Black Lives Matter, BLM, has shaken the foundations of the American society in the past few months, and we’ve seen it take a stand in the UK, as well as organising large protests in The Netherlands. In an attempt to understand where the institution of TU Delft (more specifically our faculty) stands in relation to the Black Lives Matter movement, and where people of TU Delft feel the institution should stand, I’ve entered into conversation with 6 different faculty members, students and staff alike, resulting in some 16 thousand words of interview material. One of my interviewees, a student, would prefer to remain anonymous. In respecting this request, for the rest of the article, I’ll refer to them by the pseudonym, Petra. Regrettably, interviewing support staff such as cleaners and janitors was not possible due to requiring permission from their employer which is, of course, not TU Delft but some other outsourced cleaning company. Of those that have been interviewed, I aim to leave their comments as intact as possible. In doing so, my own commentary between will be minimal, attempting to tie different conversations together, expand or explain broader concepts, or at times paraphrase for the sake of brevity. I write this, of course, as a white South African… perhaps a kind of walking oxymoron. But nonetheless, I write this as someone who very much understands the benefits that have come from my skin colour, and as someone who also appreciates my position in writing this article.
What’s the matter, exactly?
It’s important to first explain why this is a conversation that needs to be had; why it is that yes, also here, at the TU Delft, in the Netherlands, we need to speak about systemic racism. Petra accomplishes this far better than I could: “People think that racism only exists on a conscious level. But systemic racism is a racism that exists on a subconscious level, which is kind of mind-blowing when you think about it because it affects literally everything. The Netherlands wouldn’t be the Netherlands without racism and slavery; there wouldn’t be this sort of stable, prosperous country as we know it today – it wouldn’t exist. Systemic racism is when it seeps into all facets of society subconsciously; without realising it, but there are systems in place that allow that subconscious transition.” Such systems can be more explicit, like in the case of Apartheid in South Africa where ethnic segregation was implemented into the legal system. Alternatively, it can be more discreet like, for example in Rotterdam, where neighbourhoods with mostly non-western inhabitants have a suspiciously low average income.
“So, all of the institutions and businesses that were founded in that period [of colonial power and slavery] that then gave birth to other activities later on they all have roots in slavery and in racism, which enabled them to actually exist.” This is important, because that university which I mentioned in my opening paragraph, the one founded in 1842, in case you haven’t cottoned on is the same university you’re studying or working at now. As an associate professor of Urbanism, Roberto Rocco, explains, “If you don’t understand what this colonial past was, it’s difficult to understand what’s happening in the Netherlands now.”
The question then of course is, ‘Why on earth is systemic racism as a product of the Dutch colonial past not addressed?’ Petra explains; “If they do expose the really big gaps and the injustices, then the whole system collapses, which isn’t favourable for those who are trying so hard to uphold it who actually have a lot of power in that system.” Indeed, by not addressing the problematic history of the country, it’s easier to create a self-image of an accepting, all-inclusive and welcoming society from which we can build; essentially, by not addressing the cause of our contemporary problem, it’s easier to negate the notion that there is a problem today. Of course, it might not be out of racist intent that these systems are upheld today; however, the intent is not the defining factor here, remember, systemic racism operates at a subconscious level of the masses before conscious decisions are made.
Let me provide a clear example to explain what I mean; the example is, of course, Zwarte Piet. In our contemporary, globalised society, the things we do and say have ramifications and implications beyond what they might have had in the 1800s, and so of course this tradition is called into question now that external perspectives are involved. Even if you think that this tradition isn’t racist; the influences of childhood experiences are highly influential for people as adults at a subconscious level. And so, I think what is especially dangerous is the simple fact that children learn that it’s OK to portray and perceive a person of colour as an idiot that gets punished by the wise clean white guy on a horse. And as a result, later in life, those children will paint the faces of their own youngsters without hesitation unless being questioned. It’s a subconscious kind of logic that is self-perpetuating, which is so dangerous. The fact that the Zwarte Piet discussion only became serious in the past decade is baffling.
