How can we deal with countries’ colonial pasts and the impacts these histories have had on individuals? Following a panel discussion in May, a very brief summary and reflection based on this question is presented below.

Decolonizing Leiden University? A Reflection

Sebastian Sirotin, Publication Manager, and Alessandra Barrow, SSEA Com President

Panel Discussion Summary:

  • In the topic of “decolonizing the university”, it is important to discern the process of colonialism from the mentality of coloniality, the logic, culture, and structure of the modern world-system which can be subdivided into the aspects of power and modernity, which exposes intersections of racialization and capitalist exploitation
  • These issues of coloniality still exist within Dutch society and the university, often seen on a most basic level through non-white and non-male scholars having to continually prove the validity of their research
  • We must also recognize the Western, European origins of the Humanities and Social Sciences, as well as their development during colonialism
  • Decoloniality of the university requires working towards greater inclusivity of students, lecturers and tutors, and non-Dutch groups who are often excluded across various racialised axes, often captured in subtle mechanisms such as the predominance of the Dutch language
  • Students also voiced their experiences of coloniality leading to a lack of trust in tutors and the university in general, the teaching of European forms of language as the only valid form globally (though many study regions in the global South), and the lack of acceptance of other forms of knowledge as equally valid ways of knowing
  • Decoloniality, the ending of coloniality through decolonizing our ways of knowing and accepting the non-universal nature of European academic “knowledge”, helps us seeing the role of the University as a colonial institution in the reinforcement of certain perspectives, more specifically, Western perspectives, and the silencing of a plurality of knowledges of the world.
  • Concrete suggestions for change included
    • Using the BA International Studies electives as a space for bringing this inclusivity to curricula and tutors as well as embracing different ways of knowing
    • Reminding students from the start of the importance of inclusion through the use of English while engaged in BAIS program activities
    • Helping Dutch students must become aware of their colonial past and that they are not neutral subjects in this matter but are part of the process of decolonizing the university and society
    • Reminding students of the importance of challenging problematic views and assumptions

On Tuesday, the 14th of May a panel discussion with Tamara Soukotta, Simonique Moody, Sanne Ravensbergen, and Jochem van den Boogert took place. There was a substantial turnout from students, lecturers, and key stakeholders, including STAR and Histori Bersama. But, despite the physical manifestation of this interest, this is an important issue and an important discussion that needs to be had throughout the university with students, teachers, and all the organizations and associations in between. If you were one of the many people who was interested in the event but couldn’t make it, then Samudra will try to give you a sense of some of the topics discussed in the same format as the discussion itself.

Establishing Positions:

    I am writing this article as a Polish-American who studied Russia and Eurasia and only became aware of the issue by degrees. First, through Ms. Ravensbergen’s class “The Contested Past: Dutch Colonialism Now”, I learned about the many issues present in Dutch society regarding its colonial past and how this past is either uncomfortably avoided or, as mentioned during the panel discussion, externalized as a history outside of the Dutch experience. It wasn’t until I joined the SSEA Committee that I began to share and get a better understanding of the many frustrations within the area of rarely being represented or heard despite Leiden University’s long-standing involvement in the area via the Dutch colonial project. Finally, it was only after attending the “Dutch Colonialism Through the Eyes of Veterans” lecture by Marjolein van Pagee, a member of Histori Bersama, that it truly dawned on me how important this topic was along with the persistent coloniality within university structures, academic methodologies, and academic “knowledge”. Now, on to the panelists.

    The panel discussion provided many answers to many remaining questions while also leading to many more. Although this article cannot speak for the panelists’ positionalities, what was equally telling was what each panel member understood about the phrase “decolonizing the university”. To start off the discussion about what this phrase meant to them, Ms. Ravensbergen, as a member of the Institute for History, began by discussing the structure of the Institute and how, due to a structural difference, it externalizes Dutch colonial history as something “Other” when it comes teaching Dutch history. She then followed this statement by viewing “decolonizing the university” as a question of ensuring that, in studying these issues of coloniality, reading lists and guest lecturers include people who are representative of the groups being learned about and the variety of different knowledge(s) present.

    Mr. van den Boogert the picked up the microphone to mention how “decolonizing the university” also meant recognizing the implicitly “European” nature of the Humanities and the Social Sciences and that it is only with recognizing that these ways of knowing come from a specific cultural context with a particular set of assumptions that we can begin to understand the issue. Thus, for Mr. van den Boogert, “decolonizing the university” was more about decolonizing the Humanities and the Social Sciences and understanding that these disciplines were also developed in colonial contexts. Ms. Soukotta then provided here understanding of the term and the crucial distinction between “decolonization”, the historical process that took place in the 20th century, and “decoloniality”, the changing of the fundamental colonial mentality that still pervades institutions such as universities and museums. Such an approach requires the acceptance of a range of subjectivities that, though present, have not been welcomed as equally valid forms of acquiring knowledge. Thus, the issue is also one of coloniality and expectations of how knowledge is produced and what knowledge, or ways of knowing, are accepted as valid and “academic”. So, the colonial university must begin to host and accept as equal the voices of the formerly colonized and the destruction of power structures that keep these divisions, as well as understand the difficult emotional process required to realize that these subjectivities have been and continue to be determined by former colonizers.

