The Built Environment and Carcerality

Mi mama no tin plaka                            My mother doesn’t have any money
Hinka mi den un doshi                          Put me in a box
Manda mi na Hulanda                           (And) sent me to the Netherlands
Ora mi a yega Hulanda                          When I arrived in the Netherlands


An old Curaçaoan children’s song

Michael Dingake writes in his autobiography My Fight Against Apartheid that “Blacks are always in one prison or another. They cannot escape imprisonment for one moment.” For black people, to paraphrase Assata Shakur, the built environment is not that much different from the prison. Although Dingake and Shakur describe how prison mechanisms structure black life in South Africa and the U.S. respectively, what they put forward is nevertheless deeply reflective of black living conditions in Rotterdam and the Netherlands as a whole. This resonance across geographical locations is not surprising: anti-black violence is built into the structures and institutions that make up the modern world. The socio-political reality of anti-blackness is that black people “are policed all the time, and everywhere.”

The police and military are, as Fanon points out, instrumental in the forcible institution and maintenance of carceral geographies. Police stations and barracks sustained the dividing line—the colour line—that structured the distribution and mobility of people and capital in the colonial city. Even though Fanon writes specifically about how the police serves as monitor and patrol of the frontiers in colonial society, we should not consider this function of the police as confined to the “distant past,” or “remote” colonial urban spaces. Within the Netherlands, the police and municipally-appointed stadsmariniers for “Antilleans” (city marines, individuals with “a wide remit in order to ‘make policies happen’ on the ground”) are key agents in maintaining the colonized status of black people. In the next series of blog posts, I want to shed light on the many ways in which the built environment, neoliberal urban restructuring programmes, and urban surveillance practices work together to create prison-like living conditions for black people in the Netherlands.

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Liveability and the Black Squat Movement

“it’s all about belonging: even now, who belongs where is often based on who belonged to whom. i sometimes wonder how i get away with living while black.” — Evie Shockley, improper(ty) behavior in the new black

The preceding epigraph frames this piece on the squatting actions of the Dutch Caribbean community in the Bijlmer—a neighbourhood of the borough of Amsterdam South-East—that took place between 1970-1980, as well as issues of liveability and habitability the squatting actions raised. I will focus specifically on a large-scale squatting action in 1974, which was labelled the first organized act of resistance of Dutch Caribbeans in the Netherlands. The involvement of Dutch Caribbeans in the squat movement is often not included in mainstream narratives on squatting actions.

As a black urban space, the Bijlmer represents in the popular imagination a space of pathology, rather than spaces of community. In a 2012 article titled How a Black Neighbourhood Became Blacker, which appeared in De Groene Amsterdammer, the Bijlmer is said to be “the drain of the city.” I analyse the Bijlmer in the first instance not as a static geographical location, but rather as a complex set of political, economic, spatial, racial, gender, and sexual relations that converge on a site that is subsequently marked as black and uninhabitable. Thus, the Bijlmer is in my analysis not only “a concrete place, whose racial and economic formation is material” but also “an imagined place.” By taking this approach, I hope to highlight the various ways in which black dispossession forms the ground for the production of belonging and space.

Throughout the piece I will use Dutch Caribbean and black people interchangeably, rather than the terms “the Surinamese” and “the Antillean” which pepper the newspaper articles, to refer to Dutch Caribbeans of African descent. I use white (Dutch) people to refer to so-called “Autochtonen.” Within Dutch politics, both blackness and whiteness appear as spatially grounded praxes. Even though the Black–White binary is not the only binary which characterizes white supremacy, it is the binary that frames most Dutch political thinking, and is, thus, integral to understanding spatial production. Deprived, underprivileged, anti-social geographies, or ‘hot spots’—in other words, sites that are inhabited by dispossessed communities—are systematically described as “black neighbourhoods.” Moreover, the residential outcomes of black people areoften outlined in terms of ghetto or ghettoization, however, the same descriptors are never used in regard to the ‘concentrated’, yet unproblematized, outcomes of white Dutch people living in suburbs. The national spatial imaginary is racially marked: racialized bodies are territorialized through terms like “Allochtoon” and “Autochtoon,” and it is through this territorialization of racialized bodies that spaces are coded as white, or black. As such, blacks and whites are consigned to different physical and metaphorical spaces. Continue reading “Liveability and the Black Squat Movement”

