POLYLOGUES AT THE INTERSECTION(S) SERIES: In Pursuit of Decolonization in Belgium

Encounters of Creolizing Conviviality in a Context of Critical Diversity Awareness

by Sarah Van Ruyskensvelde and Mieke Berghmans*

From periphery to center: Belgium’s decolonization debate

Over the last decades, the Belgian public has, on many occasions, been confronted with the problematic nature of its colonial past. A secretive activist organization for instance cut of the hand of a King Leopold II monument in Ostend. Media regularly covered the works of a commission of inquiry that investigated the murder on Patrice Lumumba. The debates on Saint Nicholas and Black Pete – a holiday tradition in which Saint Nicholas’ helper is depicted as a blackface stereotype- flew over from the Netherlands to the Belgian public every year, and so on. These events appeared on and disappeared from the media scene and contributed to some public debate about (the effects of) the Belgian colonial period. These discussions however remained at the periphery of the public debate. They touched upon matters that were controversial and contested, but only concerned a specific historical event, a specific institution, or a specific cultural phenomenon and as such did not require a general moral response.

This changed in June 2020 with the Black Lives Matter protests that coincided with the 60th birthday of Congo’s independence ( 30 June 1960). Just like in other parts of the world, different Belgian cities were filled with large numbers of people, more than 10 0000, shouting ‘I can’t breathe’. The massive and international scale of these streets protests (in the middle of a pandemic!) did not only catch the attention of policy makers and that of the public eye. The Black Lives Matter movement also drew attention to the relationship between contemporary societal issues, such as systemic racism and inequality, and historical forms of colonialism.

In addition, The Black Lives Matter protests introduced a new vocabulary and language to speak about questions of colonialism and its systemic effects in contemporary (Belgian) society. Words, such as ‘black anxiety’, ‘white privilege’, ‘white guilt’, … made their introduction into the public arena and proved to have a powerful effect, as they generated a more general awareness about the position of each individual member of society towards colonialism and the societal issues related to it.

This vocabulary that, via its direct references to skin color, pointed at the direct relationship between structural injustices and the individual, provided an encompassing analysis of societal inequalities that concerns all of us. As such, questions as to where each individual stands, how we position ourselves and what we can do in the pursuit of a more just society can no longer be avoided. In doing so, the Black Lives Matter protests have pulled the issue of Belgium’s colonial past – long merely viewed as a controversial and dark page in our history books – out of its peripheral position, and turned it into a contemporary “living moral issue” (Addams, 1930). The protests moved the question as to how we should deal with the past to the center of the public debate where it continues to stir the passions and emotions of many people.

Is a public critical diversity awareness enough?

The Black Lives Matter movement proved an important avenue towards critical diversity awareness in Belgium (as it was in other countries too). It stimulated a more profound critical consciousness about how contemporary inequalities might result from historical forms of colonialism, and how these are continuously produced and reproduced. Sending out a powerful message to the public, it provided a language that may fuel greater responsiveness about how inequality and discrimination shape and are shaped by our specific positionalities, identities and differences. Yet, the very same language and vocabulary that enables us to think and talk differently about issues of colonialism and its contemporary effects equally seemed to have a ‘paralyzing’ effect among large groups in society. While critical diversity narratives might have presented a clear diagnosis of how societal injustices are produced and reproduced, it did not present to the general public clear-cut answers on how to act (differently) in the pursuit of a more just and decolonized society. It did not give people clear handles on how to live their daily lives in a more de-colonized way and on how to work together towards a decolonized society. In many cases even, perhaps more than building bridges, this critical diversity language seemed to cause divisions between ‘opposing’ societal groups.

As it turned out, this new vocabulary holds a strong polarizing potential. Once the nuances and complexity of a critical diversity analysis are left out, and terms, such as hegemony, dominant order, … are omitted, this new vocabulary can stimulate a way of speaking in which observable and biological differences, such as having a white or black skin color, are presented as poles of opposite ends with opposite identities (Brandsma, 2018). When these “two identities are always set against each other (…) and are both obvious, presented as facts” (Brandsma, 2018, 18), there is polarization. To be black then for example means to be a victim; and to be white then means to be guilty of oppression. With Fanon, one could argue that this polarized identification of black people as victims and white people as oppressors is only fair, as it provides a necessary correction to the dichotomies that were historically installed by colonial regimes that assigned opposite meanings to the indigenous, black populations as evil/bestiary and the white colonial ruling elites as good/humane (Fanon, 2001). Yet, the question remains whether such a framework of opposing identities can generate the cooperations and discussions that are necessary in our pursuit of a future, decolonized society? This speaking, seeing and thinking in polarized dichotomies seems in many cases to inhibit (rather than to create) genuine encounters between different people. After all, one could question whether a polylogue is even possible when people are automatically reduced to their identities (or at least to those that have been assigned to them)?

