Max de Ploeg
In Max de Ploeg’s article, 'No democratisation without decolonisation’, co-authored with his brother Chris de Ploeg, he describes his experience mobilising with the University of Colour and gives distinct insight into the intricacies of the student movement and some of the politics behind the scenes of the Maagdenhuis occupation in University of Amsterdam (UvA) in 2015.
On the 30th April 2020, Nell Buckley, an intern with The Decolonisation Group at Utrecht University, spoke with the activist and community organiser about his experience bringing issues of racism, diversity, and decolonisation to the fore of debate in the Netherlands. Below is the transcript of this discussion which has been edited for clarity and length.
Becoming an activist
Nell: I was reading through your profile on the Aralez website and you are a person who wears many different hats; ‘a community builder, grassroots organiser, moderator, musician, and public speaker’. You have a lot of experience under your belt and that’s obvious too from the ‘No democratisation without decolonisation’ testimony. Could you speak about when it was you first became an activist, when you first encountered decolonial theory, and how you got to where you are today?
Max: Yeah so with that kind of thing, it’s always difficult to pinpoint a specific moment. In some families you are raised politically. I mean, I know some people in the UK who as children went to a ‘Malcom X’ Weekend School so they have really been brought up politically in a decolonial and anticolonial fashion. This is also common amongst the Filipino community and diaspora here in Utrecht where they have a political centre as well. But I was not raised with this kind of politics and of course did not receive it via the educational institutions so in that sense it didn’t come from the household or the institutional world.
What I can say is that I grew up with a certain attitude. My father is a social lawyer so he has a strong sense of justice and is always trying to help people. I’m from a mixed background, basically half-Armenian, quarter Dutch and also quarter Portuguese-Jewish. I was raised to believe that you have to do right, but that doesn’t mean you can’t still have blind spots. I think this mixed background made me open to listening to injustices. I think your attitude and the family you are born into can really impact if you become political or not.
When I really came into touch with fundamental system critiques was when I was 18 and I had a gap year. I didn’t know what I wanted to do after my studies and I was getting familiar with the prison-industrial complex in the U.S. I saw a documentary on this and what really struck me about it was, I mean I knew there were problems in the world and inequalities, but it showed me that the institutional arrangements were set up in a way that perpetuated injustice because there were interests behind it. Getting to know the systemic way racism was part of the institutional frameworks was for me a reason to become politicised. Immediately after watching the documentary, I started a group called ‘Keeping it Rational’. It was a Facebook group where together with my brother I would share news articles, documentaries, readings, book tips about things written by people that were critically engaged - people like Noam Chomsky, Naomi Klein, people coming from that critical angle that would critique the system. Every week we would share posts about the news. In school they only tell you about the daily events so you don’t usually get to analyse them through a system or a historical lens. It was through the Facebook group I got to know more about the war in Iraq which was also a very important event for me. It was such a widely known war but then if you look closer to the damage we have done to the country; interests were there - the oil companies had all sorts of contacts and deals before we went in. And in terms of infrastructure, the damage has been so huge to the country. So that was also a politicising event. Understanding how interests play a role in the way injustice is perpetuated is what politicised me.
From sharing these news articles in this online group, I got the urge to start organising and become more active so while I was studying, I joined several groups that made attempts at smaller actions and things. I went from learning about these issues to wanting to create change and spread awareness in a practical form. This of course then took another leap when the (Maagdenhuis) occupation happened. From then on, I just became a full-time organiser and I’ve never stopped. From that network I’ve continued to organise until now.
This job came about from the urgency I saw that organisation needs to be there. I didn’t actually know that what I was doing was a job. What is funny is that I don’t even think I’d want to be an organiser if there were many (other) people wanting to organise because I love learning and stuff. The first few years I was a volunteer because I saw no one else really doing that part, but since Maagdenhuis I’ve become a full-time organiser.
While I was at the university I realised, if you want to get things done, you need to arrange meetings, plan actions etc. before something can happen. A lot of the work of what an organiser is doing is boring… I mean you have the ideological and abstract ideas and things you want to change, but you’re not going to get there if you don’t answer emails, go to meetings, make minutes – do the practical things. I didn’t actively choose to be an organiser, it just happened because I thought, ‘if nobody picks up this task at this moment of the occupation nothing will happen with what we are doing here. It’s just going to be a gathering of people and then what?’ So that was really the motivation to just do it. It just needed to be done…
The University of Colour
Nell: You mentioned the Maagdenhuis occupation. This was not only a major milestone for you but a demonstration that caught the entire world’s attention in 2015. Reading back on reports and watching videos of the protests, there was tremendous energy and remarkable momentum at the time. In the testimony you write about someone describing the demonstration as a ‘liberation’ of the university buildings rather than an occupation. Maagdenhuis was where the University of Colour was founded, right? In the testimony you write, ‘the creation and existence of autonomous spaces for people of colour are paramount for decolonising the university’. Could talk a little bit about the University of Colour, how it came about, how it made issues of racism visible, and why this autonomous space was so important to decolonising the university…?
