Last week while dawdling on Facebook I stumbled upon a project of De Doetank (not a “think tank,” but a “do tank”). This hands-on organization claims to “do research with people, in stead [sic] of into people.” [their italics] People, they continue, “are being taken seriously and are involved in the research.” Commendable, right? Their latest scheme is entitled “discrimination test,” and this is what they have to say:
Goal of the discrimination test
The discrimination test aims to give guys who feel discriminated against by the police the chance to explore that feeling. A policeman who discriminates: as a White person you probably can’t imagine it happening, but it happens!
The vast majority of Moroccan and Surinamese men are not criminal (no, really!). Therefore, it is not effective policing to stop and search these people. If you do so by arguing that “they” are more criminal, then you are stereotyping them based on their ethnicity.
It is true that dark-skinned men are overrepresented in crime statistics. However, that does not mean that all Black guys are crooks. If the police stops, searches or arrests, dark-skinned men more often, in the hopes to catch a crook, then the police is targeting people on the basis of skin colour. That is discrimination, and that’s not allowed. [my translation]
That text left me feeling some kind of way.
Now, before I dig into my feelings regarding the above-cited text let me start off by saying that the police isn’t solely racially profiling Surinamese and Moroccan men. So, why single out these two groups in particular?
The programme, the team states, is designed to “test the feelings of dark-skinned men who are discriminated against by the police.” That’s all fine and dandy, but people of colour are not lab rats. Moreover, it’s not as if people of colour lack opportunities to examine, reflect on, plumb the depths of our feelings as regards racism. Nor do we need to be reminded of the fact that not all men of colour are “crooks.”
I’ve been scratching my head as to who the intended audience is. I haven’t the foggiest, to be honest (even after my exchange with Sander Verwer on Twitter, which you can read here on Storify, I’m still scratching my head).
After reading the concept of the programme I was left with many question, the salient question being: for whom are we meant to explore our “hurt feelings”? In Commemorating Genocide and the Problem of Empathy Cory Legassic warns against centring narratives primarily on the pain of Others. Legassic writes,
[W]e must be wary of performances (in theatre as much as in teaching!), as Razack cautions, that permit “traumatized subjectivity to replace rational subjectivity as the essential index of value for personhood and thus for society” (1998: 206). In other words, focusing on individual trauma risks limiting our ability to consider as well our roles in structural violence.
For a programme intended to tackle racial profiling it is curious, to say the least, that the people behind it don’t use the word “racism,” not even once. Instead, we are served with the palatable alternative “discrimination.” Racism in Dutch anti-discrimination language is often equated with “hurting feelings.” What’s more, the programme centres only on the experiences of men, which obscures the fact that women of colour are being racially profiled, as well. The intersections of race, gender (and sexuality) create specific experiences for women of colour—and in this project the experiences of women of colour are not only deemed unworthy of examination, but women of colour are also rendered invisible.
Further, the programme doesn’t seem to link racial profiling with the current immigration policy of the Netherlands and the restrictive policing policies that have flowed from it. Preventive stop and searches are, in part, intended to restrict the movement of undocumented people in public space. Racial profiling is a technique to control access to public space.
This initiative, though well-intended, reeks of “racial paternalism and altruistic ethnocentricity.” The “discrimination test,” a project by an ostensibly White team, doesn’t challenge White privilege, Whiteness, and institutional racism, which enables White audiences to remain comfortable in their liberal principles.
The way the project is set up—with its preoccupation with the feelings of people of colour— leaves little room for ambiguity: the White gaze is centred, and “focalised on the excess of black suffering, reducing the victim to a tabula rasa upon which all manners of empathetic projection obscures the basis of a morbid white enjoyment that garners pleasure through the depiction of excoriated black flesh.” To me, the project is a heavy-handed attempt to rouse White sympathy through the pleasure of watching. Its positioning of people of colour as simultaneously the objects of White racism and White sympathy invariably fixes people of colour in a passive, powerless position—as inert bodies.
The focus on the feelings of people of colour also implicitly concedes to the assumption that people of colour cannot be heard without appealing to White sympathy first. Racism is reduced to something people of colour feel, and the fact that we feel bad due to racism opens the door for White people to feel sympathy for the plight of people of colour. While this has often been the case, I don’t think we should, to make another obvious point, reinforce this dynamic. White sympathy, empathy, or pity has rarely translated into racial equity.
Moreover, the price for gaining White sympathy for us poor, pitiful, victimized people of colour has often been the effacement of our agency. James Baldwin admonishes against White sympathy in his essay “The Nigger We Invent.” I’ll end with a quote from Baldwin’s essay. He writes,
“I don’t trust people who think of themselves as liberals. What I am saying is that I don’t trust missionaries. I don’t want anybody working with me because they think they are doing something for me. What I want them to do is work in their own communities. I want you to tell your brothers and your sisters and your wife and your children what it is all about. Don’t tell me, because I already know.”