Universiteit Leiden

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‘All students want to be seen and heard’

A safe place to discuss burning social issues such as racism with each other. The student workspace Space to Talk About Race and the Afro Student Association both meet this need and also organise many other activities. Three board members explain why this is necessary.

Tribute evenings in honour of pioneers such as black transgender people, a series of talks  about decolonising the curriculum, and, in pre and post COVID-19 times, big parties with music, art and culture, and where everyone is welcome. The activities organised by Space to Talk About Race (STAR) and Afro Student Association (ASA) are diverse and vary from fun, cultural evenings to lively, thought-provoking discussions about the need for a more inclusive and equal university.

Levi Ommen from ASA.

Networks work together

The networks often work together, explains Levi Ommen. She is studying Political Science and is a member of the ASA Board. The networks often organise events, such as a party or a workshop on mental health, together and sometimes with MENA , a student association with a focus on the Middle East. STAR board member Aline-Priscillia Messi, a Linguistics student, commented: ‘You don’t have to be a member of one of our networks; you can simply register for an activity if you’re interested.’ Glenn Martinus is studying International Public Management at THUAS (The Hague University of Applied Sciences), and is Chair of the ASA. This association is active at both THUAS and Leiden University. In a Zoom interview, all three emphasised that you also don’t have to be a student of colour take part in their activities.


STAR was established in 2018. The initiator, Aju Shrestha, wanted to create a safe place for students within the university where they could talk freely about ‘racialized experiences’, discuss exclusion and strengthen mutual connections. The threshold for many students of colour was, and still is, extremely high when it comes to talking about these issues. Aline-Priscillia: ‘All students want to be seen and heard. And by the way, the discussions are not necessarily always about negative experiences. What we are mainly seeking is a connection with each other.’

Levi: ‘Topics such as inclusion and diversity often turn straight into debates, but we want to be able to talk about these things in different ways.’

Aline-Priscillia Messi from STAR. Photo Monique Shaw

Support and a safe environment

Safer space meetings are important because students of colour experience unsafe situations. For example, heated discussions took place at the university about ‘Black Pete’ (a black-faced character that is part of the Saint Nicholas tradition in the Netherlands) , and students of colour were confronted with unpleasant and intimidating responses. One study association magazine recently published an inflammatory article in which the Black Lives Matter movement, and the existence of ASA and STAR and the activities they hold, were portrayed as pawns in a conspiracy intended to cause chaos and division. 

Members of the programme board and the magazine have expressly distanced themselves from the article, but students maintain that this type of incident is not a one off. They say that such incidents contribute towards an unsafe climate for students (and staff) of colour, both within and outside the university, and emphasise that it is therefore important for STA and ASA to be able to offer students support and a safe environment.

Experiences within the university

What are their own experiences within the university? Glenn: ‘I also felt unsafe at the discussion meeting about Black Pete . I was shocked that so many students expressed such strong opinions, without realising they were hurting other people’s feelings. They trivialised the problem.’ 
Aline-Priscillia: ‘It isn’t necessarily racism, but I often feel a bit isolated because I’m usually the only black person when I arrive somewhere.’ 

Code of conduct

Levi commented that there are coloured students who experience racism and exclusion, but who do not have the nerve to speak out. ‘I do want to emphasise that we are not making ourselves out to be victims. We don’t want sympathy, but we do want it to be made perfectly clear that discriminatory behaviour will not be tolerated.’

The students are therefore in favour of a code of conduct for students and staff which specifically states that racism and any form of discrimination is prohibited. There should also be consequences for any violation of the code of conduct. The D&I Expertise Office is currently discussing this with various groups within the university.

The threshold for many students of colour was, and still is, extremely high when it comes to talking about these issues.

More diversity among staff

The students would also like to see more diversity among the staff; there are very few professors of colour, for example. Aline-Priscillia: ‘It’s not just about ethnic origin, but rather diversity in every respect, such as gender and identity.

Decolonising the curriculum

In addition to small meetings, the networks also organise talks, such as a series about decolonising the curriculum. Students want to see greater variety in textbooks and syllabuses, which are written primarily by white men with a mainly western perspective. They also think that lectures should take a more decolonial perspective. The networks also invite researchers and administrators to meetings like these, because only then can any real change take place.

Student associations

None of the three are particularly interested in traditional social clubs, because you first have to feel at ease before you become a member. Glenn: ‘We’re not interested in initiations or tough introductory periods.’ How could student associations achieve greater diversity? Aline-Priscillia thinks they could attract a more diverse range of students if they came across as more open and more inclusive. Moreover, international students have the language barrier to deal with. Levi: ‘In most student associations, students prefer to speak Dutch. At ASA and STAR, there is a rule that English will be spoken in the presence of international students.’

Anti-racism week

This week is European Action Week Against Racism. How important is a week like this? Levi: Just one week is not enough, of course, but it can help to hold people’s attention.’ Aline-Priscillia: ‘Racism is often seen as a concept or an isolated insult, while in fact it is an ongoing problem. It is very painful and traumatising for people of colour. Our activities bring people together and show them they are not alone.’    

Umoja Night

The students usually create these connections at their big parties, which they miss terribly during this COVID-19 crisis. They usually organise Umoja Night, the night of unity, twice a year. Glenn: ‘On these nights we celebrate all manner of Afro-culture with great food, culture, bands and artists. The evenings attract people from all backgrounds, from all over the country. We hope it will be possible again later this year, when the lockdown is over.’

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