The current intransigence of BLM movement gives hope

(19-06-2020) For a few weeks now there has been fierce debate in society at large about racism and decolonisation. We asked three Ghent University staff members what the past few weeks meant to him.

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.

 

Professor Bruno De WeverProfessor Bruno De Wever

I look at the events of the past weeks from the perspective of historian and educator of history teachers. Coincidentally, these events ran parallel with the discussion of the final attainment levels of history education in the Flemish Parliament. As an expert, I wrote these final attainment levels and ensured that students in secundairy education, in all directions, have to learn in their history lessons about (de)colonisation from different perspectives. The perspective of the colonised will, I hope, make us understand why honours for Leopold II in public space, especially for the black diaspora, are hurtful and inappropriate.  Furthermore, this perspective can contribute to an open dialogue on past and present and to the recognition of structural racism.

At the same time, I want to warn against radicalisation in an identitarian direction in which people make a claim to the truth from their black or coloured identity and deny others the right to participate in the social debate. In that context I read a clear analysis of Abou Jahjah which I immediately recommend: 'Discrimination and racism are real, white privilege is not' (in Dutch).

© Kristof VadinoEmma-Lee Amponsah

Co-founder Black Speaks Back, member of the Belgian Network For Black Lives and PhD student in communication sciences at Ghent University.

The past few weeks made me feel a lot of things. The mobilizations around Black Lives Matter in Belgium have not only asked a lot of me intellectually, but also emotionally. As a founding member of the Belgium Network For Black Lives (BNFBL), I was closely involved in the organisation of the protest that took place on Sunday 7 June on the Place Poelaert in Brussels. I have experienced it up close and dare to say that we are at the beginning of a true revolution. But every revolutionary movement has its expiration date. For example, The Montgomery Bus boycotts lasted 382 days, but The Freedom Rides only lasted seven months. The Greensboro sit-ins continued for six months and The Birmingham movement only lasted 37 days.

The Black Lives Matter movement emerged in 2013 and, thanks in part to social media and Black Twitter, has never really disappeared among black activists. But never before has the movement been able to mobilize so many people worldwide to take to the streets and put pressure on the state and its public institutions to say goodbye to structural racism for good. We see how the movement in Belgium soon took on a character all its own with a critical look at the colonial past and its traces in the public space, school textbooks and the general balance of power in our society. There is currently a great deal of movement in various areas of society.

But if we want to seize this "momentum" to push through structural change, real change, we need not only fighting spirit and stamina, but also openness, honesty and a decent dose of critical self-reflection.

In the collection Being Imposed Upon (2020), I wrote a chapter on how imposing terms such as "decolonisation", "intersectionality" and "anti-racism" lost their radical potential as cultural houses, educational institutions and other institutions used them for their own institutional "branding". Decolonisation, intersectionality, anti-racism and now "Black Lives Matter" are mainly used as an advertising tool: a signboard in a commercialised world where the bodies of people of colour, and especially Black bodies, represent profit. The unjust sociopolitical climate - in this case, the brutal murder of George Floyd - then acts as just a backdrop against which organisations and institutions can mirror themselves as progressive change-makers. Just to promote and sell themselves - to us. By us, I mean black people - people of color. The Ugent is guilty too. Entire departments and disciplines are guilty of it. Research groups are guilty of it. Proffen are guilty of it.

While the university has a passive and meaningless diversity policy and only white confidants, students and employees of colour remain targets of the daily white supremacist, cis-heteronormative, capitalist-imperialist and patriarchal violence that the university is full of.

I therefore call on everyone who wants to mean something today to take a step back. Instead of acting immediately, first observe. Let's listen to the people at stake here. Think about your own position in this whole story: who are you in the movie in which George Floyd is suffocated for eight minutes and dies? Are you George? Are you the police officer? Are you a bystander who doesn't do anything? Maybe you're the one filming? Who are you? When you're out, fight with us, not for us. Don't write about us, write with us. Don't investigate us. Just recruit us and trust us.

Julie CarlierDr. Julie Carlier

I doubted very much whether I should take the floor in this contribution, because my experience or vision, as a white, privileged employee of the university, should not be the focus of attention now, on the contrary. But it is also unfair to burden the active anti-racist work - which must go far beyond cosmetic interventions in function of "diversity" - solely on the shoulders of the affected students and employees belonging to socialized minorities at our university.

I would like to share my own learning process as a teacher, because it is my students who have been demanding the decolonisation of the university for several years now.

Decolonisation is not a diversity checklist you can finish: it is the daily work of questioning the university as a white institute and the knowledge that is created and taught there. It is questioning my own (unconscious) role in the reproduction of structural racism, no matter how unintentional.

It is students like my current colleague, Emma-Lee Amponsah (also co-founder of the collective Black Speaks Back), who in recent years, in my lessons on the history of feminism, have fundamentally criticized the white, Western story that I put at the centre of my lessons, taking me out of my comfort zone. As Olivia Rutazibwa states, we have to embrace this unease: decolonisation of the curriculum (and of society in general), is destabilising work and an ongoing learning process. It's about actively "learning" from what I learned on the university benches, and focusing on the voices and perspectives that were excluded in that white story. Why do we learn the "classics" such as the work of Max Weber, but not that of the Afro-American sociologist WEB Dubois (1868-1963)? And the story of the French Revolution, but not that of the much more radical Haitian Revolution in the same period? (With thanks to my colleague Koen Bogaert for teaching me this history.)

I started reviewing my own syllabus last year and will continue that work in the coming years, together with my students, from whom I sometimes have more to learn than the other way around.

The current intransigence of BLM movement gives me hope, and as a feminist I find inspiration in the demands for decolonization - rooted in a centuries-old social, political and intellectual tradition of resistance against white, Western, male dominance - because this perspective connects what is separated in the mainstream story: feminism and anti-racism, social struggle and climate action, the problems in our Belgian society and global inequality. Without that connection, any striving for a more just society is doomed to fail in my eyes.