Playing the Numbers Game

“It’s a numbers game, but shit don’t add up somehow
Like I got, 16 to 32 bars to rock it
But only 15% of profits ever see my pockets like
69 billion in the last 20 years
Spent on national defense but folks still live in fear like
Nearly half of America’s largest cities is one-quarter black”

Mos Def, Mathematics

Last year, the Notification Centre for Online Discrimination received 652 complaints of online discrimination—an increase of 50%. The year before, the centre received 305 complaints. What does a ‘rise’ in online racist incidents mean? And for whose benefit are these figures being produced? What does it mean to monitor the ‘flow’ and ‘fluctuations’ in racist incidents? What kind of work does ‘measuring racism’ do? What does it mean to think of racism as something that is measurable, quantifiable? And do these numbers tell us anything about the workings of racialisation? The act of measuring reduces racism to something other than what it is. We must interrogate the kind of work that measurements, degrees of comparison, and comparative superlatives (as in “racism is becoming much worse,” or “things are getting worse and worse”) do.

In order to get an understanding of what facts and statistics do rather than say, we have to situate the production of facts and statistics in a wider context of knowledge production in Dutch academia. In their essay Designs and (Co)Incidents, Philomena Essed and Kwame Nimako note that Dutch minority research “mostly (but not always) problematiz[es] ethnic minorities while generally downplaying the influence of racism, the ramifications of the colonial history, and concomitant presuppositions of European (Dutch) civil and cultural superiority.” The Dutch minority research machinery spits out reports and statistics, that shape policies. These reports are the product of enumerative practices, that concern themselves with how many?, rather than analytic practices which ask why? Essed and Nimako tell us that why is rarely asked. Instead, “[r]esearch is largely about ethnic minorities […] about their migration and their degree (or lack) of economic, social and political integration in the Netherlands.” Research on people of colour builds on a White Dutch infrastructure “where policy, party politics, and research intertwine.”

Continue reading “Playing the Numbers Game”

Thinking Care

Anti-racist spaces are messy sites of emotions. Emotions play a crucial role in political action. We can’t deny that we have strong emotional relationships with what we do and with whom we work. And yet, emotions are often not considered, at all, in anti-racist organizing. Emotions are usually relegated to the sphere of the private, or personal. However, they form, as Sara Ahmed points out, an important aspect of political life. Moral emotions, such as ‘care’, ‘compassion’, and ‘love’, especially give texture to politics, ideas of belonging, and ‘allyship’. So, why do anti-racist activists neglect the role that emotions play in organizing and building community?

I have been thinking about the kind of work that moral emotions do, specifically ‘care’, within White anti-racist activist spaces. ‘Caring’, which is considered a sign of moral outrage against injustice, performs important work. ‘Care’, as a moral ideal, pulls activists together, and is important to the formation and mobilization of social movements. White anti-racist activists, for instance, care because a situation is unfair, or because they believe discrimination is behaviour that should not belong in a ‘civilized’ country. Statements such as “I care about refugees,” “we should change Zwarte Piet, because it hurts Black people,” or narcissistic statements like “they are just like us,” are all indicative of a caring concern. Care is made politically significant whenever we call on society at large to care. Yet, despite the political role of care and its ability to gather and mobilize, ‘care’ within activism remains curiously unexamined.

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Finding a Way Out of the Polder

“It was after the end of
the world… To lie on
our backs looking
into the dark was all
there was worth

—       Nathaniel Mackey, “Eye on the Scarecrow” from Splay Anthem.

These past few months I have been busy doing everything except blogging. One could say I have been purposefully shying away from it, in the main, because I felt—and still feel—like writing fuck everything ad infinitum. An urge that I have, somehow, managed to curb when writing for ‘official’ publications and panels. My engagement with the intellectual work of theorists grouped under the label ‘Afro-Pessimism’ made me realize that the only possible response is fuck everything, starting with the nation-state. The nation-state is so deeply fucked that we might not be able to rehabilitate it, at all. If recuperation (making things better) is our political goal, then we might be setting ourselves up for an impossible task.

