Khalid Benhaddou: Racism is a structural problem and not the fault of individuals or ethnic groups

(19-06-2020) For a few weeks now there has been fierce debate in society at large about racism and decolonisation. The death of George Floyd set in motion an unprecedented wave of activism.

The Black Lives Matter movement resurrected worldwide.  Also in Belgium. On Sunday 7 June a protest took place on the Place Poelaert in Brussels and statues of Leopold II and other colonisers were in sight.

We asked Khalid Benhaddou, since September 2019 mandate-holder Diversity at Ghent University, what the past few weeks meant to him.

Khalid BenhaddouThe brutal violence of the US police officer on George Floyd resulting in death has left a deep impression on me.

It is terrible to witness such scenes in the year 2020. As a man with a migration background, I know better than anyone what it feels like to be systematically subjected to police checks for no reason at all. Strangely enough, when I was young, I considered this a normality. But it's not normal. That is why the BLM movement is today engaged in a legitimate and necessary fight against racism and discrimination. But I sincerely hope that the movement doesn't lapse into what is being fought, namely racial identity thinking in which the white person in this case always has to pay the price. We just have to find allies in the broad society to fight this battle together.

We should rightly make people aware of the 'privileges' they have and the benefits they derive from a certain narrative structure, but we should not hold them individually and morally responsible for errors in thought systems of which they are the product. Racism is a structural problem and not the fault of individuals or ethnic groups. Racism requires a structural solution.

When we talk concretely about the fight against racism and discrimination, I think of two tracks: awareness raising and enforcement. If we want to conquer the hearts and minds of a broad society, we will have to make people sensitive to super-diversity. Raise awareness by, for example, providing training in the most important professional groups with an authoritative and exemplary role to teach attitudes and skills to deal with diversity. Make sure that pupils in education receive remembrance education and are made aware of our colonial past. Make business leaders sensitive to the social and economic added value of diversity in the workplace. In addition, the government can set an example by applying positive discrimination in its own institutions for equivalent qualifications. Use practical tests as a means to identify those who discriminate on the rental and labour market, to address them and, where necessary, to sanction them.

For a long time we have maintained that taking away the elements that limit an individual's freedom would automatically lead to a happy society. For example, the English philosopher John Stuart Mill stated in his book 'On Liberty'. But the French philosopher Alexis de Tocqueville predicted in the eighteenth century that these freedoms would clash. In that case, the government will have to make corrections. The diversity debate today is an example of this.

If some individuals do have freedom, but are systematically excluded because of background or skin colour, then this freedom does not have a liberating effect.

Henri Lacordaire, the French catholic-liberal Dominican and politician formulated it as follows: 'Entre le fort et le faible, entre le riche et le pauvre, entre le maître et le serviteur, c’est la liberté qui opprime, et la loi qui affrachit'. For the minority group, in some cases it is the freedom that oppresses and the law that liberates. Maybe that's why it's time to shift up a gear. We're running out of time. Every day we lose so much talented and intellectual human capital for which we as a society will pay a huge price.

In any case, as mandate-holder Diversity at Ghent University, I will do everything I can to make sure that as many people as possible with diverse backgrounds find their way to our university, and above all feel at home there.

Khalid Benhaddou

Directeur CIRRA
Coördinator Onderwijsnetwerk Islamexperten
Voorzitter Platform Vlaamse Imams en Moslimdeskundigen
Projectleider Diversiteit UGent
Lid Vlaams Vredesinstituut
Lid Commissie Medische Ethiek UZGent