Talking about racism tough but important, says author


Ahead of the Stop Racism march, we talk to author and interim children’s rights commissioner on the psychological effects of prejudice

Hiding beneath the surface

For Naima Charkaoui, racism is the proverbial elephant in the room in conversations about diversity. Because talking about racism is difficult, it’s easier for all parties involved – those who experience it and those who say or do racist things – to stay silent.

“But you can’t keep avoiding it just because it is a loaded term,” says the political scientist. “I think it’s important that we re-open the conversation, even though it’s a difficult one to have. That’s indispensable if we want to move ahead.”

Consider her new book, Racisme: Over wonden en veerkracht (Racism: About Wounds and Resilience), her attempt to get the conversation started in Flanders. It aims to make visible the mental impact of racism and to offer victims and allies advice on how to deal with it.

The book was published less than two months ago but has already been reprinted to keep up with demand. It comes just ahead of the International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination, which is today, and of the second Stop Racism march, which takes place in Brussels on Sunday.

The iceberg

In the book, Charkaoui (pictured), whose father is from Morocco, breaks down what racism is in plain language with plenty of anecdotes, scientific footnotes and one recurring metaphor – that of the iceberg. “Too often, racism is understood as the tip of an iceberg, so those things that are legally punishable and perceived by most people as racism and as not at all OK,” she explains.

For instance, physically assaulting someone because they are black or rejecting a candidate for a job because their name suggests they have migrant roots would be the tip of the iceberg.

“But when you go further down the iceberg, we’re talking about prejudices, stereotypes, imagery, terms. The more you descend below water, the more you arrive at intangible mechanisms that determine how we perceive one another, that determine the relationship between the dominant group and minorities. With the iceberg metaphor, I wanted to make visible the relationship between the tip and everything below the surface.”

While racism is a very present reality, that doesn’t mean that Flanders is racist or that all Flemings are racists

- Naima Charkaoui

Independent surveys have revealed time and again that discrimination is an everyday reality in Belgium for visible minorities, like Muslims and people of African descent. Every 10 years or so, the EU Fundamental Rights Agency conducts a broad survey across all 28 EU member states, polling 25,500 respondents with minority and immigrant backgrounds on their experiences of discrimination.

The 2015-2016 survey, the most recent one, revealed  that 49% of respondents with Turkish roots reported having experienced discrimination in Belgium in the 12 preceding months. A 2017 report from the King Boudewijn Foundation offered even starker figures, with 80% of the Belgo-Congolese, -Rwandans and -Burundians reporting having experienced discrimination, unequal treatment or racial abuse.

It’s why Charkaoui likens racism in Flanders to walking blindfolded through a field of nettles. “You can be as good as certain that you’re going to be stung by nettles, but that doesn’t mean that there aren’t any other flowers or patches without nettles,” she says. “While racism is a very present reality, that doesn’t mean that Flanders is racist or that all Flemings are racists.”

Do something (anything)

Although surveys like the FRA report help highlight how widespread discrimination is, they do little to make visible the psychological effect that recurring and even one-time experiences of racism can cause, the damage it inflicts on a person’s health and development, Charkaoui says. It’s why her number one-recommendation to victims and to those who want to help is to take action, like participating in the upcoming demonstration against racism.

“Some people might say: ‘What’s the point? There will still be racism tomorrow’. But it’s important that a lot of people are raising their voices together,” she says. “Doing something helps to break down that feeling of powerlessness, and that’s really important when it comes to self-care – both for victims of racism and those who feel concerned.”

The book was, coincidentally, published just as Charkaoui was appointed ad-interim Commissioner for Children’s rights, a post created by the government of Flanders in 1997 to oversee the local application of the UN convention on the rights of the child.

It’s important that a lot of people are raising their voices together

- Naima Charkaoui

She will fill the position until a permanent replacement is found for outgoing Commissioner Bruno Vanobbergen. Though she’s been working as a Commissioner policy adviser for four years, Charkaoui did not submit her candidacy for the post, citing work-life balance reasons.

Asked whether she’ll work to address the harmful impact of racism on children and combat institutionalised racism in the education system, she points to a study day recently organised by the Brussels-based organisation. Researchers joined education and mental health professionals to examine how the book could be of value to these sectors.

“That’s the most concrete, direct step we’re taking right now,” she says. “The idea is that after this study day, we’ll continue to examine further possibilities, what the needs are and what role the Office of the Commissioner for children’s rights can play in that.”

Racisme: Over wonden en veerkracht (€20) is published by EPO Uitgeverij

The march against racism starts at North Station at 14.00 on 24 March