University College Tilburg University

Diversity or Inclusiveness?

Published: 11th June 2019 Last updated: 11th June 2019

Author: Michiel Bot PhD - Program Director Major Law in an International Context, University College Tilburg

Last fall, I submitted an application for funding from the Netherlands Initiative for Education Research (NRO Comenius) to teach a class called “Learning to Discuss Race.” To my surprise, my application was rejected because the committee found discussing race “ethically problematic.” Instead of using the word “race,” they told me, I should have used the term “diversity.”  The committee later clarified:

“One of the committee’s concerns is that the project includes no strategy on how to deal with the diversity of the students participating in the class itself, be it diversity in gender, cultural background, sexual preference or ethnic identity. The lack of vocabulary to discuss this diversity stretches much further than just the topic of race and the committee asserts that a broader approach to this course would be more appropriate to include all participants.” (NRO, March 19, 2019)

According to the logic of the committee, it would also be illegitimate to teach a course on gender or on sexuality: the only legitimate term for thinking and teaching about issues related to race, gender, sexuality, cultural background, or ethnic identity is diversity.

However, as feminist scholar Sara Ahmed has observed, “Strong critiques have been made of the uses of diversity by institutions and of how the arrival of the term ‘diversity’ involves the departure of other (perhaps more critical) terms (…)” (On Being Included: Racism and Diversity in Institutional Life). Indeed, unlike the concept of diversity, the concept of race directly compels us to confront the connections between the production and reproduction of knowledge and affect, institutional structures, and power. Commenting on L’Oreal’s treatment of a Muslim beauty blogger and a black trans model, who had been hired to add “diversity” to their haircare campaigns but were fired after they made political statements against Israeli violence against Palestinians and against white supremacy, former student activist Malia Bouattia has shown how the “diversity industry” subverts and silences anti-racism activism (“How the ‘diversity industry’ silences people of colour”). It is therefore crucial to ask, with Ahmed: “What are we doing when we use the language of diversity?”

The idea that discussing race is “ethically problematic” cannot be taken seriously. However, it is alarming that such an absurd claim is made by the Netherlands Initiative for Education Research, an organization with a budget of millions of euros that were formerly spent on student scholarships (studiefinanciering).

At University College Tilburg, we may have found a more productive way of confronting what the language of diversity pretends to address. After multiple conversations between teachers, students and administrators, we have adopted the following statement, which we call our inclusiveness statement:

"As an institution dedicated to critical inquiry, we are committed to examining any kind of prejudice, and to creating space for voices that, for no good reason, are less heard. We see it as our task to ensure that imbalances of power, for instance between people of different gender, sexual orientation, color, class, cultural or religious background, age, or (dis)ability, are not replicated within the university, but are actively countered. How to define these imbalances of power and how to counter them will be a topic of ongoing discussion, and will be a consideration whenever decisions are made to recruit new faculty and students, to form committees, to design the curriculum, to compose a syllabus, to invite speakers, and to put together academic panels."

Whereas the Netherlands Initiative for Education Research shuts down discussion by declaring discussion of race ethically problematic, this inclusiveness statement seeks to open up critical discussion on some of the most uncomfortable issues of our time. The challenge is to put it into practice.