Detroping White Privilege: “Diversity” Politics Beyond the Token Paradigm

by Praveen Sewgobind, paper presented at the Humboldt University, Berlin conference Race, Power, and Privilege in Academia on July 27th, 2017 (View the powerpoint presentation here & the full event program available here)


“Racism becomes something bad that we can’t even speak of, as if to describe x as racist is to damage or even hurt x. The organization becomes the subject of feeling, as the one who must be protected, as the one who is easily bruised or hurt. When racism becomes an institutional injury, it is imagined as an injury to whiteness. The claim ‘we would never’ use the language of racism is a way of protecting whiteness from being hurt or damaged. Diversity can be a method of protecting whiteness. I would also point out that personalizing institutional racism creates a space for whiteness to be reasserted. The speech act ‘we would not accuse you of racism’ can be translated into ‘I am not racist’ insofar as the ‘I’ that would not accuse the ‘you’ has already identified with that you. To speak about racism would hurt not just the organization, reimagined as a subject with feelings, but also those subjects who identify with the organization. They would be hurt by what is heard as a charge, such that the charge becomes about their hurt. There is an implicit injunction not to speak about racism to protect whiteness from being hurt. Speaking about racism is thus heard as an injury not to those who speak but to those who are spoken about.

– Sara Ahmed. On Being Included: Racism and Diversity in Institutional Life. Duke University Press. 2012. 147.



“Why do you always go on about race ?” somebody once asked me. The question, uttered in a passive-aggressive tone, seething with frustration, was phrased by a white person who apparently did not want to acknowledge her own whiteness. To acknowledge one’s own whiteness, and to understand the workings of white privilege, I realised, are demanding processes, because they oblige people to unlearn a widespread belief that we somehow live in a colour-blind society. (SLIDE 2) It is a belief that is carefully constructed in the media, in advertising, and in educational institutions alike. But why then, do people of colour perceive many spaces (SLIDE 3) as seas of whiteness ? What lies behind the anxiety that I and so many other people of colour feel when we uneasily stand out among white people? How do we address issues of race, power, and privilege when race is passionately being denied?

In my presentation, I wish to clarify the conditions that need to be met, for the academic seas of whiteness to transform into an oceanic globality, and replace (SLIDE 4) the happy trope of non-performative diversity into a practice of continuous resistance.

The vexed question that I wish to address today, is the dangerous illusion of postraciality. I argue that accepting an alleged postraciality actually enforces racism, because in its operation, the primacy of a trope of whiteness effectively surfaces and structurally injures people of colour. Many academic institutions, especially those who pride themselves of being liberal and progressive, employ a politics of colour-blindness. In countries like Germany and the Netherlands, where I spent most of my life, the negation of race of course has a strong historical background. However, it is about time, I would argue, that we move beyond the dogma and the fear of using the word race, and for that matter the word white. Just to state the obvious: this university is a white space. Realising its whiteness might be uncomfortable to acknowledge, yet it is a necessary step to come to terms with, and move beyond the trope of whiteness that engulfs us all, and to understand the correlation between white privilege and racism.

The trope of whiteness, that could be described as a normalising (SLIDE 5) flow of white bodies, akin to a current in a body of water, has become particularly apparent to me when I was a PhD researcher at Leiden University. Although I knew about the racial pyramid structure they were trying to camouflage, I decided to become part of one of the most prestigious Dutch academic institutions. (SLIDE 6) Just to clarify, its racial pyramid structure refers to the process by which the number of PoC decreases the further up the social hierarchy you go: there may be a significant number of students of colour in the Bachelor’s programs, but the higher echelons are predominantly, and even entirely white.