Creating encounters of “creolizing conviviality”: The Conversations

Starting from these observations, we launched ‘The Conversations’ last spring, to create an encounter of ‘creolizing conviviality’ (Gutiérrez Rodriguez, 2000) between seven people with different identities, experiences of and positionalities towards the question of colonialism and decolonization. The aim of The Conversations project was to invite these different people who are abstract strangers to each other (cf.’ the leftwing woke female artist’, ’the white paramilitary’ and the ‘pensioner and child of a formal official in the colonial regime who is now in an old age home’, …) to engage in a polylogue. Our series of ‘conversations’ did not so much aim at debating or even convincing each other, but rather at learning about one own’s position and that of others. On the basis of a collective study of the colonial heritage of the city of Leuven and its university, the participants together tried to formulate an answer to the question as to how we should deal with our colonial past today, so that we can live together in the future.

Theoretically, The Conversations loosely drew on Gutiérrez Rodriguez’ notion of “creolizing conviviality”. In this notion, ‘creolizing’ points at the possibility of overcoming the racial “pattern of categorization” by relying on “multiple, rather than singular roots and foundations that, when taken as a whole, aim at the dual objectives of liberation and of setting foundations for freedom beyond the trappings of the dialectics of asymmetrical recognition” (Gordon and Roberts 2009: 6 in Gutiérrez Rodriguez, 2020, 114-115) . The aspect of ‘conviviality’, then refers to a form of living together in which attention is given to a “communal being in the world, one that is tied to a respectful and caring living together” (Rodriguez, 107).

By experiencing a personal encounter with 6 ‘abstract others’, people whom they normally would not have met in everyday life, and by engaging in a polylogue with these others – who might or might not use the language offered by the critical diversity perspective – the participants of The Conversations were invited to transgress the imagined boundaries between themselves and others, and to experience that they are in this world together. Moreover, by listening to the experiences, viewpoints and perspectives of others, The Conversations aimed to stimulate a more profound insight into the positionalities of others and of themselves.

It goes without saying that The Conversations are not and cannot be a magic bullet. They require the careful creation of an atmosphere in which people, who might feel an initial hostility or prejudice towards each other, can feel the safety and the liberty to meet each other as individuals and to openly acknowledge, share and sometimes also transcend their differences and commonalities. This is a delicate exercise. Nevertheless, we believe that such encounters of ‘creolizing conviviality’ have the potential of stimulating an “enlarged mentality” (Arendt, 1982). They might enable people to take into account the standpoints of others, whom they would otherwise not have met, when making judgements about the common good. In this way, encounters of creolizing conviviality – which take place in a context of critical diversity awareness– can facilitate a process of decolonization, both at the personal and collective level. As they hold the potential of “not producing old patterns of thinking but attending to the ‘unforeseeable’” (Gutiérrez Rodriguez, 2000, 114), they may provide fruitful avenues on the road to a more decolonized way of living together.

The authors are both white women working at the Laboratory for Education and Society at KU Leuven, Belgium. Sarah is a historian of education, researching amongst others the history of colonial education systems. Mieke is a postdoctoral assistant. This year we launched an experiment, ‘The Conversations: about past, present and future’ (Home | De Conversaties). The ideas presented here, aim to further theorize our analysis of the decolonization debate in Belgium and explain the rationale behind the launching of our Conversations project.


Addams, J. (1930). Education by the current event. In J. Addams (2014). On Education (pp.212-224). Routledge.

Arendt, H. (1982).Lectures on Kant’s Political Philosophy. University of Chicago Press.

Brandsma, B. (2018). Polarisation: Understanding the Dynamics of Us Versus Them. BB in Media.

Fanon, F. (2001). The Wretched of the Earth (C. Farrington, Trans.). Penguin Classics.

Gutiérrez Rodríguez, E. (2000). Creolizing conviviality: Thinking relational ontology and decolonial ethics through Ivan Illich and Édouard Glissant. In O. Hemer, M. Povrzanic Frykman & P-M. Ristilammi (Eds.). Conviviality at the Crossroads: The Poetics and Politics of Everyday Encounters (pp.105-124). Cham: Palgrave Macmillan.