Tackling racism and discrimination at VUB: will actions speak as loud as words?

In early July, VUB issued an open call for a dialogue concerning racism and discrimination on our campus. Now that conversations have been wrapped up, the Equality Team is using the response from the discussions to start up new, reinforcing actions. The question remains whether the university took their introspection far enough to put their house in order.

Text: Felien Dekorte
Translation: Lupé Van Rijmenant
Images: Gerson Graça Ntiti

It is June 2 and social media platforms are flooded with plain black squares. Blackout Tuesday was an initiative that intended to overwhelm everyone’s feed with black squares to draw attention to police brutality, racism and dicrimination against the black population. VUB did not want to stay behind and decided to show their students and employees of colour that the university supports them in their battle against racism. At least that was what the Marketing and Communication team intended, according to VUB-spokesman Sicco Wittermans, when they changed the Facebook and Twitter cover photos from ‘Welcome back’ to ‘Welcome B(l)ack’. 

“Ironically, this stunt showed just how much our university struggles with representation”, said Rita Afonso, VUB master-student Interpreting (Dutch-English). “If there would have been anyone with a migration background in this team, or if anyone with said background would have seen this, the post would have never seen the light of day.” Rita felt like she had no other choice than to react underneath the Facebookpost: “I explained how wrong and offensive the ‘Welcome B(l)ack’ image was. And I was far from the only one”. 

After an initial reaction of incomprehension and the quick deletion of the posts, came a real and reasoned response: rector Caroline Pauwels released a statement inviting the VUB-community to a dialogue about racism and discrimination. Without hesitation Rita grabbed her chance and contacted the Equality Team. Now, a couple of weeks later, Rita shares with de Moeial, screen-to-screen, the impression the dialogues and the other actions left on her. “Here I was, thinking: finally, a step in the right direction”. 

Safety First

Even though the email invitation to the dialogue was sent to the entire VUB-community, the message was mostly meant for students and employees that face racism themselves. “They were our main focus group”, says Nellie Konijnendijk, who works for the Equality Team.. “However, other people who wanted to make a contribution were also more than welcome to contact us.” A decision that made Rita frown. “It sounds a bit off, no? People who want to partake in a conversation about something that has never affected them, something they do not really know? Just imagine us language students coming together to talk about biology, for example. Sounds like a recipe for disaster.”

This is why the Equality Team decided to host multiple discussions. “There was a live conversation, where a group of students and employees who have faced racism got split up into groups for some time, before reuniting later that day. We wanted to guarantee a safe space for everyone: a place where they could talk about racism and discrimination without constraints.” Altogether, 45 students and employees came and shared their ideas and experiences. “Writer and opinion maker Dalilla Hermans moderated the discussion, and enthusiastically participated in creating our dialogue.”

“What about professors with a migration background? Where are those numbers?”

Rita Afonso

A couple of  days later followed a second, online meeting. “This one was meant for people who do not experience racism or for those who do, but also wanted to initiate a joint meeting”, Konijnendijk indicates. “We reported on what had been discussed on the first day and probed for ideas or questions.” Allowing the presence of people who do not experience racism was a deliberate decision. “A lot of students preferred having a joint discussion. Don’t get me wrong: the Equality Team can handle and is always in need of critique. But in our view, the white majority has a role to play in solving the problem, and has to play a part in constructing a solution. In this manner we want to avoid having all the responsibility lay with those who suffer from racism.”

VUB and diversity : expectations versus reality

The day of the meeting Rita felt she had found what she had been missing since starting school, even on our Brussels-based campus: “Familiar faces”, she sighs. “I was flooded with relief when I saw I was surrounded by people with whom I could speak about racism in an open and honest way. Before that day, I had never found a safe place as such: not at student organisations, nor at the contact point (where you can report transgressive behaviour, red.). Even the student psychologists or the Equality Team could not offer a safe haven . There is always that anxiety, a fear to be met by incomprehension, because there is no one who shares those experiences with you.”

