A call to action Black Life Matters protest in Amsterdam on 10 June 2020 - By Karen Eliot

A call to action

The protests around the world against racism, police violence and white supremacy spark much needed conversations. This blog calls to critically look at, and change, our own practices as anthropologists in the Netherlands and at Leiden University.

The increase of race-based violence and the death of George Floyd in the US has opened the eyes of many to police violence, racism, and anti-black racism in particular, and sparked protests both in the USA and around the world. The uprisings in the US do not only push us to understand race and racism overseas, but also force us to look at our own country. In a recent statement, the Association of Black Anthropologists (ABA) urges us to not limit ourselves to declarations of solidarity, but consider how racism shapes our own work and lives, and what we can do to combat it. What does this entail for us, we ask in this blog, as anthropologists who research and teach in the Netherlands, at Leiden University?

One lesson we draw is that our work should help foreground and analyse forms of everyday and institutional racism that, while they are a sad routine for many non-white people in the Netherlands, are normalized and made invisible in Dutch public debates and the lives of white Dutch. White Innocence, as Gloria Wekker so astutely noted. Our discipline, anthropology, with its focus on lived experiences and its commitment to a grounded analysis of power and inequality, provides us with important tools to do so.

From good intentions to action

But before we, all too glibly, celebrate its critical potential, we need to acknowledge that, as the ABA statement put it, anthropology “has been and continues to be implicated in the project of white supremacy (both in its implicit and explicit manifestations).” Anthropology was indeed born as an intrinsic part of a colonial knowledge apparatus, and contributed to the institutionalization of racism. At the same time, anthropologists are also trained to recognize, historicize and problematize power relations, and to acknowledge the imperialist past of our discipline. Several generations have critiqued their own discipline and allowed it to become more critical and reflexive. But this has not always translated into a changed practice.

Anthropology as a discipline remains primarily based in North-Western European and American universities, and is largely practiced by people who, even if they are no longer only white, overwhelmingly study people in non-white, poorer, less powerful places. Despite our politics and reflection, the savage slot that Michel-Rolph Trouillot argues, is the raison d’être of anthropology, continues to structure who gets to research whom. Changing this clearly requires more than good intentions. Taking the power and positionality of knowledge production seriously asks for different hiring practices and funding procedures.

These critical questions are deeply relevant for us, in the Netherlands, in terms of teaching and hiring. In the past few years, anthropologists from various Dutch universities have come together to brainstorm and share ideas on how to decolonize our curricula, lecturers of several courses have recognized how white supremacy has been (and still is) part of our curriculum (see for example the Annual Anthropology Day 2019) and are changing courses and syllabi in ways that include more black and Global South scholarship. The Institute of Cultural Anthropology and Development Sociology at Leiden University has put ‘diversity’ high on the agenda, by creating a course on ‘Diversity and Power’ that all our bachelor students follow, and by developing a research cluster on ‘Diversity’. Race, racism and whiteness now have an important place in our teaching and research agendas and are unambiguously part of our curriculum.

Changing Anthropology

But these efforts are only a beginning, and much is to be done. Dutch anthropology departments are still overwhelmingly white. How do we ensure that our departments become spaces where we practice what we preach in terms of the positionality of knowledge production and the effects of subtle, yet pernicious racist hierarchies? How do we get rid of bias in our hiring practices, and how do we value ‘quality’ differently so that it doesn’t always point to the same type of academic, mostly white and middle-class?

We are only starting to discuss how we can make our programs more accessible for black students and students of colour. In the words of Leiden University’s diversity officer Aya Ezawa “We should be questioning whether everyone here feels safe, that they belong and that their voices are heard.” To work towards a more diverse and inclusive working and study environment, we have to keep questioning the implicit and explicit ways that racism is part of our institutions and collectively imagine how we want our institutions to be different, to be better. A first step would be to make an explicit choice for diversity in hiring, and to institute a program of reflection on and training in critical, inclusive teaching in continuous dialogue with our students.


Picture credits: By Karen Eliot - https://www.flickr.com/photos/kareneliot/49993126392/, CC BY-SA 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=91121392



Thank you, Anouk and Jasmijn, for such timely and sobering reminders. As I experience it, contemporary anthropology's struggle is more of a conceptual issue and an issue of approaching places and people as framed by development tropes. 'Less powerful' places have a variety of pre-existing powers and power relations that are often obscured by exonymic conceptual frameworks and transliterations designed to interpret local agency, amongst other. Diversifying curricula needs a diversifying of research ethos in the first place. Researchers are too often engaged in vocabulary that belittles the places and peoples we work with even without realising. To move beyond the purely cosmetic diversifying of syllabi through tokenism, we need to critically review the very conceptual and ontological spaces of daily conversations. Today's anthropologist rejects delusions of representation, interpretation and saviourism, and seeks to grasp the complexity and sophistication of localised ways of being and vernaculars of power and agency, well beyond the uncritically internalised development tropes of outdated globalisms.


Thanks for your important comment, Elena! I agree that changes in curriculum should not just be cosmetic, and that we should be careful of tokenism in our syllabi. At the same time, by changing the readings in a syllabi, we allow for critically reviewing the ontological and epistemological underpinnings of what we do. Changing the curriculum, to me, is a step in enabling those important changes. I would add that it is important to not only add courses (on diversity for example), but to implement this in all courses. Think of methodology courses and our first year course on Social Theories (that colleague Sabine Luning has been revising extensively the last two years).

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