Off the Beaten Path: From Human Zoos to Neighbourhood Safaris

“It must be remembered that the oppressed and the oppressor are bound together within the same society; they accept the same criteria, they share the same beliefs, they both alike depend on the same reality.” – James Baldwin, Everybody’s Protest Novel

‎“I am not interested in picking up crumbs of compassion thrown from the table of someone who considers himself my master. I want the full menu of rights.” – Bishop Desmond Tutu

“Wijksafari Slotermeer” (Neighbourhood Safari Slotermeer) – or, if you will, a staged colonial encounter – is a theatre production produced by Zina platform and Female Economy. The show promises its audience a journey through human landscapes, and a “hyper-reality” in which intense encounters are made possible. Eh, most of us in the real world don’t need a hyper-reality to make intense encounters possible.

Aside: Jean Baudrilliard writes that “[H]yper-reality, where simulacra live, tricks consciousness into detaching from any real emotional engagement, instead opting for artificial simulation, and endless reproductions of fundamentally empty appearance.” But whatever.

Anyway, the concept, which is devised by Adelheid Roosen, or as I like to call her “the purveyor of White sympathy,” isn’t at all original. “Wijksafari Slotermeer” is just one of the latest in a long line of asshattish productions that fit into the “I’ve had a close encounter of the fifth kind, so now I know all there is to know about you” category. The concept of a sanitized “border-crossing” as a way “to get to know the Other” exposes the influence of colonialism, White supremacy and capitalism on the White Autochtoon Dutch mindset, and collective subconscious. You can literally buy your way into another person’s life and space.

Back in 2010 Patrick Lodiers, a Dutch television presenter and the chairman of BNN, did something similar; he spent two whole months in Bijlmermeer for his TV programme Patrick in de Bijlmer. The audience was invited to step through the looking glass, and follow Patrick Lodiers’ reports on the “exotic” goings-on on the other side – you know, where things are quite different. The RTL series “Echte Meisjes” (“Real Girls” – a problematic title in itself) adheres to the same worn principle: a group of White Autochtoon Dutch girls travel to Nepal – an Othered space – allegedly on quests for self-improvement and self-discovery. It goes without saying that everything’s filtered through an Orientalist lens. Last January, the Guardian published an article about tourists “on safari” who, with the help of local police, sought out members of the Jarawa tribe and made them dance for food.

Well, the folks (Agnes Matthews, Elly Ludenhoff, Myriam Sahraoui, Nazmiye Oral, Shahin Abdalla, and Adelheid Roosen) behind “Wijksafari Slotermeer” have followed the “ethnic tourism” script to a T; they have even sought out Moroccan youngsters who are willing to perform a choreography… with their scooters in this (neo-)colonial theatre production.

Aside: People of colour have a long, long, long history of being reduced to objects of White attention – ‘cause, you know, this “let’s meet the locals” train wreck is primarily meant for the White Autochtoon Dutch gaze. People of colour need not go through the looking glass.

Before Moroccan youth, and the Jarawa tribe, it was Josephine Baker who danced, in her banana belt, for the gaze of a White audience – at a time when folks of colour were still being displayed (in the Netherlands and the rest of Europe) like animals in human zoos. These peoples were taken from the colonies and exhibited in Europe like scientific curiosities, or if you will “relational artefacts.” Back then White Autochtoon Dutch folks built entire villages to showcase colonized peoples.

Sara Baartman, the “Hottentot Venus,” is one well-known example of a woman of colour who was treated like an object of Otherness/relational artefact. In the racist fantasies of the White audience, she embodied the epitome of a “savage beauty”, and even after her death her brain, genitalia, and skeleton were put on display in Musée de l’Homme.  As Sharon MacDonald writes in The Politics of Display: Museums, Science, Culture such grotesque displays (but also Malvina Hoffman’s palatable Races of Mankind for instance) “encouraged a kind of voyeurism, sanitized of shame in the culturally approved setting of a museum in which such seeing is given scientific sanction as the pursuit of knowledge and cultural sophistication.” In “Wijksafari Slotermeer” this privileged voyeurism is presented under the rubric of “appreciating other cultures.”

Homi Bhabha states in an interview with Jonathan Rutherford that the “sign of the ‘cultured’ or the ‘civilized’ attitude is the ability to appreciate cultures as a kind of musée imaginaire; as though one should be able to collect and appreciate them.” The “exotic,” be they people or things, has often been collected and displayed for the amusement, titillation of a White audience, or with the intention to generate White sympathy.

