Welcome to Living Labels, where we look past preconceptions and listen to the human story behind the labels.
Being a geek can bring you a lot. In any case, it has brought me a lot.
In this collection of personal stories, interviewees talk about the stereotypes they encounter in everyday life. Others are quick to attach labels to them, but often forget that a person cannot be summarized in one word. Behind the label ‘Geek’ is Ruben Brave, founder and CEO of Entelligence B.V., an incubator for academic entrepreneurship. Ruben holds positions on several Supervisory and Advisory Boards of large organisations and employers such as SER Diversiteit in Bedrijf, Fonds Cultuurparticipatie, Vrije Universiteit and Internet Society Netherlands. In these, he champions innovation and inclusion.
I stress in all my posts that diversity is more than the well-known labels that have to do with culture, ethnicity or gender, but that we need to approach diversity in the broadest word to be truly inclusive. And therefore also have to be open to, say, neurodiversity or diversity in social class. If we don’t, I fear we will reach a paradoxical point where different groups in society that are fighting for diversity and inclusion precisely will exclude each other because they are blind to their similarities.
That is why I chose the label ‘geek’, a word used for someone who is passionate about science, technology and research and has interests that are not mainstream.
That is why I chose the label ‘geek’, a word used for someone who is passionate about science, technology and research and has interests that are not mainstream. This is not something on the surface, but how I feel inside.
Spiderman used to be my big hero, a fellow geek from a comic book with whom I could identify. I found him likable because he was never so sure of himself and doubtful about applying his powers. A popular quote from the comics that made a big impression on me at the time was With great power comes great responsibility. ‘With great power comes great responsibility’.
I saw some time ago that there is a new Spiderman. It is no longer Peter Parker as in the original, but Miles Morales. When my youngest daughter Nova first saw him, she delightedly said he looked like her. After all, Peter was a white man, but Miles has an African-American father and a Puerto Rican mother. Her reaction made me realise the importance of recognisable heroes so that people can imagine themselves in a new narrative. So I also like to invest in projects that promote that. I did, for instance, in this book by Sentini Grunberg, Black Suns – Black Suns. That’s an Afro Science Fiction story, with black protagonists.
He was more than the colour of his skin.
Representation is important, but personally I did not see Peter Parker as a ‘white man’ at all. What defined him for me is that he was someone who was different from others and had strengths that he harnessed for a better world, for those others. He was more than the colour of his skin.
So imagination allowed me to empathise with a character who did not seem to resemble me. But what I find very dangerous is that there is a lack of this in general in today’s society. It is dangerous for the people who exclude others, but also for the people who are excluded. Because if you cannot imagine yourself to be an innovator or a hero, you will never become one. And on the other hand, with a little more imagination, it is also less surprising that, for example, a Black woman is The Little Mermaid.
Because I had interests that differed from those of the masses, I was criticised for not being a ‘real Surinamese’.
What was it like to be a ‘geek’ in your youth?
Although I was always very supported by the warm family I grew up in, I found that it caused me to be excluded by most Surinamese-Creole communities. Because I had interests that deviated from those of the masses, I was criticised for not being a ‘real Surinamese’. Or one step further: that I was not a real black man. No idea what they meant by that, but by that reproach and those expectations you only limit those from your own community. So “Get lost!”, I thought when they said that. To this day, I just want to be myself. If something gives me energy, I like to devote my time to it. Around the age of 10, I built robots, had my own laboratory at home and read a lot of non-fiction. I even won a prize for one of the robots, given to me by Chriet Titulaer himself at the Robot Day in Houten.
I built those robots from old stuff: radios, trains and other electronics given to me by my neighbour Jan de Wit. But now I realise that not everyone has a Jan de Wit. That was a connection I made on the outside of my network, which gave me access to different knowledge and insights from my family and friends. You don’t make those easily if you are very much involved in your own community. But you so expand your world by following your interests. And in the process meeting people who may look different from you, but have the same emotional attachment to a subject or area of interest.
Being a geek can bring you a lot. In any case, it has brought me a lot.
Being a geek can bring you a lot. In any case, it has brought me a lot. For instance, I was one of the first employees at Planet Internet on the helpdesk, where I actually came in with no real understanding of computers. After all, we didn’t have a computer at home because we didn’t have the money for it. I was going to lose out to everyone else on knowledge of computers, so I had to find another way. I could write well, so I asked the founder of Planet Internet if I could dedicate an article to him. He didn’t want to because of a conflict of interest, but he did have another job for me. He let me write the Planet Internet manual. It was about what the Internet is all about and etiquette. That booklet did very well and won a prize, but I didn’t expect anything else from it. I only wrote my name in it very small.
Een paar jaar later fietste ik langs het oude kantoor van de Volkskrant aan de Wibautstraat en stapte ik daarbinnen met het idee voor een betaalde krant op internet. Dat vertelde ik in eerste instantie aan de portier daar. Die vond me kennelijk er wel netjes genoeg uitzien om serieus te nemen, dus die riep het toenmalige hoofd Internet erbij. Via hem kwam ik bij Paul Disco, de uitgever van de krant, terecht voor een gesprek. Toen ik mijn naam noemde, liep hij naar de boekenkast en trok hij die Planet Internet handleiding uit de kast. Hij noemde dat het beste boekje over het internet dat hij ooit had gelezen. Hij nam me voor vier maanden aan als plaatsvervanger van de toenmalige marketingmanager Caroline Reeders gedurende haar zwangerschapsverlof, en zo is het balletje gaan rollen. Ik heb de Volkskrant op internet uit mogen bouwen, heb de betaalde elektronische krant ontwikkeld, de eerste webshop voor hen opgezet en rapporteerde uiteindelijk direct aan de Raad van Bestuur.
