Racialization of Citizenship

We’re all in this together! But, who are “We”?

What lies at the bottom of that question is the principle of infrangibility (a concept developed by Orlando Patterson), meaning “a commitment to a unity that cannot be broken or separated into parts, a commitment to the elements of a moral order and social fabric that is inviolable and cannot be infringed.”

The Dutch commitment to an unbreakable unity is tenuous at best. On the one hand, citizens of the Dutch nation-state are imagined as an abstract colourless (and thus race-less) body politic, with each body constituting the body politic having a shared set of rights and responsibilities. On the other hand, certain bodies are implicitly (or explicitly) ethnicized, and marked as raced, and, as a result, are treated differently. Whiteness hides within these elisions. Whiteness is, as Zeus Leonardo attests, “a racial discourse,” that is separate from the category “White people,” which “represents a socially constructed identity, usually based on skin color.”

The Dutch subject, as distinct from the Dutch citizen, continues to refer above all to the White, Autochtoon, middle class, heterosexual, able-bodied, cisgender subject, and this ideal subject is articulated in conjunction with a possessive investment in White Autochtoon Dutch belonging in the Netherlands. This conception is continuously being re-affirmed in popular culture. All across the board we are being presented with a normative construction of who and what is “Dutch,” that does not accommodate the “non-Western Allochtoon.”

What’s more, White bodies, and White middle class spaces are implicitly framed as inherently “innocent,” “non-threatening,” and incapable of certain acts (in the words of the late Pim Fortuyn “Cutting a throat isn’t something a Frisian would do.”), whereas non-White racialized spaces, and bodies, are collectively seen as “pathological,” and “threatening”—even when we are victims.

One can find traces of the taken-for-granted discourse that privileges Whiteness even in academic texts, government reports, and laws—supposedly “race neutral” documents. Whiteness assumes in such cases, as Aileen Moreton-Robinson has argued, “the status of an epistemological a priori,” and very few Dutch academics question the “naturalness,” or implied superiority, of White Autochtoon Dutchness.

The dominant views of who are considered “knowers,” of what it means to be fair, to be a good person, to listen, and to be intelligible, are all bound up not only with a national White Autochtoon Dutch integrity, but also with personal investments in White Autochtoon Dutchness. It is, perhaps, ironic that what many White Autochtoon Dutch people assume to be an unproblematic and universal moral stance may itself present an obstacle not only to cross-race relations, but also, as I will later point out, justice.

‘Iemand bij wien alles vergeefsch is!’‘Everything’s in vain with this one!’ Postcard. NL, (1932) Collectienr. 3549

In this light, contemporary dominant discourses under the heading “benoemen” are not “harmless,” “benign,” nor “innocent” deliberations on current events; rather, they are part of a complex mechanism of control. In this maelstrom of controlling discourses non-Whites, non-Autochtonen, and non-Dutch are purposefully disempowered for the empowerment of the dominant group. And like the ever-encroaching waters difference is contained, dammed, diverted and channelled through a “non-violent,” rules-governed political process, which manifested itself, perhaps at its most phlegmatic, in denying Black Dutch citizens a work permit.

In an attempt to manage difference, the dominant group engages in a constant process of, what Graham Huggan has termed, “cultural translation.” Huggan has described cultural translation as “the superimposition of a dominant way of seeing, speaking and thinking onto marginalised peoples.” Cultural translation has resulted in a system of classification which anchors bodies within an ethno-racial hierarchy, which “enshrines structurally,” as Jennifer Hochschild and Vesla Weaver have noted, “the dominant group’s belief about who belongs where, which groups deserve what, and ultimately who gets what.”

The official classification system of Autochtoon, and Western, non-Western Allochtoon replicates and reinforces social, economic, and political inequality.  These inequalities, as Philomena Essed has theorized, are maintained through “normative preferences for clones of imagined perfections of the same type and profile”—at the expense of people of colour. Maykel Verkuyten and Barbara Kinket corroborate Essed’s theory of “cultural cloning” in Social Distances in a Multi Ethnic Society: The Ethnic Hierarchy among Dutch Preadolescents.

