Stories of diversity

‘Lonely is the best way to describe it’

The RUG is about to celebrate its birthday with a party dedicated to diversity and inclusivity. But how diverse and inclusive is the university, really? For some minorities, loneliness, exclusion and even discrimination are a regular part of their university life.
By Jacob Thorburn /Photos LuÍs Fonseca Silva

Below are five stories from students and staff who live as ethnic minorities in Groningen.

Edu Brooke – Netherlands

BA Media and Communication

‘I feel like there are not enough black people’

‘Groningen is just really, really white. It was one of the first things I noticed here. I do a double take if I see another black guy on the street. I’m proud to be black, but it can be difficult because there just aren’t many other people of colour here.

When it comes to my classes, I’m always the only black guy. It makes me feel unique. Whenever I see fellow black students around, I smile: it’s easy to make a connection. And I can always remember their faces.

For me, the biggest disappointment at the RUG is the lack of black staff. I would love to see more ethnic representation when it comes to the teaching at the RUG. It would be an extra motivation for me.

Actually, this isn’t my first interview about being black. The RUG once invited me to do something similar. I went in there thinking I would have the chance to seriously voice my concerns, but it was really just a photo opportunity for their “inclusivity” event. They basically used me to say: Hey, we told you we have black students here!’

‘Inclusion is an official part of the education strategy.’ RUG rector magnificus, Elmer Sterken, 2018

Saikat Chatterjee – Howrah, India

PhD graduate now working at the University

‘What does it mean to be Indian, or Dutch? I am a global citizen’

‘I love the Netherlands; it’s easy to live here. Since moving from India five years ago, I feel more at home in Groningen than anywhere else. I’m partly westernised. I do things differently now: I play in a band every week and I’m a fucking beer drinker.

I realised how much my identity had changed when I returned to India in 2016. People were looking at me in the street as if I was an alien: I was wearing suits, I was clean shaven, I even sounded different. In a country with over a billion people, I felt like an “other”. I was fucking shocked. I haven’t gone back.

But living in Groningen makes me appreciate my “Indianness” more. I do look and act differently than most of the people who live here. There have been many times over the years I have felt like there was discrimination, which made me feel isolated in the beginning. But, it’s up to me to make sure those motherfuckers realise that’s not acceptable. No-one can make you feel at home, you have to make it yourself.

I remember in the early days when I was performing in The Crown, people laughed at me. The owner of the bar had to explain that I wasn’t some homeless guy, that I was actually a PhD student. I try to look at these responses as subjective bias and not racism.

The university doesn’t talk about ethnic diversity much. I don’t think they actively encourage ethnic or gender diversity in the hiring process. I’m convinced they can do more. When we don’t talk about these things, that’s when subtle or unconscious racism can thrive.’

Kosovare Duraku – Switzerland

LLM Global Criminal Law and Human Rights

‘Discrimination has become normalised for me’

‘I was born in Switzerland, to ethnic Albanian parents from Kosovo, but I’ve lived in the Netherlands for 22 years. My parents came here when they were stateless; Dutch nationality was the first we ever had.

I have struggled with my identity for a very large part of my life. I always thought that I had to choose between Dutch, Albanian, or Swiss. Now, I’ve decided that nobody gets to define my identity but me.

I don’t look like your typical white Dutch girl. When I’m in the Netherlands, I don’t see myself as white because it’s made clear to me that I am not. Dutch people have ranted about me until I turn around and put them in their place. I was ignored by Dutch classmates just because I look differently. These small things contribute to a larger picture of feeling excluded.

The Dutch roll their eyes and say, “it’s not that bad”. When it comes to racism, they think only of the extremes. They don’t see these subtle forms that contribute to systemic racism.

It’s really frustrating. I think this is part of a bigger problem. Here, if you try and discuss racism it’s immediately dismissed.

During the [Zwart Piet] protests I was told to go back to my country. I received threats from people telling me they wanted to rape me; that they wanted to kill me – here in this city! If I can, I will leave the Netherlands. I don’t want my children to go through the same thing.