At the Volkskrant – in retrospect – I had ended up in a very progressive bubble, with colleagues who were very open-minded. (…) So I thought for a long time that racism and discrimination did exist, but that it was more ‘something of the past’.
At the Volkskrant – in retrospect – I had ended up in a very progressive bubble, with colleagues who were very open-minded. I was actually not used to anything else, because, for example, my best friend Silvan and his parents also had that attitude. So I thought for a long time that racism and discrimination did exist, but that it was more ‘something from the past’. That changed when I later set up a joint venture between two very large parties. During that process, I met a director of the biggest football association in the Netherlands who told me I was 1-0 behind…because he hated Surinamese. Then two things went through me. First, I am not a Surinamese, but a Dutchman with Surinamese roots. Secondly, I just wondered why he felt that emotion. So I asked him and it came down to the fact that he had a bad experience once with someone who was from Suriname. I knew it was racist, but I dismissed it as an exception.
The real trigger for me came when at one point I was confronted with racist comments from my immediate personal circle. Then again, these were people who profiled themselves as very leftist and progressive. Discrimination thus turned out to be closer than I thought. Following what happened at the time around the death of George Floyd and Black Lives Matter, I started keeping an excel list and mind map of these kinds of incidents. I ended up with 70 to 80. A lot of them I had already forgotten. It’s that my best friend had remembered a lot of them. Maybe I had unconsciously denied or repressed it. EMDR therapy eventually stopped me spending energy repressing those memories. It gave me peace and quiet. I regained the energy I had at the beginning of my career, when I was working 80-hour weeks.
De echte trigger kwam voor mij toen ik op een gegeven moment geconfronteerd werd met racistische opmerkingen vanuit mijn directe persoonlijke kring. Dat waren toch weer mensen die zichzelf als heel links en progressief profileerden. Discriminatie bleek zo dichterbij dan ik dacht. Naar aanleiding van wat er gebeurde in die tijd rondom het overlijden van George Floyd en Black Lives Matter ben ik een excellijst en mindmap gaan bijhouden van dit soort incidenten. Ik kwam uiteindelijk uit op 70 tot 80. Een hoop was ik al vergeten. Het is dat mijn beste vriend er een heleboel had onthouden. Misschien had ik het onbewust ontkend of verdrongen. EMDR-therapie heeft er uiteindelijk voor gezorgd dat ik geen energie meer kwijt ben aan het onderdrukken van die herinneringen. Het gaf me rust en stilte. Ik kreeg weer de energie die ik aan het begin van mijn loopbaan had, toen ik werkweken draaide van 80 uur.
Suppose someone makes a racist comment out of unconscious incompetence. Do not then immediately cancel that person.
In recent business situations where racist remarks have been made towards me, I have reported to the Meldpunt Discriminatie Amsterdam (Complaints Bureau for Discrimination Amsterdam) in all cases where no respectful conversation proved possible. In a number of cases, I even reported them to the police. Proceedings are now pending against a few individuals. For me, it’s not about being proved right, but about setting boundaries and steering for awareness and a change in behaviour among perpetrators. In part, it is also curiosity. There is an urge in me to investigate how the legal system deals with this, because I don’t think it is set up to enforce Article 1 of the Constitution. So I am not very emotional about it, but want to learn where the flaws in the system are that allow discrimination to go unpunished.
The theme of Diversity Day this year is ‘Difference Enriched’. How do you stand in it?
I certainly agree. You see in research that organisations that embrace diversity generously are more innovative and perform better financially. But striving for more difference in the workplace also brings responsibility, namely the responsibility to keep the conversation going. Suppose someone makes a racist remark out of unconscious incompetence. Do not then immediately cancel that person. We should not underestimate how uncomfortable it is for them to have said that. However, from their position, they should also respect that others indicate that a line has been reached. But that respect and the capacity to reflect on their own behaviour is often lacking, I say from my own experience. And that’s how you get nowhere. You have to ‘think about how you reflect yourself’, so to speak, take a step back for a moment, think about what you did and how you arrived at certain thoughts. Make the connection with yourself in that process and from there you can make a connection with the other.
We also look very much at discrimination in terms of perpetrator and victim, but I think there should also be attention to the bystanders, the bystanders, and what they do. They are also part of the system. What tools can you offer them so that they can contribute to a safe environment? Because for them, a racist incident is often very traumatic as well.
What role do you play in these conversations?
Ultimately, I look for openings to bring individuals from underrepresented groups into places they would not normally go.
That is why I think it is important that I can be like a bridge for them.
That is why I think it is important that I can be like a bridge for them. That I can make connections with anyone who has experienced some form of exclusion and that I can possibly reassure them that they can feel comfortable with the discomfort they experience in doing so.