Confronting bias – or: why I raised my voice

Last October, I did something that I thought I would never do: I wrote a piece about what happened to me when I was applying for a professorship, and why I thought that was deeply problematic. After thinking about it very hard for a very long time, I made a deliberate exception to my policy of not writing about sensitive issues related to my professional life. It remains extremely uncomfortable, but I think I made the right decision, and I have since had some extremely valuable conversations about colour, ethnicity and bias. At the same time, I have understood very well that precisely this ethnic aspect of what I wrote has raised a lot of questions. For me, it was essential. For many others, it was unexpected, odd, or even controversial. In this text, I want to say a bit more about the broader, longer-term context that made me write what I wrote.

Please note that nothing (and I mean nothing) in what follows should be read as a j’accuse. Not everything that happened started from bad intentions, and it is important to understand that the individual level barely counts – it is repetition and accumulation that matter. Personally, I am also not in the least interested in a blame game. I am interested in making academia a place that is better able to handle ethnic diversity, and however uneasy it may be, I believe one step in that direction is building a culture in which people can share their ‘discrepant experiences’ in a respectful way, and will be heard. If anything, I hope that stories like mine can make people aware that stuff may be going on in their direct environment, but that they may not be trained or able to see it for what it is.

Difference in the Making

My narrative starts in March 1996, when I was making an exam. I was the only person of colour in an otherwise white group of first year classics undergraduates. Halfway through the exam, our professor of Greek suddenly raised his voice and asked me, specifically, to interrupt my work and bring him a cup of coffee, ‘so that I would not have come for nothing’. I was shocked. I refused, and tried to focus on what I was doing, but my concentration was gone. I sat in the room for ten more minutes, and then walked out, in rage, leaving the exam unfinished. I had passed all previous exams; I had participated in all classes; I was not a weak student. Yet my capacity to pass an ongoing exam was publicly being questioned and derided.

What my professor did was outrageous – but it was not followed by an apology. In fact, I was asked to apologize, because of my response, and I was advised not to file a complaint. It was the start of a series of odd incidents. In my third year, a lecturer in Ancient History wrote an entire column about me when I had simply dared to ask, in class, for extending a deadline that, for me, was logistically impossible. Next class, he proudly handed over a copy from the newspaper, with a handwritten note – ‘For Miko, and many thanks for the inspiration’. It was absurd (the word he used for my question was ‘wailing’ – I was being stereotyped as excessively emotional). Later, I had an oral exam – Greek Tragedy – and it had, by accident, been planned at the same moment as the exam of someone else. We had both read Antigone, and as she was asked which section she preferred to translate, she strategically opted for the prologue (of course). I, however, was asked to translate a very complex section of the play full of technical vocabulary. Same exam, different approach: an obvious case of discrimination.  

More examples could be given. The point is: nothing like this was happening to my fellow students. It was not funny, and it did real damage: it delayed my studies, and it made that I would not pursue the specialization that I initially preferred – Greek Literature. It also accumulated into a reputation: I became known as a ‘difficult’ person, and things I said were easily seen as ‘provocative’. At the time, I knew something strange was going on, but could not define what it was. Later, I concluded that I was struggling with bias: there was something in who I was that made some people respond to me in ways that they would not do to other people. I am happy to define this ‘something’ conservatively as ‘a certain otherness’: a somewhat different physical appearance, a slightly odd and distinctly non-Dutch name, some unfamiliar (post-colonial) sensitivities and perspectives. I probably was the first student of colour – ever – in the classics programme at Nijmegen, and it was not an easy ride.

Stuff that happened

The stuff that happened when I was studying compromised my starting position afterwards: I was more vulnerable than other people looking for a Ph.D.-position. When I finally found a place – after I lost count how many failed attempts – it was almost by complete coincidence: I had not been told about the position, and I only heard when I accidentally ran into a study friend. I applied and I got the job, but even before I was starting, people were warning my Ph.D.-supervisor that I could be ‘difficult’. They later admitted they had been wrong: I had a good and happy Ph.D.-period with great support from both of my supervisors and a really nice group of classicists as colleagues. At the same time, odd things continued to happen. In my memory, it was as if there always was something strange going on. When, after a year or so, a part-time teaching position became available, I was invited to an interview, but as I entered the room, I was told that the presumed interview was not, in fact, an interview, as they could not offer me the job because I had not yet finished my Ph.D. This was really surprising, as everyone around me was teaching all the time. Worse: they gave the job to someone of my exact age who neither had finished the Ph.D. They chose the right candidate, but the difference in approach was stunning: why did I not simply get the same treatment as one of my direct peers? I have barely spoken about this (I was happy not to stir controversy), but for me, it was a key moment.

