A number of opinion pieces have appeared here in Delta on diversity on campus and the question of how we should deal with the lack of it. Dap Hartmann was understandably concerned about the consequences a single frustrated burst of insensitive remarks can have now that videos of our lectures are online for everyone to see forever. Nonetheless, Felienne Hermans was right to defend those who object to the perpetuation of discriminatory stereotypes. And although Sander Konijnenberg correctly pointed out that Hermans didn’t really address Hartmann’s point, he is wrong to dismiss concerns about how unrepresentative our community is of the society we serve.
What we say and do can have negative effects even if we do or say these things with the best possible intentions. Or when we don’t really mean anything by them at all. None of us, I believe, go through life actively meaning to do harm. But that doesn’t mean that the effects of unconsidered jokes and handed-down habits can’t be damaging and discriminatory.
‘Speech can be racist or sexist without the speaker being a sexist or a racist’
The unwitting or careless perpetuation of harmful stereotypes should be called out for what it is. As long as casual biases towards groups of people go unchallenged and uncorrected, those people will go through life working against a headwind that others do not have to deal with. And this isn’t merely a matter between students and teachers. What happens in our classrooms and lecture halls affects people who may never set foot in them. Even if teachers mean no harm and the students present at the time do not object, their actions can reproduce (or challenge!) prejudices that have real effects on people outside our community. We carry, after all, our experience of what’s normal, our habits, and our unconscious associations with us into the wider world, where we expect our alumni to take on leadership roles.
Now, there are probably some people on our campus who actually do think that women or people of a different ethnicity are somehow inferior, but I don’t think I’ve ever met any. What I do encounter are jokes about girls being bad with tools and doubts about the intelligence of Asian students with strong accents. Neither of these are intentionally meant to exclude, degrade, or hurt. But they do. Speech can be racist or sexist without the speaker being a sexist or a racist.
‘We should be uncomfortable with our heritage’
As I was writing this, the Latin American Student Association of Delft (Latitud) objected to how casually Colombia is repeatedly painted as a country of drug dealers. They are careful to condemn the speech, not the people, and very right to ask for more respect and consideration.
There are practices, images, norms, and expectations in our culture that systematically give straight white, Western men an unnoticed but constant bit of tailwind, putting us at a considerable advantage. And since this advantage has been in place for quite some time, we’re over-represented in all the places that matter in our society. In positions of power, in the media, and in academia.
Those of us who belong to privileged groups don’t have to feel guilty about this. We weren’t part of some conspiracy that designed the system this way, after all. We never even clicked on “I agree” anywhere. What we can do is be aware that the odds are ever in our favour. And we should be uncomfortable with this heritage.
We can (and should) assume the responsibility and humility that come with this realisation. We can (and should) do our best to bend the arc of history away from these injustices where and when we can. We can start by noticing how we reproduce negative cultural stereotypes without meaning to. And we should be open to having it pointed out to us when we do so without noticing.
Bob van Vliet is a teacher at the Faculty of 3mE