Bryan Miranda argues that our beloved alma mater is too white. And alas, he’s not talking about the classroom walls or the pebbles on the quad.
Some of you might recognize my name. I am not your next success story, nor the face of UCU pride and accomplishment. For those who have followed some of the discussions I initiated on the alumni facebook page around race and privilege, you might know I do not honor UCU – I shame it.
When last year I criticized UCU for being a school for the white and privileged, I observed its alumni morph into a homogenous collective united to silence my position. Rather than engaging with my critique, I was either personally attacked (“Don’t listen to him, he is a hater, a socialist, a racist, an anti-semite, an idiot, etc.”) or lectured on how I should express my dissent (“you are too aggressive, hostile, arrogant”). Either way, UCU alumni deflected from the contents of my critique and contained it by making me a “problem.” Clearly, this backlash meant I had troubled people’s sense of self, an inevitable consequence of disrupting unquestioned truths about UCU.
Now, one year later, I return to my critique. So let’s start with the uncomfortable question: why is the overwhelming majority of UCU students white?
We would have to go back to who populate UCU’s student body and ask: how did they get there? About 60-70% of UCU students are Dutch. While the Netherlands is composed out of a myriad of ethnic and racial groups–including Surinamese, Antilleans, Indonesians, Turks, Moroccans, Chinese and Latinos–those who are overwhelmingly represented at UCU are white. Those with an “international” profile, like myself, who bring in the brown and (rarely) black for UCU’s diversity pictures and statistics do not come from poor immigrant backgrounds. They tend to be the spoiled sons and daughters of those who “made it” and attended western(ized) international schools around the world. They compose the exoticized color of ‘difference’ that UCU can point at to affirm it’s “multicultural greatness” but who are not given the space to actually challenge western colonial ways of thinking embedded in the knowledge production of the university. They are there to further their own careers within white western institutions while affirming them (like Ban Ki-Moon as Secretary General at the UN, Obama as US President, or Ahmed Aboutaleb as Mayor of Rotterdam), at the expense of keeping the majority of other brown and black people down.
To understand why UCU’s Dutch students are all white, one has to go back to how the Dutch education system works. In the Netherlands, at the age of 11/12 children are given a standardized test (the “cito-toets”) which serves to align their ‘intelligence’ with the quality and number of years of education they will receive. The higher the score, the more ‘intelligent’ the child supposedly is, and therefore the more ‘able’ and ‘deserving’ one is to a better future (read: access to university and middle class jobs). The idea behind this is that it’s an “objective” measurement of one’s intellectual capacity. But this assumes intellect is something you are naturally born with rather than enabled and fostered, discouraged and inhibited by one’s socio-economic conditions. According to this idea of objectivity, there will be no significant difference in the results scored whether you are white and from a white middle class highly educated family and neighborhood, or whether you are black or brown and from a socio-economically marginalized, heavily policed, and stigmatized neighborhood. The reality of course, is that this does have an effect. In the Netherlands 14% of Dutch schoolkids are “allochtoon” (a racial cultural and administrative category to mark one’s non-nativeness), 12% of all primary schools have a non-white majority, while in the country’s largest cities 80% of non-white school kids attend the same school. This makes the Netherlands the country with the most racially segregated school systems in the West, even exceeding the US.
