“We are far from there in the fight against inequality. Therefore, learn to deal with it, my parents said. That means not keeping quiet, but daring to speak out against it. And also knowing that the problem is not yours. To be able to keep that up, it is important to really enjoy life.”
Sail your own course
“When I have something in my head that I think is important, I look for ways to make it happen. No road is straight and I love the surprises I encounter along the way.”
Joyce owes her success to a combination of character, perseverance and ambition. Her parents taught her that you should always go your own way and she never let that deter her. As an eleven-year-old girl she wanted to go to vwo to realize her dreams. She scored 86 percent on her final test, but was nevertheless advised to go to the domestic science school.
“I didn’t understand it. It made me angry and sad. The school said that the high score was an outlier, that I wouldn’t last at that level. But I always had good reports and was motivated. Her parents, who always believed in her, started talking to a vwo school. Although that was very unusual, she was allowed to explain her motivation herself. She was given the chance to try for a year at vwo. Her skills and intelligence always ensured that she transferred effortlessly to the next school year.
Are you the mayor?!!
As an eleven-year-old her level was misjudged and this would happen to her more often. At the time she primarily felt anger, later she learned to fight it in an intellectual way by starting a conversation.
“In my position as mayor I regularly received reactions like ‘Are you the mayor?’ This didn’t make me angry, in a way I was glad people were expressing it. When I asked “why do you think I can’t do this?”, for example, I was told that people had never seen someone like me in that position. And then I knew, that I was dealing with age-old, stereotypical images. I knew it had nothing to do with me, but with the prejudice that a woman couldn’t be mayor, and especially not a black woman. In the end, we all have prejudices. If you are not aware of them, then an appearance like mine is confrontational.
Racism is the other person’s problem
From home, Joyce was always taught that discrimination is the other person’s problem. “Always hold your own course. Someone else might think it’s weird that you’re at vwo or a senator. But do you think it’s weird yourself? And my answer was always: ‘No, I think it’s very normal’.” It is up to the other person to correct his or her wrong perception. It is understandable that it makes you sad and angry, but never let it stop you, is Joyce’s advice.
So when she got a leadership position and someone responded that he didn’t want to work for a black woman, her response was “then it’s time for you to go apply for a job”. When she experiences such situations, she first lets it rest to give any anger and irritation a place. Stepping on someone angrily is rarely effective. If she remains of the opinion that things are not right, she engages in conversation. “It may be that someone says ‘sorry, I didn’t mean it that way’. Then I tell them that I understand, but that it is hurtful and a good idea not to say it like that again. Sometimes it happens that someone dives. Then I indicate: ‘You are now diving away, but you did say it. I don’t want to have it anymore because it gets in the way of our relationship’. I never make a pit out of my heart.”
Again, there is a strong foundation to this. As a child, she went along to her father’s soccer games. He played for Real Sranang, a club in Amsterdam. “Many men from Suriname joined. They scored a lot of goals and usually won. Spectators from the opposing team would throw bananas on the pitch and often a fight would break out. My father would say, ‘We’re just playing into their hands. You’d better prove your point by scoring’.” The club’s tactics changed. Matches were no longer stopped, bananas were picked up and thrown in the trash. Real Sranang played on and kept winning. From a very young age, Joyce saw: you can fight, get suspended and lose the league. Or you go and talk to the referee who should have acted and go into consultation with the KNVB, but win that match.
“We still have a long way to go in the fight against inequality. So learn to deal with it, my parents said. That means not keeping quiet, but daring to speak out against it. And also knowing that the problem is not yours. To be able to keep that up, it is important to really enjoy life. I enjoy it when the sun shines, a cup of tea or baking a cake. Being able to enjoy the little things, simplicity, makes you able to handle the big things.”
Great advice from Joyce Sylvester, ambassador for Diversity Day 2020.