The absence of people who aren not white in daily life at VUB, was a much discussed theme during the dialogue. “The university enjoys an image of inclusion and diversity, but the institute does not always feel that way for many students”, says Konijnendijk. “Certain groups miss representation and are in desperate need of it.” Students who, just like Rita, chose to study at VUB because of its image, indicated that they ended up feeling betrayed. “I came to Brussels for a reason. Everyday, I see myself represented on the street. In the five years that I have been living here, I have never experienced rude comments about my skin colour.”

“We know there is still progress to be made. The dialogue does not end here.”

Nellie Konijnendijk

Rita kept the same expectations for the VUB-village in Etterbeek. She, like many others, had hoped to encounter a miniature version of the Brussels society. What she noticed however, is no more than a botched version. “Agreed, there is a noticeable influx of students with a migration background, but how many of them actually graduate?” To support the argument, Rita involves the numbers concerning equality at VUB. “The first equality action plan mostly talked about gender inequality. The university committed to hire and promote women and they obviously succeeded. But what do you notice when you pay close attention?” A charged silence. “These are all white women. What about professors and employees with a migration background? Where are those numbers?”

Those numbers do  not exist. Not because of the obstinacy of the university, according to Konijnendijk, but because of Belgian legislation. “There is a law that prohibits certain things: we are not allowed to ask whether our employees have a migration background. These laws were enforced to protect people and to prevent discrimination, but on the other hand, numbers are important to see whether you are making progress are not, whether your actions have meaningful consequences.” Konijnendijk mentions that other universities are also bothered by the legislation and consequently administrations are looking into a legal manner to gather and work with anonymized numbers. “We all notice the underrepresentation of certain groups. Those numbers are necessary for this debate.”

BLM protest brussel

© Gerson Graça Ntiti

Planning Equality

The absence of numbers is no reason for Konijnendijk to hang her head in shame. “When you compare VUB with the other Flemish universities, we have a larger representation of students with a migration background. Rector Caroline Pauwels deems this theme very important and VUB harbors a huge willpower to make things better.” She refers to the first equality action plan, drawn up in 2018. “Many of those actions have been completed and the results will be communicated very soon. We are looking into different ways of spreading our vacancies on a larger scale, so we can represent the typical, Brussels’ diversity in our staff. And we are organizing workshops concerning implicit bias in the workplace.”

The equality action plan may have been around for quite a while already, actual equality remains a challenge for the university. Not only the cause for, but also the dialogue itself, has made this painfully clear. Starting from their own, personal experiences, participants put forward different ways of reinforcing the existing plan. “This is how the specific need for training around racial bias came up”, Konijnendijk says. An idea that can count on the full support of Rita. “Me and many others have experienced such bias. It has happened that during an oral exam the professor is tougher on us, than on white classmates. Teachers – who are predominantly white at VUB – recognize their own children in white students. They do not have the same feeling when I, a black student, am sitting in front of them.” In the midst of lockdown, such an incident almost cost Rita her bachelor’s degree. “I was in desperate search for a place to do research; without one, I could not graduate. The hospital I contacted, refused my request because of my last name. How did I know? When I applied again with the same research proposal, but with a Flemish-sounding email address and name, they suddenly did allow me to conduct my research there.”

New plans, old sticking points?

Even though the Equality Team will keep involving the participants in the further evolution of the equality action plan, Rita claims that not all ideas have been worked out properly. Discouraged, she talks to us about one of the ideas that was mentioned during the discussion:  the creation of a buddy system for students with a migration background. “Someone mentioned what I said before: students with a migration background take longer to finish their studies.” This person pointed out some socio-cultural differences. “Families of these students usually do not fully grasp the pressure and workload of higher education. So, after classes, they expect their children to help around the house, take care of their siblings, work to finance a dorm.” In addition, these students would feel extra pressure to perform well because most of the time, they are the first in their family to commence higher education.

