Interview with Aminata Cairo

Aminata Cairo leads the Inclusive Education research group at the Hague University of Applied Sciences. Born in the Netherlands to Surinamese parents, she obtained a PhD in medical anthropology from the University of Kentucky. She won the Martin Luther King Jr Humanitarian Award for her work promoting inclusion among students

September 27, 2019
Aminata Cairo
Source: Wim van der Spiegel

What led you into your work of promoting inclusivity in education?

I was a professor of anthropology so dealing with culture has always come naturally to me. I went into anthropology because I wanted to empower people to tell their own stories. A lot of the time, especially for those who are marginalised, people are spoken for or spoken over. And I had always done a lot of community work so the step towards inclusive education was very logical.

What challenges do you face as a woman of colour in 2019?

Growing up in the Netherlands I was always the only black person or one of the few in my class so I learned my coping mechanisms in kindergarten. You learn how to swallow things and decide what you will get upset about because you just want to do your work.

What’s the same in 2019 is the fact that I’m still one of the few people of colour in higher education. That gets tiresome. I think, “By now you should be further along.” And the fact that young people are still going through the same stuff that I went through 30 years ago is disheartening.

What needs to change in HE to keep those people from falling through the cracks?

It’s not like people are out to be racists, it’s just automatic because it’s so normal. The fact that when somebody who looks like me walks through the door you already have assumptions about them such as “well, this one is not going to do well” or “this one has a language delay” or “this one is going to be problematic”. That creeps into how you treat students, gives you low expectations of certain students or leads you to interpret their behaviour differently. Nobody is questioning that.

So getting academics of colour in isn’t the problem. People want university jobs and they’ve got the skills. It’s keeping them there that’s harder because of how they are treated – the attitudes that you have to deal with, the fact that you have to explain yourself over and over again. That’s what turns people off.

People coming in are always expected to adapt to the majority culture. Instead we need to change the make-up so we all have to adapt to each other and do some things differently.

You studied in the US – how did that experience affect the trajectory of your life?

I went through an Institute of International Education scholarship programme but I was a low-income student so they placed me at Berea College in Kentucky because they don’t charge for tuition. On campus it was very special and all about social justice, and I learned the value that everybody matters. It’s a college dedicated to poor people, dedicated to the people who otherwise wouldn’t have a chance.

But off campus, in the town and the community, it wasn’t always so special. It’s Appalachian Kentucky. Travelling through the South with the swim team to compete at other small colleges, I saw that black people literally live on the other side of the tracks. I really had to think about my place in the world and that whenever we talk about marginalised people, we’re talking about people who look like me. So that was very confrontational.

There were also things that I really loved and appreciated about Kentucky’s country folks. It wasn’t all about racism – often it was about who your kinfolk are.

How can we do a better job of involving students from ethnically diverse backgrounds in international experiences?

You have to involve the families. You have to go into the community and explain why this is a valuable part of their education because people think: “This is something that white students do. This isn’t for me.”

It’s also about finances. You will have to come up with some money to help people make that step. As academics we have power to leverage. I recently taught a summer school course on the condition that they pay for a student I know from Ghana to come and be my research assistant for two weeks. And they did. It changed his life. He’d never have been able to afford that on his own.

We have to create those types of opportunities. The system uses us so we have to learn how to use the system.

sara.custer@timeshighereducation.com 

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