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VUB fellow Dalilla Hermans: ‘I’m simply recording what’s happening’
Five years ago, Dalilla Hermans published an open letter on a then little-known news site describing her experiences growing up and living in Flanders. Born in Rwanda but adopted by a Flemish couple as a toddler, Hermans catalogued the verbal and physical abuse she’d been through over the years, in chilling detail.
The letter was raw, emotional and it touched a nerve. It became the first in a chain of events that have today made Hermans, 33, one of Flanders’ prime commentators when it comes to matters of race.
She is perhaps the most visible, and decidedly the best-known, of a crop of activists, writers and academics – many of them young women – who’ve forced Flanders to start talking about race in recent years.
Today Hermans has a much bigger audience – she’s a columnist for the Flemish newspaper De Standaard, has authored three books and is working on a play – but her subjects as a writer are still the same. “Almost every writer shares their experience. You look at the world in a certain way, and my experiences colour what I write,” she says. “To a lot of people, I sound like an activist, but, as far as I’m concerned, I’m simply recording what’s happening.”
Together with 21 other personalities from the business, sport, political and other sectors, Hermans was recently bestowed with the title of “fellow” by the Vrije Universiteit Brussel (VUB). Launched in 2012, the VUB Fellowship programme aims to promote exchanges between the university and society at large.
The theme for this year’s selection of fellows, who will remain on for three years, was “inclusivity and diversity”. Hermans thinks she was chosen because VUB saw a kindred spirit in her, someone who talks but also listens.
“Even though people really called me names so many times and just came after me so hard, I always tried to keep saying: ‘OK, we need to talk about this’,” she says, referring to the blowback she received after stating in a primetime news show that the folkloric figure of Zwarte Piet was racist and offensive. “I think that’s the attitude the VUB also wants to have: to celebrate diversity without shutting the door toward having a conversation.”
Over the next three years, Hermans wants to encourage researchers but also students to investigate more topics related to diversity and discrimination. In addition to giving guest lectures at the university, she also wants to share with researchers the insights and knowledge she’s acquired over five years of anti-racism work.
But she also hopes she’ll be able to correct perceptions of universities as bastions for the elite. “If you didn’t attend a university, it can seem like such a high threshold to cross,” she says, pointing out that she’s always felt insecure about not finishing her own university studies.
“I hope that I can make youth or adults who think university is not for them think of universities as an opportunity. There is such a wealth of knowledge in these buildings that can enrich you, so make sure you’re in there.”
Although institutions like VUB draw a lot of ethnic minority students, the racial imbalance in higher education is pyramid-shaped. There are few PhD and postdoc researchers with ethnic minority backgrounds, and hardly any racial diversity among university professors and administrators.
According to Hermans, for universities to become truly diverse, they need to rethink their offer so it’s less Eurocentric and more reflective of all students’ interests. It’s not enough to simply invite minorities in – a point she also made during her keynote speech during the recent fellowship ceremony in Brussels.
“If in my course about sociology I had, for instance, seen how the civil rights movement in the US had impacted the country’s sociological tissue maybe I would still be studying sociology.”
Pointing out that 65% of under-25s in her native Antwerp have an ethnic minority background, she says that university curricula can’t exclusively be targeted at the remaining 35% of white people. “You can’t expect young people to be interested in a one-way type of diversity. Sort of like: ‘You can come here, you can sit here, you can listen, and you can talk, but you’ll never be the topic of discussion.’ That just won’t work.”
Broadening things out would be a win for everyone, she adds, because white, middle-class youth also stand to gain from learning more about the histories of – and the issues affecting – ethnic minorities. She gives the example of someone who posts pictures of themselves dressed up as Zwarte Piet to their Facebook page, someone who’s never thought twice about the figure and who has never heard about blackface.
“And then they get a job offer in the US – they can forget about it,” she says, pointing out that any US recruiter would rescind their offer after having seen such photos. “For these youngsters, too, it’s important to know that history and to know how the world works and how people outside this country think. Really, we’re doing them a disservice, too, by not talking about these things.”
Photo: Linda A Thompson