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Tribute to Black Achievement Month

Published on 23-11-2022
During Black Achievement Month the exceptional talents of people from African backgrounds are highlighted. With this year's theme "Imagine!" the organisers wanted to emphasise visual rather than verbal communication.
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Black Achievement Month is also known as a month-long festival. This is usually the month of October, during which exceptional talents of people from African backgrounds are highlighted. Every year there is a specific theme. This year the theme was "Imagine!". With this, the organizers of Black Achievement Month wanted to emphasise visual rather than verbal communication. Throughout October, there were several events you could attend, including theatre performances, visual art exhibitions, films, and dance performances. These events took place in Almere, Amsterdam, The Hague, Leiden, Utrecht, Rotterdam and Middelburg. Besides this beautiful creative side of Black Achievement Month, room is also made for social debates and discussions. Furthermore, several awards are handed out every year. Black Achievement Month is a similar celebration to "Black History Month", which is celebrated in several countries/regions (e.g. The United States, Canada, England and the Caribbean).

For Black Achievement Month 2022, the Diversity and Inclusion Committee of the Department of Pedagogical and Educational Sciences, asked one of its black students to share her reflections and experiences in the context of this festival.

1. Can you tell us something about yourself?

My name is Seyna Diop (22 years old), and I am in my third year of the bachelor's degree in Pedagogical Sciences. I also work as a student assistant at the education desk of Child Development and Education (CDE, or POW in Dutch) of the the Faculty of Social and Behavioural Sciences at the University of Amsterdam (UvA). I was born and raised in the center of Amsterdam. To be precise, I grew up on De Kadijken, near the Artis Zoo. My mother is (ethnically) Dutch, and my father is Senegalese. I grew up with both parents and therefore inherited both cultures in my upbringing. Although I was brought up more Western, than Senegalese, I have always been proud of my ethnic background. Especially now that my father passed away a year ago, I feel very connected to Senegal and Senegalese culture.

These days, I live on my own in Amsterdam-Zuid, where I share a flat with my sister.

2. Last October was Black Achievement Month. Can you share what this means to you?

I have never given much thought to the existence of Black Achievement Month. Visiting and viewing art made by artists from African backgrounds and attending debates on ethnic diversity are activities I have been familiar with from a young age. Of course, it is not natural for everyone, regardless of ethnic background, to be exposed to art and culture or attend or participate in debates around ethnic diversity from an early age. I myself grew up in a family from the art world. For instance, my grandfather was the director of the Tropen Museum and the Van Abbemuseum. Furthermore, my grandmother's aunt was the wife of Theo van Doesburg (founder of the art movement 'De Stijl', early 20th century). This put me in touch with all kinds of different forms of art from an early age. In addition, since I can remember, my parents consciously took me to activities and events where the audience was always very ethnically diverse. The topic of ethnic diversity was also a topic of conversation at dinner early in my childhood. Such a rich cultural upbringing in terms of art and culture (created by black artists, among others) is not experienced by everyone, so I think it is beautiful and important that Black Achievement Month exists.

During Black Achievement Month, the focus is on the achievements of Black people and positive aspects of our history, rather than often recurring themes such as slavery and/or victimisation (a topic such as the colonial past) in politics or the educational curriculum, for example. Black people can also be successful, lessons can be drawn from 'Black culture', and Black people are also intelligent. Let me provide an example to clarify this last statement. Unfortunately, there are several stereotypes associated with having a black skin colour. For instance, people are often less likely to expect a Black person to be highly educated or, as a Black person, you are approached with a different language tone (simplification of sentences and less use of difficult words). These examples I cite are from my own life but also stories of Black people. I am glad that Black Achievement Month turns its back on these stereotypes and shows that Black people have much more to offer than is sometimes thought.

3. Were you aware that the winners of last year's and this year’s Black Achievement Award (in the category: "Science & Education") are professors from the (AMC) UvA: Dr Sennay Ghebreab and Dr Charles Agyemang? How does that make you feel?

