“They might think I’m dangerous”: Unveiling racial stigma of young Moroccan-Dutch men in Rotterdam

Walking through stigma, Joia de Jong and Pauwke Berkers on racial perception and social navigation in public spaces
People walking through Rotterdam
Iris van den Broek

Joia de Jong, an alumna of our Research Master Sociology of Culture, Media and the Arts, along with prof. dr. Pauwke Berkers (Arts and Culture), embarked on a journey through Rotterdam alongside twelve young Moroccan-Dutch men to uncover the intricacies of their experiences in various city neighbourhoods. Their resulting study, “Geographies of (Un)Ease: Embodying Racial Stigma and Social Navigating in Public Spaces in a Reluctantly Super-Diverse City,” brings to light the spatial element of racial stigma as it intertwines with the everyday life of these young men. This is the first academic article published by our alumna Joia de Jong.

Joia and Pauwke set out to explore the young Moroccan-Dutch men's perceptions of themselves in public spaces, where they are often viewed as threatening by others. By mapping the participants’ geography of (un)ease, the research showed how stigma is spatially situated in relation to different neighbourhoods within Rotterdam. By employing the method of individual walking interviews, the men’s experiences were directly related to the environment to which it applies. This approach illuminated the critical role of public spaces in shaping the daily lives of the youth. Public spaces have social borders and restrictions that result in different realities for people to face.

Hester Blankestijn

Walking through Rotterdam

The walking interviews kicked off in 'neutral zones' – spaces like Starbucks, Sugo, and Salsa Shop, where commercial blandness offered a sense of comfort. These are generally seen as spaces of ease, because the Moroccan-Dutch men do not feel like they stand out. From there, Joia and the participants ventured into predominantly "white" neighbourhoods. The route carved out a snapshot of Rotterdam's diverse neighbourhoods, showcasing the city's demographic reality, where over half the population have a migration background.

In the shadow of the Rotterdam Wet, residential segregation is a stark reality. Certain neighbourhoods, tagged as 'problem areas', suffer from low socioeconomic status and high concentrations of racially minoritized people. Despite the territorial stigma, these spaces often provide a haven of ease for racially minoritized individuals.

Experiences of participants

Joining the participants through these spaces, Joia experienced the reality of navigating the city as a young Moroccan-Dutch man. Sami, one of the participants, shed light on the increasing discomfort he feels when remaining stationary in predominantly white areas. Sami's candid exchange underscores the constant need for mobility, a tool to evade potential suspicion and police intervention.

Sami: “The longer you stay somewhere, the more opportunity you give people to confirm something: they’re chilling for a very long time, what are they doing? If I walk past a neighbourhood a few times, people can start to think ‘he’s checking houses to break into.’ It’s all related. Time’s just a reason for people to take action about it, because if I stay there super long, then they have the chance to call the police. And if I’m still there, if I’m there too long, then I’ll have to deal with that. While if I’m there momentarily, I probably won’t have to deal with it.”

In the nocturnal cityscape, time emerges as a significant factor influencing perceptions. As night falls, Ahsan, Dalil, and Faiz reveal the amplified scrutiny and perceived threat that accompany their presence on the streets. “What I notice myself during the evening is that I have the idea that people think I am dangerous and want to hurt them or something.” “At night everything looks more threatening,” Dalil explains. In response, they, along with other participants, employ a range of coping mechanisms, ranging from ignoring and avoiding to reforming and contesting.

With their study, Joia and Pauwke make an invaluable contribution to the discourse on (un)ease in public spaces. Rather than reiterating the view of young Moroccan-Dutch men as a "problem group," their research delves into these individuals' self-perceptions and experience of (un)ease in urban settings, offering new insights into the tensions that exist within public spaces and various neighbourhoods in a culturally diverse city like Rotterdam.

Are you curious to learn more about their findings? Read the full article here.

More information

As a bicultural woman, Joia de Jong was inspired to research this topic. She experienced being perceived different in public spaces, because of her cultural background. Joia figured that if this was already her own truth, then what must it be like for the most stigmatised people in our society? How do they navigate the city? How do they deal with stigma? And what can she learn from them? Those questions led her to her research.

Joia is Creative Director for academia at Creative Desk and an alumna from the Research Master Sociology of Culture, Media and the Arts at ESHCC. Focusing on power dynamics and how social inequality is (re)produced in the public sphere led her to one of her current positions in which she makes academic work more accessible to the general public with visual design and storytelling.

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