A majority of so-called “black schools” are under-funded, have high illiteracy rates and few qualified teachers. As descendants from those who migrated to the Netherlands from its (former) colonies or came from Morocco and Turkey as guest laborers in the 1960-70s, the kids that attend these schools are inheritors (as black and/or Muslim) of Dutch colonialism and slavery, embodiments of the racial and cultural differences that the Dutch for centuries, and still today, have tried to dominate and eradicate from Surinam to Indonesia, from the Antilles to the Schilderswijk. These kids today live in neighborhoods where unemployment is rampant (even as high as 80% in some areas) where single mothers are forced to work multiple jobs in formal and informal economies to get by, where they are constantly framed as “security problems” and “national threats” that require policing, incarceration and forced assimilation to white Dutch middle class norms and values. This is in stark contrast to white middle class Dutch kids who are assumed to naturally belong, who usually speak no other language but Dutch, who will enjoy a quality education with qualified teachers in clean orderly white neighborhoods, who are spoon-fed ideas that they are the “future leaders of tomorrow” and will get extra tutoring if they have learning difficulties because, besides having the means to do so, it will not be assumed that it’s “their culture” or their innate “stupidity” that holds them back. Logically, the result is that these white kids score high on standardized tests and are given quality education for a professional career of their choosing while most kids from “black schools” score low and are then trained for ‘practical’ cheap labor. The kids that come out of these schools are thus the future cheap labor force that keeps the Dutch economy running while keeping the power of the white middle class intact. This is certainly outrageous, but not that surprising. Before the cito-toets, kids that were not white and Dutch were directly sent to technical schools. So the cito-toets might present itself as an “objective” measurement of one’s intellectual capacity, but in fact it functions as a disguise to continue organizing society by race and class. It’s unsurprising then that the Dutch Social Cultural Planning Bureau (SCP) has come out to say that, to a large extent, there is an “apartheid system” in place in the Netherlands.
So when a white Dutch UCU student prides herself in attending the “best bachelor program in the Netherlands” and sees herself as born exceptionally gifted, rather than born exceptionally privileged, we need to start seriously questioning that. We need to trouble those arrogant assumptions of superiority and entitlement. We need to recognize that everything – from the opportunities we have had to travel and contemplate international careers to having “broad interests” in art, literature and history – is not deserved “because we worked for it” but because they were enabled, encouraged and fostered by our privileged environments. When we acknowledge that we have been privileged by class and race to have the opportunity to go to university and end up with our “dream” jobs at the expense of keeping others oppressed, we can shift those stories of success from one of personal merit to wider structures of power that have historically advantaged the white Dutch middle class since racism was institutionalized as a logic of governance through slavery and colonialism.
When we start to understand how privilege works, perhaps the “future global leaders” that UCU fabricates could give up on their dream to go out there and “save Africa”. Instead they could address how what sustains their privilege here perpetuates death and destruction there. Like when the Netherlands loots the African continent poor through corporate land and water grabbing, financing armed conflict to guarantee cheap access to oil, and opening up their markets to steal and deplete their resources in the name of development. Perhaps instead of going to “free” Muslim women in Iraq they would fight to oppose the very illegal wars that deprived them from any viable future to begin with (like when the Netherlands got involved in the genocidal 2003 Iraq invasion that cost the lives of one million Iraqis in order for corporations like Dutch Shell to assure its stake in the newly available oil fields). Instead of scoring a job to ‘help’ African and Syrian refugees at UNHCR camps they could fight the very EUropean border policies that criminalize their movement and assure their deaths before they can even step foot on these lands they call civilized.
This idea, which pervades among UCU students, that we want to “make a difference” and “change the world” is intimately tied with class and white privilege, it feeds a white saviour complex that continues from colonial times, this idea that we are great and superior and need to go and civilize the helpless brown and black savage others. The intention might be innocent but this very mentality, turned into practice when we take up those diplomatic and corporate careers that pretend to “save the world”, is what exactly reproduces the structural violence we see around the world today.
Rather than evading a very necessary conversation on how white and class privilege shape UCU’s student body, it’s time, and morally necessary, that we actually engage in it. I hope that we can start to question our social position when privileged by race and class, understand the university as an institution of power, unlearn what we have been taught, and divest from the career paths and lifestyles that reproduce structural violence globally. I know that’s a lot to swallow. I know from experience that the arduous process of questioning, unlearning and ceding power is painful and deeply existential because indeed, in the words of African-American writer James Baldwin, it means “the loss of all that gave one an identity, the end of safety… Yet it is only when a man [sic] is able, without bitterness or self pity, to surrender a dream he has long cherished or a privilege he has long possessed that he is set free—he has set himself free—for higher dreams, for greater privileges.”
Editorial note: an earlier version of this article was accompanied by an illustration that the author did not find fitting. It has therefore been removed.