Serving the white order: Making bilingual security workers in Brussels

Research output: ThesisDoctoral ThesisThesis 5: fully external


This thesis explores how the requirement of Dutch-French bilingualism on the labor market intersects with the racial stratification of work in Brussels, Belgium. In particular, it focuses on the context of security work for public transport, and presents the results of 18 months of ethnographic fieldwork, consisting of participant observation conducted among security workers in training as well as at work in metro stations in Brussels, and interviews and informal conversations with company executives, trainers, and trainees. The security workers that this study followed were recruited in 2017, after the government freed funds for increasing the safety of the Brussels public transport system in the wake of the terrorist attacks of March 2016. Due to the legal requirement of Dutch-French bilingualism for all jobs that involve contact with the public in Brussels, the security workers that this study focuses on had to be bilingual too. Since job seekers on the Brussels labor market generally have good knowledge of French, but limited or no competence in Dutch, the six-month training these men followed comprised fifteen weeks of full time Dutch language classes. Moreover, the training primarily attracted unemployed adult men of color, which is in line with the general strong representation of racialized men in the public transport company and in security work. At the same time, the public transport company is strongly racially stratified, with a majority of racially marked men working as technicians, drivers, and security workers, and a virtually all white management. The aim of this thesis was to investigate the potential interconnection between language and racial stratification in the Brussels public transport sector. By investigating the tensions between on the one hand the required knowledge of Dutch and the high investment it requires from job seekers, employers and the government, and on the other hand the virtual absence of Dutch at work, this study seeks to demonstrate two things. First, it shows how in Brussels Dutch-French bilingualism and the indexical meaning of the Dutch language are instrumentalized to rationalize the racial stratification of labor force. Second, this thesis demonstrates how racially marked security workers use Dutch-French bilingualism in their attempt to navigate the tension between on the one hand being members of a racialized and criminalized minority, and on the other hand becoming legitimate bilingual guardians of the social order.
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • Ghent University
  • Hoof, Sarah Van, Supervisor, External person
  • Del Percio, Alfonso, Supervisor, External person
Award date25 Jan 2022
Publication statusPublished - Jan 2022
Externally publishedYes


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