Max: So how it came about… The ‘De Nieuwe Universiteit (DNU) student movement was very white and the issues that were raised reflected their interests. (I compare the issues and demands of the two student movements in the article). So, from outside the group, two Afro-Caribbean mothers (Mercedes Zandwijken & Marilyn Mimi Mau-Asam) came in and noticed this and said ‘something needs to change here’. They organised a workshop on diversity in the Maagdenhuis which then drew another group of people because another issue was mentioned. It was during a brain-storming session that an Iraqi refugee coined the term, University of Colour. He did this very consciously because in his vision people need to organise themselves in their groups to further their demands or their interests.
The white student movement had an interest group - the New University (DNU). At first, we were called the ‘New University of Colour’ but there was never a University of Colour in the first place, so we removed the word ‘new’. But it came from the same idea - we are all going to be an action group, part of this protest, and we are going to inform a vision of what we think should be part of the university.
I wasn’t part of the student movement until the University of Colour group was formed. I thought the movement was interesting and indeed I don’t like the neoliberalisation etc but for me this wasn’t a reason to engage with the student movement yet. I was there, I was in the building, I was watching, but I didn’t really feel engaged because it didn’t speak to me. I didn’t care to improve the quality of education because the ethics of the institution were wrong. But this University of Colour group really spoke to me. From there on, we started organizing and programming and trying to politicise race - to make it visible and relevant because race was often denied to even be an issue. And this will partially answer your question about ‘why is it important to have your own group’… It’s because especially in terms of racism and decolonization, we are such a colour-blind society in the Netherlands and we don’t speak about race. The issues you are going to try to raise are invisible to the group you are speaking with. So, if you are inside a group that will constantly downplay and deny that these things are relevant, then you will find it difficult to get your message through. Furthermore, you will find it difficult to speak because there are silencing mechanisms, like someone saying ‘don’t be so emotional’, that will make you unable to speak.
One important element in counteracting this culture of silence is finding a group of like-minded people so you’re then able to make the issue visible. Then you are not alone anymore or the oddball of the group saying things that nobody thinks is relevant. You need this for yourself as an individual, as well, to be with other people who experience and acknowledge the same issues you do and want to do something about it.
Another element that is important for people of colour in the Netherlands is to speak and exchange experience with each other; to find language in what is it exactly they are experiencing and how we can tackle it. You are not able to develop this language in a setting that is in constant denial and where you feel unsafe to put it on the table. You could see this also in our autonomous group; people started to realise and place certain experiences they had in a racial context which they wouldn’t have done before. Because sometimes you self-deny as well. You internalise things. So, it’s important to exchange experience because it also helps people to find the language and vocabulary
Thirdly, historically, women’s rights, labour rights, whatever it may be… were never given by the oppressors or the people in privileged positions because they never saw these things as an issue. Rights were always demanded by a group trying to take action and make change. This is also the case with the Ethnic Studies departments in US universities. These departments came out of the protests of the Civil Rights movements. So, action and self-organisation are always part of social change, has always been, and will always be. You feel this when you are inside a white space that by even trying to mention the word ‘colonialism’ brings up a lot of resistance. There’s also a lot of ignorance besides the resistance, so it’s mostly that they are not able to see it. For example, for me, it’s a given that the university is a colonial institution but then they say you have to prove it that it’s colonial, provide research etc. But I feel, if you are a colonial institution for 400 hundred years you should be the one to prove it’s not colonial, right? You can also turn the argument around, challenge the norm and their subjective reality.
Nell: In the article you summarise the demands and issues of the DNU and University of Colour in a table, making the difference in trajectories really clear. You said that in in the beginning it was difficult to gain support and solidarity with the white student movement. I sense that while people are more open to talking about these things (appearing to be ‘woke’), there’s still a lot of hesitancy and caution to broach race and diversity. How did you manage to overcome this resistance to ‘difficult’ conversations to eventually gain this support and solidarity? What did that process look like?