In their article Verkuyten and Kinket contend that the ethnically Dutch (meaning White Autochtoon) rate, after the in-group, “northern European immigrants most highly, followed by Jews, southern Europeans such as Spaniards, members of ex-colonial groups such as Indonesians and Surinamese, and finally members of Islamic groups such as Moroccans and Turks.” Cultural compatibility is gauged accordingly on the basis of an ethnic group’s ranking. Of course, normative preferences and an “ethnic ranking system” has considerable consequences for ethnic minorities, since they influence the types of (group-specific) policy that are conceptualized.

A 2008 report by Human Rights Watch on the effects of the overseas integration test, coupled with increased financial requirements for family members or new spouses, states that “Turkish and Moroccan migrants in the Netherlands, the majority of whom are Dutch nationals, are disproportionately affected by these measures. Hence, while applying the overseas integration test to family members of Dutch nationals appears at first glance to be equal treatment, in fact it affects Dutch nationals from the main immigrant groups to a much greater extent than it does Dutch nationals.”

Cultural translation and cultural cloning have created an hierarchal economy of bodies that cannot simply change through tolerance, or cultural pluralism, alone—as a recent SIRE campaign suggests. Besides, the central question here is not whether one is a “good White person,” or a “bad White person.” That is irrelevant. In their study Verkuyten and Kinket point to the fact that, “ethnocentric and racist respondents follow the same ethnic hierarchy as do nonethnocentric and nonracist respondents. That is, the pattern of outgroup preferences is independent of the acceptance or rejection of these group.” Hence, any analysis of people’s racial accounts is not, to quote Eduardo Bonilla-Silva, per se “akin to an analysis of people’s character or morality.” Racists aren’t always “bad people,” and racism needn’t always be explicit, and in your face.

The manifestation of White supremacy that causes most harm “is not the obvious and extreme fascistic posturing of small neo-nazi groups, but rather the taken-for-granted routine privileging of white interests that goes unremarked in the political mainstream.” Moreover, the benefits of White privilege motivate White people to serve White interests. Whiteness operates through rhetorical elisions and an unacknowledged shared intentionality. Michael Tomasello et al. have defined shared intentionality as “the ability to participate with others in collaborative activities with shared goals and intentions,” which helps to create a sense of a group “we.”

The shared intentionality rooted in Whiteness needn’t be articulated, though. It expresses itself as a “tacit intentionality,” which John Preston describes as, “a form of unknowing knowingness for white people, a Gramscian ‘common sense’ view of the world.” It’s this form of White supremacy, which is tucked away in the everyday language of “common sense,” which is embodied by social, economic, and political oligarchic clones, which hides in “colourblind,” and “race neutral” policies, that rarely gets addressed in the Netherlands.

Colourblind policy-making brings about racist effects through a neglect of normative assumptions. Moreover, it does not take into consideration the race-producing practices reflected not only in the official governmental classification system, but also in the daily negotiations that people of colour perform in an attempt to shape how White Autochtoon people interpret their non-White, non-Autochtoon identities.

For instance, the manner in which a certain non-Western Allochtoon politician performs their identity will, obviously, influence how their constituency and fellow White Autochtoon Dutch politicians experience them. The same dynamic surfaces, as a matter of course, in any workplace where non-Western employees must navigate constraining discourses that either question their work ethic, or skills, or tokenize them as visual representations of an institution’s symbolic commitment to diversity. Given these discursive currents, not to mention the constraining power of an “ethnic ranking system,” the fact that the background of an ethnic minority local politician is perceived to constitute “the threat of communitarian politics or ethnic nepotism,” as Laure Michon’s study has shown, should give one reason to pause.

If spurious suspicions arise effortlessly, and compromise the ability of ethnic minority politicians to strive, in good faith, for the common good, then what do “We” mean when “We” refer to, or envision, the “common good”? What does “democracy,” in this context, mean? If we’re all in this together, then who are “We”?

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