Keti Koti and the Politics of Social Movements

“The act of writing, it seems to me, makes up a shelter, allows space to what would otherwise be hidden, crossed out, mutilated. Sometimes writing can work toward a reparation, making a sheltering space for the mind. Yet it feeds off ruptures, tears in what might otherwise seem a seamless, oppressive fabric.”

—           Meena Alexander, The Shock of Arrival: Reflections on Postcolonial Experience

Despite Keti Koti’s being a day for celebration, I was not in a celebratory mood. Keti Koti has sadly taken the guise of a summer festival – in the vein of Kwakoe, as a friend of mine poignantly remarked. It’s seemingly become a get-together with food, music, a taste of the good life with the trans-Atlantic slave trade acting as a slight (e)motive force. As I looked at Black folks strolling by, occasionally flocking together under the “Zwarte Piet is Racisme Helpdesk” tent to hide from the rain, I asked myself whether this behaviour was somehow representative of the prevailing political consciousness in Black communities.

Prior to the event Francio Guadeloupe, an academic of colour, posted the following status update:

Image description: a text box that reads,

“My hope is that during the upcoming keti koti celebration we will not allow the continuing struggle for a common humanity to be reduced to the rhetoric of white versus black/black versus white. Perhaps we need to think Red again. Perhaps we need to invent seriously ludic concepts such as the politics of ketchup. Ketchup! Yes ketchup. Ketchup has that wonderful thixotropic quality of becoming fluid when under duress and solidifying in tranquil times. Is this not how the arrivants who survived the middle passages sustained themselves on the plantations of the New World? Weren’t these arrivants stolen from Africa—or born on in the bellies of ships or in the Americas—people with the gel like quality of watering their way through the cracks of power when power was at its most invincible? Weren’t these arrivants also the ones who could harden at opportune times to strike more lethal blows at the delusional self image, and failed institutional practices, of moneyed individuals seeking to transform them into beasts of burden? Could this tactic not allow us to recognize the kinship of all who practice a specific politics of ketchup whether they be called Palestinian, Jew, Tibetan, Irish, Dalit, Sudanese, ex-Yugoslavian, woman, gay, or…(you fill in the dots)? But equally could this not help us to recognize that in the end it is about what you do, how you treat others, how you live with your dis/privilege, not about what tribal belonging you claim (or are ascribed)?”

You can imagine that reading said statement on the eve of Keti Koti gave me all sorts of feels. For brevity’s sake (and to be frank my own peace of mind) I will not grub out the layers of fuckery embedded in that status update. Suffice it to say that Francio Guadeloupe proposes, in a “ludic” way, a “grin and bear it” politics (which he facetiously terms a “politics of ketchup”) in the face of institutionalized racism. What saddens/infuriates me is that this “grin and bear it” politics has been (tacitly) co-signed by the majority of people of colour in the Netherlands for fear of “upsetting” the dominant culture; it is what is currently informing our praxis.

The organizers of Keti Koti paid no mind at all to the politics of commemorating the end of slavery in a space coded White and male. The fact that demissionary prime minister Mark Rutte was afforded a space to speak at Keti Koti goes beyond being offensive – especially since his party, the VVD, proposed a law that will make it easier to deny “disenfranchised” people from Aruba, Curaçao and Sint Maarten access to the Netherlands.

Did the organizers even consider the political implications of granting Mark Rutte a platform to speak? Did they realize that by doing so they grant his policies legitimacy?

Aside: For the record, we’re talking about the same Mark Rutte who thought that the request to remove a harmful panel from the Golden Coach was bizarre. He went on to say that its removal would be tantamount to a rewriting of history. This is the same Mark Rutte whose policies have resulted in the closing of NINsee, and jeopardized the existence of the film festival “Africa in the Picture,”  whose contributions are considered irrelevant. He is also the same Mark Rutte whose advice to Allochtoon folks facing racism and discrimination is “work harder.” Let’s be clear I’m talking about the same Mark Rutte who was in cahoots with the PVV, and refused to call out Geert Wilders when Wilders instigated the Polish Immigration Hotline, an anti-Pole website. The very same Mark Rutte who has had the gall to say at Keti Koti, mind you, that we should abandon a divisive rhetoric of Us versus Them, while his cabinet has been facilitating and fostering the rhetoric he so passionately denounced in his speech.