Max: It wasn’t easy. There were a lot of different mechanisms at play, some of them I’ve already mentioned. One of the most important ones was the self-image of being progressive Left. If there was a real intention to understand, they would support you. Often, they just didn’t see it as relevant or a real issue.
Structure was also really important in how our decisions and agendas were formed inside the mainstream student movement, which was inspired by the Occupy Wall Street movement. These consensus-based models and participatory, flat-structured, group processes gave veto powers to individuals if something didn’t align with their ethics. It meant that everyone’s voice was heard. They have a lot of downsides but they were crucial to getting these issues into the mainstream movement. Some members would attend these meetings, that could go on for hours at a time, with the explicit intention of putting decolonisation, antiracism etc. on the agenda, refusing to leave or end the meeting until the issues were raised.
These tactics worked outside the student movement too in the meetings with the university board. At some point, it became more practical to listen to us than not listen to us in this respect. We had a few allies that backed us up and said, ‘we are not moving on until we take this seriously and make it part of the movement.’ Having said that, a lot of people came to me years later when talking or writing about these things like ‘sorry, I was there right next to you but I don’t think I did enough’. I mean everyone has their own process and things. Saying ‘No democratisation without decolonisation’ was a real intervention though. It was like saying, ‘what you are asking is not possible without what we are asking.’ I wouldn’t call it sabotage but this intervention needed to happen and the structure allowed it. I mean, in another structure, we would have been kicked out or we wouldn’t have had the authority to make these demands. This structure gave us the platform to say, ‘listen to us or this whole thing is not going to move further.’
The media, on the other hand, completely ignored us. Now, race is more in the debate; I think If we were to have an occupation now the media would give us attention. But I literally had journalists calling me asking me about the student movement and when I started to talk about race and the University of Colour they would just hang up. There was a press conference where we had three statements of the white student group, the teachers and us, and the whole group of press were there with mics and everything. I had never done a press statement before with the whole speech and everything and they just walked away when it was my turn to speak. They just disappeared.
My brother had an internship at the Groene Amsterdammer, a Dutch news magazine that was writing about the student movement every day but none of their articles would cover the University of Colour student movement. Also, when he tried to write an article for them about it, it was not published for various reasons[BE(1] .
These are just some of the interesting things and mechanisms at play that you can see in the media but also in different groups. Because at some point this student group (DNU) became our ally and I think if you look later in the process of the negotiations the reason we were able to demand for diversity (even without being able to be called the Decolonisation commission) was because this structure of consensus-based decision making was also implemented with all the university parties. The white student movement did what we did with them to include us. They refused to agree to the coalition until we got our diversity and decolonisation commission. So basically, it was the consensus model that allowed us to not be ignored, which was very interesting besides the emotional labour.
Diversity and Discourse in the Netherlands
Nell: The emotional labour of having these types of conversations and doing all this work must have been intense. You mentioned how the Dutch media weren’t initially interested in the issues of race and racism. Do you think things have changed in the last few years? Do you think people are more open to talk about it? What was the impact of the UvA’s Diversity (and Decolonisation) Commission? How far have we come, let’s say?
Max: I mean I can only speak now as an outsider because I am not a student anymore but I can share some observations from the process. Some things haven’t changed at all and some things have changed a lot. I can say on the discourse level, things have changed a lot. Like you’re allowed to talk about race now I would say, maybe more so in the cities than elsewhere. And you see that also with the Zwarte Piet debate of course. But also, every institution, for instance cultural institutions, is now obliged to do something to promote diversity. So, whereas a few years ago diversity was being ignored and shoved under the table, now every university needs a diversity officer. It’s been accepted into the mainstream. Just look at the newspapers. Daily, I see some columns here and there talking about race and the debate is getting louder.
Discourse in the university has also changed. For example, my studies were delayed because I had been organising so much, so I went back the year after to finish my bachelor’s thesis. I was eager to graduate and leave the institution without making too much noise, because normally I was always getting into fights with other students and some teachers about the curriculum and stuff. One student group approached me asking me to vote for them and their diversity and decolonial agenda. These were exactly the groups that we had to have endless debates with before. The previous year they weren’t taking these issues seriously and now they were asking me for my vote. Also, in the classroom the students were all asking the teacher, ‘why is this curriculum so one-sided?’. Whereas before, I was the only one making that point and people would roll their eyes at me, saying ‘oh there’s this guy again’, you know? So, I saw these changes in terms of discourse.
