Anti-Discrimination Work at Work

“In the politics of “gut-feeling” what counts is that you feel better, whether or not the problems you face have actually been solved.”

– David Wells, One Nation and the politics of populism in Pauline Hanson : One Nation and Australian Politics

“The Netherlands was and is a country where no one has to hide their true selves. It is a country where women have the same opportunities as men […] It is a country where neither your political colour, nor your skin colour matter.”

Creatie   Anti discriminatie 5

“The Netherlands is a place where you’re not judged based on colour, gender, age, or religion.”

Indeed, these grand declarations taken from a campaign by would be, if they were true, commendable. However, they are not—not even for the most part. Facts, it seems, have taken a back seat to lofty myths about tolerance, gender equity, and diversity.

What kind of work do organizations in the field of preventing and combating discrimination do in the age of colour-blind “post-raciality,” “post-multiculturalism,” post-everything? When what they’re preventing and combating seems to appear, not only in their minds, but other people’s as well, as something that has already been dealt with? When discrimination is perceived as a temporary disturbance of a happy mood?

Anti-Discrimination in the Netherlands

According to Art. 1, the national centre of expertise on discrimination, it is important to “tackle” discrimination, yet it’s not “an easy task.” Discrimination often seems like a “heavy,” “uncomfortable” subject, which precludes—in the words of Sara Ahmed—“the promise of a ‘sinking’ feeling,” the promise of gezelligheid. As such, Art.1 has developed several exhibitions, that are meant to deal with “heavy” themes as discrimination, and prejudice “in an accessible and light-hearted way.” One such exhibition is Wat zeur je nou?! Discriminatie gestript (What are you on about?! Discrimination stripped), which uses comics and cartoons to address discrimination. Here below follows one such “playful” display of a violent act.

Laat u ook eens positief discrimineren

Allow yourself to be positively discriminated against – only 2 euro for 5 minutes

For emotional effect affirmative action type measures are framed as “positive discrimination” (positieve discriminatie), which implies reverse discrimination against White Autochtoon Dutch heterosexual cisgender able-bodied working men.

Most of the other interventions devised by Art. 1 focus on empowering “potential victims” and those affected by discrimination. They offer courses to teach us how to “respond to discrimination.” “Effective” strategies and methods to make people more resistant to discrimination at work include, changes in personality and basic self-esteem and communication skills and assertiveness, which require “a certain language proficiency.” These strategies focus on the individual instead of Whiteness and its effects, that is “the production and reproduction of dominance rather than subordination, normativity rather than marginality, and privilege rather than disadvantage.”

Analyses of power dynamics should be at the heart of any anti-discrimination work. However, Art. 1 sees anti-discrimination work as a “happy” political undoing of that which has been divided, or separated. It is simply anti-distinction, and anti-difference. In this process, racism, sexism, homophobia, Islamophobia, ableism are all rendered equal and placed under the rubric of discrimination. This approach renders the political significance of doing anti-discrimination work moot. What’s more, any redress on behalf of any of the injured parties is at risk of becoming a story of a successful neutralization of  a nondescript discrimination.  Why is it that anti-discrimination talk needs a light-hearted touch? We need to examine the rhetorical strategies that White Autochtoon Dutch folks use to avoid being labelled as racist.

The Language of Anti-Discrimination

“Do they think you’re too old for a job? Too pregnant for your employer? Too foreign for your neighbourhood? Too gay for your classmates? Or do you feel discriminated against for any other reason? Do something about it.” — Text taken from the PO Box 51 campaign “Do you need to hide yourself  in order to be accepted?” (my translation)

Do you have to leave yourself at home when you go out?
Do you have to leave yourself at home when you go out?

Discrimination is outlined as something that one feels, not a violence enacted upon the body. Rather than attribute any possible “bad feeling” to racist practices enacted by an agent, Othered bodies are framed as “over-feeling” our unhappy state. The sociocultural contexts that help to produce the feeling subject are, thus, made invisible. The obscuring of an agent leads to formulations such as, “[T]he experience of negative consequences due to complaining is called ‘victimization.’” It is our feelings of being discriminated against that make not only ourselves, but also others, feel bad, and addressing discrimination is perceived as complaining.

