“Put your energy also into the people you’ve got, not the outsiders but the ones who are part of the system,” argues Sinan Çankaya. A cultural anthropologist by training, he sidestepped early on to do a PhD on diversity in the Dutch national police force. Meanwhile he was also spreading his professional wings as a writer and university lecturer at VU Amsterdam. And now he is working to raise awareness about diversity and inclusion as a means to structural change. 

You earned your PhD in 2011 doing research on diversity in the national police force. How did that come about?
“My involvement started as part of a specific research project, set up after a wrongful conviction in the now-famous case of a murder in a Schiedam park. The police force recruited twelve critical thinkers to take a look around the organization for a few months and assess the situation. Pretty quickly, I had misgivings about how situations were being approached and handled. At that point, the open research wound up turning into my study on ethnic profiling in street policing, in other words, about who cops apprehend on the street and why. Even though the officers knew I was doing this research, they still reverted to old patterns. There were even statements to the effect that it would make sense to take the same people into custody. It was obvious that there was absolutely no selfawareness about their own actions.”

If you were doing this research today, would your findings be different?
“I was doing my interviews and observations with white officers and noticed they’d stutter or stumble over their words sometimes, so finally I decided to have white student trainees and young researchers do some of the interviews. That made some officers loosen up, whereas with me they’d been more tight-lipped. Of course, we’re talking 2011, when this issue wasn’t being taken all that seriously yet, and still being denied on many fronts. But all the protests like Black Lives Matter and the ‘Black Pete’ debate have created more awareness around this problem. And also the documentary The Blue Family, about discrimination within the police force, has come out since then. You can see there’s a growing awareness now.”

What’s your take on Zuidas?
“I don’t know the area all that well, to be honest, so a lot of it’s based on hearsay. Though some of it may be true, I’m sure. Nevertheless, I am seeing that organizations in Zuidas have become increasingly active on diversity and inclusion, partly from the consulting requests and issues my colleagues and I are getting. I always instinctively wonder: do they sincerely care? Because you do see commercial businesses using diversity and inclusion as window dressing. It’s like a box to be ticked and then you just carry on with business as usual. But this issue requires a longer commitment and setting aside money and resources. Only then can people working on this actually get anything done.”


So, what should companies that are serious about this be doing to get diversity and inclusion off the ground, in your view?
“If you have a structural problem, you need a structural intervention. Workshops or training alone won’t have lasting effects, because the underlying organization remains the same. So, what does help? Policy changes, allocating staff, implementing buddy or mentorship programmes, pre-agreeing concrete targets and deadlines. Also, you often see that diversity is about ‘those that still have to belong,’ or need to be recruited Typically, those are minorities: women, LGBTI people or people of colour. It is important to keep doing this, but a radical different view on diversity refocuses on the people that ‘already work for the organization’. These people need to change too. Otherwise recruitment efforts will fall flat. So organizations need to change at every level: the managers, the senior executives, the HR departments.”

Do you think companies in Zuidas are prepared to change?
“CEOs are clearly aware that they need to address the issue and want to do so, but then the question is how do you implement this down through every level of an organization? The challenge is creating a safe space so everyone enjoys coming to work. It’s an adjustment and you have to give people time for that. However, regardless of the time it takes, you need action to change. To take Scandinavia as an example: women’s emancipation really took off there because there were concrete policy efforts at every level.”

Who or what had a defining impact on your own academic or professional path? “There have been several defining people and moments in my life. That’s what my new book is about. In secondary school, I had a history teacher who – as I discovered later, while writing my first book – was chair of the Centrumpartij, a far-right political party at the time. I wasn’t very politically aware as a teenager, but he was always making these vague asides about foreigners. It was impossible for me not to think about what that meant, in a negative sense. In contrast to that, my French teacher had a very positive effect. She was upper middle class and occasionally invited kids to her home, which was an extraordinary experience for me. It gave me a love of the French language, to the extent that I went to France after leaving secondary school. I also got special treatment from the librarian. She let me borrow more than the maximum number of books and gave me early access to the adult section. It’s those kinds of interactions that define you at different levels, both good and bad.” 

You mentioned that you’re working on a new book. What is it about?
“It’s about being a ‘class migrant’. I always say I’m an immigrant who never immigrated, because I was born here. But I am still a class migrant. I grew up in a low-income neighbourhood with people from working class backgrounds. Equal opportunity is about more than a language gap. I focus on social class and skin colour as I think we don’t talk about that enough. Class exclusion is mainly racism based on skin colour. My career path has been a lonely place sometimes. My parents no longer understood what I was doing after university and that drove a wedge between us, even though they were always very proud. That’s where the librarian and the French teacher were really important.”

Is there anything else you would like to say to readers of Hello Zuidas?
“What I would ask or urge people to do, is listen to other people’s stories and experiences to correct your personal blind spots. This issue will always be fraught and uncomfortable because you’re confronted with your own thinking or things you didn’t know. But as you get to know more, you gain understanding and empathy.’’