I didn't know this, but it makes me feel good! In general, I see few professors at the University of Amsterdam (UvA) who resemble me in terms of skin colour, so I don't have any lecturers I can identify with. I am now in the final year of my bachelor's and have only been taught by one Black professor so far. I was surprised to see a Black woman, specifically Dr Ivy Defoe, standing in front of me. Not because I had never seen a Black professor before in my life, but because I had never seen a Black professor at UvA. This experience made it clear to me how important it is for students to be able to identify with their professors. Such an experience allowed me for the first time (since  studying-  at the UvA) to imagine being in a similar position in the future. Rationally, you know that this is possible anyway if you work hard for it, but the thought is less likely to occur to you when you don't see professors of a (more or less) similar cultural background around you. That two Black professors at my own university won this award shows that there are professors at my university with an ethnic background other than western and white, who stand out and are appreciated by an audience outside the UvA. This makes me feel proud and also gives me an extra study motivation.

4. Speaking of achievements, what are some accomplishments you are proud of and what are your plans in terms of your career in the future?

I am proud of my perseverance and the way I believe in my own abilities. In primary school, my teacher wanted to give me a “vmbo-kader” educational track recommendation, while the rest of my classmates were given havo/vwo recommendations for secondary school. In the end, I scored at a havo level on my Cito final test and went on to do havo educational track. This went so well for me that I was asked several times if I wanted to do a vwo educational track, but my answer was always 'no'. I loved havo and wanted to experience HBO, as one gets more practical experience there.

My primary school teacher underestimated me, something that hit me hard at the time, but my subsequent achievements made me extra proud as a result. Unfortunately, this is an experience many other black youth share with me. I found this out by talking to other Black young people and their experiences around school advice and the Cito final test, but also through a documentary I watched in 2017. In the Dutch documentary 'Ik alleen in de klas'External link ('Me alone in the classroom') by Junger (2016) a group of young people share the racist experiences they went through at school. This is a documentary I recommend everyone to watch, as the young people share their own experiences in detail, making it easier to empathise as a non-Black person. Besides watching this documentary, this topic was also discussed during the first year of my studies in the course 'Introduction to Educational Sciences', an additional confirmation of the inequality in education in terms of the recommendations that are being provided concerning the educational tracks in secondary schools.

After secondary school, I attended two studies at the HvA; I obtained a propaedeutic certificate for both studies: Commercial Economics and HBO Law. I am proud of this! With both HBO studies, I knew pretty quickly that I didn't want to finish the studies, but I am not a quitter, so I believed that I should at least pass my first year. I then went on to study Pedagogical Sciences at the UvA. The transition from HBO to university is a big one; at university, the pace is much faster, you rely more on self-study, you hardly have any holidays (which means fewer moments of rest), and there are higher expectations. Fortunately, I liked this challenge and was looking for this. Nevertheless, it is still a tough transition, so I am proud to have passed all my subjects in my first year.

At the beginning of my second year of study (2021-2022) at the UvA, I lost my father. A terrible and very sad event. But after two months, I decided to continue my studies after all. I completed my undergraduate internship that year with an 8.5 and did my utmost to keep up the entire academic year. In the end, I did not pass all my subjects, and the pressure I put on myself was perhaps a bit too much. But I am still proud of myself.

I am a go-getter; in a system that is not always open to (Black) women and does not always take into account the growing performance pressure that our generation faces. When I walk around the UvA or sit in my lecture hall, I am sad to see almost no one who looks like me, but I am glad that at least someone of my skin colour is sitting there, even if I am often that one person.

I see the future as bright because in my field of study many people are needed in the workforce. I also think it is important to be able to offer as much diversity as possible in my future work field, by which I mean diversity in personnel in different areas, such as gender, cultural background, age, socio-economic status and in terms of your own upbringing. I believe that with my mixed background, I bring added value with me as an employee within Youth Care. As it may already be clear, I would like to work in  practice. What exactly I want to do is still unclear, but I most likely want to work with young people in detention or young people dealing with human traffickers.

5. You are both a student and an employee (student assistant) of the UvA. How do you experience this?

I am actually very happy to be working at my own educational institution. This gives me a 'look behind the scenes', which provides me with more insight into the way the UvA works, what lecturers might encounter, what different opportunities there are for students and how students from my faculty experience the UvA. In addition, working as a student assistant at the UvA is nice because your study programme and study load are taken into account in your work planning.

Before I came to work at the UvA, I hardly ever visited the campus. This was largely because I started my studies during corona and therefore had almost entirely online classes. But apart from the 'corona situation', I was not looking forward to going to UvA. My job at the UvA made me feel more familiar with the UvA than before.