In a policy paper on Leiden University’s novel diversity strategy, (SLIDE 7)  typically called Excellence through Diversity,  it  becomes clear that the starting point for a diversity policy, was a reference to major Dutch multinational companies and other elite universities: because enterprises like Shell and Unilever, and institutions such as Harvard and Oxford did diversity, Leiden University now had to follow. I figured that the perception of not doing that would damage their credibility in international settings. And so, it was decided to refurbish the appearance of the university’s websites. My former research school created a new p.r offensive, and asked a number of PhDs of colour to be part of a photo shoot. The quasi-randomness of the choice of participants became obvious, when I was asked to sit at a table with a Chinese and a Turkish colleague of mine. Several pictures were taken, but then, I was asked to go to another room and await further instructions. It was only later that I realised what had happened, as you can see in the picture here(SLIDE 8) A white male colleague had been mobilised to replace me, to assume the exact same position I was in, sitting at the table behind my tablet, with my two colleagues. When I saw the new configuration, I protested and asked: why was I taken out of the picture? The answer by one of the institute’s white managers was, in her words: “Well, the three of you were all wearing black, and so we asked the other person.” I have to add that we were specifically told not to wear light colours, and so we did. I was furious. I felt pushed aside, and trampled upon. Why, I thought, would they even ask me, and then decide we were apparently (SLIDE 9) “too black, too strong, or too ethnic, too strong,” as I analysed it later. Initially, I was left inside of the picture frame, but on the side, as I was waiting in the room behind the glass. But when I decided to leave Leiden University, some weeks later, I demanded they would cut me out completely, and so they did, albeit reluctantly. The reasons why I left the institution were partly caused by a deeply felt uneasiness that began to take shape, feelings of being structurally otherised while being used as a token, to figure at will in the happy Benetton-style diversity politics. It occurred to me, especially after reading Sara Ahmed’s text On Being Included: Racism and Diversity in Institutional Life, how diversity politics often becomes instrumentalised as a marketing tool, and PoC were employed as advertisement props. Critiquing happy diversity and pointing to racism can be dangerous, though. When I uttered the very word racism to one of the institute’s managers, she exploded. How I dared to even use the notion! In an unprecedented emotional outburst, she told me that during the Second World War, her father-in-law was forcefully taken to Nazi-Germany to work in a factory. And so, she could never ever be involved in any racist policy, or have anything to do with racism whatsoever. Having heard this argumentation before, I insisted that I was referring to the current race relations at the institute. But the discussion was over. Expressing the words race and racism felt like having crossed a red line. I was now the one who had been unjust, I was the one who had violated norms. My whole world was turned upside-down. From a victim of racism, I was now a perpetrator of an alleged violence. As Sara Ahmed argues: (SLIDE 10) “When racism becomes an institutional injury, it is imagined as an injury to whiteness. The claim ‘we would never’ use the language of racism is a way of protecting whiteness from being hurt or damaged. Diversity can be a method of protecting whiteness. “ This exact point became crystal clear. To me, unequal race relations were shockingly apparent, but this could not be discussed within the happy-diversity framework. The atmosphere in the institute, frankly, had become unbearable for me, and when I left the constructed realm of postraciality and colour-blindness, I thrived with an invigorated passion to keep on addressing the racial tensions that arise in such seas of whiteness, vowing to counter the (SLIDE 11) “implicit injunction not to speak about racism to protect whiteness from being hurt. Speaking about racism is thus heard as an injury not to those who speak but to those who are spoken about.”

This next section is called: Returning the Gaze, Unwinding the Coil(SLIDE 12)