If you look at the power structure, the systemic curriculum, the make-up of the university, who is allowed to teach etc, nothing has changed. We are nowhere close to something actually being changed. But the topic is on the agenda, that’s the difference I would say. So now the question is what does diversity mean? Depending on whether you have a decolonial or a neoliberal perspective, the definition won’t be the same because the word itself doesn’t mean anything. What you see a lot of times is the Diversity Officer opening with this ‘diversity is good for the institutions because there is less student dropouts; it leads to better quality critical thinking; it benefits other students and the university…’ They translate how diversity benefits the already existing structure. So, in that sense, it’s logical that these points are always mentioned. But the whole reason why we are talking about diversity is because of the injustice, because of the history but these often get side-lined. And so, this means nothing else than including diversity in the same system; diversity without change or ‘cultural cloning’ is how it has been described. There you can see that ‘diversity’ can become like an appropriation of decolonisation efforts. Diversity is a tool for decolonisation I would say, but it’s not the end goal, the end goal is decolonisation; it is not diversity within the colonial system. This is also something Angela Davis talks about, how diversity literally colonises critical movements and how we don’t have to fall for this.
Reflecting on the Diversity Commission’s report from that perspective, I’d say that although we couldn’t include decolonisation in the title, it is still central in the report. We had a lot of influence in terms of who were the researchers interpreting the mandate that we had. In the report you can also see that diversity was supported by two main concepts which were intersectionality and decoloniality. These concepts are explicitly explained at the beginning of the report, providing the framework and directly informing the social justice and ethical aspects throughout. The report also acknowledged the benefits of diversity in line with the university’s neoliberal values. The strategy was to do both.
If you go to the website of the Chief Diversity Officer now and you search for ‘decolonisation’, it’s gone. So, you know, it’s not a Decolonisation Officer. If you look deeper into the content, aside from the title, it doesn’t make mission statements about the need to reposition the university in terms of colonialism. That’s all gone; there you can see a setback. This also goes back to the need for interest groups to be present in order to have influence over the end result. A year ago, looking at the picture of all the chief diversity officers in Dutch universities, they were all white. These positions are given to white women. Arguably, they have blind spots too but even if they didn’t, they don’t have the same urgency to put their necks out to change things in the same way someone else with this experience would feel necessary. I’m not someone who says you can’t do diversity if you are white, but I do really look at the content you put out. It’s really important not to be colour blind because that brings its own baggage to it too.
Organising with Aralez
Nell: It’d be great to hear more about this new foundation that you’re setting up, Aralez. What’s your mission? Why is this foundation needed? And who will be involved?
Max: This idea was in the back of my mind for several years. Together with others I founded Aralez because I work in cultural institutions that are working now with diversity and I see diversity in debates everywhere. It’s an important topic. But for me, diversity is not at all the same as decolonisation. I see many people with good intentions putting their efforts into diversity and inclusion, but diversity is not an ethical framework to work in if you are not also talking about decolonisation and only aiming for rights within Dutch borders. We are situated in the global North; our way of life destroys the lives of others so I cannot talk about diversity and inclusion without mentioning our position and privilege in the world. Whether you’re a person of colour or not, we are all living here and benefiting materially from it. Even if you don’t want it to be so, it is so. That conversation is not there, it exists but it’s not organised in a structural manner. Again, feeling the need to fill that gap is what motivated to start this. In Aralez, we try to have a new vision on healing, on different cultures and the decolonial, the idea to unify and bring together different diaspora groups, to not be a like van guard party but more collaborative. Our vision is informed by this learning experience from back then.
In September we will launch the decolonial education toolkit that Pravini created from her documentary ‘The Uprising’. It’s a toolkit with activities to engage students in decolonial theory and practice.
Next year, my brother Chris de Ploeg will start a project around commemoration. The way Dutch commemoration is organised means that it only commemorates white people and excludes victims of colonisation and people from the colonies. We are also going to reframe discourse and remembrance of the Second World War because this historical episode is not remembered in connection with colonialism. So, we are going to organise actions or alternative commemorations to bring these histories up but also in connection with others. These are some examples of projects so what we will do is set up projects.
For the indigenous liberation project in October, we are working with an open call so other organisations can fill in ideas. As much is possible, we will try to work, facilitate and collaborate with people who have worked on things for decades in order to make the most impact. I think for instance the Week against Racism (at Pakhuis de Zwijger) is an example of the open call method of working. Usually, white cultural institutions don’t take an active stance on these kinds of subjects, but by making this project with all these kinds of groups having ownership over the programs, we were allowed to implicitly make this statement that normalised organising against racism at an institutional level. This umbrella framework not only brought groups together but also meant we could bring forward this idea of decolonisation, instead of diversity and inclusion, more to the fore.
