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The killing of George Floyd has prompted renewed focus on institutional racism around the world, including in the Netherlands. However, not everybody agrees on what institutional racism is, how it operates and how we can eradicate it. We spoke to UvA researchers Tasniem Anwar, Sarah Bracke, Francio Guadeloupe and Amade M'charek and asked them for their views on the issue.

Clockwise from top left: Tasniem Anwar, Sarah Bracke, Amade M'charek and Francio Guadeloupe
Clockwise from top left: Tasniem Anwar, Sarah Bracke, Amade M'charek and Francio Guadeloupe

Tasniem Anwar (PhD candidate at the Political Science department), Sarah Bracke (professor of Sociology of Gender and Sexuality), Francio Guadeloupe (senior university lecturer of Anthropology) and Amade M'charek (professor of Anthropology of Science) all study the issue of racism or related issues in their work. They discussed institutional racism, what strategy we should adopt and how to tackle racism in higher education and science.

What is institutional racism?

Sarah Bracke: 'I'd like to highlight the question asked by Prof. Shirley Anne Tate (University of Alberta) earlier this year during a jam-packed UvA event focusing on institutional racism: "Why do we call it 'institutional racism'? Why don't we just call it what it is: racism?" It's a very valid point, and it's not an attempt to deny the existence of institutional racism, as many people are trying to do. On the contrary, it's a way of clarifying that a definition of racism that only focuses on intentions and individuals will not get us very far.'

Institutional racism isn't just a subsection of racism Sarah Bracke

Sarah Bracke: 'Tackling racism isn't about identifying the "bad apples" and then removing them. As many scientific studies have shown, an effective definition of racism must also include this institutional dimension. Racism is rooted in all of the institutions in society, such as education, the labour market, the housing market, the police and the media, and it goes deeper than just individuals. Consequently, institutional racism isn't a just a subsection of racism that you can either dismiss or claim has been exaggerated: racism always has an institutional dimension.'

Francio Guadeloupe: 'Well said! One of the main drivers of racism is our way of looking at the world and how this perspective is shaped by our shared colonial history. In order to understand the world, we rely on certain institutions. These include conventional institutions such as schools, museums, statistics agencies, governmental organisations, religious groups, social movements, think tanks and universities, as well as less obvious institutional entities such as children's books, newspapers, laws, scientific publications and TV programmes. This institutional landscape has helped explain the world to us and socialise us since the 16th century, splitting up the world into racial continents: Africa (black), Europe (white), America (red), etc.'

Racial categories are nonsense Francio Guadeloupe

Francio Guadeloupe: 'However, these racial categories are nonsense. The world doesn't have to be divided up in such way, and people never did this in the pre-colonial era. The writer Maryse Conde summed this up beautifully in her opus "Segou", in which she described how the idea of black unity between the various peoples in pre-colonial Africa – such as the Bambara, the Peul and the Bozo – is completely fictional. After all, they had different ancestors and focused on traits other than skin colour and hair type. The racial division of the world – which began with the conquest of America and was then concretised in the 19th century by racial laws, economic oppression, violence and scientific racism – created and maintained a hierarchy of races.'

Amade M'charek: 'I agree, and while there are of course individual persons who are or act racist and people who think they are better than others, this isn't what makes racism such a serious problem that is so difficult to eradicate. I think that it's a mix of three different elements. Firstly, there is a long history of racial science and its subsequent legacy – the concept of race – which haunts every aspect of our society. This is sometimes intangible, while at other times it is all too concrete. Despite science incessantly showing that race does not exist, it continues to have a massive impact on how we perceive reality.'

Categories tend to become sticky Amade M'charek

Amade M'charek: 'Secondly, institutional racism involves the perpetuation of deep-rooted historic inequality and hierarchies. This not only involves inequality within our societies, but also the reproduction of colonial relationships between Europe and Africa, Western Europe and Eastern Europe, etc. The third element is the categories we use to order, and, in order to organise our reality. Categories tend to become sticky through language and other expressions, and many materialise in technologies and bureaucratic procedures. They thus occupy our view to such an extent that, eventually, we are no longer able to look past them. Scientists are also partly responsible for the existence of these categories, as we create them in order to describe people, such as statistical probabilities about 'delinquent Moroccan youths' or 'Eastern European criminal gangs'. As a result, these categories have now become concrete reality at the political level as a means of describing a whole host of new social issues and problems.'

How can you use science to tackle racism?

Tasniem Anwar: 'I think it's particularly important to ask each other how racism works close to home and at our university and what we can do about it. These can be uncomfortable conversations, but they are necessary uncomfortable conversations.

'The UvA is working hard on the issue, e.g. via the Diversity Committee, via organisations like Amsterdam United and the University of Colour and through the efforts of the many students and staff who have done their best to claim their place at the UvA and make every part of the university more inclusive. This good work deserves to be recognised.'