Intellectually, I also remained marginal. I was the only one not studying political elites or high culture, and it was clear that some people had difficulty understanding why this made sense, or how it would translate into viable expertise. My work was shaped by, and confirmed, my otherness. Perhaps, this is why some people seemed more preoccupied with who I was and how I behaved, than with what I did as an academic. One visible example of this occurred at my public Ph.D.-defence. I had used one of the positions that accompanied my thesis to make a (self-relativizing) joke about the Dutch classical tradition, but this was, by some, seen as immensely provocative. It led to the remarkable situation that, in front of my family and friends, the professor who had chaired my reading committee, and who was asking the first question, chose to ignore my scientific work and zoom in on this joke, asking, essentially what it told the world about me. It was quite remarkable. I had never seen anything like this before, and I have never seen anything since. It was as if I somehow existed, in his mind, as some deviant other that needed to be disciplined rather than as an emerging scholar whose dissertation deserved scrutiny. Sadly, we had not really debated my work beforehand – nor did we ever do so afterwards.

These things were not normal – and, again, they did not seem to be happening, to this extent, with other people. More examples could be added. Yet in the end, I escaped. I left Nijmegen in the best way possible: I found a job in Oxford even before I had finished my Ph.D., and I had three years abroad in which I learned that things also could be different. Perhaps, it was the fact that I could start from scratch – without the weight of a pre-existing reputation – but it helped that the community in which I landed was highly diverse and international. Through my role, I also got a lot of responsibilities. I flourished: I published my first book, organized multiple conferences, gave papers all over the world – and in 2012, I was awarded a prestigious grant with which I could return to the Netherlands, again, in the best possible way. However, I did not go back to Nijmegen. I had missed my old hometown very much, but after all that had happened, it felt unsafe to return to Radboud University on a temporary contract. I chose Leiden, and this worked out very well: I would go on to become permanently employed as lecturer in Ancient History, and I am a much-appreciated and happy member of our academic community. Still, I know very well that this is not the place – or the academic field – where I would have gone had my years in Nijmegen been less abnormal.

Replicating whiteness

It might be worth emphasizing that I do not enjoy writing this text. It is not my ambition to become a permanent source of conflict or controversy within my field – I have already too often, against my will, been seen as ‘provocative’ and ‘difficult’. It is also not particularly enjoyable to revisit these old memories, some rather bad. At the same time, I think it is essential to explain the accumulation of stuff underlying my decision to go against the flow. I am, I tend to believe, not a madman. I did not raise my voice last year out of emotion or because I simply am a difficult and provocative person. I raised my voice because I decided I had to. Why? Well, of course, I found it remarkable that I ended up as a less suitable candidate than someone without any experience in Dutch academia or in Dutch society, with a research profile that does not match what they told me they were looking for, and with fieldwork expertise that does not connect as well with students in classics and art history. Sure, it also was frustrating – but, alas, not unprecedented – that, as a candidate of colour, I lost out against someone who did not have the same qualifications for the job. Yes, I found it worrying that they made this call without substantial engagement with our work, without asking for research plans, and with leaving key aspects of the job – including fieldwork and valorisation – virtually unaddressed. These were all, in my view, bad things – but they were not in themselves sufficient reasons to write a blog and press publish.

What changed everything was that, on top of all this, there were inequalities and irregularities in the way the process was organized and conducted. I have discussed some of the details last year, and I will not repeat them (again, though, more could be added). What happened, particularly with the trial lecture and with the campus visit, remains outrageous. Yet the key issue was that these things were happening in a context of existing and structural ethnic inequality. As member of an underrepresented and marginal ethnic group, and with an accumulated history of bias and othering in academia, I am not in the position to let this pass: disbalanced practices that replicate the whiteness of our academic institutions deserve a policy of zero tolerance. This has a very simple reason: even without badly organized hiring processes, the playing field is far from level, and people of colour will often be at a disadvantage. This also shows: however multicultural our society has become, non-white ethnic groups really are under-represented in Dutch academia, especially, I add, among professors, and particularly in the humanities. There is a reason that our national funding agency has a programme to fund Ph.D. positions for people with my ethnic background.