After Mark Rutte gave his speech folks applauded and the director of NINsee, Artwell Cain, thanked him. Thank him for what exactly, Mr. Cain?

I understand full well the political stratagem of not wanting to bite the hand that feeds. However, in this case not only has the hand stopped feeding you, Mr. Cain, it has actively helped build a social ecosystem in which people who look like you (and some who do not look like you) merely act as dispensers of political capital (re Mauro and Eastern Europeans). At worst, their very lives are turned into political capital (re the asylum seekers in Ter Apel).

If we remain uncritical of “the hand that feeds” we will stay forever in a skewed relationship in which we’re the eternal dependant. Why not build coalitions with Black institutes in North America, Latin America, Africa?

Between Artwell Cain’s shuck and jive act and Francio Guadeloupe’s “ludic” call to adopt a “politics of ketchup,” which bespeaks a lack of empathy, I think people of colour are, and I say this carefully, fucked. We have people, like Mr. Cain and Mr. Guadeloupe, in positions of authority who, instead of challenging and critiquing oppressive dominant discourses, parrot the dominant culture, or – worse still – actively look for accommodating ways of addressing oppression. As though the effects of oppression and racism can (or should) be packaged in “nice” and polite terms.

We all are human beings, and, yes, we all bleed red – that is a given, and something that, I would assume, bears no repeating. Instead, let’s talk about how we legislate against certain human beings; let’s talk about the notion that documented human beings are more deserving of protection than undocumented human beings. Let’s talk about how difference is used to oppress and marginalize human beings. How do those in power actively create a “Them” in relation to a fictive “Us”?

These past few days I have been thinking quite a lot about the politics and ethics in and of social movements. To many people movement simply means going from point A to point B. However, to me, movement suggests much more than a series of actions or activities of a body of persons oriented toward a certain end goal. It means not only the process of moving or changing place, or position, but also the manner in which the living body is moved (both physically and emotionally); that is, how we relate bodily to each other. Pramod K. Nayar  writes in Post-colonialism: A Guide for the Perplexed that “[S]ince the battle for equality and democracy has been on the basis of race, and since exploitation is governed mainly by the color of the skin, to do away with racial identity is to refuse any chance of agency to the black or the Hispanic.”

The experience of people of colour, especially the peoples from the former colonies, in relation to the dominant culture is one that has left the residue of colonial violence on the surfaces of our bodies. This colonial residue renders us at once visible, i.e. only as objects of study and pity, and invisible, i.e. when we fail to adhere to the scripted relationships.

Bodies then are not “neutral.” We need to look critically at how certain bodies are employed, or positioned within a movement in relation to other bodies. This requires constant vigilance, and an active critical stance. Radical social movements then become a praxis; a way of life; a way of living.

In this light, decolonization is not simply a political ideology that entails an intellectual resistance, or the adoption of an oppositional stance to the colonizing force of Whiteness. It is a continuous process of undoing, of transforming the pain of erasure, exploitation and marginalization into a scepticism towards systems of power.

I have been asking myself whether the organization behind “Zwarte Piet is Racisme Helpdesk,” a movement I fully support and believe in, gave any thought to the implications of having Roelof Jan Minnebo there as a representative of the movement. I have had several run-ins with Mr. Minnebo in which he asserted his Whiteness by claiming that he was better equipped to talk about racism since he could do so in an objective, rational manner, unlike us, meaning people of colour, who got angry.

I’m posting an exchanged that happened between him and me in relation to a harmful anti-gay marriage image. Minnebo entertained the question, “Are we sure this isn’t satire?” He then went on to say, “[I]t’s poor quality satire but it might be effective in an American setting…The ‘hang homosexuals’ image is an example of satirical use of grotesque language.”

As people of colour living in a space coded White and male we must build lasting critical movements, and not flock together under a banner when the weather turns bad. We need to make up a permanent shelter, and think carefully about who is given a voice in our movements. And as Womanist Musings writes in Whiteness as a Colonizing Force, “[I]t is not racist to openly attack Whiteness; it is self preservation.  The defense aspect is often over looked in order to push the idea that POC are racist against Whites, though Whiteness is guilty of unspeakable crimes.  The very first step to emancipation is to name and know your oppressor and if in the process some feelings are hurt, is far less painful than living through marginalization and erasure.”

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