University
.

'Groningen is really white' revisited

This is the time to listen

Last year, an article about the lack of diversity at the UG unleashed a tidal wave of negative and often racist comments. Since then, the anti-racism movement has gained a lot of momentum. How do the people UKrant spoke to in 2019 feel about what’s happening in the world now?
By Giulia Fabrizi and Yelena Kilina / Photos by Felipe Silva

630. That’s how many comments the UKrant article ‘Lonely is the best way to describe it’ attracted. They were mostly negative, ranging from mild annoyance to outright rage. In the end, we decided to close the comments section.

In February of 2019, the UG was about to celebrate its 405th birthday, using the theme ‘All Inclusive’. At UKrant, we wondered how inclusive the university truly was, or at least how inclusive members of the UG community perceived it to be. We spoke to a number of people of colour about their experiences with diversity.

Those who commented were upset with the Dutch heading of the article – ‘Groningen is just really, really white’ – or thought the experiences shared by the interviewees were overblown. Just because there are more white people in Groningen, some commented, doesn’t mean that’s incontrovertible proof racism or oppression. To show just how negative the response was, we published the comments in a separate article

Black Lives Matter

A little over a year later, the death of George Floyd has sparked protests against racism all over the US and Europe. People of all colours gathered in droves. On June 2, the Grote Markt was filled with more than a thousand people supporting the Black Lives Matter movement. It sparked a conversation in the Netherlands about racism that is still ongoing. 

This apparent change in attitude in Groningen left us wondering: how are the people we interviewed last year doing now? How did they deal with the backlash to the article? Did it change their attitude towards speaking out about their experiences? Did people around them change? Do they think the current momentum may be the final push needed to truly fight institutional racism?

We reached out to all five interviewees from the original article. Not all of them were willing to speak to us again, or had time to do so. Some felt they should not be a spokesperson for Black Lives Matter, as they are not black themselves. Two of the interviewees did want to follow-up with us, however. These are their accounts.

Saikat Chatterjee

Howrah, India

Postdoctoral researcher, Faculty of Science and Engineering

Saikat Chatterjee

Howrah, India

Postdoctoral researcher, Faculty of Science and Engineering

Saikat Chatterjee

‘I sometimes feel we delude the world in academia’

‘I felt bad at first, seeing so many negative comments below the article. My own words were positive and I had expected people to be more open-minded. It didn’t help that my photo was next to the [Dutch] headline quote. It wasn’t me who said that “Groningen was very, very white”. But then I brushed it off. Some people probably felt they had to defend their country. That’s up to them. 

Some people asked me whether I really thought they are racists. When I pointed out some discriminatory incidents, I didn’t label the whole country racist. I just believe that if you live in such a liberal country as the Netherlands, you need to be self-critical. We can do much better and be an example to other countries.

I’m sure that people have become much more aware of discrimination since last year. They’ve started speaking out against it and I think the anti-discriminatory movement has a real following. If it continues this way, a big change will happen in society.

For example, there are discussions not only about Zwarte Piet, but also about the Golden Chariot that traditionally carries the Dutch royal couple on special occasions. The walls of the old chariot are painted with racist pictures of colonised people; for instance, a white lady surrounded by black slaves. Finally, people are saying that displaying such images is not acceptable in the 21st century. We cannot change history, so the point is that the rhetorics that reflect the disgraceful past shouldn’t continue and these artefacts shouldn’t be glorified.

A few weeks ago, I joined the Grote Markt demonstration to protest against any form of discrimination. For me, it’s not only about skin colour. Discrimination happens on the grounds of race, gender, disability and also at every level of society. With this movement, we must address any form of discrimination or othering. 

I work in the astronomy department, which is quite diverse. After the article was published, some co-workers approached me about my comment on the lack of ethnic and gender diversity in the hiring process of the university. But I was talking about the whole university. There are internationals in the humanities departments, for instance, who didn’t expect the framework and the academic thought processes here to be so Eurocentric. I have even met a few people from Eastern Europe who find it difficult to fit into the structure here.

It’s slowly changing, but it takes time to rethink everything in a post-colonial way. Academia should be connected to the real world. With our knowledge, we are supposed to reveal truth about the world, but sometimes I feel that we delude people about it instead. 

I believe we need to de-centre our perspectives about history and everything that we know. This is the time to listen to other people’s stories. Are we ready to hear them? I believe this wave is just the beginning and there are more changes on the way.’

Abdul Erumban

Kerala, India

Assistant professor, Faculty of Economics and Business

Abdul Erumban

Kerala, India

Assistant professor, Faculty of Economics and Business

Abdul Erumban

‘Racism is a virus that’s hard to eliminate with a vaccine’

‘I know there were some general negative remarks to the last article, but I didn’t worry too much about those. I didn’t personally get any negative reactions from anyone. In fact, a few responses I got were even positive. For instance, two of my Dutch students came to my office and said they were quite happy that I shared my thoughts. It helped them broaden their perspectives about life inside and outside the university. That made me feel more confident that you should share your experiences.

I think more people around me look at things in an inclusive way, rather than a discriminating one. I haven’t had a single negative experience with my colleagues at the faculty, for instance. I have plenty of positive experiences to share. 

Of course, it’s always difficult to make people see you in the way you would like to. You can look at me any way you want. For instance, I am an agnostic, but nobody looks at me that way, they read me by my name. You can have multiple identities, but how others see you is a matter of their discovery, rather than your choice. However, as the Nobel Laureate economist Amartya Sen once observed, I believe that it is my choice what significance to attach to the different identities I have. That’s why I tackle people’s attitudes.

Right now, the world is fighting the coronavirus and we may succeed, perhaps with the invention of a vaccine. But racism and communalism are more chronic pandemics that affect the world more adversely. It’s a virus that is hard to eliminate with a vaccine. 

But this recent revolution changed my perception of the so-called ‘Generation Z’ who grew up with the internet. I was always concerned that this generation didn’t have as much social consciousness and cared less for their fellow human beings, because they are too addicted to technology. But I was utterly wrong. They lead these struggles and most of them are not even thirty years old. 
They come out and protest. They stay united, no matter what race, religion, or gender they are. They convey to the old generation that we are not apolitical; they’re saying: we are aware of the causes and consequences of what you are doing. Their tears, their anger, and their passion create confidence that they are capable of destroying the societal evils. It will indeed bring change, I am optimistic. But it may take time.’

Nederlands