Zakia (27): “I want to make the university a better place for people of color”

“As a PhD student at Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam, I will use my research to reveal how universities produce inequality, while at the same time claiming to be an inclusive environment. I do this by analyzing their diversity policy. In this way, I hope I want to make the university a better place for people of color and others who are excluded.It’s not only that I bring up this subject, because during my studies and work at the university I have also experienced a few things about racism and discrimination.

I started myself on mavo-havo, after which I went to havo. Once I was in HAVO, I had such high grades that I could actually be transferred to VWO. But my teachers said I probably worked too hard and on my toes. High school would be too ambitious for me. I think there was a bit of racism in their portrayal of me. Because of this, I decided to quit havo and go to my propaedeutic year. After a year on HBO where it was not much better, I was able to continue on to university. I eventually got a bachelor’s degree, a master’s degree and a research graduate in sociology and taught there. Now I am doing a Ph.D. with the ultimate goal of becoming a professor.

The University of Rotterdam enticed me with the message: we are super different and strive for spaciousness. But I do not see this reflected in the knowledge that is produced or taught, and certainly not in the people in front of the class. I was mainly taught by white men. If I was a little lucky, there was a white woman standing in front of the class. I also found that education reproduces racism. It actually happens very subtly.

For example, so-called disadvantages within color communities are regularly researched. Then I think: behind whom? That question is not asked while the invisible norm always seems to be present. In addition, as a teacher, I have sometimes had to teach in cases where there are mentioned Muslims who will not shake hands with anyone because of their faith, or who wear the burqa. In such a case, the question is then whether this is contrary to the professional standard of the companies. That way, just such a contradiction is created, while the point in my optics should be that the norm is not neutral. There seems to be only one white way of doing things.

Like in high school, I constantly met people in college who were amazed that I knew anything. When I handed in my work, I received only a little feedback. It seemed like there was a limit to what I could or could learn. Until I met my thesis supervisor: a white man, but he believed in me. He was never surprised at how good my job was, but challenged me to do it even better. Because he dared to set the bar much higher for me, I felt seen and heard.

I’ve never really had any role models. My thesis supervisor, who is still my mentor, was the first one I saw as an example. I do not feel any hierarchy in our relationship and I learn from him to make room for people who are not like you but he also from me. This is how I want to be when I move on in science. Now that my academic network has expanded, I have three female color professors that I admire. Not only because of how successful they are, but also because of how they take other colored women to places that are usually difficult for them to reach.

For a long time, I doubted my own abilities, and I still do. I would like to encourage other young people who also doubt themselves to ask themselves the following questions: is that doubt not just internalized racism? Find people who believe in you. There are many other colored people who are fighting just like you, and also many white allies who are willing to help you further. If you do not have role models, you should look for them. Possibly try to network online, I did too. You do not want to do it alone. “

– Zakia (27)

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