EM spoke with three groups of researchers (from the DRIFT transition bureau, the EPI sociology master programme and the neuroscience institute Erasmus SYNC Lab) who published statements over the past weeks that included action lines for fighting racism in education, research and policy advice. Each of them took this initiative in response to the death of George Floyd and the ensuing protests. “It was heartening to see so many people stand up against this inequity,” says sociologist Willem Schinkel.

1. EPI master programme: ‘University continues to maintain skewed relationships’

“The university as an institute was and remains a structural component of anti-black racism, white superiority and colonialism,” write the coordinators of the Sociology master programme Engaging Public Issues (EPI), Willem Schinkel, Jess Bier and Rogier van Reekum. This master programme focuses on sociological issues in today’s society. The coordinators have announced their intention to incorporate racism subjects as integral parts of the programme curriculum.

“Racism and white superiority are themes in our curriculum, and we believed it was important to clearly state our position on these matters. First and foremost to simply acknowledge that there is such a thing as institutional racism, including at EUR,” says Schinkel over the telephone. “And on top of that: calling on the Executive Board to take action won’t lead to anything.” So Schinkel and his colleagues decided to write down what they’ll be doing themselves.

Schinkel explains what this structural component at the university looks like. “What we present as ‘knowledge’ at our university – which is mainly made up of white people – is a specific perspective that has its own blind spots and is based on a particular ideology. For example, in our management programmes, we are teaching students how to benefit from the capitalist system, which perpetuates exploitation and racism.”

‘Calling on the Executive Board to take action won’t lead to anything’

Willem Schinkel (EPI)

At the same time, Schinkel believes that as an institution, the university is eminently suited for shaking up these dominant power structures. “Our institution still offers room for different perspectives on what our society should look like. In our curricula, we can show students how white superiority works, and how it relates to capitalism. This allows us to contribute to its elimination, from within the university,” argues Schinkel.

What do his master students notice of these aims? Among other things, the curriculum includes work by researchers of colour, and literature that describes the role of white superiority. In addition, when enrolling students, the master programme pays attention to implicit and explicit discrimination in assessing their potential.

2. Erasmus SYNC Lab: ‘We want to have more representative research samples’

Erasmus SYNC Lab (short for: Society, Youth and Neuroscience Connected) intends to fight institutional racism at the research level. As of April, the institute is a part of Erasmus School of Social and Behavioural Sciences (ESSB), where it works to make neuroscience more accessible to the general public and involve society more closely in this research. The neuroscientists also recently published several lines of action.

The three authors shed light on their statement during a Zoom meeting: “We want to share this scientific knowledge with everyone and also request everyone’s input in our research,” explains SYNC Lab team member Ilse van de Groep. Her colleague Kayla Green: “Among other things, we organise panel debates with young people and discuss the results: what do young people themselves find important, and what would they like to see studied?” Recently, the researchers asked their respondents this very question after an online welfare survey. “During the Covid crisis, one of the most common answers was: a vaccine against the coronavirus,” says an amused Green.

‘In our research, we approach VET colleges. We work to reach young people from all walks of life’

Michelle Achterberg (Erasmus SYNC Lab)

Above all, the group would like for the research samples that they work with to be more representative of society in general. “That’s also why we moved to Rotterdam: a prime example of a diverse city. In our research, we approach VET colleges and ask their students to take part. This way, we work to reach young people from all walks of life – not just highly educated ones,” says Michelle Achterberg. Green: “But we’re still finding our way in this process. Because for the moment, it still proves difficult to get enough young people with lower educational qualifications on board. In addition, we’re exploring other ways to increase diversity within our selection of respondents.”

In the scientists’ view, diversity and inclusion also play an important part in communicating the results of neuroscientific research to the public and making them accessible to a wider audience. “For example, we’ve already worked on teaching packages – and in the future we will be requesting feedback so that we can be more diverse and inclusive in our reach and communications,” says Achterberg.

Image credit: Wouter Sterrenburg

3. DRIFT: ‘Transitions can also contribute to inequality’

The third collective to issue a statement over the past few weeks is DRIFT (Dutch Research Institute for Transitions), which researches transitions in the area of sustainability and offers education and advice in this field. Its work touches on themes like traffic and transport, food and energy. In its statement, the DRIFT team write that they haven’t done enough to explicitly define how institutional racism relates to sustainability transitions. At the same time, the current crises (in the areas of health, climate and the economy) have also contributed further to this inequality, according to the researchers. “Through our statement, we acknowledge the urgency of this theme,” says Annelli Janssen.

“In our research, we don’t just look at the ecological or economic dimensions of sustainability, but also at social equity. A transition that increases racial inequality cannot be considered sustainable. Transitions towards a more sustainable society should benefit everyone,” says Karlijn Schipper. Our current prosperity is based on the on-going exploitation of people and nature, according to Schipper, and this is in turn is grounded in racist and colonialist concepts. “Even today, indigenous groups are driven from their land to satisfy our power demand. On top of this, in many cases, the inhabitants of the ‘Global South’ (countries that aren’t part of the dominant group of prosperous, industrialised nations, Eds.) are the ones who contributed the least to the factors driving extreme climate change, while at the same time being hit the hardest.”

‘Even today, indigenous groups are driven from their land to satisfy our power demand’

Karlijn Schipper (DRIFT)

In addition, the research institute intends to use its position to combat institutional racism, and to free up time within its organisation to discuss this issue. It also plans to talk with other organisations that specialise in this field. “Writing a statement is part of a process. We’re a pretty white organisation, which means that we aren’t aware of very basic issues – our blind spots when it comes to diversity, for example. We intend to look into this in the period ahead,” says Annelli Janssen. “And determine how we can make work of these blind spots.”

Take a step back

And what’s the deal with the three institutes’ own recruitment policies? After all, they’re fairly white themselves, right? Schinkel (EPI): “In this sense, we’re occupying positions that could also be filled by researchers of colour, that’s a reality.” Janssen (DRIFT): “We’ll be discussing this too – which changes we can make. For the time being, the people who respond to our job advertisements are a fairly specific, far from diverse group.”

Green (Erasmus SYNC Lab), who is a person of colour herself, explains how deep-seated this issue is. “When I was in primary school, my classmates were of colour, but went I went to university preparatory education, I was one of the few pupils of colour left. And it has been the same ever since – including here at the SYNC Lab. I’ve never had a lecturer or role model whom I could identify with. But since this inequality basically starts in primary school, the pond you’re fishing from can become rather small, and a lot of talent isn’t tapped into.”

Schipper (DRIFT): “At the same time, we shouldn’t leave it at that – we need to study together what we can do about this problem.” Schinkel (EPI): “Ultimately, it also comes down to this: white people throughout society will need to take a step back and relinquish some of their privileges and positions.”