forward? Of course many efforts have already been made. That it is not always easy or obvious to create an inclusive classroom can be drawn in this instructive university publication, in which various humanities' lecturers tell about their experiences on the road to inclusive teaching. 

We want to go a step further and in the New Year intensify our discussions on how to create that safe and inclusive environment which is conducive to a positive exchange of ideas. To that end I call upon all of you who are involved in the programme from students to lectures and support staff to engage actively and with an open and constructive mind-set, willing to listen to each other and account for our own input. Reaching inclusiveness also requires inclusiveness.

For now, I wish you all a pleasant break and a positive New Year.

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