I never even considered speaking to the RUG about my experiences. That shows how big a problem it actually is. I think other universities do a lot with diversity, even in the small ways. I’m yet to see one black professor here. It’s ridiculous.’

‘For the university, ethnic diversity is as important as all other points of diversity. Every type of diversity matters.’ Gerry Wakker, chief diversity officer, University of Groningen

Elise N.M.T – Germany

BA Psychology

‘I get angry, but I know it’s not going to help anything’

‘Yeah, people come up to me and always ask to touch my hair! Maybe it’s the colour, or the style. Old white ladies are the worst for it.

I’m always labelled as black. I guess it’s the part of me that stands out most. Bu, I’ve grown up around white people so I do feel culturally more white. I’m very split about it; my ethnicity makes me feel different.

I used to live in England, and I was freer then. The acceptance of other minorities was much more ingrained, more genuine there than here. I try not to talk about race or ethnicity with my friends – who are mostly white – if I can help it. They want to seem open, but they get uncomfortable.

In my class of around one thousand students I have seen only three other black students. I don’t get the feeling that the university tries to encourage ethnic diversity. I tried to make a community with these fellow black students, but there are challenges. I think it was in the back of our heads when we first met, we know we are different here.

I noticed that my race and ethnicity became a big problem when looking for housing. I know there are not a lot of spaces, especially for internationals. But the weird questions I was asked by potential roommates always made it seem like they had preconceived notions about me: like I was the loud, African roommate nobody wanted.

Even if I’m out all day, I might only see one or two people of colour. Here, in such a white city, I feel like I’m always under a microscope. It is a lot of pressure. I always have to “behave” because I don’t want to shine a bad light on the black community. Lonely is the best way to describe it.’

Abdul Erumban – Kerala, India

Assistant Professor, Faculty of Economics and Business

‘Sometimes I feel like I don’t belong here. I’m sure I will never feel fully assimilated.’

‘I didn’t know much about the Netherlands, but my village had a fan club dedicated to their football team, the “Orange Army”. As a painter, the Van Gogh Museum was a big motivation to come here.

It was a dream of mine to study abroad. I first came here 16 years ago as a PhD student, working my way up to become an assistant professor. I think I was the only Indian in my class. There were fewer than ten Indians at the University when I arrived in 2003. We knew each other by name because we were so few.

I identify as a Keralite and take pride in this, but I don’t attach a lot of importance to my ethnic origin. We have significant cultural differences to the Netherlands. Most importantly for me, the work culture. I do feel more respected as a colleague in Groningen compared to India.

My faculty has internationalised, but I don’t believe it has become more diverse – and there is a difference. Alternative perspectives are very important because our student population is diversifying so much. Compared to other countries, I think we [the RUG] still have a long way to go. We have a responsibility to be more diverse.

I will never forget when I lived in Korreweg in 2006. I was told I was the first foreigner on the whole street. Nobody spoke to me for quite some time. People would look at my family with strange faces. I’m pretty sure it was my appearance that caused these reservations.

My neighbour finally spoke to me on the bus one day and asked me what I was doing here. After I explained that I was a PhD student, she relaxed a little. She later told me that people were concerned when we first moved onto the street. After this conversation, all my neighbours started to accept us more. My wife and I still maintain a friendship with some of these neighbours!

I feel like I have constraints here. Whenever I do something, I have to think twice. I question many of the things I do here. Part of the lapse is mine, but even after sixteen years, sometimes I feel like I don’t belong here.’

‘Intercultural awareness is what we are working on. It’s not ideal yet, but we have done a lot to try and make international staff and students feel at home.’ Marloes Siccama-Van Loveren, programme manager, Language & Culture Policy

The UKrant contacted over one hundred people either working or studying at the University and over twenty interviews were conducted for this story. These interviews have been edited for clarity and brevity, but give a representative picture of reports of life as an ethnic minority at the RUG.

After publication of this story, we have decided to change the design to prevent further confusion. The combination of  the original photo with the headline, which was a direct quote from a source later in the story, seemed to imply that the words were those of the persons pictured on the homepage and the top of the article. That is not the case.


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