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“Racism is not a debate, it’s a fact”

“Racism is not a debate, it’s a fact”

Photographer:Fotograaf: Logo Black Lives Matter

Students about Monday’s Black Lives Matter protest in Maastricht

Around the world, protests have been held against racism and police violence against black people and people of colour the past few days. These were prompted by the death of George Floyd in the USA, who died after having been held down with a policeman’s knee on his neck for nearly nine minutes. In Maastricht too, some two hundred people gathered to give support to the Black Lives Matter movement. Observant spoke with a few students who were there.

Diane Ngatchou, a Belgian second-year student of European Studies, was pleased to see the Market filling up (with proper distance to each other) on Monday. “I wasn’t expecting so many people. Earlier that day, I had posted about the protest in a couple of Facebook groups and I got some upsetting responses. People who said racism doesn’t exist in Europe and how there is no such thing as white privilege here. That’s not the reaction I expected from students, who are supposed to be educated. Denying racism and white privilege is racism. Monday’s turnout gave me hope again.”

She feels it’s important to show support to the protestors in the United States, but also to remind people that racism occurs in the Netherlands as well. “I came because I wanted to listen to people share their stories and to share my own. In many ways, I’m privileged too – yes, I’m a black woman, but I come from a privileged background. I can use my privileged voice to give a voice to others who didn’t have the opportunity to be educated and find a stage, like I have.”

Maastricht University could do better, she feels. “We always read the same authors: white men. There is a lack of diversity there. And whenever we touch upon topics like colonialization, the only point of view we study is the centralized European one. Now, I know it’s called European Studies, but especially a topic like that could be looked at from different perspectives.”

She would also like to see more people of colour represented in boards and councils. “The lack of diversity within the boards and councils makes it more difficult to place these issues on the agenda.”

Everyone against racists

Leroy Kabangu, a Dutch third-year student of Law, also attended the demonstration last Monday. “I kind of felt obliged to go.” After work, he quickly made his way to the Market to show his support. “It was a peaceful event. Everyone was able to quietly present his or her points of view. There were people with all kinds of backgrounds: dark, white, Asian, Arabian. It wasn’t black against white, but everyone against racists. I felt solidarity, a nice thing to experience.”

Of course, it’s not as bad here as it is in the US, but the police in the Netherlands also discriminate, says Kabangu, who was born and bred in Limburg. He forwards a video of a Dutch policeman who addresses a number of dark youths late at night: ‘Men like you don’t go for a walk when it’s 29 degrees.’ He feels affected by such videos. “The feeling that you’re rated inferior to some extent, that you are different.” He experiences it regularly. For example, when he bought a car in Roermond a little while back. “I had contacted the dealer by phone. He said he would collect me from the station. ‘This is not what I had expected,’ he said when I opened the door of the car. That’s when you feel different, not like the standard. It gives you the feeling that you always have to prove yourself that you are not like the (unjustified) stereotype of a dark man.”

Kabangu believes that the solution is primarily with people at home, in their upbringing. “Parents should teach their children that there are different kinds of people, with different backgrounds, and that one is not better than the other. In other words: that it’s not bad to be different. Equal treatment is the only thing that dark people ask for.”

A feeling of not belonging

“For the first time, I felt like something is happening, like people were listening,” says Zahra Benasri, a Belgium second-year student of European Studies, about Monday’s protest. “Often, stories about racism are personal testimonies and some people seem to think they’re up for debate. But racism is not a debate, it’s a fact. And for me – even though as a light-coloured person I’m privileged in my own way – racism is my life. Going to the protest on Monday was not just important to me, it was a necessity.”

Coming to Maastricht University was in some ways a warm bath for Benasri. “Finally, people introduced me as coming from Belgium, instead of asking where my roots lay. Also for the first time in my life, I had a black teacher, although granted, it was only one. I got to experience an international atmosphere, but I’m also aware that it’s a bubble.”

And even in the bubble, improvements could be made. “On the flyer of my study programme, there is a black student, but I don’t see them in the lecture halls. I’m still very much a minority. Over time, you find out that ‘international’ means mostly white European. As a university, you must talk to people of colour, target them in your marketing. Diversity is not just a picture on a flyer. I don’t recognize myself in the course material. In my readings, I only find the dominant white perspective. I don’t recognize myself in the teachers. When a white person is talking to a group, they are – subconsciously or not –talking to other white people. This kind of thing makes me feel like I don’t belong, make me doubt my competence.”

And then there are they well-meaning, but unfortunate comments. “People tell me they love me for who I am, that they don’t care what colour my skin is. But my skin colour is part of me, of my identity. If you truly love me for who I am, you recognize that.”

Keep the discussion going

“I didn't feel I was doing enough to combat racism, even though I am a mixed person and a person of colour myself," says Carole Bangoura, a Belgian second-year student of European Studies. She made posters with a friend and left for the Market on Monday evening, where she arrived as one of the first protesters. “It is important to show your support and organize meetings like this. This way you meet new people and you can start the conversation. Racism has been a taboo for too long.”

Bangoura is positive about the protest. Not only was it peaceful, but she had never seen so many people of colour in one place in Maastricht. “Almost everyone followed the rules. I was at the very front and saw that many participants wore face masks. It was well organized, especially when you consider that the idea had only come up a day earlier.”

The protests have also created a stir online; “You can now see that people are making themselves heard on social media. It is everywhere, you cannot escape it anymore. I think media interest will decline again after a few weeks, but I hope we can keep the discussion going. We can finally talk about it: not just about police brutality in the United States, but about racism in general. It opens the door to discussing other problems, such as discrimination at school, work, stereotypes and blackface.”

Cleo Freriks, Yuri Meesen and Lieve Smeets

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