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Researchers disappointed with debate over racism

Racism — The two scientists behind an open letter on racism at the University of Copenhagen say that their message was hijacked by a debate over identity politics.

In September two PhD students Sofie Mortensen and Francois Questiaux sent an open letter urging the University of Copenhagen (UCPH) to investigate and combat structural racism against black people.

They wrote that they suspected that black people not only constitute a negligible proportion of permanently hired researchers, but that their work is circumvented in curricula, and that the university needs the tools to tackle racism.

»Therefore, as employees of UCPH we ask the leadership to commit to investigating, firstly, what diversity looks like at UCPH. That is, to what extent are Black people and other minorities employed and in what positions? What are the numbers of Black students and other minorities?« the letter asked, which also urged the University of Copenhagen to collect testimonies of racism from black staff and students.

READ ALSO: Researchers want University of Copenhagen to commit to anti-racism struggle

The letter had 122 signatures. Back then, Francois Questiaux and Sofie Mortensen had only shared the letter with four different departments, and the expectation was therefore that many more people would sign.

However, since the publication, only a further 50 names have been affixed to the petition.

READ ALSO: Open letter to University of Copenhagen to address racism in academia

This may have something to do with the network of the young researchers. Questiaux and Mortensen are both PhD students at the Department of Food and Resource Economics and have therefore not had many years to build up their network of contacts throughout the university.

It may also have something to do with the fact that it is easier to convince researchers to sign when you write directly to them than when you publish a letter on the internet.

It feels as if the critics did not read what we asked them to read.

Sofie Mortensen, PhD student, Department of Food and Resource Economics

But Francois Questiaux and Sofie Mortensen say that several of their colleagues have also hesitated for other reasons.

»We have realised that it is a difficult topic to talk about in Denmark. Maybe that’s why we haven’t received so many signatures. It is a topic that not many people want to get involved with. I have a lot of colleagues at UCPH who were 100 per cent in agreement with the content of the letter, but who did not want to sign for other reasons,« says Francois Questiaux.

What reasons?

»Many people do not want to mix work and politics, as they say. But there are also many who feel that it is unpleasant to talk about racism. So I’m not that surprised that we didn’t get a lot of signatures.«

Why do you think this is the case?

»Because people don’t want to acknowledge that racism exists. In the US, they have more data on the subject, so they have to talk about it, but here we pretend it does not exist. It is a European mindset, where we tell ourselves that we are race- or colour-blind.«

Say no to the concepts

The aftermath has not just been a complete disappointment, according to Sofie Mortensen and Francois Questiaux.

They have held meetings with the HR department at the University of Copenhagen, where they discussed how it was possible to investigate the extent of racism without falling foul of Danish legislation.

The most disappointing thing was probably that the debate was never about racism at the University of Copenhagen.

Francois Questiaux, PhD student, Department of Food and Resource Economics

Rector Henrik C. Wegener said previously about the letter:

»Due to Danish legislation, UCPH cannot register ethnicity and several other parameters among staff and students. This means that there are challenges in collecting the data that they are looking for. That’s why we need to find other ways to do this. The university will take a closer look at this.«

But the researchers were disappointed by the debate which the petition set off in the media.

A number of commentators distanced themselves from the content of the letter. This including Henrik Dahl of Liberal Alliance, who in an interview with the University Post said that the researchers were guilty of an import of fake problems: The institutional racism that they want to combat does not exist at all at Danish universities, Dahl said.

He also criticised the petition for using concepts like ‘white privilege’ and ‘racist structures’.

»You have to reject this whole conceptual world, because it’s not innocent. The moment you talk about whiteness and white privilege, you dissolve the individual. Your personal attitude towards racism does not matter, because it is all about the ethnicity you have,« he said.

The letter has also led to criticism at the University of Copenhagen. In a featured comment on the University Post, for example, Professor Lars Gårn Hansen wrote that he saw the letter as part of a wave of identity politics that threatens the guiding principles of political independence, freedom of thought, and freedom of expression.

Disappointing debate

Francois Questiaux and Sofie Mortensen criticise the commentators for distorting their words and putting the letter in a context of a polarised debate about identity politics and academic freedom.

»It feels as if the critics did not read what we asked. We asked the university to investigate what this issue looks like at the University of Copenhagen, which is the opposite of importing problems. We have racism in Denmark, we just know very little about what it looks like at this university,« says Sofie Mortensen.

»The most disappointing thing was probably that the debate was never about racism at the University of Copenhagen. That there might be a number of good reasons to study the extent to which racism exists at the university — this was simply dismissed,« says Francois Questiaux.

It completely derails the debate when you make the distribution of employees problematic.

Lars Gårn Hansen, Professor, Department of Food and Resource Economics

Sofie Mortensen adds that she does not understand why the researchers have been accused of threatening academic freedom at the university.

