'We win the World Cup, but the slave trade was theirs'

Nina Köll, Gary Younge and Quinsy Gario during the first Black Lives Matter @ UU debate. Photo: DUB

Only 14 people were able to witness in person the first in a series of meetings Utrecht University is set to organize about Black Lives Matter. Over a hundred more attended the event online, mainly students and employees of University College Utrecht (UCU). This first meeting was organised by UCU teachers and the team of Equality, Diversity & Inclusion.

No debate
Black Lives Matter @ UU was announced as a debate about how a university that wants to be diverse and inclusive should handle the discussion about racism. However, what we witnessed was not a debate for the guests had the same point of view about the difficult relations European countries have with their black citizens. “We consciously decided not to organise a debate,” said moderator Nina Köll, Media teacher at UCU, after the panel. “In a debate you have pros versus cons, and you can’t approach a subject in depth. We explicitly wanted the latter to happen.”

The meeting’s main question was to what extent the Black Lives Matter movement is relevant as a subject matter in Europe. “When UCU released a statement about Black Lives Matter, we were reproached for taking a stand about an issue in the United States. We anticipated accordingly, by inviting people who can show us how fundamental this issue is in Europe as well.”

Historical perspective
Gary Younge, a professor of Sociology in Manchester and former US correspondent for The Guardian, was the keynote speaker. He wrote numerous books, some of which focus on racial issues in the United States.

Younge presented a historical perspective showing that European countries have been struggling for centuries with their black citizens, who mainly come from the colonies. During the two World Wars, for example, there were many black men in the French army, but they weren’t welcome at the victory celebrations. Although America isn’t Europe, many of the mechanisms work in similar ways, said Younge.

Most contemporary Europeans know very little about what truly happened in the colonies, he added. They are proud of their history without realising how European countries exploited the people in the colonies and depleted the natural resources. “We’re here because you were there”, he said. Younge sees a certain type of hypocrisy among Europeans today. “When the national football team win the world cup, ‘we’ won. But when we’re talking about colonialism or the slave trade from the past, then we’re talking about ‘them’, like it’s something we’re not dealing with anymore.”

Personal stories
Quinsy Gario shares Younge’s stance that contemporary racism has its roots in the past. He studied both Media Studies and Gender Studies at Utrecht University, and says his views became more radical after taking courses taught by professors like Gloria Wekker. He stated that the stories we’re told by teachers and family members play an important role in our lives. Those stories can be about positive role models or negative examples which make us feel the humiliation up close. Gario also said that sometimes one has to be radical to achieve change, mentioning the protests about Black Pete (the Dutch character for the Sinterklaas holiday, often criticized for the use of blackface), for which he was arrested, as an example.

One of the questions posed by the audience was about the risk of resistance leading to violence, possibly from both sides. Both speakers condemned violence, but emphasized that doesn’t mean one cannot resist. “If there is no fight, there is no progress either,” Younge concluded. As an example, he mentioned the tearing down of statues of dubious historical figures, which he regards as a forced starting point for a conversation.

This meeting was meant to provide insight into the complex mechanisms that, consciously or unconsciously, cause racism. “What we want to achieve with these conversations is to hold up a mirror to ourselves as a university,” said Laura Coello of the workgroup Diversity & Inclusion. “The university’s mission is to contribute to a better world; that means you have to try to create a place where everyone feels welcome and safe. That doesn’t just happen by itself. We need to create space for open conversation and listen to stories that aren’t heard often, for instance about the university’s role in a racialised society, and then look at the implications that has for an inclusive university.”

The next meeting, which is set to take place in the week of November 30, will discuss the role that universities can play in this process. “We want to be a diverse, inclusive university, but how do we shape that?”. Those unable to attend the meeting in person can watch the livestream on YouTube.