‘Doing diversity from a black woman’s perspective’

Dr Aminata Cairo

‘I can make a difference

Leiden University, the oldest university in the Netherlands, strives to be a shining example of what can be achieved by acknowledging the link between diversity and success. For over 400 years, Leiden University has been a predominantly white, male campus. “Times are changing, but it’s quite a challenge to transform such a legacy into one of inclusion,” says Aminata Cairo, policy maker on diversity and inclusiveness at the university. “We are making great progress, but you can’t expect it to change overnight.”

Aminata Cairo was one of the keynote speakers at the 2016 Diversity Conference at Leiden University. Her main topic: diversity from a black woman’s perspective.

No one could talk about this better than Aminata herself. Born in Amsterdam to Surinamese parents, she was raised in the Netherlands. She left for the United States when she was 18, obtained a Master’s Degree in Clinical Psychology at Eastern Kentucky University, as well as a second Master’s and a PhD in Medical Anthropology at the University of Kentucky with a special interest in mental health and culture. Until last year, Aminata Cairo worked as an associate professor of anthropology at Southern Illinois University Edwardsville. Today, she is one of Leiden’s first policy officers contributing to diversity issues.

 

Motherly

“My primary focus in my presentation is diversity and sharing my personal perspective on diversity issues, as a black, single mom in a predominantly white campus, as an academic with a Dutch, Caribbean, as well as an African American cultural background.”

Leiden University has been a predominantly white campus for hundreds of years. Not surprisingly, there’s a dominant culture, a mindset, way of thinking and behaviour. “Throughout my academic career people have said to me: ‘You don’t look very academic. You don’t dress like us. You don’t speak like us, like an academic usually speaks. And you’re so ... motherly.’”

 

Momma

“It made me think, and I decided to look more into that. Black mothering has never been just about a mother and her child. Black mothering stands for being a mother to others as well. But when it comes to black motherhood, the message that we get isn’t very positive: it’s linked to survival, desperation, neglect, and psychological and physical abuse. My task is to change that label and embrace my black motherhood. Yes, I am a black mother and it is a big part of who I am and how I do my work. It’s so easy to question yourself when the idealistic image obviously doesn’t fit. But it also made me realise: this is exactly what diversity is about. I may look, talk and dress differently from most of my colleagues, but that’s okay, because it’s who I am. And yes, I am a motherly person. I love my kids: they make me the human being I am now, and I’m not ashamed of it.

In an academic setting, there should be room for someone with a motherly perspective. The main question is: Am I being effective? Does my work make a difference? Can I connect with people? If the answer is ‘yes’, than that’s all I need to know.”

 

Yo’ Momma

“Having been raised in many different cultures, Aminata Cairo recognises the difficulties people encounter when confronted with diversity issues. “Diversity can cause a lot of uneasiness. This is where ‘Yo’ Momma’ usually comes in. If you say Yo’ Momma to a black person, all communication shuts down. If you want to insult a black person, all you have to do is say something ugly about his mother. How long can you put up with name-calling, how can you take discrimination and insults? When someone says: ‘Go back to your own country’ or ‘I don’t discriminate, you’re just being over-sensitive’, all I hear is: Yo’ Momma. It shuts down all communication, there is no room any more to talk about it.”

 

“Today, it seems we no longer have proper discussions about racism, or discrimination. All we say to each other is: Yo’ Momma - back and forth. We don’t move forward. Yo’ Momma is also a choice: if we don’t see a way out, we can always fall back on Yo’ Momma. You don’t want to talk? Yo’ Momma. Then everything stops.”

 

Aminata Cairo is committed to open communication, in a safe setting. Talking about diversity can be uncomfortable. “We were taught to remain objective at all times. But that’s an illusion. You can’t do your work properly if you don’t feel passionate about it. And if a discussion on, let’s say, racism, makes you feel uncomfortable - so be it. It’s okay to feel that way. It’s not the end of the world. It could actually be a relief if there were room to talk about this uneasiness. This is where I use my expertise: to make room for these issues and discussions.”

 

Better campus climate

Creating safe spaces for discussion on diversity issues, building cross-cultural bridges and making people connect with each other: Aminata’s work is essential. “It’s time for people of majority identities to talk about diversity as much as people with less dominant identities are forced to. It is a luxury not to have to think or talk about these issues, but it’s one we can no longer afford if we want a better campus climate and society.”

 

The bottom line

The fact that a person is prejudiced doesn't have anything to do with him or her being kind as well. “We are all, in a way, prejudiced and raised in a certain way, with a particular culture and belief system. We respond how we were taught to respond. Even I have assumptions that don’t make any sense at all. The bottom line is: it’s not personal.

We need to become more aware of our individual beliefs as a reflection of our cultural conditioning, challenge our own assumptions and remind ourselves that we have more in common than we realise. We have some work to do, and we can do better.  I truly believe that.”

'It's up to me to decide'

“I felt honoured when Aminata told the audience that she learned so much from our LGBT community. When it comes to labeling, if you feel uncomfortable about what to call me as a transgender - he, she - so what? Don’t feel uncomfortable, just ask me. What matters is: it is up to me to decide. That’s empowering.”

 

Robin Mier

Student of Japanese Studies Leiden University

'Our personal story matters'

“It’s almost a healing experience to listen to Aminata.  She inspires us, by telling her own personal story and interweaving it with our stories. Let’s be aware of the fact that our personal story matters, even if we have been overlooked, even if our story doesn’t look like the dominant story we have all been taught.”

 

Mika Kleinert

Student Leiden University

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