    After Ms. Soukotta’s views and a moment of reflection, Ms. Moody picked up the microphone and stated that, for her, “decolonizing the university” meant building inclusivity within the university that truly accepts groups that are often excluded. For example, as Ms. Moody pointed out, this coloniality is represented in unrealistic expectations of full Dutch fluency in a very short amount of time showing who can be included and who is excluded. This inclusivity must also encompass students to create an atmosphere where students do not have to self-regulate what they say in class when it comes to these topics. In this vein, Ms. Moody, later echoed by Ms. Soukotta, also mentioned not generalizing experiences with individuals to whole groups, which leads to increased and unfair pressure to perform, and to have to consistently prove the validity, relevance, rigour, and importance of their contributions to academia.

The audience also provided valuable contributions in pointing out the persistent issues of a lack trust in the university to accept these different ways of knowing due to a consistent ignoring and erasure of episodes in Dutch history. Another audience member also pointed out the persistence of the issue of diversity for diversity’s sake, rather than the embracing of valuable and different points of view of others, which requires actually tackling implicit power structures. As an example of this, another audience member also pointed out the importance of the financial aspect of these power structures e.g. who can afford access to graduate studies. Another audience member also pointed out that for them it also meant learning local languages as part of the obligatory area courses. For example, as they pointed out, when learning French for the area of Africa, they were still taught standard French as spoken in France, rather than accepting and teaching the forms of French mostly spoken in Central and Eastern Africa and Canada as equally valid.

Social Impact:

    In discussing the social impact and colonial pasts more generally, Ms. Soukotta and Ms. Moody both pointed out how these colonial and, often racist, views of the world exist in broader Dutch society via discrimination and harassment based on appearance, and, on a deeper level, on colonial pasts that remain in force. However, such issues exist even within the university. As Ms. Soukotta stated regarding her work within the university, “it’s entering an empire as it’s former slave…I’m standing in front of the class room and that is taking a space that never belonged to me, was never meant for me. That space was meant for a white, Dutch man of a certain class.” Once again, Ms. Soukotta’s difficulties of having to validate her work at the professional level arose due to this coloniality, but with the addition of still having to prove the validity of her own humanity on a continual basis. As Ms. Soukotta explained, what does ‘human’ mean for people who have not been considered human and have been erased and subjugated for so long? Nonetheless, there still remains a coloniality in constant questioning of professionality and personal position, which means that in the classroom inclusivity also means tutors and lecturers have to take a moment to include themselves.

Effecting Change:

    Throughout the discussion, several spaces for change were mentioned, which provide potential approaches for understanding and combating this multifaceted issue. Early in the discussion, Ms. Soukotta mentioned the importance of “border epistemologies” which provides a crucial standpoint for academia, where a subject with this worldview comes from one world but is educated within a different one, for example, in Leiden University. For example, one may approach academia as an Indonesian with their own personal experiences and family histories, but within the context of the university they may learn the knower’s approach to the known, thus, giving them an understanding of a variety of different knowledges. Thus, with this understanding, it is crucial to understand that there are multiple valid ways of knowing that are not simply the ‘Western’ Humanities approach, this is approach is only one of many. Adding to this point of view, Ms. Ravensbergen also pointed out how “white” Dutch researchers must also work harder to accept and understand the difficulties experienced by non-”white” researchers working within the university environment as well as understanding their colonial past and the privilege that is attendant with this.

    Based on an audience member’s question about what “white” students can do to include this nuance and to help address this issue. In response, Ms. Soukotta pointed out that there have been prior discussions on the same topic, for example, one organized by the KITLV and Leiden University, although these discussions are limited in impact as they still mainly attract those already interested in the topic. But one can already make a start by having an awareness of decolonizing ourselves and what is happening in this context. Although this issue is still an option and would be difficult if placed on a mission of conversion. Ms. Moody also shared how there were some student initiatives within the university to address the issue specifically. But, in terms of building inclusivity of voices heard, Ms. Moody also pointed out the importance of STAR, Leiden University Pride, the Afro Student Association, Feminist Evolution Leiden, and the Leiden University Diversity Policy Feedback Group. For students, Ms. Moody also advised the importance of remaining critical and challenging statements that seem unproblematic but reveal the privileging of certain biases and experiences as well as a broader engagement in discussion and debates between lecturers and students and the wider community. Following Ms. Moody, Ms. Ravensbergen shared how often the focus in the university remains on diversity, but does not extend to decolonization of the university.