As I tried to find ways to counter academic seas of whiteness, I visited a conference last year organised by the European Race and Imagery Foundation in Innsbruck, Austria, titled (SLIDE 13) Returning the Gaze II: Stories of Resistance. I realised how important it was to be in spaces where a large part of participants were PoC, and this realisation, then, generated more thought about exactly why I felt increasingly uncomfortable while entering white spaces. Such experiences of navigating white environments, cannot be separated from embodied memories of earlier harrowing events, accumulated throughout life. Racist gazes, verbal and physical attacks due to the colour of your skin. As Lauren Freeman states: (SLIDE 14) “Living as a member of a racially oppressed group in a normatively white world cuts to the ontological core of what it means to exist since the experiences that constitute what it is like to exist as racially oppressed are not one-off instances but rather are manifest, penetrating, enduring, (…), they become embodied, taken up into, and constitute who one is.” Hence, to be confronted with the enduring hypocrisy of colour-blindness, only strengthens the normativity of whiteness. The gazes that I feel on a daily basis, accumulate in what I would refer to as a racial coil spring, (SLIDE 15) which stores the energy of white gazes as well as other experiences of being stigmatised. This coil spring can only absorb a certain amount of energy, before unwinding, and although experiences can be partially embedded and worked through, it could be argued that accumulated traces of racism always remain. Ahmed explains: (SLIDE 16) “Bodies remember such histories, even when we forget them. Such histories, we might say, surface on the body, or even shape how bodies surface. Race then does become a social as well as bodily given, or what we receive from others as an inheritance of this history.”

These traces will at one point snap back to reality, if you will, analogous to Sara Ahmed’s recent analysis (SLIDE 17) of how this operates among those who are stigmatised due to race and/or gender constructs. Her analogy of a twig under pressure is productive, so do listen to her very powerful speech on the concept of snap on !

In the process of coming to terms with the violence that is systemic racism, I started to disentangle the visible-invisible trope of whiteness, that figured as a formative principle in my daily encounters. For too long, I had been observing the world with an habitual, dominant white vision, causing double-consciousness conflicts in that typical Du Boisian fashion. The habitus of seeing the world with white eyes is very strong indeed, and worked to diminish my sense of self. The process of displacing that inculcated white vision for me, was a necessary step to counter the trope of whiteness. This trope is comfortably formative for those who have the privilege to safely reside in and sink into its fluidity, while riding the current of upward mobility in academic institutions. Increasingly, my own appearance felt like a hostile invasion, a deviating object in that current, causing turbulence and discord. The harder I try, it seems, to push myself into the current, the more resistance I endure. Again, to contextualise my experience, let’s think about the following quote: (SLIDE 18) “When we talk about a ‘sea of whiteness’ or ‘white space’ we are talking about the repetition of the passing by of some bodies and not others, for sure. But non-white bodies do inhabit white spaces; we know this. Such bodies are made invisible when we see spaces as being white, at the same time as they become hypervisible when they do not pass, which means they ‘stand out’ and ‘stand apart’. (SLIDE 19) You learn to fade into the background, but sometimes you can’t or you don’t. The moments when the body appears ‘out of place’ are moments of political and personal trouble.”

But what to do then, would be the key question….how do we transform the racialised rigidity of seas of whiteness into an all-encompassing fluidity, how to morph rejectability that emanates from its social structures into encapsulatedness ? How do we commence to dilute the Fanonian certain uncertainty that accompanies brown and black bodies as we enter realms of white taken-for-grantedness ? Let’s take a deep breath while I do the same as I recite the following poem: (SLIDE 20)


Engulfed in comfort               
Whiteness aligns itself
Becoming spatiality
Grasping temporality

Risk emerges 
As uncertainty enters
A brown body disrupts 
In a third person singular

Do I breathe tension? 
Do I radiate anxiety? 
Twitching of pens
Twirling of hair

What do you think you see?
Why does your non-gaze gaze? 
Uncanny negation ?
Racial subjugation ? 

Epidermal schemas 
Ontological impossibilities
Strangle my tormented mind
Choke my sense of sameness

From underneath my punctured skin 
I can merely offer
Unsettling experiences
Forging strength through pain 


My interventionist discourse and actions are not a renewed attempt to embody an empty egalitarianism. I think it’s pointless to believe in false hopes of liberal democracy and equal opportunity.

