By Bea Van Robaeys

Before the last staff meeting in Capetown, I had the opportunity to give two lectures on superdiversity in George Hospital, as part of a spin-off program of our Caring Society activities. I worried a lot about it beforehand. How could I, as a humble outsider bring a story to the people of a country who have experienced such a painful history in dealing with diversity? A history that still impacts so much on the societal realities of today?

The only possible answer was bringing a vulnerable story myself on why the themes of diversity and complexity play such an important role in my professional life. How I believe that the themes we feel passionate about, are a reflection of a deep-felt inner search that, if you dare to look, always touches a particular vulnerability. In my case the longing for a whole where I can feel at home, without having to sacrifice my own spirit and being. The search to belong and live a meaningful, harmonious life.

I explained the concept of superdiversity by telling the story of my country, Belgium, its migration history and the social realities of today. To give you an idea, Brussels is one of our majority-minorities cities: the majority of the citizens is composed of people belonging to different minority groups. Brussels is, after Dubai, the city with the highest percentage of residents from foreign origins. It has 1.200.000 inhabitants, from which 6 out of 10 were born non-Belgian. About 184 nationalities are represented in Brussels. Considering there are only a little above 200 nationalities in the world, this puts Brussels as one of the most racial and ethnically diverse areas in the world. From 2000 to 2017 the number of spoken languages raised from 72 to 104. Most people speak French (89%), followed by English (30%), Dutch (23%) and Arabic (18%). Segregation is also present in Brussels. Foreigners from North Africa, Turkey, and EU 15 are living in opposite regions of the city.

So, superdiversity or “the diversification of diversity” goes rapidly and it results in huge social hybridity: more nationalities, more languages, growing religious diversity, diversity in motives for migration, in residence statuses, in socio-economic positions. I explained that for me, superdiversity is also the search for a new way of looking at the world. We keep thinking in terms of ‘us’ and ‘them, but this doesn’t fit reality anymore. The learning process to think in terms of us AND them is a difficult one… In the end, all of us, every human being wants to feel safe and at home, we want a good life for ourselves and our children. But we are in the grip of feelings of anxiety, distrust and polarization.

I think a basic fear underlying all the societal debates is the fear of change. In evolutionary terms the speed of change is unseen. We needed thousands of years to learn to work with tools… And look what this last century has brought! My aunt of 86, now a frequent user of Facebook, remembers the times where the land still was cultivated with horse and man craft. She keeps wondering how things could change so fast… So, we need to be kind to ourselves in what is asked from us in adaptational terms, but there is no way out. We have to find ways to accommodate the present diversity. All the observed forms around the world of the new nationalism/populism, don’t have the mental and emotional space to do this.

How then can we build a ‘new us’? For sure, the importance of trust can’t be underestimated, neither the importance of equality of chances. It is necessary to see the commonalities, to open up to the common human layer underneath our differences. But I also plead to become more aware of what difference is. We should see very clearly how ‘differences’ operate before we are able to link these differences together. The answer isn’t to try to become all the same. It is this idea itself that we should be the same that is the problem. Containing and embracing the presence of different perspectives (even those who will never can be brought together) can function as a safety web that hinders the constellation, the dominance, the violence of a one-dimensional, static vision of the world.


Let me emphasize this: polarization can never lead to healing anything. If we don’t look into ourselves and our hearts and acknowledge the pain that we have experienced and our own hurting of others, we can’t move on. Polarization means staying in a traumatic position and a traumatic connection. Trauma stops the time. But our nature is to change, to embrace time.

In the end, the public and I were connected mentally and emotionally. Handling diversity is a global, human challenge, whatever the specific forms it takes in different countries, north or south. One of the attending staff members of the Hospital said that she deliberately had chosen a chair in the back, enabling her to leave the lecture if the ‘European story’ wasn’t of any interest to her. “But I stayed”, she said. Some hospital staff shared their anxieties to really talk to colleagues about the painful experiences in their life and family histories. They were vulnerable and brave. And in that way opened a new doorway to a safe space where all of us gathered at that moment, as humans.

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