In focusing on how we can decolonize knowledge itself, Mr. van den Boogert agreed on the coloniality of “knowledge” and its historical contingency of the West studying the non-West as different from the West studying itself, as well as the lack of terminology in discussing the coloniality of knowledge as a paradigm. Mr. van den Boogert then reiterated his focus on the importance of scientific, in the sense of Philosophy of Science classes, knowledge and academic rigour. However, Ms. Soukotta disagreed with this view, pointing out that there are “different ways of knowing and knowledges”. She then cited the colonial project of erasure and hierarchy, which has placed science as the highest and most “objective” form of knowledge. Ms. Soukotta then pointed out that within this hierarchy the colonizer is the knower and the colonized are the known. However, as more formerly colonized scholars begin their research, it is crucial that science is seen as a local phenomenon and only one of many types of knowledge, while also validating other forms of knowledge. Ms. Soukotta then provided the example that “knowledge” is only seen as valid once experience has been collected as data, interpreted by an outsider, and published in a journal, while personal experience remains just experience, not knowledge.

Another example Ms. Soukotta provided on the importance of these many knowledges and the coloniality of academia was on the focus on “peer-reviewed sources”. By this critique, meaning that the systems of peer-review are often privileged and, as such, often lack a large number of earnest discussions of decoloniality and other ways of knowing. Although Ms. Moody did point out that some of this knowledge incorporating other knowledges does exist in academia, that new journals that are more accepting are being established, and that changes in editorial boards have also allowed for more acceptance of these different understandings. However, as Ms. Soukotta pointed out, an important alternative source lies in novels and artistic products. In response to Mr. van den Boogert, Ms. Soukotta also pointed out the presence of bottom-up actions and the importance of meeting in the middle on the coloniality of academia through increased pressure from the top. Ms. Soukotta then suggested that for “white” students interested in approaching this debate White Innocence and White Fragility were good starting points for reading.

Ms. Moody, discussing BA International Studies also pointed out issues of patterns of exclusion among different groups of Dutch students with those interested in embracing the international nature of the program and those who are not. Ms. Moody then suggested the importance of reminding students that at the university and within the program it is important to remember to speak English to prevent the creation of a linguistic divide based on the Dutch language. Thus, these patterns of division must be made visible to tutors, lecturers, and those in higher university positions to create a more inclusive environment that no longer discourages students from speaking out or attending events. However, Ms. Moody suggested there is space for hope through internal changes to the curriculum, which have already been taking place. But in terms of creating whole courses, curricula, teaching styles, and acceptance of different ways of knowing through the International Studies elective courses, which allow for rapid iteration of these different approaches to decoloniality.

An audience member also pointed out the importance of inclusivity of listening to “white”, male, Dutch perspectives as another view that should be included in the debate on decolonizing the university. In response, Mr. van den Boogert discussed the importance of being open to knowledge production and new paradigms and the potential for change from below. In posing final questions, audience members also posed poignant questions as to how knowledge itself can be decolonized, in what knowledges are seen as valid, as well as what students can do.

Ms. Ravensbergen also pointed out the importance of effecting change through not only looking to those from formerly colonized nations for experiences of colonialism, which distances colonizers’ roles in these histories, but also acknowledging and engaging in Dutch involvement with colonialism. Ms. Ravensbergen also pointed out the importance of learning how to approach colonial archives, which carry an inherent coloniality, and using other (unwritten and written) primary sources to further shed light on these histories.

In the final moments of the panel discussion, Ms. Moody also stressed the importance of continuing to look within the university at the many processes of recruiting students and teachers, research, and how it reproduces its own narratives and power structures to find out how to dismantle them. Ms. Moody then called for a continued use of the university space as a place where these types of discussions can take place and to reach out to others who have already worked on effecting change in decolonizing the university to create a strategy and points of action. Finally, Ms. Moody suggested that demands be made on who is to be hired or the content of the course and curriculums. Problematic content must be challenged by students and demands must be made for different forms of knowledge within the classroom. To finish, Ms. Soukotta made a very powerful comment, which shows both the gravity and importance of the topic, as well as the substantial work being done by many indigenous scholars on the topic:

“My question is that, are you coming to speak as a subaltern? Because I certainly know that I am not coming to speak as a subaltern. I speak as a subject, I don’t want to speak as a subaltern.”

– Tamara Soukotta