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How integration should work in European campuses

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In the second half of 2019, I spent a semester teaching history at the University of California in Los Angeles. The superdiversity of California universities demonstrates the need for European campuses to be more inclusive - not for window-dressing, but for substantial reasons: linguistic skills, cultural background knowledge, and non-Eurocentric perspectives.

From August 2019 to January 2020, I spent a semester teaching history at the University of California in Los Angeles and returned to the Netherlands. ‘So how was your stay?’, I was invariably asked by friends, family, and colleagues when I returned. They were clearly fishing for sweeping statements such as ‘My God, the US is an awful place to be!’, or ‘It was a-ma-zing, I never wanted to come back to depressing Europe!’ But these monochrome answers would not have reflected how I came to feel about my stay. Still, the change from an inner-city Dutch university to a bustling American campus was quite a shift, intellectually and socially, and I took copious notes throughout the semester. My most intimate and lasting impressions were of academic culture and the quality of life, but especially of the relevance of inclusivity and diversity.

I consider myself part of a community of children of immigrants who studied at European universities as first-generation students. As minority scholars, we face particular struggles in a European nation state like the Netherlands. We are often underestimated, socially excluded, or suffer various forms of (micro-)aggression, invalidation, and intellectual disparagement. An Iraqi-Dutch history student told me that he was once told that in order to gain access to historical sources, it was imperative to have “relevant language skills, such as German or French.” The professor’s disregard for the student’s fluency in Arabic is a highly telling example illustrating this predicament. By any definition of the term, the Dutch humanities and social sciences are a highly homogeneous and rarely inclusive cohort, and breaking in poses particularly tough challenges for minority students and staff. As a result, they are often on guard when they enter Dutch academic spaces and dissimulate to blend in.

From exclusion to integration

California was a very different ball game: the open-minded superdiversity on campuses made me immediately feel at home. The first question people would ask me is not where I was “really” from (very common in the Netherlands), but what research I was currently working on. The deference I enjoyed was based purely on my CV, and white Americans treated me fairly differently from what I was used to for decades back home. I was invited for lectures and discussions across the state, and was met with interest in my research on all campuses. It didn’t matter as much whether my research bore any relevance to the topics of national obsession, such as is often the case in Europe. No longer was I treated as a colonial evolué, who walks the walk and talks the talk, but whose skin tone and exotic name are a permanent reminder of Otherness. Most of my students were blissfully unaware of how they would have been treated in European nation states, and their nonchalance was refreshing. Most were hard-working, ambitious kids of 1.5 or 2nd generation migrant background, their parents having migrated from El Salvador, Sri Lanka, Mexico, Nigeria, India, Laos, etc.

“Why does the Dutch government continue to place a label on immigrant children? Aren’t you also just Dutch?”

At UCLA, I taught two classes: one on the history of genocide, and another one on the history of immigration in the Netherlands. In the latter course, I also wove in my family history of labor migrants who migrated from eastern Turkey to Germany and the Netherlands from the 1960s onwards. The story of those immigrants really sparked the interest of the class. Some students were positively surprised at the opportunities, progressive policies and social benefits, but others scoffed at Dutch racism. One student, whose family is from Michoacan, said he could identify with me, as his family had also moved 3000 kilometers to find work in the US. His eyes widened when I told him I had become a Dutch citizen after 8 years of residence: “You mean your family was granted citizenship automatically after a number of years?!” “Yes,” I answered stoically, “and from day one we had social benefits.” Then I really blew his mind when I told him how much the annual university tuition fees were. He turned to his friend and sighed: “Dude, we moved to the wrong country.” Another student whose family was from Sri Lanka was less positive about the decade-long epithet of allochtoon, the Dutch-language term for offspring of immigrants. She flouted: “Why does the Dutch government continue to place a label on immigrant children? Aren’t you also just Dutch?”

