Dutch people like to consider themselves as tolerant because of the gay rights, and the existence of coffee shops that sell drugs that are illegal in other countries. They are proud of the right to freedom of religion and the right to freedom of speech. It is exactly that right to freedom of speech I will exercise now to speak out loudly that in reality, Dutch people are not as tolerant as they would like to believe.
Racism still exists here in the Netherlands and in Leiden. I am talking about the racism that believes that one group of people is better than the other group. And believes that the so-called “better” group should dominate, abuse and exclude the other group. The objects of this racism are Eastern-European and non-European people. People that look like me, for example. People that don’t have light skin, blond hair and blue eyes.
Every time I meet someone new, the first thing they ask me is: “Where are you from?” When I say I am Dutch, other Dutch people get confused, and say that this is not possible. I was born and raised in the Netherlands, I have the Dutch nationality, I speak Dutch, I eat bread with cheese or ‘hagelslag’ for lunch, I ride a bike, I pay taxes in the Netherlands, and still I have to prove and explain how I can be Dutch. Apparently people in the Netherlands think that people of color cannot be Dutch.
When will people start to accept that being Dutch does not mean you have to look a certain way? When will people stop automatically assuming that people that don’t look like themselves are different, or even less than them?
In particular people of Turkish, Moroccan, Surinamese, Antillean, Indian, Indonesian and Chinese descent are still constantly being discriminated against in all aspects of life in the Netherlands. A quick Google search for discrimination cases in the Netherlands will show you many examples of people being refused for jobs or internships because they are black.
An incident that stands out was when football coach Marco van Basten yelled out a Nazi salute on TV when he thought his microphone was off, just after many football clubs held a moment of silence as a protest against racism. He apologized by saying that what he said was just a joke. I think this incident clearly demonstrates that there are still racist sentiments alive among our society. Dutch people like to act as if these incidents are just a joke and that people that take offense are just being too sensitive. Constantly insulting certain groups of people is not a joke. Treating people differently because of their ethnicity and persistent prejudices is not a joke. It is racism.
Racism also exists within the universities, even this university. During my bachelor and master studies at Leiden University, within the Leiden Institute of Chemistry, I noticed that Asian students received lower grades from certain professors. Hands raised for questions from certain non-European students were ignored. There was even a course in which all the female students got a much lower grade than the male students from the same professor.
During my own research internship within the Leiden Institute of Chemistry I witnessed students from China within the research group being mocked and ridiculed relentlessly by other students and even university staff members. This was done because their command of the English language was less than their command of Mandarin.
‘Student number two’
Indian students were picked on and mocked for their accents when they spoke English. Certain people believed they were better than the others and that this gave them the right to use certain equipment in the laboratory before them.
Certain people refused to use the names of other students and called them things like ‘student number one’ or ‘student number two’. This type of behavior is not only racist but also dehumanizing. It has an effect on the mental and emotional well-being of the victims. It is unreasonable to expect people to be immune to this.
In addition, there is abuse of power here, and people get away with displaying improper behavior because almost no one reports it. And when something is reported this is ignored by the university. People, regardless of their position, must be held accountable for their behavior and face the consequences of their behavior. Appropriate disciplinary measures must be taken for behavior that is in violation of Dutch laws and regulations.
But because the current system within the university is not independent, cases of abuse are not all reported and toxic working atmospheres are maintained. Students feel compelled to remain burdened with the abuse that they endure during their internship and work because of the fear culture that prevails within many research groups.
Ignored, mocked and threatened
There is a lack of trust to report these incidents without incurring negative consequences, because there is always somebody from their own research group involved. Reporting can therefore have a negative influence on their assessment, grade, references and even future employment.
When I tried to say something about the way I was treated, I was ignored, mocked and even threatened to be kicked out from my research project. Even the Leiden University diversity officer advised me not to formally report the incidents I experienced during my internship because my grade could be negatively affected.
Leiden University has a policy for diversity and inclusion, but the diversity and inclusion end on paper. Look around: the diversity in our society is not reflected in audiences at university events, staff members or even in our classes. This shows that there are still systems in place that select for certain people while excluding others.
To change this I think it would be good if all Leiden University employees who work with students within an unequal balance of power are required to take courses on ethics, inclusiveness, intercultural communication and non-violent communication, so that other students do not have to experience this kind of behavior in the future. By training staff members on the signs and forms of discrimination, the next generation of students can finally have a fair chance of studying and becoming all they are capable of without being held back by prejudices.
Also, the systems within the university that inadvertently exclude certain groups of people need to be reviewed and adjusted. A simple example of this are events organized by the university that are held in Dutch, thereby excluding international students and employees. This is also the reason I wrote this piece in English: so everybody can understand it.
Our motto is ‘Praesidium Libertatis’ which translates to ‘Bastion of Freedom’. However, this Leiden University bastion does not provide freedom for all its students and employees. People that look, speak, and think differently from the dominant group are still discriminated against within the university. The first step to change is to acknowledge the problem. We need to stop acting like these things do not happen, and we need to stop pretending like everything is fine.
Hopefully, this protest speech has opened your eyes so you will be aware of racism in everyday life. I hope I have inspired you to take a stand against discrimination when you see it, and you can increase your self-awareness and examine your own prejudices, so you will start including people and treating them as human beings. A better society starts with you.
Nancy Kirolos studies life science and technology in Leiden
This is a shortened version of the protest speech which she gave last Thursday in remembrance of prof. dr. Rudolph Cleveringa (1894-1980), who during World War II protested against the dismissal of his Jewish colleagues.