Racism: a daily reality
March 21 is International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination. We spoke to Leiden University’s Diversity Officer, Aya Ezawa, and asked her how we can combat racism and discrimination.
Why is International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination important?
‘Days like this are the chance to focus our attention on racism, a topic that many people find difficult. This is because it is associated with feelings of discomfort and tension. But people face racism on a daily basis, which makes more knowledge and awareness of racism important. Then people can learn how to discuss it with others. If you don’t know what it is, it is very difficult to talk about, see and address it.’
What is racism?
‘Racism is found at all levels of society, at both the institional and individual level. It is a system and ideology that distinguishes between people based on their appearance, and creates a hierarchy in which people are considered to be worth or capable of more or judged positively according to their skin colour. It links your appearance to your personality, knowledge and skills, and this can have a negative impact. If, for example, someone’s appearance means you wouldn’t expect them to be a student, manager or professor or to be reliable or clever, you will treat them differently – both consciously and unconsciously.’
‘Racism links your appearance to your personality, knowledge and skills, and this can have a negative impact.’
What is the role of racism in everyday life?
‘It plays a big role, also because it is often in the small things. The apparently innocent question of “Where do you come from?”, for instance, is sensitive to many people. It implies that the person being asked wasn’t born in the Netherlands and cannot be Dutch. If they actually were born in the Netherlands, it is hurtful. A good test is always: do you ask everyone this question or do you only ask it in certain situations or to people with a specific appearance, people you couldn’t imagine being Dutch? If it is the latter, then it’s better not to ask the question in the first place.’
What is the role of universities in combatting racism?
‘Universities have an important role in combatting racism. It is their responsibility to provide a safe work and study environment for students and staff. What happens in everyday life has an impact in the longer term and can mean that people end up leaving because they do not feel safe. This means there are steps we can take as a community and organisation to ensure that everyone feels as though they belong and can be themselves, in both the teaching and work environments. It starts with not talking about “others” but by realising that everyone should feel they are an equal member of the University’s learning and working community.
‘What happens in everyday life has an impact in the longer term and can mean that people end up leaving because they do not feel safe.’
Do you have any tips?
‘Follow training for students and staff on racial/unconscious bias or discrimination (see Expertise Office training offering). Also consider conversation training that focuses more on techniques: people often don’t know how to handle these kinds of conversation because they feel uncomfortable and are scared of saying the wrong thing.
‘Most important of all is to to be open to learning new things, to switch off your defence mechanisms and to avoid placing the responsibility on those who experience racism and discrimination. Read up on the matter and be proactive by asking questions, offering support and speaking up when you encounter assumptions, prejudices and unequal treatment.’