Persistent prejudices: how students and lecturers of colour are being excluded
Today is the international day against racism and discrimination. Leiden students and staff also still face prejudice and hurtful comments. ‘They don't understand that I belong here.’
Elena van der Klok
Monday 25 March 2024
Photo Taco van der Eb


 ‘I’m like a coconut’, says Ruchi van Zoelen, bachelor's student in international relations. ‘Brown on the outside and white on the inside.’

When she was two years old, she was adopted from India. ‘I’ve always known about that, of course; my parents are literally white. It’s never been something I’ve been ashamed of either. People used to say: “Oh, how sad.” But I don’t feel sad at all.’

Van Zoelen is very open about her background. ‘People ask a lot of questions and I don’t mind. It’s often the way they ask these questions that gets to me. For example: “Who are your real parents?” That can be hurtful. Of course I know what you mean, but it's a very awkward way to put it.’

Students at the university also make offensive remarks sometimes. ‘Once, someone asked: “Are there many people of colour in Leiden?” Someone else replied: “The people of colour I know don’t really count because they’re adopted or Asian.” ‘He looked straight at me and my Chinese friend when he said that. I thought that was a very peculiar comment to make. He believes that if you’re adopted, you can’t experience discrimination or racism. That is, of course, total nonsense.’

Van Zoelen finds herself falling between the cracks and being excluded. ‘Internationals are always very happy when they see me, because they think: hey, it’s someone of colour. But as soon as I say I’m Dutch, they immediately lose interest. That really hurts. Apparently, I’m only interesting if I am the whole package. My skin colour isn’t enough.’

Foto Taco van der Eb

At her step-grandfather’s funeral, she was overlooked. ‘Because of my skin colour, many of the older people didn’t realise I was the granddaughter. They didn’t understand that I belong in the family. That hit me pretty hard.’

So back home in Hengelo, Van Zoelen stands out because of her skin colour, but the same is true in Leiden. ‘For example, I’m a member of student association Dinsdag Avond Club, where I hardly see any people of colour. At one point, a black guy even came up to me and said: “Oh my god, finally someone with a foreign background”.’

And so, she says there is ‘a lot of work to be done’, also at the university. ‘My foreign friends and I actually haven’t noticed at all that the university is actively working on inclusivity.

‘The university did make a video on micro-aggressions last year. I think that is helpful. That way, you explain what they are. But many comments under that video were things like: “What a fuss over nothing.” That immediately showed why such a video is necessary.’

Photo Taco van der Eb


 ‘Someone told me: “You don’t understand any of this. You’ve been brainwashed by the Chinese government”’, recounts Yubo Guan. She is originally from Beijing, and is now doing a master’s in Asian studies at Leiden University.

Guan explains that during her lectures, Xinjiang is sometimes brought up, a region in Northwestern China where the Uyghur Muslim minority is oppressed. ‘But according to fellow students, I'm not allowed to have an opinion on this. They say the Chinese state controls the social media I use. This would prevent me from seeing the bigger picture.’

Guan was already worried about these kinds of reactions before she came to the Netherlands for her studies. ‘I decided to pursue my studies here precisely because I’m interested in the Western perspective: that’s also why I studied political science before this. But China has a negative public image at the moment. Many people have issues with the country. So sometimes I feel bad when I want to support my country.’

On the subject of Xinjiang, she would like to say the following to her fellow students: ‘The Chinese government isn’t treating us well either. You can’t choose to only support the Uyghur minority and not care about the Han Chinese who are also being oppressed. But now that I get these types of reactions, I don’t want to share my opinion anymore.’

‘I feel like people prefer to interact with Koreans or Japanese. Chinese people are all thought to be communists’

The prejudice students hold about Chinese people carries over into Guan’s daily life. ‘I feel like people prefer to interact with Koreans or Japanese. They are seen as more liberal than Chinese people. We are all thought to be communists.’

She has also been excluded by professors at times. ‘When I did my pre-master in Leiden, there were some moments when I felt uncomfortable. For example, during the Regionalism in Asia course. I was the only non-Dutch student in that class. The lectures were held in English but during the break, the professor would continue to talk; in Dutch. This irritated me and I felt really excluded.’

Fortunately, she found support with her classmates. ‘A friend then translated everything for me. That was very helpful.’

Guan also sees racism around her, in various forms. ‘I heard from friends that a student had said he was taking Japanese culture courses so he could marry a Japanese woman later. That felt wrong to me. That’s viewing people as objects and not respecting them as individuals. Sure, you may think Japanese women are cute, but isn't that just some kind of yellow fever?’

Photo Taco van der Eb


‘One day, someone shouted “LeBron!” at me. I don't know if it was because of the sneakers I was wearing that this person thought I was the LA Lakers basketball player, but it was a little strange. My response was: “Okay?” Ivan Simson-Kent, assistant professor in developmental and educational psychology, is African-American ‘mixed with a little Chinese and Spanish’ and hails from West Philadelphia. ‘West Philly is relatively diverse. It consists of about 44 percent black people, 44 percent white people. The rest are Latino, Chinese or something else.’

till, Simpson-Kent is used to a very white environment. ‘I went to a predominantly white high school and rather white universities. And Leiden is also very white.’

But according to him, this does not necessarily mean that West Philadelphia is more diverse than Leiden. ‘I think too many people interpret diversity as the way you look or where you come from. But it’s also a mindset. Some black people become bankers and then start thinking like all bankers. So it’s not just your background that counts.

‘How much are you willing to sacrifice to show that it really matters to you?’

Simpson-Kent sees that Leiden University values diversity. But whether the university actually understands what diversity means is questionable. ‘It’s easy to say you care about something, but are you actually doing something about it? How much are you willing to sacrifice to show that it really matters to you?

‘For example, I could post #feminism on my Instagram and organise events around feminism. But how do you know how feminist I actually am? How much did I really do to make someone’s life better? Have I had conversations with women about feminism, for example?’

According to the assistant professor, diversity comes with a lot of discomfort. ‘Diversity means that you’ll have to be around people who have very different views from you. If too many people do the same thing or think in the same way, there can be no progress.’

We need to be able to interact with each other without any prejudice. ‘It doesn't matter who or what you are: professor, PhD candidate, student or janitor. You’re a human being and that’s what matters, so that’s how we should treat each other. That’s what I’d like to see.’