University

Just admit it

We profit from a shameful past

Dutch colonial history might seem like just that – history. But some staff and students argue that the RUG’s history has a meaningful impact on the classroom whether we know it or not. ‘We absorb knowledge without recognizing colonial perspectives.’
By Emily Howard / Illustration by René Lapoutre

History professor Barbara Henkes was in Amsterdam when she first saw a project mapping the history of colonialism and slavery in the city. She knew she wouldn’t see anything like it in Groningen any time soon. ‘I thought, “not again, Groningen!”’ she laughs. The north of the country ‘doesn’t take part in these discussions until 20 years later,’ she says.

She decided to do the work herself. In 2016, Henkes published her book, Traces of Slavery Past (Sporen van het slavernijverleden in Groningen), and launched her own interactive project, ‘Mapping Slavery’, which plots dozens of historical locations in Groningen. Online visitors can learn about Groningen’s ties to the wildly profitable Dutch trading companies, which made their fortunes trading and transporting plants, goods, and humans throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

We have a lot of knowledge that was produced because of colonial networks

Those colonial ties also extend to the university. Quite a few people associated with the RUG were compensated for the loss of their own slaves after the end of slavery, explains RUG historian Klaas van Berkel. ‘In that way, you could say that their colonial experience was part of their CV and career.’

From past to present

But what does any of this have to do with the RUG as we know it? It might seem irrelevant, says Henkes, but actually our colonial past clearly influences our collective knowledge.

‘We have a lot of knowledge that was produced because of colonial networks,’ she explains. Without the activities of the Dutch East and West Indies companies and the slave trade networks, researchers like Petrus Camper would not have had access to some of the specimens they used for scientific research. Much of modern medicine is built upon a body of knowledge made possible by a system that profited from literal bodies.

‘Our project tries to open up the notion of profit, and not restrict it to money. Research and education profited from colonial networks, too,’ says Henkes.

Henkes’ project is part of a wider conversation about decolonisation at the university. ‘Decolonisation’ aims to undo aspects of colonialism that still exist. In the academy, conversations about decolonisation often focus on the knowledge and practices we continue to rely on. How is that knowledge connected to colonialism, and how does it still contain colonial attitudes?

‘Normal’

Philosophy and American Studies student Jan Bant agrees that our knowledge today is tied to the past. He explains that what we assume to be ‘normal’ is often influenced by our – sometimes shameful – history.

We should be more aware that much of our intellectual heritage has colonial biases

‘How are colonial and racist attitudes in Philosophy dismissed? How do Eurocentric discourses influence our ways of seeing others? Who are we honouring in the Senate room?’ he asks. Bant thinks we should be more aware that much of our intellectual heritage and many of the ideas we take for granted have colonial biases.

For example, much of the work by contemporary European philosophers Hegel and Kant was influenced by their own rather racist views. Bant thinks that absorbing their work without recognising the colonial perspectives it contains is problematic.

Bant would also like to see more non-Western philosophy in the classroom. In academia, theories and research produced by Europeans are often given priority and attention over those produced by people in other parts of the world. This also reflects a colonial perspective.

Limits of knowledge

Philosophy lecturer Pieter Boele van Hensbroek says there are some ‘really serious’ problems with the curriculum. ‘My career of studying the history of African and Asian political ideas is part of a broad agenda to reconsider the limits of our mainstream view of global intellectual history,’ he says.

This mainstream view presents a very narrow intellectual perspective that ignores most of the world. Boele van Hensbroek calls for an expansion of the rigid philosophy canon to include philosophy from around the globe, instead of returning to the same European thinkers over and over again.

Even in science, the curriculum is limited to a European perspective, says Lucy Avraamidou. ‘The lack of representation of minority and non-European backgrounds has a negative effect, because you basically only get the ‘white-male perspective’ or the Eurocentric scientific paradigm, which is very single-sided and limited,’ she says.

The RUG prides itself on being international, but Avraamidou doesn’t see many global perspectives in the curriculum or ways of teaching. She thinks that the curriculum should be more inclusive and bring in scientific perspectives and practices from outside northern Europe. ‘I want every student, no matter who they are or where they come from, to feel they are not outsiders in the sciences.’

Not so simple

But despite his calls for a wider curriculum, Boele van Hensbroek is uneasy about discussions of decolonisation. ‘The actual problems of marginalisation and exploitation of parts of the world are not solved by complaints about white science’, he says, ‘but by changing structures of domination and exploitation.’ He thinks that the discussions tend to focus on more symbolism than on actually pressing issues – like economic inequality.

The RUG must make known who in their history had colonial ties

What’s more, Boele van Hensbroek thinks that attempts at decolonisation might also contain colonial biases themselves. ‘Asking for recognition for ‘the black experience’ is continuing the art of colonial stereotyping, rather than fighting it’, he says.

Nevertheless, Boele van Hensbroek does have some practical ideas for expanding the standard curriculum and making academia more globally inclusive.

Uncomfortable solutions

To achieve a wider curriculum which incorporates non-Western perspectives, Boele van Hensbroek suggests collaboration. ‘Practical moves could be to link Dutch education programmes to those of Asian, African, and Latin American partners,’ he says. He also suggests having more staff from these areas. ‘So, after all, a ‘diversity policy’ in staff recruitment!’

Bant thinks that in addition to these steps, the RUG should make it more clear how its colonial past is connected to what we learn today. ‘The RUG must make known who in their history had colonial ties, and how that contributed to the development of the university,’ he says.

But even before we can take these steps, the first step to engaging with our colonial history is to open our minds, says Avraamidou. ‘The question is not so much about whether we are able to change, the question is: about are we willing to change?’ she asks.

Unlearning

She wonders whether people will be willing to recognise where their intellectual heritage amplifies colonial perspectives and excludes others. It’s natural to shy away from topics that bring critical attention to ourselves or our pasts. ‘That change requires a lot of unlearning, which makes us uncomfortable.’

But Henkes is used to people being uncomfortable when she talks about her work. ‘Somehow, there is this reflexive desire to keep society the way it is,’ she says. ‘But that keeps certain people and groups out of the picture. And I think it’s an enrichment to put them in.’

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