I, therefore, recommend every student to keep an eye on the vacancies for student assistants. There are great projects and positions among them; I myself got my job by applying for a vacancy I found on Canvas.

6. How do you feel about ethnic diversity representation among UvA students and staff, and did ethnic diversity play a role for you in choosing a university? Why or why not?

Amsterdam is known as the most multicultural city in the Netherlands. I myself have always experienced Amsterdam that way, which is why I love my city. You always come across people of different cultures, religions and skin colours. As a result, there is a lot to learn from each other; after all, not everyone has the same values and standards or adopts the same lifestyle. I experience this as wealth, because you can have an 'international experience' in your own city. I would want to grant these experiences to every student who decides to study in Amsterdam. What better place to have these experiences than on the campus of your own university, where you come to almost every day. So this is one of the reasons why ethnic diversity at a university (in the heart of Amsterdam) is important to me.

Besides the great things you can learn from students from different ethnic backgrounds, ethnic diversity also brings other benefits. With more ethnic diversity, there will be less talk of ethnic minorities possibly feeling uncomfortable at their own university. Let me give an example to illustrate this. I always feel I have to fit in in a room full of white people and pay extra attention to what I say, how I behave and how I dress. Something also called '(racial) code-switching'; a situation in which Black people adapt themselves to the dominant group (white people), in order to avoid stereotyping and thus more easily achieve their (professional) goals (Durkee et al., 2021). I get uncomfortable entering a lecture hall where the population does not resemble how I know Amsterdam.

A former UvA student chose 'The influence of the perception of ethnic diversity on students' sense of home at the UvA' as his thesis topic in 2016 (Beerthuis, 2016). His research shows that students from non-western backgrounds experience interactions with students, professors, the curriculum and other services, as more negative than students from Western backgrounds. This is a subjective perception, but the research clearly shows that non-Western students feel less at home at the UvA than students from Western backgrounds (Beerthuis, 2016). This was briefly explained by the less diverse composition of the population at the university, but also by the aforementioned negative interactions. I can certainly relate to this, as when I get into a conversation with a Black student at the UvA, the first topic of the conversation is usually the limited ethnic diversity of the UvA (in a negative way). Whereas, when I tell some fellow Western students that I am participating in this interview, they indicate that they have never thought about the ethnic diversity of the UvA until then. There are also some students, such as a white colleague of mine, who started  talking on her own about how 'white' she actually finds the UvA and how uncomfortable she can sometimes feel about it. For example, she gave an example where she walked into a lecture hall and saw only white, blonde girls sitting there and felt a sense of shame about  this. So I am not alone in noticing this lack of diversity, not only among students but, unfortunately also among UvA’s staff. This last point again ties in with the importance of being able to identify  with the people who share their knowledge with you (question 3).

Fortunately, the UvA is now more committed to inclusion and equity through the 'Diversity document 2019External link'. I think this is a great initiative and may also receive more attention in practice. For instance, I had honestly never heard about the UvA's 'Central Diversity Office' or mentoring programmes for ethnic minorities. I found  this information out because I wanted to use this interview to do more research on what the UvA is currently doing to create more ethnic diversity. I think it is important to show this side of the UvA more, by giving explicit attention to the mentoring programmes, for example, during 'Build your Future' meetings; Open Days; a seminar; the Introduction week and by means of posters on campus.

For me, the UvA was honestly not my first choice, purely because of the stigma surrounding it: the UvA is the 'white' university of Amsterdam. This is a stigma among ethnic minorities, but also among certain white young people. For example, my best friend (ethnically Dutch) explicitly did not choose the UvA because of the stigma about its limited ethnic diversity. I myself eventually chose the UvA because of the Pedagogical Sciences study programme, but then that was my only reason. I had a very bad experience at HBO, which I would like to share with you, to show why a less ethnically diverse university did not appeal to me. As mentioned earlier, I obtained two first year degrees at HVA: Commercial Economics and Law. My first class (in Commercial Economics) consisted mainly of white boys. Unfortunately, in this class, I experienced situations with students and teachers where I felt very uncomfortable and even discriminated against. I was seen as 'different' and treated as such. An example situation: during a tutorial, a teacher once asked me what the Dutch culture is about. I wanted to share my opinion on this, but the lecturer cut me off in the middle of my story: "Yes, but you can't really answer this question, because you belong to a subgroup. You don't understand a lot of things. For example, you also use other products for your hair, right? Those greasy things and so on...". I clammed up in  shock, first: how dare she address me that way and second: what did my hair have to do with this, and why did she bring this up at all! Then two of my classmates, with whom I did get along well with, pointed out that such a remark was unacceptable and racist. The whole class countered this, finding it ridiculous that these two students called this racist and said they were acting up. There was even laughter...At the end of this class, the teacher walked up to the students who stood up for me and the teacher apologised to them, but to me, the teacher never said a word...This is just one example of the many racist experiences I went through that year.