»I find it paradoxical that they say this is what we are doing. Because when we take a critical approach to research in this way, it is also an expression of academic freedom. If we have that freedom, why can’t we raise this issue?«

But was it a wise decision, in retrospect, to use words like »white privilege« and »anti-blackness« when these are words that many people associate with an American research setting?

»I can’t see why these words should only belong to an American context. We have white privilege throughout the world. I just think it’s an excuse not to take the topic seriously. A way to deflect the focus elsewhere,« says Sofie Mortensen.

»We can disagree about whether we should use these words, but this is not the important discussion here. The most important discussion is about racism at UCPH.«

But when you talk specifically about racism against black people, it sounds like you are talking from an American setting, where the history is different and where the black population is far greater than in Denmark?

»It is quite deliberate that we use the word black, because black people in Denmark are somehow overlooked. Of course, we do not just want to talk about racism against black people, but we wanted to emphasise that anti-blackness exists in Denmark,« says Sofie Mortensen.

Maybe it might also seem provocative that you say to your colleagues that they are embedded in racist structures?

»Definitely,« says Francois Questiaux. »But we are also a part of it, and we are trying to be constructive. We are not pointing to anyone in particular, we are talking about institutional racism.«

Sofie Mortensen adds:

»Talking about a structure is the opposite of turning it into an individual problem. We have to critically scrutinise the structure and our own role in it.«

A slippery slope

Lars Gårn Hansen, the professor who expressed his opposition to the open letter in a featured comment in October, insists however that the letter is concerned with a dangerous identity-political trend.

The problem is, he says, that the petition encourages the University of Copenhagen to study the proportion of black staff and students (as well as other minority groups), which means that skin colour, gender and ethnicity precisely become a factor.

»It derails the debate when the actual distribution of employees, students and syllabus authors are made problematic based on their race or gender,« he says.

»Investigations into discrimination have to be based on specific people who are discriminated against through specific processes where the discrimination took place. This is where you have to take action.«

But do you then assume that structural racism does not take place at the university?

»I would like to acknowledge that something structural might be at stake in specific cases. That discrimination can be subconscious in specific situations. But it is these cases you have to deal with, based on the premise that you should always choose the most academically talented, regardless of their background. We need to identify specific situations where academic level has been disregarded, instead of doing statistics on the number of employees with a specific background. This is a slippery slope.«

We don’t create problems, we give the problem a name.

Francois Questiaux, PhD student, Department of Food and Resource Economics

More specifically, a slippery slope towards the kind of identity politics that, according to Lars Gårn Hansen, has taken over several British and American universities. He fears that things will end up in the same way at the University of Copenhagen.

»In the Anglo-Saxon university setting things also started with small, innocent-looking steps, that then just went on and on. What is crucial is that we at the University of Copenhagen have a management at all levels that does not just say ‘oh yes, sure, we can do that’, but who are very aware that these small steps can get completely out of hand.«

Critics accuse the authors of importing problems. But is it not just importing problems when you, and others, say that Danish universities are threatened by identity politics?

»You could say that we are afraid of importing the trend that we have seen at foreign universities, and this fear is not unfounded. We are part of a globalised world where things that happen in other countries also happen here. This is not the same as saying that these things will necessarily happen, but they are legitimate concerns.«

Is it not also a threat to academic freedom if you, for fear of identity politics, avoid confronting bias at universities?

»I agree. We must fight bias, also systemic bias. What’s important is that it has to be about specific cases of racial discrimination.«

»If we agree that the best academics should be selected, and that the applicants’ race and ethnicity is irrelevant, then we should also agree to drop any idea of doing statistics on gender, race distributions, and scientists’ backgrounds on curricula. Because this is the exact opposite: Here, the focus is on gender, race, and so on, and the focus will be on this, for example, in connection with appointments and curricula.«

No complete solution

François Questiaux and Sofie Mortensen say that it is necessary to formulate the problem if you are hoping to solve it.

»In a perfect world, no one would care about skin colour. But no matter what you say, how you experience society is different, depending on whether you are black or white. By putting problems into words, we can help solve them. We’re not creating problems, we’re naming them,« says Francois Questiaux.

But like Lars Gårn Hansen warns us, should we not focus on the processes or events where discrimination take place, instead of dealing with the distribution of employees?

»We are already looking at specific examples, and we have collected a number of testimonials. I think there has been a tendency among our critics to only highlight a single sentence in our letter and to create a fuss about this collection of data. But we do not have a final proposal for a solution. Our main point is that we have to recognise the problem, and do something about it,« says Francois Questiaux.

He emphasises that the authors of the letter have started a collaboration with the organisation Afro Danish Collective. They have discussed how to collect data without assigning it to individual employees, something which is contrary to Danish legislation.

»It’s important for me to emphasise that it’s not up to Sofie and me to speak on behalf of people who experience racism. Their voices must count the most when you are deciding what to do,« says Francois Questiaux.