We need to fundamentally change racialised colonial power structures that are still reflected in societies, and in our institutions. Racism was not terminated in Auschwitz, or limited to the fascists of the NSU, to put it bluntly, but operates in the denigrating white gazes and annoying questions (SLIDE 21) that PoC are subjected to when we enter white spaces. The bitter pill that many white people still have to swallow, is the realisation that their privilege is preventing these racial power structures from collapsing. The violent reaction that was sparked at my former “colour-blind” institution, is indicative for the unwillingness to empathise and to see the violence that is caused by white privilege, in denying the correlation between white privilege and racism. Just to put it plainly, as I see it: the sum total of white privileges maintains a white power structure, which informs the conditions that forge racism. And so, to counter these interlocking dynamics, radical and audacious steps need to be taken to counter privilege, and this will be painstaking and painful. There is no other way, because again there is no racial equality: we live, and I want to stress this, in a world informed by colonial whiteness (SLIDE 22), or, as Linda Martin Alcoff puts it:” post-slavery culture, whiteness remains the measure of man, that is, of humanity.” Resisting this means to disrupt the power structures that work to subordinate, and to build serious pressure until we see and feel drastic changes and can be truly satisfied.

First of all, I would like to propose to get rid of the hollow term diversity itself. Like many buzzwords, it has been appropriated by a pacifying, liberal politics. The world, however, is still colonised by a mindset that stimulates white fluidity. Yet our world is not white, it is largely made up of people of colour. White people are a minority, which is, however, not reflected in the higher echelons of power.  Decolonisation did not end in the 60s, we still need to decolonise our institutions. (SLIDE 23) I sometimes ask people: how small is your world? Where do you live, in Germany, in the Netherlands, or on this planet ? How large is the sea in which you swim, in which you feel your current, your trope of taken-for-grantedness? If we want to work in institutions to stimulate a critical perspective and change the world for the better, we should open our minds and institutions to an inclusivity that is premised on a truly cosmopolitan, and I mean non-Eurocentric, worldview and praxis. We need to acknowledge academia’s whiteness and then, act accordingly.  Countering seas of whiteness means, concretely to take social responsibility:  a fair and significant number of white scholars – in particular middle-class white men, epitomes of motility –  should give up their position in academia, and make way for PoC. Similarly, a fair and significant amount of white researchers and aspiring researchers, should reconsider their academic trajectory to ensure that lesser privileged people can climb the social ladder. Of course, in an ideal situation, there would not be a social ladder, but unfortunately, we don’t live a classless society. Until then, we should put in place quota for positions in academia for PoC, and demand that selection committees actively find PoC for such positions, so yes, affirmative action until some balance has been reached.

Now, decolonising and de-whitening our institutions seems quite utopian, I realise that. But wasn’t there a time when slavery was normalised and ubiquitous? Societal structures are made and are maintained by people, and can only be undone by people. It will take a huge effort, and some serious introspection to unlearn illusions of postraciality. We may often find ourselves in compartmentalised, atomised, and ostracised positions. It is therefore vital, to work towards a collective continuity, even, and maybe especially if that means to go against the grain of a pacifying academic harmony.

Until people of colour cease to feel the puncturing white gazes wherever we go, anxieties and tensions will accumulate. Let’s return the gazes that work to otherise, and halt the tightening of the racial coil spring. Be aware how white bodies align and sink into space, and others do not. Realise how some bodies are deemed risk factors by investing to dismantle the exclusionary racialisation of distinguishing “certain uncertainty.” I thank you for listening and will hopefully see you soon to (SLIDE 24)  transform words into meaningful action!  (SLIDE 25)


Praveen Sewgobind explores the nexus of South Asian diaspora memory and migration, in relation to decolonial cosmopolitanism. He holds a BA in English Language and Culture from the University of Amsterdam, and an rMA in Cultural Analysis from the University of Amsterdam. Praveen has organised two academic conferences, a two-day international conference exploring tensions between theory and practice in the humanities at the University of Amsterdam (Is Thought Action? NICA/ASCA Conference Exploring Tensions Between Academic Theory and Praxis, read more here) and an international graduate conference at the Leiden University Centre for the Arts in Society (LUCAS), read more here.


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