Who are you?
My name is Lisenne Delgado. I am always in progress, I am always changing. I say this because we are going to talk about an anti-racism demonstration that was held on June 8, here in Middelburg. At the basis of the problem of racism lies the denial of the right to be human. Racism essentializes people by putting them in an inflexible category, in the category of being black. You are not seen as the constantly changing set of motives, ideas, and interests characteristic of each human being. The categorization prescribes quite vigorously what and who you are supposed to be.
How does this happen? Do people racialize you?
I may be sharing an experience and someone will immediately say, “Yes, I have this Surinamese friend who experienced the exact same thing.” So I think, uh, yes, but wait a minute — why would I be like your brown skinned Surinamese friend, who I don’t even know? I do not necessarily have a relation to Surinamese culture, what’s your point? There is this projection of assumptions about culture on me, simply because of the color of my skin and the associations triggered in somebody else’s mind. This is what we call racialization. And where racialization takes place, racism is possible.
Being black is often associated with negative things; being less capable, less important, being seen as a threat. It then translates into being seen and treated as less human, less worthy, and less equal — this is why the slogan Black Lives Matter is so important. The always changing lives in progress, with all their variety are what matters. They need to be freed from the standardized categorizations which often slide into racism.
I cannot deny that I see you as black, it is a striking feature about you. Do you see me as white?
Because I am so aware of the fact that racialization takes place, I really try my best to look at and listen to the specific person I am talking to. I don’t assume that I already know what they do, think, and are. That already makes a big difference, it helps me to not categorize someone in fixed ways.
So is racialization the reduction of someone to that one aspect of the color of their skin, and all the associations that come with it?
Exactly, and the effect can be really strong. So, for instance, people will not see me as a researcher but as a black researcher. Black is a particularly inflexible categorization. In the supermarket most people will not see me as a researcher, but they will still see me as black. I am then always seen as black. It is important that we understand that races actually do not exist. We can stop treating skin color as this inescapable categorization that triggers negative connotations. My brown skin does not have to lead you to see me as black.
So, you organized the demonstration on June 8, on the Abbey square.
Yes, we demonstrated against institutional and everyday racism. Our initiative was supported by Keti-Koti here in Middelburg. Keti-Koti is the organization that yearly celebrates the abolition of slavery in Suriname and other Dutch colonies on July 1. They connect people through dialogues around these matters. They created a Facebook event which was called, Black Lives Matter Protest. Many people responded to that, so we stuck to that name: Black Lives Matter Protest.
Just five days before the event I texted Angelique Duijnman — a member of the Vlissingen City Council — and I asked her if there was going to be any kind of demonstration in Zeeland. She said there wasn’t, and then asked: “Shall we organize something?” I said, “yes”.
There is this enormous network of people who want to bring about change. We were supported by people throughout Zeeland, the Netherlands, Curacao. Materials we used were rolled in from the demonstration in Utrecht and were later transported to the Bijlmer in Amsterdam, to be used for the next demonstration. All that support just happens, it is very powerful.
There were 800 people on the Abbey Square and several hundred that could not get in. Do you know who they were?
Keti-Koti has a real base in the community here. They brought in many people and the same goes for our speakers, who were young, inspiring, and well connected with people who know their stuff. And looking at the banners that people brought there were people with all kinds of backgrounds and motivations, it was diverse. There was a banner that read “we have a dream,” but also one that read “Tomy Holten,” a victim of police brutality here in the Netherlands. His case is still being investigated.
How does Zeeland relate to racism?
What I have learned is that many people feel that racism exists here but is quite strongly denied. Many people felt that it is important to not just protest against the situation in the US, but to bring about change in the situation in Zeeland.
What do you think about those who simply say: “It is not a problem”.
Well, open your eyes, look online, offline, read a book, and also: take a look at yourself. People who have not experienced racism tend to ask those racialized as black for examples. They want proof. And that is the strange thing: asking victims of racism to now share, publicly, experiences of this vulnerability. And then deciding if they believe the experiences that are shared. It is way too easy to say that there is no problem and to leave the burden of proof with those who experience racism. Instead I propose that everybody take a look at themselves and ask themselves: do I racialize people and do I act in racist ways?
Are there differences between the situation in the US and in Europe?
Yes, certainly. There is police brutality here as well, although probably not on the same scale. In the Netherlands we currently see that institutional racism has been put on the agenda. There is a reason why, suddenly, prime minister Rutte is talking about racism as a problem. He is changing his tone. It is important that someone in his role is acknowledging that there is a problem. Parliament — the Tweede Kamer — has recently passed a bill that actually increases powers of police officer to use violence against suspects. I hope that the Senate stops it, but I am not sure.
What about institutional racism in academia?
We all carry with us views by which we understand the world: world views. It takes courage to have a critical look at them, at the interpersonal level and at the institutional level as well. When it comes to the academic curriculum we need to take a serious look at the world views that an institution makes dominant. Textbooks, instructors, students; we are all involved here. What is as the center of our perspective? Is it Europe, the US? IS it the world as a whole? Or is there no center but simply a diversity of perspectives?
In my own research as a Ph.D. student with prof. Barbara Oomen and dr. Rose Mary Allen I am looking into questions of human rights education. If your course focuses on the French revolution, are you talking about class only? Or do you take issues of race and gender – and the ways in which they intersect – into account as well? Do you look at France solely, or do you take for example Haiti and the wider Caribbean into account as well? It was namely not only a time where power and class, but also gender and race were contested. For many it was ultimately about the question who it is that has the right to be fully human with equal say and rights.
And look at the Netherlands. Dutch history is inextricably linked with the history of Curacao, Suriname, the Dutch Indies – actually with world history. History can be approached from different perspectives. Also, being Dutch is not necessarily being ‘white’. It is so obvious, really. But in our official takes on history this is barely visible. We need structural measures to change this. It is a huge challenge and it also affects the academic world. We need to do the hard work.
I think that you are right. As an institution and as individual professors and students we should listen to this and press for change. But it is difficult. And even if you agree with the principle, as I do, I have to say that if I take an honest look at myself it is hard to get out of my comfort zone. How do I introduce new perspectives that I am not necessarily very knowledgeable about?
Well, what you saw at the demonstration is that there are so many people who stand for all these perspectives. Invite them, bring them in, organize dialogues with them. UCR is a diverse place, but the members of this community may need to listen to each other more than they do. Don’t let the dialogue be determined by the standard canon of your curriculum; discuss the canon from the many perspectives that exist. And then add to it, rebuild it from what is already there.
I like to think about it in terms of a metaphor: are you just taking someone to a dance, or are you actually going to dance with them? If you are, then you will have to genuinely engage with each other. It’s the only way to make it work.