News and events Tilburg University

Humanity Has to Stand up against Racism

Published: 08th June 2020 Last updated: 29th June 2020

The whole world has rallied against the murder of George Floyd by the American police. It is not the first time that a black man has been killed by the police in the USA but this time it has caused world-wide unrest. Outraged protesters from all around the globe continue to rally against racism and police brutality. Why is the reaction so wide-spread and so fierce this time? Op-ed by Prof. Kutlay Yagmur of the Tilburg School of Humanities and Digital Sciences.

Thousands of Dutch people gathered on June 1st on Dam Square in Amsterdam, as did tens of thousands everywhere in Europe to protest against racism and discrimination. Many peaceful protests followed in multiple Dutch cities, including Tilburg, despite the corona measures. Apparently, the pain people felt for the murder of George Floyd was greater than their fear of Covid-19.  They stood up against the brutal killing of a black man in broad daylight. This blunt racist crime against an African American triggered an unprecedented reaction all over the world. Why was there such a reaction this time? Is it the collective human conscience that is deeply hurt? Is it the deeply rooted value of ‘justice for all’ sensitivity which triggered these global reactions? However, the most important question is whether these reactions can manage to keep the momentum of the protests going once press coverage begins to wane. I will come back to this question at the end of this article.

Institutions need to revise and change their policies

As a scholar who teaches intercultural communication to young University students, I hope that political parties, policy makers, and educational institutions derive the most relevant messages from the George Floyd incident. We should not delude ourselves. The murder of G. Floyd is an outcome of centuries of institutionalized and structural racism and discrimination. If humanity wants to deal with this severe problem, institutions need to revise and change their policies. We cannot get rid of the overwhelming historical burden of slavery and colonialism, but the world has changed, and diversity is a demographic and political phenomenon that we have to come to terms with.

It is promising to see that the Dutch media urge relevant institutions to deal with racism in Dutch society as well. The fact that some other countries, for instance, the USA and South Africa, experience substantially more consequences of racism than we do in the Netherlands should not stop us from questioning the problems and practices in the Netherlands. Research has shown that many non-native Dutch people feel discriminated against. We cannot bring the issue of racial discrimination down to the “Black Piet” tradition. For some people, it is just a tradition, extending back hundreds of years, that has no racial implications. However, for other people, it is pure racial discrimination based on skin color. One of the positive outcomes of this social debate is the awareness it has raised in our Prime Minister, Mark Rutte. He has accepted the sensitivities “Black Piet” has for many thousands of Dutch nationals. The Dutch government needs to use this new societal awareness to combat explicit and implicit forms of racism and discrimination in Dutch institutions. Several politicians (for instance, Boris Dittrich, D66, or Femke Halsema) have been pointing out the need for more egalitarian treatment of people from non-native Dutch heritage. Yet, it is unfortunate that some populist politicians try to gain more votes by sowing ethnic and racial hatred in the society. The Dutch justice system has to take strong measures against the spread of hate based on language, religion, or sexual orientation, or ethnic or racial identity. Let us also remember to fight against discrimination against handicapped people, who are subject to growing institutional discrimination.

Implicit racism

It is a well-known fact that people with a non-Dutch name are not even invited to job interviews. Many Dutch-born students with an immigration background cannot even find companies for their compulsory internships. School achievement issues are coupled with the ethnic heritage of the students. The negative presentation of certain groups in the media shapes public opinion and legitimizes the discriminatory behavior of companies and institutions. These explicit issues can be dealt with by appropriate policy measures. However, a more difficult dimension is the implicit racial discrimination deeply embedded in people’s minds. Despite the issue of systemic inequalities in society, education is one of the important instruments to combat racism and discrimination. Young minds are shaped in the school years. The Netherlands has come a long way and has considerably revised school textbooks. The present day Netherlands is far advanced compared to the Netherlands of the 1980s and 1990s, sketched by Teun van Dijk in Elite Discourse and Racism (1993).

Hope for more constructive and open discussions

The Netherlands cannot be compared to countries like South Africa or the United States of America regarding racial discrimination. Historically, Dutch universities have taken the most decisive stand against apartheid in South Africa. However, in the Dutch context, we have one serious problem: it is not always possible to talk about racial discrimination in the Netherlands. People easily get defensive and the feeling of being attacked dominates the discussions. Mark Rutte actually took an important step to admit that we need to deal with our societal problems. This gives me hope for more constructive and open discussions to combat institutional racism and discrimination such as ethnic profiling, not only in the police and by the tax authorities but also in educational institutions.

I do not want to end my short opinion paper on a negative note but as a scholar I would like to remind us all of another incident that hurt the consciences of many millions of Europeans, as a result of which doors were opened for Syrian asylum seekers. One single image of a baby boy, Aylan Kurdi, stopped all the political arguments against the refugees heading to Europe.

It was these images that struck the European hearts and minds. It was just a child, an innocent, fleeing the mass killings in Syria, drowned in the Aegean Sea. For weeks, it made many millions cry over this image. It had a deep impact on our collective conscience. Apart from some committed people in Europe, the general public do not remember these heart-breaking images now.

Due to the death of George Floyd, we now have a renewed sensitivity against racism and discrimination. Dutch society with all its institutions needs to take the necessary measures to fight against all kinds of racism and discrimination. We must NOT forget this crucial societal problem after just a few weeks.

I personally believe that, as Tilburg University, we are an organization that has always stood up against racism and discrimination. Equal rights and equal treatment in employment as well as in education are the basis of our identity. In my classes on Intercultural Communication, we discuss racism and discrimination as a barrier to successful intergroup relations and communication. All the Dutch institutions need to take measures to combat racism and discrimination so that our future is not threatened by unnecessary conflicts and divisions. Finally, it is time that we adopt non-racial discourse and eliminate racist and discriminatory elements in our language use. Instead of discussing the outcomes of racism and discrimination, we need to combat the causes of such behavior.

Dr. Kutlay Yagmur, Professor of Language, Identity & Education