Read also: The great Turkish-trek

Californians’ comfort with superdiversity overall energized me. On campus, one could hear a plethora of languages and a celebration of cultural variety. At some point, the room where I taught my Monday morning class was locked. I didn’t have a US mobile phone number, so one of my students (let’s call him Manuel) called the campus facilities, and a woman showed up to open the first door with a passkey. She struggled with the lock, but a few words in Spanish from Manuel redirected her to the second door, which she wiggled open. Manuel had saved the class. His utter lack of shame in speaking his mother tongue, on campus, to support staff, was eye-opening and liberating.

In the Netherlands, most minority students and staff stay the heck away from the hijabi cleaning ladies, lest the white Dutch establishment might associate them with the inferior social class they were so desperately trying to escape by going to study at university. Hijabi students themselves then suffer a wide range of negative stereotypes, underestimation, and derogation. The most egregious example I ever heard is that of a hijabi student who, nervous for her first ever class in law school, arrived a few minutes late to the lecture. The professor, an older white Dutch man, glanced at her and, in front of 200 undergraduates, told her: “Thank you, but this room has been cleaned already.”

The importance of sharing our (hi)story

The following week, I was teaching about the Rwandan genocide, and I quizzed the class: “How did the Hutu perpetrators know who was Tutsi and who wasn’t?” In my Dutch classes, I generally get clueless looks and several half-correct answers. But in LA, a very diligent student immediately nailed it: “People locally knew of each other who was what.” When I asked her how she knew, she drew on her family’s memories of the Sikh massacres in India, and she simply extrapolated to Rwanda. This is when I realized why diversity and inclusivity in the university classroom is vital: for substantial reasons, not for window-dressing.

All diaspora communities in the Greater LA area have collective experiences that inform their political and historical worldviews. All of that cultural background knowledge is relevant in bringing forth different understandings of the world. These multi-dimensional perspectives produce the synergy that fruitful intellectual exchange should be based on. This is where the Netherlands can do much better: most migrant and refugee communities have an intrinsic interest in politics and history, yet they are severely underrepresented in the respective academic disciplines.

My most meaningful exchanges were with the so-called ‘Dreamers’: children who were brought to the US as undocumented immigrants. In my migration course, I once mentioned that the United States Supreme Court is examining the DACA program (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals), which might leave 800,000 Dreamers in uncertainty about their future. The front row in the classroom became visibly uncomfortable, so I read the room and quickly moved on. Two hours later, at office hours, one of the students walked into my room and reluctantly admitted she’s a Dreamer, and anxious about Trump’s anti-immigrant rhetoric and actions. An hour later, another student walked in and said he was an infant when they fled the civil war in El Salvador. But why the taboo, I asked them. And why is there a stigma attached to it?

He explained over lunch that most Dreamers feel that the odds are stacked against them in the rigged system of US meritocracy. Yes, they might be admitted to the university, but that did not yet mean they were included socially. They paid taxes all their lives, worked for the lowest wages, but then were excluded from certain positions and jobs. They experience class resentment against the privileged frat boys who hardly study but whose parents leave legacies and inheritances that guarantee their future. They may have existed at the periphery of US society, but the university was thrusting them onward and upward – a deeply recognizable feeling to me. What all these students had in common was a profound desire to pursue education, progress, and emancipation. And that is ultimately the point of a university. Their inclusion in the program brings forward their strengths and passions to the subjects studied – a priceless value. Thorough integration at university level is one of the first steps to secure a smoother integration into American society as a whole.

In Europe, inclusivity and diversity are an uphill struggle. Some universities understand ‘diversity’ only as the hiring of more women, or attracting international students. Some universities in cities with super-diverse populations all but disregard those immigrant communities. Academic disciplines like history, political science, sociology or anthropology that do not actively engage with and recruit from that milieu are missing important opportunities. The Californian example shows us what we stand to gain from a super-diverse university.

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Read also: The EU should encourage the cultural diversity that exists inside its borders