My mother saw her Jewish classmates disappear from the Rotterdam Gymnasium in WWII. Every remark about human race was put into that horrible perspective at home, as it should. So much so that when a Swiss friend made a joke about someone's nose, recently, I snapped at him and cooled the friendship.
Also at home, we played a gramophone record with songs and conversations between Saint Nicholas and Black Pete. Pete had an accent and was not the smartest of the two. Saint Nicholas television hinged on blundering black helpers. Children are the easiest to indoctrinate, I think. The Dutch prime minister Rutte almost sees that now: festivity traditions fly under the radar. Even my parents overlooked that racism. But I honestly don't know if, as a child, I made the connection between Black Pete and black people.
The prettiest girl in high school had a visible splash of Indonesia in her genes. Last year she told me she had been bullied with it - out of jealousy, I guess. As I had sometimes been called ‘Spectacles-Jew’ because of my high grades and glasses. Origin and pecking order did not correlate at my otherwise colourless school, fortunately. My junior mentor advocated that all children are equal. My parents taught me that all people are different, but also that everyone has equal rights and should be treated equally. Utrecht University was just as colourless as my fraternity.
So I could very easily turn out to be a racist. And now I'm working at the not-so-diverse TU Delft, where the Board of Directors set up a central diversity office last year and wants to do even more about it - just like the quite-diverse Works Council. But what?
‘People with and without colour gave us hostile stares when we ambled along 5th Avenue’
My last ex grew up in a city in Hungary, as the child of a coloured father and a colourless mother. Dark eyes, frizzy hair, tall, strong, beautiful and gifted. The centre of attention, never the victim. Perhaps racism doesn‘t exist in such a country, without a history of slavery or people of colour? Later she attended college in Paris. No problem. Got a top job in London. Then New York City - and bingo. Every time that surprised look when people first heard her polished British English. The fact that she wasn’t a secretary, but a team leader, shocked almost every new colleague. People with and without colour gave us hostile stares when we ambled along 5th Avenue.
Even in the Netherlands you don‘t see many mixed couples on the street, I learned to see through her eyes. My colourless friends asked her where she came from, over drinks. After the USA, she interpreted that as racist micro-aggression. ‘You look different, you don’t belong here’, was what she heard. Exposure to racism had put her on edge, just as my upbringing had sensitized me to anti-Semitism.
Am I a racist? Yes, because I think all individuals and all groups of people are different, no matter what you test or measure, no matter how you select the groups. And no, because I don't believe that groups of people are superior or inferior to each other - I think all those colours and differences are pure enrichment.
So let’s get to work! A lot will have to be done to banish the poison that is racism, also at the TU Delft.
Dr Menno Blaauw is IMS manager at the Reactor Institute, after 20 years as a scientist there. He is also a member of the Work’s Council.