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‘We are most attracted to people who are like us’

Professor of Higher Education Estela Mara Bensimon approaches diversity from a specific viewpoint. Examine and reflect on your own motives, is her advice to lecturers. Do you know for sure that you don't treat students from minority groups differently?

Prof. Estela Mara Bensimon

Why is it so important to do more for bicultural students?
‘Rather than thinking in terms of doing more, I would prefer to think about the importance for professionals, such as professors and other lecturers, of realising who they are focusing on - often without being aware of it - in terms of race, ethnicity and gender.  We are none of us perfect, and as human beings we are most strongly attracted to individuals who are like ourselves. We are subject to implicit biases and as white people, we may well unwittingly interact more with white students. That could easily mean that we  - in my case that means white North Americans - ignore other groups. I also want to stress that I'm not aiming to play any kind of missionary role in the sense that non-white students should be treated with kind condescension.' 

'I'd like to redefine the phrase in your question about extra attention as "becoming aware of who we interact with and how" in our lecture halls, committees and other groups. What we need to do is to check and reflect on our attitude towards "the other".  In my work I see that lecturers often have a biased view - in particular of coloured students: they can't really be prepared for the University and aren't motivated, or they are regarded as "poor little things". I concentrate on cognitive reframing, which means that we teach lecturers and other professionals to develop an attitude that allows them to treat all students the same.' (See Bensimons Equity Minded Competence).

'To discover ethnic or racial patterns in learning performance and to take do something about it, we first need some quantitative data. Without the data it's impossiblke to detect inequality. In our work we compare data about race and ethnicity, for example, related to access to different kinds of institutions and specialisations, and also to graduation results. I understand that these kinds of data aren't collected in the Netherlands, which makes it difficult to ascertain differences in outcomes based on race and ethnicity. Another method introduced by the Center for Urban Education is a syllabus review that involves relevant programmes or faculties in exploring their syllabus along the lines of racial and ethnic justice.  If I were to look at a course in Leiden, "Introduction to sociology", for example, I would be curious about whether it includes the work of Philomena Essed about everyday racism.’

Rossier School of Education
The Rossier School of Education at the University of Southern California (USC) has 2200 students.

What does striving for diversity mean for staff policies (lecturers, student counsellors and other support staff)?
‘I'm in favour of unravelling the recruitment and assessment processes that favour the status quo.  I think it's important for academic institutions to take a good look at their staff recruitment procedures both in terms of quantity and quality, and ask such questions as: why is it that our recruitment policies bring in mainly white staff? Why have we in recent years only taken on one Dutch-Moroccan, Dutch-Turkish or Dutch-Surinamese colleague?' 

How important is it to take part in awareness campaigns, looking at the role of colonisation, for example?
‘Absolutely important. All too often we suffer loss of memory about our racial history. In our work with universities we often get them to make a racial history map. This example is from a higher education institution in Minnesota. I also think it's important for university administrators and lecturers to read work by coloured scholars. In my work I often find that lecturers and other staff members are unaware of the work of black and Latin researchers like Ta Ne-Hisi Coates, or educational researchers like Gloria Ladson-Billings. The same could be true in the Netherlands.'

Do you see any didfferences in terms of diversity between the US and Europe/the Netherlands?
‘As I said, my focus is on racial and ethnic equality. I am sure that the concept of racial justice is relevant in the Netherlands. One similarity could be that in the Netherlands, just as in the US, there is some reluctance, or each discomfort when talking about race. Another similarity could be the false conviction that we are colour blind and that we use that as an excuse for not thinking about racism or white supremacy.' 

Where do you get your personal inspiration for this work?
‘I was growing up in the sixties and got involved in the struggle for the right to education of the increasing Puerto Rican community in New Jersey. Some years later, when I was a university lecturer, I went through a personal and professional crisis. In 1999 that motivated me to set up the Center for Urban Education, an organisation that focuses on research on racial justice, with the aim of developing practical tools that can uncover racial inequality and raise awareness of this issue. This is that I want to do. I have become an activiist again, but this time on the basis of my research.' 

See here the full programme for the symposium: How inclusion makes diversity work op 22 november in Scheltema. NB. There are still places available for the evening programme.


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