“Institutional racism is a Dutch problem too”

The institutional racism that killed George Floyd is not just a U.S. problem, Tilburg University scientist Byron Adams says. “Being a person of Color in the Netherlands is also a struggle against prejudice, discrimination and systemic racism – and now is the time to talk about that.” 

Foto: Jules van Iperen

Protest in Tilburg. Photo: Jules van Iperen

As hundreds of anti-racist protesters gathered in the city center of Tilburg this month, the handwritten messages they carried through the streets were simple: “Stop racism.” “Enough is enough.” “End white supremacy.” “Silence is violence.” “Black lives matter.”

But according to Byron Adams, who is an Assistant Professor of Psychology at Tilburg University, addressing racial injustice is far from simple. It is profoundly complex and uncomfortable – especially in a country where racism is often declared “non-existent” or reduced to a matter of “how you look at it.” 

The institutional racism that killed George Floyd is hardly unique to America, Adams says. It exists here, too. “While many might say, “well, it’s about how you look at it,” if anything, it’s a matter of who looks at it. If you are a person of Color, the question of institutional racism in the Netherlands isn’t a question at all. It’s a reality,” he explains in a Zoom call from his home in Tilburg.

Zwarte Piet

Adams is originally from Johannesburg in South Africa, where he says racial injustice often manifests itself in more blatant ways than in the Netherlands. “What’s complicated about the Dutch context is that racism is built into the system in very subtle, covert ways. It’s built into the system in such a way that people with Islamic sounding names may have more difficulty being invited for job interviews, and in such a way that people of Color are portrayed and perceived as more nefarious than others. If you’re not a recipient of those forms of racism, it’s very easy to think it’s not there.”

Byron Adams

Byron Adams

When he came to Tilburg University as a PhD candidate ten years ago, Adams did not expect to be confronted with the more covert forms of discrimination and prejudice that he was unfamiliar with as a South African.

“In South Africa, you know when you are subjected to racism. You know because it’s obvious. Here, the language of racism is more eloquent. That was really shocking for me to experience because it was a new language that I had to learn.”

“I remember the first time I was exposed to Zwarte Piet, which was a truly unbelievable experience for me,” he recalls. “When I asked questions about it, I was given all these explanations and reasons why Zwarte Piet is not a racist stereotype. I was told that he is black because he goes through the chimney.

“But if it’s the chimney soot that blackens his skin, then why is he black all over, why do his lips come out thick and red, why is he suddenly wearing golden earrings, why does he have curly black hair? To me, Zwarte Piet is a very racist depiction of Black people, but it is presented in sophisticated language that is used to distract people from the issue of race.”

Subjected to tolerance

Adams, whose psychology research at Tilburg University focuses on identity and diversity, has studied the experiences of Black people in the Netherlands. “One of the things that I find quite interesting is that people of Color are very often subjected to experiences of tolerance.”

“But tolerance does not necessarily mean acceptance or inclusion. It’s about existing within a certain environment, often at the fringes without being truly a part of it. In my understanding, that is how many people of Color may be treated in Dutch society,” Adams says. “I talk about ‘people of Color’ to be inclusive of all non-White immigrants, whether they are of Moroccan, Turkish, Antillean, Asian, or African descent.”

Foto: Jules van Iperen

Photo: Jules van Iperen

In addition to experiences of being “tolerated,” Adams says, people of Color may daily face prejudice, discrimination, stereotyping, microaggressions, and racism in the Netherlands. And as common as those experiences are, they are not commonly talked about.

“For people of Color, it’s very difficult to talk about racial experiences outside of their safe spaces – which is their trusted friends, family, and other people of Color. It’s difficult because there’s always backlash,” Adams explains. In this Univers article, terms that describe an ethnicity, ethnic community or cultural group have been capitalized at the request of Byron Adams. He explained that while using the lowercase “black” or “white” refers just to a color, Black with a capital B signifies a history and an identity. He mentioned that, at some level, he was conflicted to conduct this interview because he expects backlash for talking about these issues.

