In the past couple of months, media attention has very much focused on the atrocities of the Covid-19 pandemic - numbers, statistics & death rates. The most outrageous and ostentatious aspects of the ongoing crisis and its effect on our societies. But that is not the only thing going on in the world. A lot of significant developments have occurred in this crisis period, which have been underreported by the news corporations. They are not as juicy, and therefore not as present on our social media feeds. However, as The correspondent writer Rutger Bregman outlines in his book “Humankind’, it is crucial to look beyond the news and see which positive progress or long-lasting issues hide behind the curtains of clickbait.
I will categorize systematic racism as such an issue. Although ever-present in most societies, it remains severely underreported. This was the topic of the panel discussion organized by European Horizons & the European Parliament Liaison Office in Washington DC on Wednesday the 28th of October. A panellist at the discussion was Samira Rafaela, a Dutch member of the European Parliament. During Wednesday’s panel, Samira heavily underlined the prevalent issue of systematic racism in the Netherlands and discussed the newly written anti-racism action plan launched by the European Union. More significantly, she also encouraged the participants to start talking about the “elephant in the room” and engage in difficult conversations about race and racism in their communities - as to change societal standards and communities, one “must first start with oneself”.
A campaign which successfully advocates for such difficult conversations can be found daily at Dam square. "As Long As It Takes" (or in Dutch: Zolang Het Nodig Is) started in June as a result of the Black Lives Matter protests following the killing of George Floyd in the United States. Every day, from 9 AM until 5 PM, someone stands at Dam Square holding a sign saying, "As long as systemic racism exists, someone will stand here". Although the movement garnered a lot of support, the organisation recently decided to limit the protests to Fridays. This decision to switch away from the daily routine was rooted in the second Covid-19 wave in the Netherlands. New measures and safety concerns have made it challenging to find volunteers. Despite this, available time slots quickly got booked until mid-December, which allowed the organisation to host protests on Fridays and Saturdays. If you want to help by standing at Dam Square for an hour, you can sign up at: www.zolanghetnodigis.nl
The general goal of the protest is to remind people that systemic racism did not stop after the Black Lives Matter protests in June. But more than that, this protest aims to remind people that we should not stop talking about the manifestations of systemic racism now that they have a more obscured news profile. This protest is a constant reminder to anyone walking by Dam Square. The problems that come with systemic racism have not gone away, and it is an open conversation we should all engage with equally. Nonetheless, on the brighter side, these protests can open you up to a unique and valuable experience - conversations with complete strangers outside of your usual social circle!
To give a personal example, I recently volunteered at Zolang Het Nodig Is, and had been standing near Dam Square in the pouring rain for about half an hour when a woman approached my group. She had been singing and dancing with a religious assembly the entire time I had been there and was wondering what we were doing holding the sign in such weather. We explained the idea behind the protest and, in response, she told us about her personal experiences with racism. She told us about a time when her neighbour had heard her and her child yelling at each other. At some point during this interaction, her neighbour called the police. The officers who responded to the call entered her home without notice and arrested her in front of her children. I thought back to how many times I shouted at and fought with my parents during my teenage years and could only imagine how unsafe she and her children must have felt. The knowledge that every time she raised her voice, strangers could walk into her family home and take her away. Luckily, the police did not press any charges when they established that no physical abuse had occurred.
Building on the previous example, another similar interaction comes to mind. Five minutes before the end of my first shift, a middle-aged man came up to us. He clearly wanted to share something but did not seem quite sure how to phrase himself. “I don’t see it”, he said. I asked what he did not see. He said “Racism”. He then continued to explain that his wife was Polish and managed to integrate into Dutch society all by herself. Moreover, he described how he came from a lower-class family and always had to work to get anywhere in life. He also discussed how he had many non-white friends who never mentioned experiencing racism in their daily lives. I asked whether he had ever asked them about it. He paused for a moment. He had not. We continued our discussion and, despite several disagreements, we both came out of the conversation with a new perspective. It would be extremely naive of me to think that I convinced him of my point of view, although I do secretly hope I made him reflect a little.
Overall, these are the sort of conversations that need to happen and need to keep happening if we want to tackle problems and create change. People from different backgrounds with different viewpoints, ideas, and stories need to be able to talk to each other without fear, and more importantly, listen to each other without prejudice.
Written by Bente Heijmink Liesert and Martyna Burylo, Amsterdam Chapter of European Horizons.