To get a seat at the table, you first have to find the building where it was set

Representation at the academy is important, says UKrant‘s new columnist, PhD student Valeria Cernei. But while some groups are merely underrepresented in academia, others are underrepresented in all of society.

‘Will you represent the internationals?’ I am asked as part of the selection interview for UKrant, as if I were about to be knighted in the grand court of representation. 

Will I represent young academics, this rare species spotted in the wild with peculiar habits like caffeine addiction and deadline-driven panic attacks? Will I represent (white, abled, queer, middle class, Eastern European, Romanian, Moldovan, etc.) women in science? A Matryoshka doll of identities, each layer revealing another.

While ‘representing’ is something we can’t help but do, it seems like a trap to merely intend to represent. 

Yet, representation is worth considering both because we’re always representing and because we’re expected to do it consciously whenever our voice is heard, and our face seen. 

Take for example one type of representation, or, rather, the lack thereof: the often-mentioned (boldly, in UKrant’s comment sections, where bravery meets anonymity, and tentatively during public discussions at conferences, where bravery meets a room full of raised eyebrows) lack of representation of right-leaning ideologies in the academy.

This concern points, somewhat grudgingly, towards the efforts to promote diversity, equity, and inclusion directed towards groups that have been historically disenfranchised. Why aren’t our efforts at fostering diversity also directed towards representatives of the right political spectrum? Academia is too left-leaning, too woke; unrepresentatively so. 

We must not confuse the call for ideological diversity with the urgent need to amplify the voices of marginalized groups

The academy is indeed one of the more leftist spaces in most Western societies, a bubble growing partly through self-selection bias. People on the political right feel minoritized in (at least some) academic fields. This results in ingroup and outgroup mentality, thwarted work relationships, and increased polarization. 

How can we tend to this concern with care while acknowledging that political polemics are both tricky and triggering? Dare we bring them to the Ivory Tower? This seems to be what is needed. 

Importantly, we must not confuse the call for ideological diversity with the urgent need to amplify the voices of Historically, Persistently, or Systematically Marginalized (HPSM) groups: women, racialized people, disabled people, queer people, and Indigenous Peoples (including, in the context of the Netherlands, the people of its (past) colonies). These are individuals who face barriers not just in academia, but across various facets of society, due to enduring biases and systemic inequalities. 

The difference between the political right and HPSM groups is worth emphasizing. While the right political spectrum may be minoritized in the academy, it is strongly represented in many other professional spheres and on the political arena (as indicated by the recent Dutch elections); HPSM groups, on the other hand, remain historically, persistently, and systematically marginalized across societal spaces. 

As we tread the tightrope of representation, we are challenged to balance, on one hand, adding more political color to the academic palette, and, on the other, ensuring that the amplification of diverse voices doesn’t end up as background noise but leads to meaningful change in addressing deep-rooted inequalities. 

After all, some folks are still trying to find the building where the proverbial table is set, let alone securing a seat at it.

VALERIA CERNEI

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