Petra goes on to explain the cause for the lack of conversation revolving around race in general, pinpointing “The one-dimensional history that is being regurgitated for generations,” as the cause. Manpon Manggaprouw, who works at the copie-sjop in faculty also explains how, having grown up in the Netherlands, “From the very beginning we’re not raised with ‘you’re less than…’ but rather ‘You can accomplish just as much as…’ So, we haven’t acquired that mindset from the beginning. At least, acquired- it isn’t drilled in. Of course, over the years you realise on your own that because of your background, or your colour, that you have to work that extra bit harder in order to ‘be able’ to achieve the same.” The Netherlands really doesn’t have an explicit approach to racial disparity, it is almost taboo, but the effects are still there nonetheless. I’ve heard in conversation before that by addressing this topic, it could create a ‘nonexisting’ problem. But, it does exist, and talking about an issue that is present doesn’t make it worse, it brings it to our attention, which is essential for improving the situation.
You have reached TU Delft voicemail, leave a message after the tone.
When asked about TU Delft’s response to the BLM movement, Petra aptly responded with “There hasn’t really been much… much at all. At the time, I was angry but not surprised. And now, just not surprised.” I found it curious that the TU hadn’t made some kind of statement on the BLM movement, either to show some kind of solidarity with its students and staff, or, in acknowledgement of its own history. We didn’t even get a black square on Instagram! Jonathan Subendran, a masters student in Urbanism, explained his reaction as having been both surprised, and not surprised, “Sure, you don’t get a message from the dean or president or whatever, but I was surprised to not get any sort of action from the faculty themselves especially those of the ones that talk about spatial justice and things like that. Then you realise, ‘Are these people really connected to what’s happening on the ground or are they kind of just an echoing chamber for academia to talk about social justice?’”
Meanwhile, Manggaprouw figured that “You can’t expect from everyone that they have an opinion on the topic. It would be the same as if I went to my employer or neighbour and asked ‘How do you think I function here?’” Going so far as to say that he wouldn’t expect any kind of statement from the university, also that beyond not tolerating racism he couldn’t see any responsibility that the university should have in the matter. This latter view is fundamentally different from those of my other interviewees.
Subendran explained, “I think what a lot of people have learned now is that you just have to take matters in your own hands. You can’t trust or depend on [any] kind of a system that represents you.” Although it is, as Subendran describes, a “systemic issue, which should be systemically addressed in education,” we all find ourselves within the system and hold a responsibility to question it.
Rachel Keeton, a PhD candidate soon to present her defence on ‘African New Towns: An adaptive, principle-based planning approach’ comments that “In Rotterdam we say, geen woorden maar daden (“not words, but deeds”). When TU Delft has leadership that reflects the diversity of the student body (and is 50% female), I think it will have made a step in the right direction.” Subendran mirrors this, explaining that, “It’s a bit late for him [The Dean] to say anything, it’s been too long.”
In my interview with Dirk van Gameren, the dean of our faculty, I questioned the reason for the university’s silence. He replied, “You’re the first one to ask that. I had discussions with students but not so much in the sense how should the faculty or the university, board of the university, or deans react to that.” When discussing the university’s hesitation to take a stand, he later added, “I think in general there is a big fear of making a political statement that might upset people.”
When making a statement on a political issue, you are making a ‘political statement’. However, by holding a comfortable, complicit silence about a political issue, you are also making a ‘political statement.’ The question that remains is which people does the TU Delft want to upset?
White letters on black paper.
It might not yet be clear why this is relevant within the context of a university, an educational institution. Subendran gives some insight: “When you’re young, the basis of education comes from like who you’re taught by, what you’re taught and how it’s taught. It all comes down to you know those five ‘w’s that we are all aware of and, I think it’s also difficult because some systems may be not aware of these things, so it comes with these like predetermined biases.” This preconditioning is also brought up by A, arguing that, “You need people from non-European non-white cultures to tell the stories of their cultures, whereas a white European would approach the subject or content with their own kind of preconditioning.” Ultimately it comes down to a broadening of the curriculum, but also of diversification of staff that corresponds accordingly.