Going back to the Indigenous liberation project, for instance, there are a lot festivals, cultural exchanges, people using ayahuasca or looking for identity spiritual trajectories; general interest in some circles around spirituality and indigenous groups but what is missing is the political aspect. What we are trying to do is connect these elements with the political aspect for what we believe is a more stable and just future. With the project of indigenous liberation we are not going to actively promote ourselves, instead we will try to platform what is already there. My vision is that if others are more successful in being heard, then we as a whole become more heard. It’s the concept of the leader-full movement. The Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement speaks of this sometimes. Unlike the Civil Rights movement with Martin Luther King as the face and icon of it all, the BLM movement don’t have this one leader. What’s most important is the slogan or idea behind it. It’s a leader-full movement so many people speak about the issues with a certain vocabulary. So, in that sense, I would like to see the decolonial movement organising in a way that we bring an array of people into the conversation for it to become a leader-full movement with this decolonial agenda that is critical of diversity and inclusion and the whole polder model basically.
A movement without students?
Nell: One thing about Utrecht is that this Decolonisation Group is primarily lecturers. To my knowledge there isn’t a student organisation in Utrecht explicitly working on the theme of decolonisation. I’m wondering, is it possible to have a decolonial movement in Utrecht if we don’t have student mobilising behind it, if it’s just a purely lecturer-led academic initiative? Because elsewhere it is predominantly student groups mobilising for decolonisation
Max: It’s nice that these lecturers are there. We didn’t have (many) allies like that when we started the University of Colour. But teachers are defiantly crucial. It’s nice that there is support there for students when they start organising. But lecturers doing an action is like fighting against your own employer. Students have a different position. They are temporary, they don’t have colleagues they have to face. In moments of negotiation, there certain things that are more difficult for them to do. Students are not employees of the university. They pay to go to class, and they are more anonymous and therefore have a more independent position. Historically speaking, these examples of movements show that students are really crucial. They have a different energy sometimes, not always as constructive but it doesn’t matter. Change is chaotic; you need chaos. There needs to be mess and a bit of chaos for people to talk about it and teachers are just not going to be doing that or they are very likely to be risking their job. It depends on how civilised they keep it.
Nell: My impression as an international student looking from the outside in is that Amsterdam has a strong protest culture while Utrecht does not. Amsterdam also has a much more diverse population and arguably more parties with vested interests in the anti-racism and decolonial struggle. Utrecht, on the other hand, is predominantly white, middleclass and perhaps more conservative. Where would you begin to start a student decolonisation movement in Utrecht?
Max: If I look at my own trajectory, I wouldn’t have done any actions on my own. The very first step is finding like-minded people. Focus on the people who are like ‘finally you exist, I didn’t know I wasn’t alone in this desert’. That’s how it starts. Focus your energy on these people that you attract by clearly communicating what you want. If you add water to the wine before you start, you’re not going to find the right people for your core group. You will attract people who want to look to put ‘X’ on their resumé or that have all kinds of motivations to be there. Everyone needs to be on the same page as to what the desired end result is. I mean decolonisation is an ongoing process, it’s not a once-off action. My advice would be; don’t put water in the wine at least for your group identity and formation.
In terms of finding people, do something that creates visibility; it can be an action, a banner drop, or whatever. From there on, you can start thinking about the different capacities amongst the group. Some people don’t want to be visibly active, for example, in front of the camera, but they may be good at other things.
Also, you would be surprised by how much you can say and do that you wouldn’t have imagined yourself. You don’t realise the power you have until you start exercising it. But you need core group for that to have that courage to try it out. Continuously look where are the borders and limits are within the institution you are trying to change, taking into account what you can handle as well. When you are comfortable again, try to push a bit further. I always try this in my work. Sometimes you limit yourself but it’s also important to explore and be in the uncomfortable zone to the extent that you can take it. This is important because once its comfortable it’s going to be static and you’re not really changing anything. So always look for that discomfort I would say.
1) Article on Max de Ploeg’s vision & strategy as an organizer: ‘program maker als comrade for the grassroot’
2) Link to soft-launch video surrounding Indigenous Liberation Day/ one of our first Aralez projects:
3) Fuck Diversiteit: we willen dekolonisatie: I reposted it on my blog, the website on which this speech was published went down.
4) Chris de Ploeg’s articles that were not published at the Groene Amsterdammer:
5) Lecture by Gloria Wekker: Towards a Decolonised University (Video) from the Maagdenhuis archives