Commentary: By Polli Hagenaars, The Netherlands [1]

It is apparent that not only in the Netherlands, but worldwide, protests are on the rise and are strongly politicised as is the Covid-19 pandemic. While our hearts bleed, thinking of the family and friends of George Floyd, of the fear and anger of our fellow human beings, of our colleagues in the US [2], the question arises what can we, what can I as a psychologist do? Some things are clear to me –  showing my compassion, empathy and solidarity and openly protest against the violence and divisiveness of the political reactions. But more action is needed.

Last Monday, the Dam square in Amsterdam was filled with people demonstrating for ‘Black lives matter’. The required 1.5 meter Covid-19 distance rule was not followed. The mayor of Amsterdam decided not to involve the police to end the demonstration, not to respond to a peaceful demonstration against police violence with police violence. Politicians, mostly from the right side of the political spectrum protest that she did not intervene, but it is clear that this was a respectful decision, given the circumstances. 

Fundamental human rights are being violated everywhere, and for a long time have been withheld from many groups of people. Institutional racism has divided humanity. Whose problem is this? As with many problems the person or group who is dehumanised, neglected, excluded, has to solve the problem. Well-known mechanisms are among others: adapting to the majority rules, including developing false identities, denying the own origin or role playing. Also, positively: by good education and by supportive and validating families, friends and groups. As I know from therapeutic interventions, this needs a systemic approach, and learning to put ‘the monkey back on the other shoulder’.

Change is needed on all levels (with thanks to Dr Valerie Batts): the personal, social, cultural and institutional levels. Starting with the personal: we can train ourselves to ‘decolonise our minds’, to get awareness of the racist ideas, feelings and images, that seeped in during my (our) upbringing. The social level: the prejudices and stereotypes and the unequal relationships; e.g., leaving the office on Friday afternoon for the business drinks at the pub and letting a cleaning crew in, the cleaning crew with most members belonging to a minority group. This is just one example, but many can be given. The cultural level: customs, rituals, the way we eat, speak and dress, although changing in time, most of them are defined by the majority. That makes it difficult for newcomers to fit in a new (job) environment. 

Even and maybe more important is the institutional level, the institutional racism in favour to the majority, often unaware of their privileges. For real change, not tolerance is needed –can even be devastating-, but sharing, stepping down, and redistributing space and materials. This is giving a special responsibility for politicians and policy makers who define the rules. Are the rules in favour of themselves or for the benefit for all, restoring dignity, power imbalances and promoting equity. As Frantz Fanon wrote in The Wretched of the Earth: “What matters today, the issue which blocks the horizon, is the need for a redistribution of wealth. Humanity will have to address this question, no matter how devastating the consequences may be.” 

For me as a psychologist, it calls for modesty and growing awareness, and in joint action with colleagues around the world to help develop a psychology that decolonizes, is multi-indigenous, and can restore the dignity of people, especially from historically marginalized or disadvantaged groups. 

Human rights matter and psychology matters for human rights.

Polli Hagenaars, Amsterdam, 4 June 2020