Calling you racist? We’re identifying an institutional problem

Hereby I want to directly react to Job van den Broek’s opinion piece titled “I won’t be told I’m racist”. Let’s start with the title: what an incredibly privileged position it must be if racism is something you can be told about. When racism is something you get to hear about instead of something you experience, and feel, and which hurts you.

What a position of luxury to turn yourself into the victim immediately (oh, the white man isn’t allowed to say anything!) without being harshly punished for it. Without being wrapped up in the discussion of what a bad tactic “playing the victim” is, instead of discussing the issue you’ve brought up.

In the Netherlands, as Philomena Essed, Gloria Wekker, Isabel Hoving and so many others before me have shown, that there is an inability to speak about racism: there’s an inability to truly listen and absorb. That much is proven yet again.

You write about a gap that is enlarged by students’ and employees’ words: in fact, that gap has been around for years, but its existence was denied. You might only be observing that gap now, because you’re confronted with all kinds of feelings that arise when people are brave enough to share their stories. But I constantly feel that gap, as a woman of colour who’s been navigating the UU for eight years now, as student and now as teacher, too. That gap is called institutional racism. I agree that colour isn’t an interesting criterion, but again and again, I have to deal with the fact that I, and many others with me, are racialised in this society and at this institute. 

Institutional archive
I get endlessly annoyed with the white people who seem to acknowledge that racism and discrimination are genuine issues in society, and then follow that by a ‘but’ that completely undermines that acknowledgement. Something definitely changes when people of colour – especially black people – come out with their stories and experiences. It contributes to an institutional archive of resistance against racism and the awareness of racism in science.

But on an individual basis as well: it gives people like me the confirmation that I’m not alone. It gives people like me hope that there are people who are brave enough to stand for this. But also: it gives people like you valuable insight into the world of someone who’s being racialised by society, by police, by education.

Stereotypes and fears
The lesson here is to learn to listen and feel what a story like that does with you without instantly becoming defensive and standing up for an institute that structurally favours you and puts me at a disadvantage.

Because if you truly listened to the article you refer to, you’d see a life filled with anticipating racism. You’d see a constant effort to present your body as harmlessly as possible, because you have knowledge of what society, historically speaking, produces in terms of stereotypes and irrational fears. Because you know that this influences the way people treat you. In the Netherlands, we’ve been taught to see ourselves and ‘the Other’ in a certain way: the solution here is not individually overcoming stereotypes or obstacles, because as an individual, you can’t beat a system like institutional racism all by yourself. Collective recognition and institutional willingness are needed to create change. 

The entire article proves that you don’t know what racism is, let alone institutional racism. And that is objectionable. There are plenty of people in the media who’ve let their voices be heard, there are plenty of scientific publications that theorise this. There are plenty of organisations (ControleAltDelete, Black Archives) who map black resistance and instances of police brutality and other forms of racially-motivated repression. The fact that you seem unable to find them says something about the channels you frequent and the effort you put into actually learning more about the subject. The fact you’re unable to find an instance of police violence in the Netherlands speaks volumes about the effort you’ve made to explore the media landscape: otherwise, you would’ve known who Tomy Holten (in Dutch) is. The fact that this information reaches my bubble, but not yours, says a lot about how we’ve been shaped and  prepared for the world.

This shaping is a process that’s influential, but not unchangeable: even a ‘white man who’s done everything wrong’ could resist his current shaping by actually reading and learning about what racism really means. Tip: start with professor Gloria Wekker’s White Innocence.

FallaciesThe things you describe, are, in fact, characteristic of what professor Gloria Wekker calls White Innocence. The fallacies and the mindset you present are characteristics of an attitude in which we ignore the pain of racism and discrimination in favour of paying attention only to tone, form, and rhetoric. Diversions like these do nothing but delay the work that needs to be done. They can be found in your article, but also in interviews, articles and policy pieces of people who strive to make the UU a better place.

My reason for writing then has less to do with me wanting to admonish a single specific student, but more with the fact that such fallacies are all too often reproduced by students and staff in downplaying the problem. This keeps us at the surface of the issue, and it hinders highly necessary structural change.

Checkmark on a checklist
Because yes, black lives matter if we’re all posting black squares on social media, but what happens a week after that post? What happens two weeks after the post? Performative statements are easy to share and seem like a checkmark on a checklist, but how do endless debates about racism translate to action against racism? What happens in September, when the new academic year starts? How will we show our commitment to the fact that black lives matter, that black students matter, that black employees matter? How, moreover, will we show this dedication and care, when this exclusion is built into the institution and is consistently reproduced? How do we show this when we constantly allow ourselves be distracted by only striving to achieve superficial forms of diversity? Because yes: diverse influx and quotas are important, and possibly efficient, but what climate do these people then end up in? In what system do they have to survive? 

If there really, truly, is a need to bridge the gap between white and black, we will not silent texperiential experts. We address all the fallacies claiming reasons not to address institutional racism, and we grab the roots of the problem. Since the previous paragraph, I’ve intentionally been using ‘we’, because institutional change needs a large basis of support. Expressions of solidarity and commitment won’t be sufficient if the actions and policies of the UU contradict them, and if institutional change doesn’t follow. As I often advise my students: show, don’t tell.