The university posted this statement on Instagram last week in response to the BlackLivesMatter protests. The post got around 1,400 ‘likes’ – a relatively high number for the university – but also came in for a quite a bit of criticism. For example, student and EM reporter Ferayed Hok wrote that the university needs to make work of representation: a position seconded by many. And student Sarai Isabel said that simply publishing a statement doesn’t cut it, and that even professors at EUR indulged in stereotyping remarks.

In its response, EUR included links to the confidential adviser and information about its Diversity & Inclusion Office. In a press release issued last Saturday, the university writes that ‘Erasmian values are anti-racist’ and that as a community, it shouldn’t turn a blind eye to the structural barriers that ethnic minorities encounter within EUR itself and has to offer everyone the same opportunities. So why are students critical of EUR’s recent statements? Sheetal Nicolaas, chair of Erasmus Multicultural Associations, the umbrella organisation for EUR’s multicultural association, offers her perspective.

What was your reaction to the university’s Instagram post and statement?

“Let me start by saying that I think it’s very nice and laudable that the university posted something like this. It shows that they find this issue relevant. If they’d asked me for advice, I would have told them to include a call to action in the post. ‘You can donate here’ – something like that. Or: ‘We’re taking these concrete steps’. Not just: ‘There’s racism and the university is committed to doing something about it’.”

Sheetal Nicolaas

Do you understand your fellow students’ responses? How’s this commitment working out, in your view?

“I know the university’s working hard to address this issue. But a lot of this work is going on behind the scenes, and they could make the process more visible. Visibility can help ease tensions and increase people’s confidence in the university. As an association, we also confer with the university, the Diversity Office and the organisers of Eurekaweek to see how we can make things more inclusive for students from different cultures. For example: in certain cultures, sing-alongs with loads of beer are fun; other cultures may not enjoy them that much.”

“But the students have a point. There’s definitely room for improvement when it comes to representation within the university. EUR has a lot of students with a migrant background and international students, but this isn’t reflected in its professorial appointments. And it’s very important to have role models in this context. They show you: this is feasible, I can achieve this too. And the senior academics represent the community at large. Representation is important for understanding what students may be up against: if you come from a migrant background yourself, it’s simply easier to understand what kind of problems they might encounter.”

“On top of that, the university community could do a bit more effort to educate itself about history and various cultures. I’m half Surinamese, and people have told me a number of times that I speak Dutch very well for a Surinamer. While they obviously say this with the best of intentions, it’s still silly. In some cases, it’s actually professors who have this or that preconceived notion about certain cultures. We need workshops and trainings to remedy this.”

What can we do?

“Besides representation, visibility and educating yourself and your community, dialogue is also very important. And international students and multicultural organisations shouldn’t just talk among themselves, but also – and specifically – with the other members of the community. Listen to what the other has to say, even when you don’t agree with each other. Get informed. And be prepared to adjust your opinions where required. There’s no need to feel embarrassed about that.”

“And: don’t just focus on this issue because it’s in the news right now. Keep writing about it as a university magazine or other outlet; keep paying attention to it as university administrators – even after the protests have stopped.”

How have the past few weeks been for you?

“Quite emotional. And I’ve noticed that a lot of other people feel the same way. A clip like that, in which you can see what’s happening to George Floyd, really hits home. The feeling you get is: ‘It could have been my father, brother or nephew’. The fact that this was condemned by everyone – not just people of colour – is wonderful though. Mankind taking a collective stand against discrimination and racism.”

Did you protest too?

“Yes, I was at the demo in Rotterdam. Why? I was sitting at home feeling restless – this feeling of powerlessness: ‘Something’s going on, it bothers me and I get the feeling I can’t do anything about it.’ At that point, it feels nice to be able to come together and make yourself heard in a moving, peaceful protest. It was an acknowledgement that racism is a problem worldwide – not just in the US. It’s simply there. You’ve felt it yourself, and now you see how many people have had the same experiences.”

“And then you hear people say: protests like this shouldn’t be allowed during the Covid crisis. This is how I see it: the protesters intended to abide by the 1.5-metre distancing rule. However, this was impossible due to the turn-out and location. That’s why the protest was called off prematurely. At any rate, we were able to show that despite Covid-19, a large

number of people felt it was very important to take a stand. That shows just how serious this problem is.”