“Our team consists fully of white employees with only one exception; we are very aware of that.”

Nellie Konijnendijk

“This buddy system would enable older students like myself, to help new students with the same background, using our own experiences”, Rita explains. On the VUB-webpage for first years, the buddy system is given a very general and unexciting description. “I showed it to my friends: ‘Guiding new students through their first year? Don’t have time for that’, they shook their heads. When I explained what the initial, specific idea was, it did capture their attention and they were interested.”

Rita predicts that this generalisation will be a death blow for the plan because it will attract less interest from students. “I know that they have the right intentions, but this is just what happens when the core of your organisation remains white. The VUB must dare to identify these issues.” Konijnendijk also realizes that the current communication is too generic. She offers us two explanations for this. “The buddy system was not brought to life to solely serve this purpose. The plans that were developed following the discussion, have not been finished yet either. Meanwhile an employee from student-affairs is following up this case and hard work is being put in to satisfy the needs.”

No white salvation

The reference to the whiteness of the organisation has however not been plucked out of thin air. The composition of the Equality Team itself, that was responsible for managing the dialogue, also raises some questions concerning representation. Only one of the five seats is filled by a woman of colour, the four other spots are taken by staff with white skin. This also means that during the live conversation, which only people with personal experiences regarding racism took part in, barely anyone from the Equality Team was present. Almost the entire team had to join in later. Rita acknowledges that in acting this way, the team created a safe space for dialogue. “Yet, I do wonder: how is it possible that a so-called Equality Team only has one black woman, only one person of colour? When you apply for a job, is  experience not one of the most important requirements? I look at all the other members and cannot help but wonder: what is your experience with racism and discrimination?”

People should be willing to listen and to feel uncomfortable.”

Rita Afonso

A person’s degrees and good intentions may be numerous; these things are not substitutes for lessons taught by life. “Believing that they are, reflects a so-called White Saviour Complex, something we have to get rid of. Of course the intentions are well-meant: ‘I have accumulated this position, and I will help you from here.’ Being in that position, however, does not necessarily enable you to help us, because there are certain things you will never be able to understand”, Rita explains. “Do we not also find it strange when men gather to speak about women’s rights?”, she points out. “If you really want to do something about racism, you step aside and let people with actual experience step in.”

Konijnendijk understands these remarks. She admits: “With the exception of fellow worker Christil Asamoah, who occupies herself with the curriculum scan to amplify diversity, we are an integral white team. We are very aware of that: there is a lot of room for improvement.”  She refers to the fact that soon, the Equality Team will recruit a new staff member. “We are on the look-out for a person who has lived experience and more knowledge of these affairs.” 


Rita remains sceptic. “In all honesty: this new plan is just more of the same. We, the participants, have done our best. The conversation lasted from 2 p.m. until 5 p.m. It was quite intense.” She sighs: “There were so many good ideas, constructive solutions. But then, the actual development of the plan takes place within the same, predominantly white, group. That, to me, is disappointing.” 

Still, Konijnendijk assures us that the university has learned from the discussions. “We are proud of the first plan, but we also know there is still progress to be made. The dialogue does not end here. To ensure that it keeps going, an idea popped up to create a platform where students and employees of colour can unite. In that safe space, they could speak and think about the policy, discuss these types of topics and from there, start a conversation with the white majority.” Rita seems to think she will have to see it to believe it. According to her, these conversations are too often interrupted with anger, defensive behavior and excuses. “People should be willing to listen and to feel uncomfortable. Only then we can speak candidly, without being afraid to hurt someone’s feelings. As long as we cannot deal with that feeling of awkwardness, I fear there will not be learned a lot.” 

BLM protesten

© Gerson Graça Ntiti

On November 12 from 2 p.m. till 5 p.m., the Equality Team is organising an event in PILAR, where they will present the results of the curriculum scan and will launch the earlier mentioned platform. The UCOS (University Center for Development Cooperation) will also be present to introduce an initiative by and for students. More information will follow soon.

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