If we fail to recognise racism as an institutional problem, the debate will remain superficial Tasniem Anwar

Tasniem Anwar: 'At the same time, we have seen that these initiatives can also be met with considerable resistance. People feel personally attacked or feel uncomfortable when participating in these discussions. However, if we fail to recognise racism as an institutional problem that goes beyond personal intent, the debate will remain superficial and change will be painfully slow. The British-Australian academic Sara Ahmed describes this as the "brick wall": the feeling that nothing will ever change due to institutional resistance. Taking racism seriously is therefore the university's responsibility as an institution, rather than the responsibility of particular groups or individuals. For example, too little attention is paid to how our colonial past has influenced how the knowledge within our curricula is produced, how the literature is chosen and the effects of racial prejudice on science.'

Amade M'charek: 'Well put, Tasniem, and I think the point that you made about the curriculum is absolutely critical. After all, as I said earlier, we scientists also create categories to explain the world, as does every human being on the planet. That said, our position as scientists means our categories carry a greater level of authority. To be perfectly clear, there is no such thing as a completely harmless category: normativity is inescapable. However, what we can do is immerse ourselves into the history of our categories, to become aware of where certain categories originate from and what worlds they mobilise when we use them (for example, the "N-word").'

We are not in the business of describing people, but of making up people Canadian philosopher Ian Hacking

Amade M'charek: 'Attention to categories and research methods is vital, as scientists do not describe reality; we intervene in the world and help shape and mould it. To paraphrase the Canadian philosopher Ian Hacking's famous quote, "we are not in the business of describing people, but of making up people." It is therefore essential that we take responsibility for the categories we create in order to describe people and ensure that our categories remain fluid.'

Francio Guadeloupe: 'One of the tendencies when fighting racism is to create the same type of equality for all racial groups, but I think we must focus on tackling racism in the way we view the world. For example, when we think of the West, we almost automatically think of white people. When this phenomenon is translated into science, it means that Western science can easily be seen as "white science". However, this completely ignores the diversity both in the West as a whole and in science in particular.'

Don't just think of diversity policy as a matter of ticking the right boxes. Tasniem Anwar

Tasniem Anwar: 'We should also consider the political consequences of how the diversity debate is being conducted and interpreted. For example, if efforts to promote diversity are simply seen as a matter of trying to tick the right boxes, we miss the true importance of diversity, pay insufficient attention to the issue of inequality and sidestep the awkward conversations that need to be held. We should study the work of academics like Prof. Gloria Wekker, Prof. Philomena Essed, Prof. Gurminder K. Bhambra and many others, in addition to acknowledging the practical efforts that have already been made to boost diversity at the university.'

'And just as Francio said, we must tackle racism at a deeper level, in the way we perceive the world. To quote Sara Ahmed again, "racism hovers in the background when things are working, which is how race can come up so quickly when things stop working." Maybe this is the point at which things have stopped working, the point at which we truly start debating this issue in full, and the point at which we are finally willing to become a fundamentally different institution. An institution in which "race" no longer hovers in the background and people don't simply profess their "colour blindness" while racism continues to subtly seep into our curriculum and our knowledge production.'

Institutional inequality is approached very differently when it comes to race Sarah Bracke

Sarah Bracke: 'The question of how all of this can be translated into concrete policy that will allow institutions like this university to change is indeed critical, Tasniem. Take a thorny issue such as the lack of data regarding the number of staff members of colour at our university. This is a difficult issue for many reasons, which all of you have already clearly explained: after all, producing statistics is just another way of "making up people". That said, our current diversity policy is – for better or worse – based on statistics, as are a number of the instruments at our disposal, such as soft targets and hard quotas. This approach remains awkward and reduces progress to a painfully slow pace, but at the same time, we have to acknowledge that the current diversity policy has been a vital factor in the rising levels of gender equality at the university. When looking at it from this perspective, it is strikingly clear that institutional inequality is approached very differently when it comes to race.'

A new critical mass Sarah Bracke

Sarah Bracke: 'There's so much that needs to be rethought, including the policy that will make our institutions more inclusive and dismantle institutional racism. In this sense, the renewed attention for the issue of institutional racism sows the seeds of hope: hope that a new – and young – critical mass has been reached that will continue to exert pressure until the currently white university has sufficiently transformed itself.'

Ms T. (Tasniem) Anwar

Faculty of Social and Behavioural Sciences

Programme group: Transnational Configurations, Conflict and Governance

Prof. dr. S.A.E. (Sarah) Bracke

Faculty of Social and Behavioural Sciences

Programme group: Political Sociology: Power, Place and Difference

Dr. F.E. (Francio) Guadeloupe

Faculty of Social and Behavioural Sciences

Programme group: Globalising Culture and the Quest for Belonging

Prof. dr. A.A. (Amade) M'charek

Faculty of Social and Behavioural Sciences

Programme group: Anthropology of Health, Care and the Body