Black Lives Matter
George Floyd’s death by police brutality in America has led to international demonstrations and debates on racism. Our campus, which is mainly a virtual one as the moment, is also being used as a means for campaigning, debating and drawing attention to the Black Lives Matter movement. My initial reaction to this movement, some years ago, was not only a combination of sympathy and commitment, but also doubt. After all, don’t all lives matter?
It took a while for me to understand that all life certainly matters, but that’s not the point. Black Lives Matter is about racism and the enormous impact that racism has on many people’s lives on a day-to-day basis. It’s not just about police brutality in America, but about the many examples of racism that are taking place and have taken place throughout the world. Racism and the impact of racism can be found everywhere. Even on our campus.
If I’ve learned anything from the psychological research that has been conducted into stereotypes and prejudices, it’s that we’re all guilty of compartmentalising our thoughts and hanging onto a lot of gained prejudices. I am and you are too. My present has an influence on how I look at the past, and my past – and, to a certain extent, what I have learned – has an influence on how I look at the present. This is what makes it so incredibly difficult to step out of your own cultural bubble, to approach the other person impartially and to really listen to one another.
Our university arose out of the Catholic emancipation movement at the beginning of the last century. It may be difficult to imagine now, but at the beginning of the 1900s almost all of the high-ranking positions in the Netherlands were filled by Protestants. An entire emancipation movement had to be established before Catholics could begin to enjoy a more equal status. Education played an important role in this development.
Of course, the Black Lives Matter movement of today cannot be compared to the Catholic emancipation movement from that time. All the same, I refer to our origins because, despite the fact that they involved the emancipation of a specific part of the population, our university has always remained accessible to all students and staff, whether they were Catholic or non-Catholic, or religious or non-religious. Thanks to the Catholic university, many Catholics and non-Catholic students whose parents had never studied were given the opportunity to go to university and develop their potential.
I also recognise this sense of openness in the Black Lives Matter movement. Yes, the point is that black lives do matter. This is significant because all lives can only matter if black lives also matter. It is crucial that everyone is invited to spread this important message. This means that rather than being exclusive, the focus that is placed on black lives is inclusive. As I said, it took some time for me to understand this.
Thanks to research and education, those of us at universities form the world of tomorrow, the brains of tomorrow, and the future. It is our responsibility to continue to question our findings and ideas, to reflect on our own actions and to offer room for reflection. This also applies to our degree programmes. That is precisely why it is imperative at the university that we address the issues that pertain to our curricula, research and staff recruitment policy, and talk about which cultural assumptions are clouding our view, no matter how difficult and confrontational this might prove to be, especially when it comes to racism. As the Executive Board of the university, we initiate and facilitate this discussion and set a good example.
We cannot erase our past. In a remarkable interview that she recently gave on the Dutch television programme Buitenhof, human rights activist and Stichting Katholieke Universiteit board member Lilian Gonçalves-Ho Kang You said the following within the context of ‘iconoclasm’ and the history of slavery: “Getting rid of everything won’t help, it won’t erase the past. But it also doesn’t mean that everything should stay the way it is…”
This means that we at Radboud university have a job to do. According to our mission, we, as a university, aim to contribute to “a free and healthy world with equal opportunities for all”. We can achieve this by listening to each other, by talking to each other about what we have learned from our past and our present and by passing these important lessons on to future generations.
“Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world.”
- Nelson Mandela