This experience created my fear of ending up in a white class again, and it was not only this experience that created this fear. The various experiences I went through in workplaces, everyday life, primary school and even with my own white family (from my mother's side) also made me often feel uncomfortable in social spaces  where the majority is white.

After my first meeting with my UvA mentor class, I cried because (almost) everyone in my class was white. Apparently, my negative experience at HBO had made such an impact on me that I was upset by the ethnic composition of my new mentor class. Through this example, I hope to give you an idea of what such a negative experience can do to you as a person and what kind of negative thinking patterns can emerge from such a situation, where you clearly feel like a minority and are treated that way.

 I want to add to this negative story a positive one about my experience at the HvA; my second class at HvA (-law) was much more mixed in terms of ethnicity and gender, and there was acceptance and mutual understanding for all. Because of this class, I had another pleasant experience in higher education.

7. How do you think we can make the UvA more diverse in terms of ethnicity?

This is a good but also difficult question. I think there are a number of options to make the UvA more attractive to young people from different ethnic backgrounds. First, more information sessions could be held at secondary schools, where the majority of students have a non-Western background. I also think having students from different cultural backgrounds give the information sessions at these schools is important. This would allow high school students to identify with UvA students. Secondly, the programmes the UvA already offers around ethnic diversity could be advertised more. Third, the UvA could explicitly celebrate months such as Black History Month and Black Achievement Month. Thus, certain discussions, symposia and activities could take place during those months, organised from within the UvA. That way, as a Black UvA student, I would feel more seen. The leaflets and programmes of these months could also be handed out on campus. That way, the UvA can make it clear in a more conspicuous way that it considers ethnic diversity important and wants and dares to dwell on the topic of diversity. Now, this is not equally familiar to all students; for example, I myself (as part of an ethnic minority group) did not know about the diversity note before participating in this interview. Fourth, the UvA could make lecturers and researchers from diverse ethnic backgrounds more visible, or in the spotlight, so that potential students can identify with UvA lecturers from diverse ethnic backgrounds.

In short, I think it is important for the UvA to give more frequent and public attention  to promoting ethnic diversity at the UvA itself. So that all students at the UvA, regardless of their ethnic background, can feel at home. In this way, the UvA could possibly attract more ethnically diverse students and thus get rid of the stigma of 'white university' more easily.

For more information on Black Achievement Month in the Netherlands, see: www.blackachievementmonth.nlExternal link.

The link to the documentary of 'Me alone in the classroom': https://www.2doc.nl/documentaires/2017/05/ik-alleen-in-de-klas.htmlExternal link

Durkee, M. I., Smith, R. E., Robotham, K. J., & Lee, S. S. L. (2021). To be, or not to be . .Black: The effects of racial codeswitching on perceived professionalism in the workplace. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 97, 104199. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jesp.2021.104199External link

Beerthuis, S. (2016). Are we UvA?: An investigation into the influence of perceptions of ethnic diversity on students' sense of home at the University of Amsterdam. aswjournal. https://aswjournal.nl/wp-content/uploads/2016/10/BachelorscriptieASW_Sharda_Beerthuis.pdf (pdf)

Durkee, M. I., Smith, R. E., Robotham, K. J., & Lee, S. S. L. (2021). To be, or not to be . .Black: The effects of racial codeswitching on perceived professionalism in the workplace. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 97, 104199. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jesp.2021.104199External link

https://www.uva.nl/en/about-the-uva/about-the-university/diversity-and-inclusion/policy-framework/policy-framework.htmlExternal link

Photo: Seyna in Dakar, Senegal (Summer 2022), photographer @Sheiraf_photographeExternal link