If people of colour need to appeal to White sympathy, which is dependent on the display of powerlessness or marginality, to garner understanding, or win support for racial fairness – as though social justice and our humanity are debatable, then there is something seriously wrong with White folks’ sense of morality.

So, forgive me when I say I’m often suspicious of folks operating in the construct of White Autochtoon Dutchness, who are intent on fostering fellow-feeling for those “poor folks of colour on the other side of the fence.” I don’t care much for “good intentions.” Besides, history has taught me that more often than not people of colour are reduced, in the process of caring, to objects of Otherness and defined on the terms of the idealized White Autochtoon Dutch Self.

Have you noticed that White Autochtoon Dutch folks just love to discuss how harmful prejudice is on a personal level?

There are hardly analyses of everyday practices that marginalize and stigmatize people of colour in the Netherlands. The dismantling of institutionalized White supremacist domination, which is the result of centuries of prejudice and systematic oppression and kept in place through the “distribution of sentiment,” is not high on the Autochtoon agenda.

I’m getting REALLY tired of these bushwa bridge-building types, who believe that intergroup contact alone will get rid of racism. Inter-group relations might reduce prejudice, however, racism will not disappear through individual acts. Racism is power plus prejudice.

Don’t think I’m letting the folks of colour slide. This is also an indictment of the Allochtoon folks (I’m looking at you Myriam Sahraoui, Nazmiye Oral, Shahin Abdalla) who have willingly participated in the (re)mythologizing of racialized spaces. Too many people of colour are in love with “White Autochtoon Dutch attention.” Then again, it’s no wonder, when people of colour are consistently perceived by the White Autochtoon Dutch gaze as either “needy,”“problematic  people,” or “special” that some folks of colour align themselves with the dominant norm. Whiteness is one helluva drug, y’all.

The White Autochtoon Dutch belief in “polder model” consensus, in conjunction with colourblindness, not only breeds people of colour who align themselves with the dominant norm, but also pseudo-allies. Pseudo-allies are people who claim to be “allies” to people of colour, but who won’t take any substantial action against White Autochtoon Dutch privilege, and in the worst case reproduce racist power structures. I’m looking at you Republiek Allochtonië

The supposedly anti-racist blog Republiek Allochtonië posted an advertisement for this mess – without a critique of the idea of a “Neighbourhood Safari” in an “Allochtoon” neighbourhood. Any close examination of that theatre production would beg the question:

What does a theatre production called “Wijksafari Slotermeer” say about racialized spaces and, by proxy, White Autochtoon Dutch spaces?

Well, this “Wijksafari” farce simply cements the actual and metaphorical White Autochtoon Dutchness of certain spaces. As Sara Ahmed writes, “[W]hiteness takes shape through orientations towards others.” The basic message of this production is that the space of Other exists for the needs of the dominant culture.

The neighbourhood Slotermeer is constructed as though it were a tourist locale, which creates the illusion of isolation – of its existing as a (symbolic) “foreign” site within a White Autochtoon Dutch space. It is a kind of exoticism in our own backyard. From what I’ve gathered, this production does not address the intricate roles these racialized and classed spaces perform in the construction of middle-class White Autochtoon Dutch spaces – which I find surprising given the fact that Amsterdam is becoming more segregated.

But then again, this is about “getting to know the Other.”

Well, the makers promise that “you’ll walk through streets where you have never walked before and step over a threshold into a new intimacy.” Incidentally, intimacy as well as sentiment have played significant roles in colonial relationships. Colonial relationships were comprised of (in the words of Ann Laura Stoler) many “tense and tender ties”—meaning, intimate interactions were sites where colonial inequities were produced, traversed and renegotiated. Both intimacy and sentiment tie into broader frameworks of power, oppression, belonging, and not belonging. See, that’s why inter-group relations aren’t sure-fire ways to reduce/get rid of racism. There was PLENTY of that going on during colonialism. If we want to achieve any significant change, we need a “deeper historical engagement with the range of practices in which racisms were produced and thus with the cultural framing of political categories,” as Ann Laura Stoler argues in Carnal Knowledge and Imperial Power: Race and the Intimate in Colonial Rule.

What does it mean to be an “Autochtoon”? What does it mean to be an “Allochtoon”?  And how are these political categories framed culturally? Well, judging from this mess “Allochtoon” still equals exotic.

:goes to tomb vacated by Jesus:


One thought on “Off the Beaten Path: From Human Zoos to Neighbourhood Safaris

Comments are closed.