Creatie   Anti discriminatie 4

We risk becoming “double the victim.” That is, we re-signify upon ourselves in a seemingly continuous loop: we feel racism, and because we feel it we are victims. Or to rephrase it: we become victims because we feel racism. This emphasis on affect places the locus of significance within the feeling subject. For those of us whose identities are already sketched as the core problem that precludes our social, cultural, and political integration this doubling of affect is injurious. We become, as Sara Ahmed writes in The Promise of Happiness, “affect aliens,” who feel at odds with the world, or who feel the world is odd.

When difference-making touches our surface, and shapes the contours of our bodies, then that which is felt (an illegitimate difference-making) becomes our problem that we have to “work through.” Allowing oneself to feel discrimination is seen as an allowance of feeling that blocks “good feelings.” We stop being gezellig. Institutionalized forms of oppression (racism, homophobia, sexism, transphobia, ableism) are framed as an internally generated experience, which are believed to be under personal control of the individual experiencing oppression. The question then is: how do the racial dynamics of Dutch society implicitly condition and transform bodily states to make people’s behaviour more disposed to desirable political and economic ends?

The Promise of “Gezelligheid”

People of colour are continuously told that critiques of racism ought to be civil, and ought to be constructive. As I have mentioned earlier, Artikel 1 offers courses that teach marginalized folk how to “effectively respond to discrimination.” In other words, our critiques ought to be designed to accommodate the public, not unsettle the public. Teun van Dijk notes that addressing racism is seen as disrupting in-group solidarity and smooth in-group encounters. Talks and charges of racism “are felt to ruin the ‘good atmosphere’ of interactions and situations.” Civility and gezelligheid operate, thus, as ways to uphold White supremacy. Gezellige bodies are oriented toward a certain goal/object, that is the unity and/or agreement of feeling or action. Gezelligheid creates a shared intentionality, and just as the polder-model it relies on a “happy and homogenous political agenda.” In Dutch political thinking consensus can indeed appease, if not win, the hearts and minds of one’s opponents.

Recently, social affairs minister Lodewijk Asscher proposed that  both EU and non-EU immigrants should sign a contract in which they agree to uphold the Dutch constitution and the rule of law. “The thinking behind it,” Linda Bakker and Tim Immerzeel write, “is that immigrants will integrate more quickly because by subscribing to the principles of democracy and the state of law they show a willingness to conform to Dutch norms and values.” Indeed, a lack of consensus, conformity is perceived as a dissolution of Dutchness.

In a piece on I AM EXPAT Mark McDaid quotes Asscher as saying that, “there is even talk that we are becoming backward in our views towards homosexuality, Jews and women. We have to be clear about what it is that makes this land so great: the freedom to be yourself.” Ironically, you only have the freedom to be yourself when yourself embraces the fantasy of Dutch equity and thus aligns itself with the dominant culture. Social order rests on consensus and “successful” emotion management. The shadow side of consensus, however, is that all social players are implicated by virtue of their participation in mediation. Being gezellig, then, is not a neutral state of being, but, in fact, an active tenet in the perpetuation of inequity. Homophobia, anti-Semitism, racism, and sexism were constitutive of, and are still very much part of White Autochtoon Dutch society.

The language of anti-discrimination bureaus betrays their failure to acknowledge the embeddedness of discrimination, and thus a failure to confront institutionalized racism. Racism is perpetuated due to flawed analyses of the ways in and through which race operates in Dutch society rather than solely from cold and calculating attempts to maintain racial oppression. Many analyses mask the role that White privilege plays in institutional racism through a dispersal of responsibility. Responsibility becomes a nebulous concept, which renders racism “abstract” – for what is racism without racists?

Stacy Douglas asserts poignantly in On Defending Raw Nerve Books: Or, The Stuff of Good Feeling that “the inability to confront racism within organizations and campaigns can lead to a form of uncritical mutual support, or agreement of action that protects and reproduces forms of feeling that allow the power of racism to go unchecked.” However, Sara Ahmed warns us against simply conceptualizing racism as “what we fail to do,” instead of “what we have already done” through an active not-doing. This active not-doing is much more significant since it “reproduces [the] whiteness [of institutions] by seeing racism simply as the failure to provide for nonwhite others because of a difference that is somehow theirs.”