This brings me to the key issue. Please do, for a moment, consider what it means to be non-white in Dutch academia. It does not, in itself, mean that you will be unwelcome, but it does mean that, from the day you enter the university, you will be in a position of difference. The degree of difference varies from person to person, but as a rule, you will be surrounded by people who do not share your background, or the colour of your skin. They will not, generally, come from families where racial discrimination has ever been an issue. They will not have grown up in an environment where the question of ‘belonging’ in this country is very real. They might claim they don’t see colour – and that is often also true in the sense that they remain blind for what colour does. You will lack role models. As you are outnumbered, you cannot beat them, so you will have to join them: the price of academic participation is developing a social profile that downplays your colour and your ethnic background. In the humanities, on top of that, there is the dominant worldview of your field, which will generally be elitist and Eurocentric. Leading academic discourse will implicitly deny the historical or cultural relevance of the non-European part of your roots, while, at the same time, glorifying the cultural world of the very elites that screwed up the lives of your non-European ancestors. There is very likely to be some form of ideological disconnect in which you will deviate from the implicit norm in your field. You may find your field by and large unaware of its own positionality, but at the same time defensive and fragile: questioning the elitism and Eurocentrism could make you ‘provocative’ and ‘difficult’; again, the easiest response will be to play along, and to avoid the issues that for you are crucial, but for many people around you quite uneasy or unfamiliar.

Thus, even under ideal circumstances, as a non-white academic in The Netherlands, you will be faced with a set of challenges and questions that your peers will not face. These challenges are, for most people, not theoretical: they cost time and energy, and require continuous attention. Worse: in many cases, circumstances are pretty far from ideal. One recurring issue in the many conversations I had following my earlier blogs is how recognizable parts of my story were to other academics of colour – and how recognizable some of their stories were to me. Let me simply drop the truth bomb: bias – implicit, or sometimes even explicit – is a very real phenomenon in Dutch academia, and it adds to the disadvantage that academics of colour already have at the start of their academic career. Speaking out about it – however uneasy it is – is crucial: this darker side of our reality needs to be part of the shared narrative. It cannot, and should not be silenced away. Thus, unfortunately, not silently accepting being disadvantaged in a high-profile hiring process is really the bare minimum of what should be done. It may be painful, but it is absolutely essential.

Diversity and Inclusion

As I wrote above, I am not interested in a blame game. It would of course be great if it could, at some point, be acknowledged in Nijmegen that, in my case, stuff has gone wrong – and not on one occasion, but, alas, many times over, and over a period of multiple decades. However, if people feel comfortable to proceed as if nothing happened, I can do very little to stop them. Thus, what is much more important is that future candidates are spared my experience: applying for a professorship from an ethnic minority position, with a history of marginalization in the family, and with a long, accumulated personal history of bias, and then afterwards hearing that some people believe you have been framed, while others are emphasizing they had nothing to do with the entire process… It is just horribly awful and it should not have a place in our multicultural society. If buzzwords like ‘diversity’ and ‘inclusion’ really mean something in academic communities, then it is up to universities to make sure that stuff like this can no longer happen. I hope they will take their responsibility in this respect very seriously.  

Personally, I think we should try to move towards a situation where disadvantaging people from ethnic minorities – intended or not – always backfires. It should be absolutely and completely taboo. Perhaps, we should also think about inverting the burden of proof: it should not be up to me to risk professional friendships, my reputation and my career to get my story out there. It should be the task of the university to show they have everything in its right place when it comes to hiring, and have standard actions to prevent candidates from being disadvantaged in the way that happened last year. My story, alas, is not unique. Moreover, I believe it should also become taboo to take up positions where candidates from underrepresented ethnic groups have been put at a disadvantage. At the very least, it should be clear that a choice to neglect reliable information is not ideologically neutral, but involves taking a position. Know what you may be legitimating.

Yet to get to this point, I think something else is needed first. Hence, the number one point I am making is this: please facilitate the conversation, however uneasy it is. It really matters. If people raise their voice, please start from the assumption that they have thought about it very seriously. Please also realize that people of colour are likely to be, to some extent, experts when it comes to these matters – I mean: the issue has been on our mind for most of our lives. It comes with living in a society where whiteness is the norm. We also know that the dynamic that we unleash by speaking out is extremely unlikely to do us any personal favour. Imagine we have thought about that a hundred times over – and still, we have decided to go ahead. Do understand that I am not writing this for direct benefit – I know the world probably will not work like that – rather the opposite. Still, I am writing this to confront bias and exclusion, and to build a place where I, and people like me, can develop our careers without having to hide key parts of ourselves. A place that is less institutionally white. A place where people of colour will more often than now have the benefit of the doubt. A place where negative experiences of bias can be part of a shared, multicultural narrative. Where bias, not complaint, is the problem. Where privilege no longer always wins.

Miko Flohr, 20/05/2022