Over the past months, I’ve been told, several times, in purportedly leftist spaces, that my work is “too radical,” or even more bewildering: “too political.” What does it mean to be too political? What constitutes the ‘too’? The ‘too’, which is almost accusatory, is as curious as it is significant, and says much about what is considered ‘constructive politics’, and what is not. The diagnosis ‘too political’ implies that a certain kind of politics, or criticality, is expected—perhaps, even desired—however, I am overdoing it by desiring, in the words of Aimé Césaire, “The only thing in the world worth beginning // The End of the World, of course.” My demand is, by its very nature, in a relation of excess vis-à-vis the political, and, therefore, unreasonable both in terms of meaningfulness and practicality. To fundamentally question the legitimacy of established ways is seen as not only an assault on ‘freedom’ and ‘democracy’, but also a subversive act against the nation itself.

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On Facts, Proof, and the Reception of Black Critique in White Dutch Media

“Give us the facts, we will take care of the philosophy.” — John Collins

In a recent article, philosopher Mihai Martoiu Ticu issued a “challenge” to his critics: “prove it.” What needed to be proved here was whether Guus Valk’s review article gives “an unfair advantage to whites, or unfairly disadvantages blacks.” Martoiu Ticu admits that he has seen “no evidence” of either undue benefit or harm. In what could be said to be a self-disqualifying move, Martoiu Ticu claims that,

“It is not evident that the word ‘nigger’ is a priori racist. The same applies to illustrations of a black man in the familiar stereotype of blackface, including thick red lips.”

Mihai Martoiu Ticu’s claim is not, at all, remarkable. Rather, it is part of a contemporary White liberal discourse on racism, which reduces racism to ‘individual experience’, ‘individual acts of meanness’, or the result of ‘unfortunate misunderstandings’ (some misunderstandings are overdetermined). Racism is marked as ‘real’ only when the intentions behind the act or statement are racist. As such, it becomes either a matter of individual prejudice or miscommunication—both of which can be remedied by ‘raising awareness’ and through ‘dialogue’. In order to establish whether racism is the ‘true’ issue at hand, research must be conducted. It’s not racist, until it’s been proven. What constitutes racism is, thus, continuously up for debate and this strengthens a “framework of plausible deniability [that has already been] built up around racism”—a framework which enables Mihai Martoiu Ticu to disconnect the N-word and the darkie iconography used in Aron Vellekoop León’s illustrations from their historical, political contexts and cultural antecedents.

Martoiu Ticu’s statement of “no evidence” in the face of overwhelming evidence and his challenge to “prove it” are symptomatic of White supremacy, and both raise a number of concerns when read alongside the struggle against racism, and for justice. If what could be considered, as in the case of the N-word, incontrovertible evidence of racism is made subject to discussion and contested under the guise of ‘research’, then what counts as incontestable evidence? What kind of evidence “speaks for itself”? To be clear, I am not taking up Martoiu Ticu ‘challenge’ to find measurable, causal evidence for a negative impact of Valk’s article on Black people. Rather, I’m interested in how, through a desire for ‘evidence’ in the face of incontrovertible evidence, White Dutch innocence and the ‘integrity of Whiteness’ are secured. If the assumption of White Dutch innocence saturates interpretation, and structures what can and cannot be ‘seen’ or understood as evidence, then to what extent does it interpret ‘evidence’ a priori?

Continue reading “On Facts, Proof, and the Reception of Black Critique in White Dutch Media”

Mobilities and the Border of Whiteness

This is a talk that I prepared for an event about the asylum policy in the Netherlands and how it affects refugees:

In this talk I want to highlight the role that anti-blackness has played—and still plays—in shaping official migration policies. More often than not, the role that anti-blackness plays in state policies remains unmentioned.

Counter to popular political actions, I want to unsettle the relatively “safe” position of those of us who are documented. My main project is to question and undermine the system of documentation itself—to think beyond citizenship. To that end, I would like us to think about why it is so that the state determines which movements are legitimate, and which aren’t. Why is no movement ‘free’—unless it is in service of corporate capital? The basic question I want us to wrestle with is, why do we need to be documented in order to be able to “live legitimately” in this society?

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Seeing Colour, Reading Saul van Stapele

“Racism should never have happened and so you don’t get a cookie for reducing it.”

— Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Americanah

One of the unintended consequences of ‘mainstreaming anti-racism’ is that anyone and everyone who believes themselves knowledgeable enough, regardless of the level of their understanding, is offered a stage to provide an analysis of racial oppression. Nowadays, anti-racism is, as Ramona Sno argues, fashionable. “It is striking,” Sno writes, “that the people who are now speaking out the loudest against racism and other forms of exclusion are white, and that their pieces are, to put it mildly, inspired by the pieces of POC (people of color) in the Netherlands.”

It is striking, indeed, that predominantly White folk are given space in which to not only articulate their ‘anti-racism’, but to also determine what’s racist. Given the dominance of normative Eurocentric epistemologies that have distorted Black epistemologies, or rendered them unintelligible or invisible, it’s important to remain vigilant of dynamics that relegate the intellectual work of Black(ened) folk to ‘footnotes and brackets’ or that reduce our work to ‘raw material’ that can be unlimitedly exploited—without having to engage its ethical implications.

Continue reading “Seeing Colour, Reading Saul van Stapele”

The Netherlands and Its Discontents, or: How White Dutch Folks Started Worrying and Urged ‘Us’ to Take Rioters Seriously

Taking the ‘riots’ in Ferguson following the extrajudicial murder of Michael Brown as a point of departure, Femke Kaulinggfreks and Matthijs Ponte argue in a recent article that ‘we’ in the Netherlands should “take rioters from minority communities seriously.” The authors state that in the Netherlands, ‘we’ are able to look critically at the situation in Ferguson, however, when it comes to racial tensions in our own country ‘we’ lack the ability to provide a critical analysis. Kaulinggfreks and Ponte attribute this lack to the fact that ‘we’ probably see American society as much more unequal and racist than Dutch society. Throughout the article, the authors make a slew of rhetorical shortcuts that need to be made explicit and challenged.

First, the authors invoke a ‘we’ that is implicitly White Autochtoon Dutch, and clearly rules out my perspective as a Black man. Second, the authors yoke together disparate acts of dissent, or as they put it “disruptions of public order,” and create, thus, a broad protest animated by a coherent ‘sudden’ surge of ‘discontent’, which erases their respective specificities. Moreover, Kaulinggfreks and Ponte use in their article the vacuous and simplistic gloss ‘ethnic minorities’—a gloss that implies a level of homogeneity that is decidedly problematic. The political actions of ‘Muslims’ and ‘Afro- Caribbean Dutch’ are spoken of in the same breath under the umbrella term ‘community activism’, and this equation oversimplifies further a complex web of political relations. Third, the authors use forms of protest in the USA, namely the Civil Rights movement as a gauge, and contrast forms of political dissent in the Netherlands to forms of political dissent in the USA—a move that, ironically, leads the authors themselves to make the same mistake that they’re “pointing out.”

Continue reading “The Netherlands and Its Discontents, or: How White Dutch Folks Started Worrying and Urged ‘Us’ to Take Rioters Seriously”

Politics of Spatial Imagination in the Dutch Colonial Myth

“The modern world hates to see black folks resting.” — Lewis Gordon, “African American Philosophy, Race, and the Geography of Reason.”

In the 19th century, the opponents of penal colonialism thought it inadvisable to deport prisoners to hard labour. In an official document to the then King, they write (my translations),

“The examination of the hereby dated report of the Minister of Justice and the associated lists of prisoners who are considered to be suitable for transportation to Brazil, or any of the other overseas possessions, has convinced me that the persons referred to cannot be made use of for the benefit of your Majesty’s colonies.

In the West, experience has shown us that, in a hot climate, only Negroes should be used for the cultivation of the land as well as other physical labour; under no circumstances should Europeans be put to work, and women, who mostly are absent from the slave forces in Suriname, must be sought from nowhere else but in Africa, so as to achieve the maintenance of the black population.

In the East, and in particular Java, our entire economy and the security of our possessions is founded on this principle, the natives should stand in absolute awe of Europeans, this feeling should spring forth from a sense of their moral and intellectual inferiority. It is from this point of view that Europeans, even those of the lower classes, dismissed soldiers or sailors, etc., are rarely if ever called to, or assigned, manual labour, and it is for this reason, too, that many experts think it would be inadvisable to embark in those regions on a colonization programme as that of, for example, the Swiss in Brazil.”

A. R. Falck, Minister of Public Education, National Industry and Colonies Continue reading “Politics of Spatial Imagination in the Dutch Colonial Myth”