Rocco believes that “the TU Delft has a big responsibility to [combat systemic racism], especially in our building because we are dealing with society, we are dealing with people. We are going to design and plan the cities of the future.” And he had a rather positive outlook on the direction we are headed as a faculty: “I think the fact that we have now more and more international students, teachers and also subjects helps bring new perspectives and new knowledge and new ways of looking at architecture and spatial planning. I think it’s a many-legged issue; we have more students that are from different countries, we have teachers from different countries, and also the university has become more global. So, the university is looking at global problems. That also helps to change the mentality.” However, suppose what Petra says about how we should be learning about different spaces from the perspectives of people from those places, holds any ground, then the fact that “We have an architecture faculty without a single Black professor,” as Keeton points out, presents a problem because we’re tackling global problems from a non-global set of preconditioned minds. When asking Subendran about the notion of White Industrial Saviours, he elaborates on how, “Maybe it’s the Architecture and built environment Faculty, but you get this impression that, ‘you come here to learn from us, you learn from us because we are the experts.’ and it’s like this neo-colonial act of saying that, we are on top of everyone.”
Subendran later expanded on the complexity of the situation, acknowledging that at the end of the day, the university is run by people. The university itself is a brand, a name and so on and so forth, and although it needs to maintain its branding for its public image because it represents more than an individual, it holds a responsibility to broaden its perspectives and ensure that everyone is taking account for their own perspectives.
Rocco also points out that the TU Delft can definitely be doing more, “of course we can wait and hope things improve and we can wait for people who are different to come to our university [but they often don’t] have the means, or the ability. We could also have a more proactive attitude by inviting people to come. That would be interesting.”
Dirk van Gameren was in complete agreement: “I completely agree. We had last year Marina Tabasum from Bangladesh as a guest professor, we set up collaborations in Africa, inviting people from Africa. So, I do think it’s happening… I know it’s a difficult discussion. But we are based here, and we should really discuss and know about our own legacy. Also, the bad parts…” He correctly supposed that perhaps in my eyes things were not happening fast enough, but it’s understandable in a place like the Netherlands that things move slowly. Subendran also mentioned the difficulties attached to such massive bureaucratic controls and implementing change.
What do we want?
Having established the problems on a societal level, and how they impact our education, I was curious to hear what the faculty believes to be potential solutions:
Keeton brings some crucial points to the foreground; “In terms of BLM, I think a major challenge for TU Delft is in de-colonising the education it offers. That means some big changes to the curriculum and much more attention to how it educates (teacher training, etc.).” Subendran also explains that should the faculty implement some kind of change, it would be wise to not exclusively act in a top-down fashion but really have the dean empower students, create opportunities for students and staff to be listened to. At the end of the day if the faculty is run by us, then it should in part be made with us in mind or with our input. Keeton continues, confirming this by explaining how “Systems premised on structural racism are often held up simply because they are already in place, and people are too busy to question them. Right now, we are challenged to question everything. And the people to consult are the BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and People of Colour) who have been historically marginalised in this debate.” Which is echoed in part by Rocco, who says that we should, “Try to understand what is decolonisation of knowledge, and what are different ways of looking at architecture from different perspectives, and so on. I would like to see more debate on the relationship between social justice and architecture.” As Subendran explains, “The TU is such a well-positioned school globally that means people are going to come to you if you want to have a huge series about Race and Space at the intersection of race and academia so why don’t you use your power and use your outreach to for these types of issues you know on a more action basis?”
Petra describes a more self-reflective nature, calling for, “Acknowledgement of their [the university’s] own position in racial affairs and more accountability, how did the TU Delft come to be the TU Delft? Accountability and showing a willingness to grow and to learn but also actually doing that … I think in the teaching field, diversification could be really valuable also in the course work and the types of architects you look at […]I think it would broaden up our perspective of how people actually live.”
Subendran also explains an issue experienced in teaching style, in which “there’s no questioning of the actual system itself so, it sneaks by this heavily political and kind of like governance type of questioning, but it’s more about using the existing conditions. Doing that is just like a band-aid type of solution.” This essentially addresses symptoms as opposed to structural issues, such as Petra describes, often the cause of disparity, or the wealth of the Netherlands isn’t disclosed in earnest
Keeton continues, “‘Diversity’ and ‘inclusion’ are thrown around a lot, but so many studies have shown that multiple perspectives strengthen the resilience of an institution. And that is only from an employer’s perspective. I am sure that systemic racism influences the experiences of BIPOC students at TU Delft, and it is up to us to investigate how it does and do better.” Keeton goes on to point out how “We are one of the only schools of architecture without a department or even a chair focused on ‘urbanisation in the Global South’ or ‘informal urbanisation’ or ‘rapid urbanisation’, and this has to change. The cities of the future will be in the Global South, and we fail as educators if we don’t prepare the next generation to face this reality.” When I confronted the dean about such matters, he explained that “It’s only started happening [in our faculty]” And I suppose naturally, also explained by Rocco, as a technical university it has until recently been reluctant to engage with the social sciences.