Anti-discrimination Work

The racial economy in the Netherlands makes it difficult for all of us to get past, or over, uncomfortable situations in which race plays a role. Whenever people of colour address an injustice, whether racial, or otherwise, we are met with exasperation. Anti-discrimination work has essentially become the management of “bad feeling.” Antiracism in the Netherlands is an “antiracism of good feelings.” It boils down to the type of work that teaches those who feel discrimination how to cope with the “bad feelings” that arise from being discriminated against. Jane Smiley makes an excellent point in Say it Ain’t So, Huck: Second thoughts on Mark Twain’s ‘Masterpiece’ when she writes that,

“White Americans always think racism is a feeling, and they reject it or they embrace it.  To most Americans, it seems more honorable and nicer to reject it, so they do, but they almost invariably fail to understand that how they feel means very little to black Americans, who understand racism as a way of structuring American culture, American politics, and the American economy.”

The fixation on “good feeling,” and the perfect scenario of integration, which both holds and enacts the promise of gezelligheid, have created social spaces pockmarked with the affective and psychological vestiges of successive interventions intended to integrate non-Autochtoon bodies. In order to embody gezelligheid, which connotes a pleasant being together (samenleving), non-Autochtoon folk have to align ourselves with White Autochtoon Dutchness.

White Autochtoon Dutchness is, then, not only “a social and bodily orientation,” which means that “some bodies will be more at home in a world that is orientated around whiteness,” it also translates as a psychosocial orientation. The anti-discrimination interventions in the Netherlands are not intended to dismantle racist structures, they are geared toward changing the ways of being in the world embodied by bodies of colour in order to make us feel more at home. That’s why I get so angry with White Autochtoon Dutch people who do anti-racist work to “feel good,” or “feel good” while doing anti-racist work. It shows that they have the luxury to distance themselves; to look abstractly at it; and experience it as something that can be “closed” and “finished” and has a “return value.” It is a way of remaining secure in their non-implication in history, of not having to feel ashamed. How does anti-discrimination work orient bodies?

What is problematic is the act of distancing that well-meaning White Autochtoon Dutch people perform. Well-meaning White Dutch folks  place themselves at a remove from Whiteness and racism (as well as homophobia, sexism), as though they are not in the thick of it – without calling into question their sense of what it means to be a “good White Autochtoon Dutch person.” Marilyn Frye has termed this act of distancing as being “whitely” which is basically an unwillingness on the part of White people to be challenged, even when they attempt to disrupt racism.

In most cases their sense of themselves as “good White people” centres on their difference from “bad White people,” i.e. those who make racist remarks, and on an undeclared sense of benevolence and goodwill towards non-Whites. In Locating Traitorous Identities: Toward a View of Privilege-Cognizant Alison Bailey notes that “whitely” and “whiteliness” offer “a conceptual distinction that is instrumental in understanding the performative dimensions of race and the distinction between privilege-evasive and privilege-cognizant scripts.”

Anti-discrimination bureaus inadvertently only further aid the stabilization of this distancing through their use of language, and strategies to “combat racism.” Whiteness within this context is, then, partly constituted by anti-discrimination work. As a White Autochtoon Dutch institution merely professing to be anti-discrimination isn’t enough to embody a decolonial, anti-racist praxis. These bureaus are about getting bodies to adhere to the dominant  conventions of feeling tied to White Autochtoon Dutchness, “so that even bodies that might not appear white still have to inhabit whiteness, if they are to get ‘in’.” The question then is, what to do when the “anti” in anti-discrimination does something other than stand opposed to discrimination, but instead leans on it? What to do when anti-discrimination agencies “perform an image of themselves”?

As Stacy Douglas writes “the critique of “good feeling” that I [myself ] am drawing out can also be complicitous in the production of a happy political agenda – one of the detached observer who sits smugly on the sidelines “illuminating” contradiction from a safe distance.” However, as a Queer Curaçaoan man of colour I cannot ever “feel good” doing this work; I feel exhausted, animated, annoyed, pissed off, angry, depressed, frustrated, hurt, pained, but never “good”. Perhaps, it’s good that I fail to “feel good,” to belong, in this system. For if this is the state of anti-discrimination work in the Netherland, then what kind of protection does Dutch “anti-discrimination” laws offer?