“If you talk about your experiences, you’re often told that you are being too sensitive. Or you are accused of racism for drawing attention to racial issues. As crazy as that sounds, it happens all the time – I can’t tell you how many times I have been called the racist by White people in the Netherlands for bringing up my experiences of racism.”

Black Lives Matter

With a White majority that doesn’t see the problem and a non-White minority that is tired of explaining the problem, there seems little hope of change. “To be honest with you, I often wonder whether there is any hope for humanity when it comes to getting out of this system of oppression,” Adams says. “In some ways, yes, we have moved forward. But it’s 2020, and racism is still an issue. It’s a major issue.”

In the wake of George Floyd’s violent death, the Black Lives Matter movement has done more than spark demonstrations across the world – it has also sparked conversations. That’s a hopeful step forward, Adams says, even given his reservations about discussing these issues. “In the ten years that I’ve lived in the Netherlands, I have never had more conversations about racial injustice with White people than at this very moment.”

“Now would be a time to really listen to the experiences of people of Color”

Black Lives Matter can bring attention to voices that have long been neglected, silenced, and muted in our society. “Now would be a time to really listen to the experiences of people of Color, and to keep that conversation going so that we can change the system,” Adams says. “If there’s something that the Black Lives Matter movement can bring, I believe it’s a greater awareness of the plights and struggles that people of Color face, often daily.” 

Not just an American problem

More than standing in solidarity with American protesters, Adams hopes that people will stand up and confront institutional racism in their own environments. “I think it’s a great thing that the Black Lives Matter movement is becoming increasingly more visible in the Netherlands. It’s absolutely magnificent that so many people are joining the protests to express their solidarity.”

 “At the same time, it’s important to realize that police brutality and systemic racism are not only American problems,” Adams adds. “It takes different forms in different contexts, but I can tell you that institutional racism is just as much a problem in South Africa, in Europe, in the Netherlands, in Tilburg.”

“Institutional racism is just as much a problem in the Netherlands”

One of the biggest challenges the Black Lives Matter movement faces in the Netherlands, Adams says, is that institutional racism is still not part of the public debate in this country. When prime minister Mark Rutte was recently asked whether institutional racism is real in the Netherlands, he responded by brushing it off as “sociological jargon.”

That makes it all the more difficult to confront problems of racism, Adams says. “If there is no open dialogue about racism, it becomes tough for a movement like Black Lives Matter to sustain itself in this country. Unless we start a discussion, and unless we start educating people about issues of privilege, of social injustice, of institutionalized racism, we are not going to move forward.”

More scientists of Color

The university has a vital role to play in educating the public when it comes to issues of race, racism and culture, Adams says. “We need more people of Color in science.”

Universities have been working hard to achieve more gender diversity, by creating positions and awareness for women in science. “That’s a great thing to do, and it stresses the fact that there is a need for diverse voices within science. And in terms of cultural, racial, and ethnic diversity, those voices are still missing,” Adams explains.

“We need more people of Color in science”

“Within the scientific community, there seems to be a lack of knowledge about the experiences of people of Color. To rectify that, we need to create more space for diversity. We need to make sure that the voices of scientists of Color are coming to the fore when it comes to asking questions about the experiences of people of Color.” 


In a country where racial injustice is built into the very frameworks of society, the path to change is slow. According to Adams, education is the fastest – and perhaps the only – way out of systems of racial injustice. And if the government won’t educate people, there are always opportunities for people to educate themselves.

“There’s a book I recently finished called White Fragility by Robin DiAngelo. She explores why discussions about race and racism are so problematic and uncomfortable and how we can overcome those challenges and have an open dialogue,” Adams says. “If I could advise Univers readers who want to learn more about racial injustice and systemic racism, I would advise them to read this book. It’s a perfect place to start.”Byron Adams is an Assistant Professor at Tilburg University, the Netherlands, Visiting Professor at Ghent University, Belgium, and Senior Research Associate at the University of Johannesburg, South Africa. He works on identity, inclusion, and diversity across cultures, contexts, and lifespans and is a board member of the committee Cultural Diversity (NIP). His comments for this interview are independent of all the institutions he is affiliated with. This interview is a reflection of his personal experiences as a person of Color.

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