After confronting the dean on these matters, he is mostly in agreement, confirming that, “We have to open our eyes to all these aspects of history.” And, having specified the lack of perspective in the all-Dutch bachelor’s programme, I was pleasantly surprised to hear that, “We are in fact looking at the bachelor curriculum and we will also look at these aspects. I think that already the scope of the horizon in teaching has broadened enormously.”
What is being done?
This brings us to the near end. Where I’ve tried to gauge the efforts of the faculty in regard to combatting systemic racism, stacked up against the wishes of the interviewees of the previous chapter.
For starters, Subendran describes his own initiative which is introducing a space to discuss racial justice in relation to the built environment: “TU Delft being such an incredibly diverse school and with people from all over the world, there was no top-down or any sort of systemic suggestion to address this situation in a real way, so that was a bit disappointing and I think in these types of situations you have to take matters into your own hands and the first thing is to organise, so we tried to organise a collective of people interested in discussing and learning, and sharing knowledge […] I don’t think the built environment profession has caught up yet in terms of engaging in these discourses, so that’s what I find frustrating, but also kind of motivating to create a platform or a discussion place to do this type of stuff and that’s why we initiated this ‘Race and Space Task Force’ to kind of bridge our professional discipline. We don’t know what it is yet, but I think that’s the beauty of the process is to start to define what we want, you know start to see if it’s about, demanding of the faculty or even the university to address certain points or, whether it’s beyond race it could be regarding the gender balance within the faculty or why we have such a diverse student body, but we don’t have such a diverse Faculty body.”
Subendran describes his own initiative which tries to introduce a space to discuss racial justice in relation to the built environment. He explained that due to the TU Delft’s lack of top-down address, he set out to organise a collective of individuals interested in discussing and learning from each other. Despite the disappointing lack of discourse around these matters in the built environment, Subendran explains that this was also what motivated his initiative.
Rocco speaks about two projects of the TU Delft which he is a part of, namely: Delft Global, looking at problems of the Global South; and Delft Design for Values, a platform that advocates the explicit discussion of values in design, in which one of the values discussed is diversity. I would encourage you to look into these if you were previously unaware of their existence (such as myself).
And lastly, the Dean, Dirk van Gameren discusses possibilities of what is to come, and what is being done: “[Adapting the curriculum] has more impact [than making a statement]. Because we can make a statement and it’s something we will certainly discuss with the board and the deans. It’s, of course, a discussion that’s already going on for years as well.”
“The idea is with the ‘BK talks’ that we are going to start to have some debates, this [Systemic racism and BLM] will obviously be a topic. It also made me conscious again that we really have very little public discussion about these issues, even before the BLM movement ‘started’. It was already [present], but now I think the urgency is much clearer. I also discussed last week with a group of people, but in the wider discussion about diversity and inclusivity what kind of faculty are we. Do we actually take these issues seriously in the sense that we can have more discussion about what it means and what the impact is or should be on our faculty? So, the TU has recently appointed a new ‘Diversity officer’ [David Keyson]. That’s a very top-down thing, but I think that’s important and we are also looking here at attracting someone who is in our faculty who can play a role in initiating but also in giving continuity to a discussion and a debate about these matters. And also observing what is happening and advising me as a Dean and the faculty as a whole.”
Dear TU Delft,
If you’re listening, I genuinely believe that the student and staff body as a whole want change, and so it will happen. Get ready for it. How fast change happens will depend on the student and staff body. The things we find disappointing in our education must be called out; as students, that is our duty. The things we find to be one-sided should be exposed; as teachers, that is our responsibility. Perhaps you think that this is not the business of a faculty, and by having these interviews, I’m simply guilt-tripping the dean for something he never did. But that’s not my aim; I think the fact that our dean is keen on implementing more discussions and debates and understands the importance of a diverse faculty goes to show that he’s already aware of the points being made here. You can sit and wait… maybe in ten years we’ll have a black professor and we can pretend to be proud; but I’d encourage you to push for what you believe in. Email coordinators of history classes, write manifestos, read a book, and engage in dialogue with your fellow students and colleagues.